Review of Esotericism of the Popol Vuh by Raphael Girard
Toward the end of the 17th century, in a little-known region of highland Guatemala called Chichicastenango, a rare event occurred. An unknown religious elder of the Quiche-Mayas who had learned to read and write Spanish delivered into the hands of a Dominican friar a remarkable document which ever since the Spanish Conquest the Indians had jealously guarded and hid from European eyes. This manuscript, known as the Popol Vuh, contains the cosmogonical concepts and oldest traditions of the native Quiche-Mayas, an aboriginal American people, as well as the history of their origin and chronology of their rulers down to the year 1550. Friar Francisco Ximenez was a kind and virtuous man who had learned the Indian languages and took a fatherly interest in his parishioners, being able to speak to them in their own tongue. But just why the Quiche elder confided in Ximenez has never been learned, nor do we know his identity. His document, written in Quiche but using Roman letters, has not been found to date, and was probably returned to the elder by Friar Ximenez, who transcribed it in the Quiche and then translated it into Spanish. In his notes Ximenez said the lack of information about the ancient history of the Indians was because they hid their books in which it was written; and, even when some of these records had turned up, it was impossible for Europeans to read or to understand them.
Father Ximenez' notes and transcriptions of the Popol Vuh lay unnoticed and forgotten for 150 years, until the 1850s when several European investigators unearthed them in the public archives of Guatemala City. One of them, Abbe Brasseur de Bourbourg, translated the Quiche epic into French and had it published in Paris in 1861, where it caused a sensation among scholars and attracted wide attention. It was soon apparent that this was a major scriptural document, hitherto completely unknown and comparable in importance to the Bible, the Ramayana, the Babylonian account of genesis, and similar records of humanity's past. The spotlight of interest became focused on America's prehistoric high cultures; scholars and learned institutions in Europe organized archaeological expeditions to Central America to uncover the magnificent isolated temple ruins there, and a number of theories were advanced during that period to account for these surprising phenomena. The Popol Vuh itself was translated into a number of modern Western languages, accompanied by a wealth of scholarly commentary. But, as occurred with all the efforts to explain the Mayans through archaeological digs and to decipher their classical hieroglyphic writing, work on the Popol Vuh remained unsatisfying. As Lewis Spence said, "The scholarship of the nineteenth century was unequal to the adequate translation of the Popol Vuh; the twentieth century has as yet shown no signs of being able to accomplish the task." This was written in 1908. Today the best English version of the Quiche classic is perhaps that of Delia Goetz and S. G. Morley, published by the University of Oklahoma Press (1950).
Now we turn to a young Swiss ethnologist who came to Honduras in 1919 as the director of a small scientific mission to study forest Indian peoples there and in neighboring Guatemala. This man, Raphael Girard, had received training from the famous Swiss anthropologist, Eugene Pittard, and from Paul Rivet, the well-known French investigator associated with the Musee de l'Homme in Paris who sponsored the scientific mission. Girard became fascinated with the extensive Mayan prehistory of the area and in particular with the central importance of the Quiche epic given to Friar Ximenez centuries earlier. He wrote:
My first experiences disclosed that the Popol Vuh constitutes a key document for understanding the spirituality, culture, and history of the Quiche-Maya. But no exegesis had been made of that celebrated document owing to the disregard of its esoteric meaning, and so it had never been employed as a research tool. Much the same held true for Quiche Maya religion and its symbols which, it was claimed, were completely inaccessible to our mode of thought.
The young Swiss scientist felt such a strong urge to unravel the tangle of mystery about these peoples that several years later he returned on his own to Central America in order to renew his investigations. He learned several Mayan languages and went to live and work among elders of the Quiche tribe in Guatemala and the neighboring Chord Mayan people of Honduras. He decided that he had first to cross the portal into the mental and spiritual world of the Maya themselves by studying their religious philosophy. But he very quickly encountered barriers of deep reserve on the part of the Indians, who systematically hide their sacred values from the outsider. This situation only heightened Girard's resolve to fulfill their conditions for acquiring the hidden information. For, as a scientist, he was determined that this must be collected in an objective way and incorporated into Western learning, along with other information about native American cultures, before the process of Westernization should have destroyed it.
