Esotericism of the Popol Vuh

Raphael Girard

Translated from the Spanish with a Foreword by
Blair A. Moffett

Originally published in Spanish in 1948 as Esoterismo del Popol Vuh by Editorial Stylo, Mexico City, Mexico. First English Edition copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press (print version also available). Electronic version ISBN 1-55700-147-2. All rights reserved. This edition may be downloaded for off-line viewing without charge. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted for commercial or other use in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of Theosophical University Press.


List of Illustrations


This book was first published in the Spanish language in Mexico City in 1948. It has since gone through three editions in French, one Italian, and four Spanish editions. The present translation, from the 1972 Mexico City edition, is the first to appear in English. Esotericism of the Popol Vuh is published by Theosophical University Press as a service to all English-speaking students of the ancient wisdom of humanity.

A Swiss-born ethnologist, Raphael Girard came to the New World in 1919 as the director of a six-man French scientific mission to study the native forest peoples of Honduras. He returned in 1924 to live in Guatemala and begin an archaeological and ethnological survey of the country, which resulted in a lifetime of association with and research in Amerindian cultures ranging from Patagonia to Canada. From the eminent anthropologists, Dr. Eugéne Pittard of the University of Geneva, and Dr. Paul Rivet, then director of the Musée de l'homme in Paris, Girard learned the interdisciplinary method of analysis — employing mythology, ethnography, archaeology, and linguistics — which has characterized and enriched his many published works.

In his early career the author was active in forming and participating in professional bodies in Switzerland, Honduras, and Guatemala to further the study of native American cultures. Over the years he has represented the Government of Guatemala at a number of international Americanist congresses, on four occasions serving as honorary vice-president of the congress. A distinguished Americanist whose work is well known throughout Europe and the Americas, Professor Girard has received fifteen honors and decorations. The latest of these is the Diploma of Merit awarded him for his more than 50 years of research and publication by the Organization of American States in October, 1978, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. In 1977 he was nominated for the Nobel prize in Literature for his pioneering methods of study of native American cultures and his monumental writings clarifying their prehistory and history.

With regard to his analysis of the meaning of the Popol Vuh, the Mayan "Book of the Community," Professor Girard's comments from a recent letter to me are revealing:

My first experiences disclosed that the Popol Vuh constitutes a key document for understanding the spirituality, culture, and history of the Quiché-Maya. But no exegesis had been made of that celebrated document owing to the disregard of its esoteric meaning, and so it was never employed as a research tool. Much the same held true for Quiché-Maya religion and its symbols which, it was claimed, were completely inaccessible to our mode of thought. . . .
It was vital and necessary to study their sacred way of life. Only this method, in my view, would allow us entry into the mental universe of the Mayas and bring comprehension of their mythology and thus of their culture.

To accomplish this, the author went to the tribal elders of the Chortí and Quiché-Maya tribes, where he quickly encountered the barriers of impenetrable reserve which those spiritual leaders — guardians of their sacred traditions — erect to defend these precious values from the unworthy and the potential despoiler. Only after more than twenty years of direct association with the elders was Girard able to obtain the fundamental aspects of their secret doctrines which he reports upon in this work. Esotericism of the Popol Vuh demonstrates beyond question that at the heart of Maya religion and custom there is a sophisticated spiritual philosophy with clear correspondences not only to ancient Mexican as well as Andean cosmogony and creation mythology, but also to the mythoi and cultures of other parts of the world.

The author fully credits the "native gnostics," as he respectfully calls the Mayan elders, with enabling him to distill and elucidate the hidden sense of the Popol Vuh. But I believe he would be the last person to claim any ultimate finality for his work. His findings, nevertheless, comprise a genuinely authoritative approach to the solution of many of the so-called enigmas surrounding our knowledge of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, and are unprecedented in American ethnography. In his exposition, the author takes us behind the elliptical wording of the text into the spiritual heights and depths of conception that form the archetypes on which Amerindian metaphysics is modeled.

We begin to realize that we are looking at a magnificent expression — unchanged in essentials during thousands of years — of that archaic wisdom-religion which in one or another measure can be found at the core of all the world's religions. The Popol Vuh, properly understood, sheds light on the whole reach of native American spiritual thought. A true Mystery-document, it has strong and definite links with every other Mystery-tradition, and belongs in the highest class of scriptural literature. At present there are German, French, Spanish, and English language editions of the Popol Vuh, all of which are, as Professor Girard notes, acceptable literal translations of the original codex. The best English rendition is perhaps that of Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley, from the Spanish translation made by Adrián Recinos, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in its series titled The Civilization of the American Indian.

For the Maya the universe is a multilevel, multiplane production or emanation of primeval sevenfold creative forces or "gods," which continue to inspirit their production. Thus, there are a number of other "worlds" or "planes" "above" as well as "below" our physical world of the five senses, and closely linked with it. There is always a multiplicity within and behind the unity of our material world, which can be compared to one octave in a complete piano keyboard representing the total manifested universe. To retain this perspective is absolutely necessary for an understanding of the Indian's metaphysics. The various combinations of the creative forces and their worlds are allegorized in the god-Seven, god-Five, god-Thirteen, and god-Nine, etc., described by the author from Mayan sources. Each allegory thus has a range of meanings, standing for the complex workings of these forces and the relations among the "worlds," fully known only to the adept of the tradition who is accustomed to raise each basic idea in the allegory to progressively higher orders of conceptual magnitude.