In 1948, after more than twenty years of arduous and intimate association with and tutorage by the native Mayan elders, whom Girard began respectfully to call the "native gnostics," he was able to produce his book, Esoterismo del Popol Vuh, published that year in Mexico City. This book is a fascinating scientific commentary elucidating central aspects of the esoteric tradition hidden within the famous Quiche scripture, but which also forms the core of the religious philosophy of all the various Mayan peoples still living in the area of southern Mexico and northern Central America. As such, his contribution has no precedent in Americanist investigations. Because he employs Mayan linguistics and mythology as well as archaeology, and received his interpretations directly from the elders who have preserved them for thousands of years, his findings are not accessible to archaeology alone. That he received authentic interpretations in rich measure from these elders tells volumes about his qualities, not only as a gifted and resolute scientist but also as a human being.
It is unfortunate that for many years Esoterismo and other related books by Girard were obtainable only in the Spanish language. However, some years ago Esoterismo appeared in French, and more recently in Italian. Finally, in August 1979, the first English language edition, Esotericism of the Popol Vuh, was brought out by Theosophical University Press, making this valuable study available to a new and wider audience. It has been the genuine privilege of this reviewer to have made the English translation of Professor Girard's informed exposition of Mayan spiritual teachings.
Esotericism of the Popol Vuh shows beyond question that the heart and soul of Mayan religion and custom is a sophisticated theosophy which has direct correspondences with ancient Mexican and Andean cosmogony and creation mythology, and which can be related to the spiritual mythoi of the classical as well as contemporary traditional cultures of other parts of the world. Of equal importance for the researcher, his work demonstrates the cultural unity of all native American peoples.
Besides making known the mythology, cosmogony, theology, astronomy, calendar, and symbols which still prevail among Mayan peoples, his book reveals that to this day the mythology of the Popol Vuh is systematically dramatized in their ritual cycle, from the creation of the world to the apotheosis of the solar god, without leaving out a single detail. Therefore those myths, which describe four complete Ages or long time-cycles, are perfectly intelligible through ethnographic inference. In addition, analysis of the Popol Vuh shows that the four Ages or great periods correspond at another level of meaning to the four successive phases of Mayan cultural history from the Paleolithic to the Conquest, making this document a source of history of America's ancient civilizations from their remotest origins. The Fourth or final Age of the Popol Vuh heralds the beginnings of classical Mayan culture. As the author notes for us, even the most scholarly among Western archaeologists had failed to learn the nature and meaning of the monumental Mayan temple sites with their glyphic inscriptions. This was because their specialized approach had left out of account altogether the metaphysics and spiritual mentality of the Indian, and overlooked his cosmic philosophy upon which his life is patterned in every detail of daily custom and ritual.
Professor Girard's findings, moreover, help lift from the peaceful, spiritually-minded Mayas the stigma of ritual human slaughter practiced by the later Aztec and some other non-Mayan tribes of pre-Conquest Mexico. He shows that the hero-twins of the Popol Vuh, Hunahpu and Ixbalamque, are not "two boys" as this is frequently mistranslated, but represent the bipolar character of the Mayan savior-deity which, like its counterparts elsewhere in the world, including the Christian tradition, incarnates in a human body to bring divine truth to mankind for the latter's redemption. The apotheosis of the Mayan solar deity inaugurates the Fourth Age of the Quiche epic: the era of fully civilized or awakened humanity, conscious of its divine progenitors. The Mayan avatar outlaws human sacrifice thenceforward. But of course this message is not heard or assimilated by all. Those peoples who are insufficiently evolved to understand continue practices pertaining to the former Third Age — practices which should long since have been abandoned. These peoples were and still are regarded by the Mayas as barbarians and savages. Girard observes that no indications of human sacrifice have been found in the ceremonial centers of classical Mayan culture before alien influences from Mexico intruded and prevailed. He cites the Spanish Bishop Landa who states that the post-Classic Mayas of that time who lived in Yucatan had not known the practice of human sacrifice until invading Mexican tribes imported it as a feature of their conquest. This and much more which clarifies the true character of native American culture is discussed in the pages of Esotericism of the Popol Vuh.
The failure of the West to understand the spiritual heritage of the native American has led to gross misinterpretations of his art, customs, symbolism, architecture, and history. Of even greater importance is that in this process of false evaluation the actual worth to us of his lifeview has been vastly diminished. For with each passing day it is becoming clearer that native American cultures, such as the Mayan, preserve a legacy of matured human experience whose lessons can be applied positively, and often profoundly, to crises faced by our own culture in its lifeways, its ecology, and its own world view.
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press)