Employing the same method with the textual contents of the Popol Vuh, we can understand that the four "Ages" with their respective humanities which it discusses, refer not alone to the ancestors of the Quiché-Maya but more correctly to the whole of mankind in existence on earth in each of those periods of time. For example, the Popol Vuh calls the latest, or Fourth-Age mankind, Quiché Mayas: that is, those who had achieved conscious spiritual linkage with their creative progenitors through the mediation of the man-god Hunahpú. Here we have an Amerindian expression of the better known Promethean allegory of classical Greek myth which explains the origins of man's self-consciousness, distinguishing him from an animal. The Christian biblical statement of this momentous experience is the allegory of the casting out of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as a result of their having tasted of the knowledge of good and evil. In Hindu scriptural record, the same event is hinted at in the descent of the mânasaputras or "sons of mind," spoken of in theosophy as having come from higher worlds to awaken in man his mental potential. Some sort of allusion to this destiny-laden happening in early human history can be found in almost every spiritual tradition.

Readers acquainted with authentic presentations of modern theosophy, as in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, principal founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875, will recognize much in this book that is familiar, albeit having its own form and language. The Popol Vuh clearly teaches, for example, that the simians sprang from an early humanity's racial experience, and not the reverse as asserted by the Darwinism of our day. Moreover, on page 227 Professor Girard explains the esoteric Mayan doctrine that the individual cannot realize the perfected state of True Man, or Hunahpú, except when the whole community shall also have attained that divine perfection. This is an unmistakable reference to the doctrine of compassion, its path, and the hierarchy which sustains it.

The concept of advanced men, or man-gods, beings of the evolutionary grade or rank of what Oriental tradition terms the bodhisattva or buddha of compassion, is not foreign to native American spiritual tradition. As seen, it is present in the Popol Vuh in the figure of Hunahpú as the paradigm of the spiritually perfected, illumined human being who sacrifices himself for the community, a word that here stands for the race or for humanity as a whole. We have only to examine the iconography of the magnificent carved stone figure of the young Maize god which once adorned the facade of a temple at Copán, to find it.

image: The young Maize go

The young Maize god. Limestone sculpture from a temple at Copán, Honduras. The British Museum, London. (Reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum).

Above the serene countenance of that personage can be seen a pointed crown of maize leaves. This is a form of the protuberance of the Oriental ushnîsha, Sanskrit for "crown," a sign of the spiritually perfected one who is buddha, "awakened," such as is found in numerous buddha and bodhisattva figures in the Far East. The hands of the Mayan young Maize god are, moreover, extended palms outward, one raised and one lowered, in a classical teaching gesture or mudrâ characteristic of the bodhisattva and buddha as seen in Oriental iconography. Professor Girard emphasizes the spiritual nature of Mayan ethics and the Indian's recognition of their importance in his aspiration to achieve human perfection. In fact, he regards the Mayan ethical system as one of the most beautiful in the world.

But the author has done more than just elucidate the esotericism that is in the Popol Vuh. The illuminating objective vision of the Amerindic cultures that the reader obtains from his presentation is not accessible through the unilateral approach of archaeology. This work takes a great deal of the mystery out of our view of Mayan and, by extension, Amerindian culture in general, correcting some of the false assumptions still prevailing. A gifted ethnologist as well as a man who gained the respect and confidence of the Indian elders, Raphael Girard shows us the vital connections between the millennial mytho-history of the Quiché-Maya epic and the monumental structures, codices, glyphs, symbols, and customs of classical Mayan civilization, and therefore of present-day Mayan life and religion, its descendant.

The translation of Esoterismo del Popol Vuh into English has benefited greatly from a painstaking and challenging review and reading of it by my wife, Ida Postma, and by Sarah Belle Dougherty, Elsa-Brita Titchenell, and, last but far from least, by Grace F. Knoche. All of these have helped to give it whatever literary polish it may have, and I thank them and also William T. S. Thackara, who was responsible for the production of this book, for their manifold labors. Eloise Hart devoted many hours to typing and retyping the manuscript, and I. M. Oderberg and Ingrid Van Mater to reading proofs, and I am most grateful to them for their help. A special word of appreciation is due to my friend James H. Bothwell, a native Spanish speaker and professional translator, who reviewed the translation and made valuable suggestions for its improvement. For greater ease in using the book, several lengthy word lists have been moved from the text and placed in Appendices A and B, and a glossary and index have been added.

Miss Dora Marina Luna, secretary to Professor Girard, helped me correct several puzzling references in extracts from the Popol Vuh, and was unfailingly helpful in assembling and furnishing Theosophical University Press with reproducible photographs from the author's personal archives. The translation itself has been prepared in the atmosphere of regular contact with the author, who lives in Guatemala City, both by telephone as well as by correspondence over many months. It goes without saying, however, that any errors of fact or interpretation which may be found in the translation are mine and mine alone, and I shall be grateful to have them brought to my attention.


January, 1979
Pasadena, California

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