Monday, July 20, 2009

The Popol Vuh: The Creation of the World

This post begins a series of "Popol Vuh for Really Busy People Who Just Want to Get to the Point". :) It is based on various notes I took and that were written for me by a native son of Guatemala while I was on my mission. The book I have is a typical "Cliff's Notes" Spanish version of the larger Popol Vuh which was taught in public secondary schools, but it is conveniently divided into summarized themes that are remarkably conducive to discussions of the Book of Mormon, the Holy Bible, and the tie-ins the Popol Vuh has with each.

For an excellent, annotated, in-depth English translation of the entire Popol Vuh text, you can't get any better than Dennis Tedlock's "Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings". Tedlock spent time living among Quiché and Mam peoples of Western and Northwestern Guatemala and was able to assimilate into their culture enough to understand exactly what this book represented to them. For Mayans, the Popol Vuh, literally "The Book of the Council" is just as sacred and important as the Holy Bible as far as a means of transmitting their religion, their culture, and their history. For people studying the Book of Mormon, it is riddled with striking parallels, evidences, and footprints of doctrines of Judeo-Christianity that, some LDS students of the text believe, transferred to extant Mayan peoples, in classic diffusionist manner, with the arrival of the Jaredites, Nephites, and Mulekites.

Let's begin with the out-of-print Spanish to English summarized translation of "Popol Vuh: versión transparente" by Franco Sandoval. In reading this, do not try too hard to make exacting, one-for-one comparisons between verses and doctrinal particulars of the Bible vs. the Popol Vuh vs. the Book of Mormon. Rather, note that the overall motif is more strikingly similar to Judeo-Christian creationism than it is different.

The Beginning

Here we recount the ancient histories of the Quiché nation. We will show what happened to this people when it began. This will be the narration of things obvious and things hidden.

We will reveal the work of the Maker and the Modeler1, the work of Grandfather and of Grandmother, whose names were Ixpiyacoc and Ixmucané, also called great-grandfather and great-grandmother.

This we write under Christianity and with their manner of writing2; because the Popol Vuh, our book where life used to be seen, no longer exists, no longer can be seen. In it there was the story of how the heaven and the earth were formed, of how this was divided into four parts, of how a cord was extended to measure the heaven and the earth, to the four corners, in the manner established by the Maker and the Modeler, the mother and the father of life, of everything created: breath, thought, light of the children, happiness of the people, the earth the lakes, the sea.

The Creation of the World

All was calm, in suspense, all was silent. All was immobile, noiseless; the expanse of heaven was empty.

There were no men or animals; there were no birds, fish, crabs, forests, rocks, nor streams. Only the heaven and the sea existed.

There was nothing on foot, that made noise. There was only the peaceful, tranquil sea. There was silence and darkness, like a night that never ended.

The Maker and the Modeler, Tepeu3 and Gucumatz4, were on the water, dressed with blue-green feathers, in the midst of the dim light. They were great wise ones, they were the manifestation of the Heart of the Heavens and of the Earth.

Tepeu and Gucumatz consulted, meditated; unified their words and thoughts. They began the creation of the trees and the reeds. Out of the darkness of the night they also began the creation of man. They spoke of life and light and agreed that someone ought to produce their food, which gave them sustenance.

"Separate water from space, and let the earth come forth! Let there be light, that it might awaken in the sky and on the earth. There will be no glory or honor in that which we have created until there is the human creature, the creature endowed with reason."

This is what Tepeu and Gucumatz said. And their word made the earth come forth.

"Earth!", they said, and the earth surged forth like a cloud, like from a dust cloud. And the mountains came forth, as if they were crabs on the water.

There was great power, a magical power, that made the mountains and valleys burst forth.

Gucumatz was full of joy. "Our work, our creation will now be finished!", he said.

After the mountains and valleys, they formed the rivers, that they traveled in between the hills.

Later, they decided to create the guardians of the forests, the animals great and small: the deer, the bird, the lion, the tiger, the snake. They placed them to live in the wilderness and to each they gave its dwelling:

"You, deer, will live and sleep in the gullies and in the stream-beds; you will walk among the grass and the herbs; in the forest you will multiply; you will walk on four legs."

And that was what was said and done. There were also distributed homes for the birds great and small:

"Above the forests, in the heights of the reeds you will live and make your nests. Above the branches of the trees you will dart and preen."

Upon finishing the creation of the birds and the animals, it was said to them:

"Call out, that every on have his own noise, that everyone uses its own manner of speech." That was what they said to the birds, to the deer, to the lions, to the tigers, to the serpents.

Tepeu and Gucumatz commanded them to say their names and give them praise.

"Invoke the Heart of Heaven and the Earth, the Maker, the Modeler. Speak, invoke them," it was said to them.

But they couldn't talk and only cawed, clucked, screeched, each one of a different manner. When Tepeu and Gucumatz saw that it wasn't possible for them to talk, they said to themselves:

"It has not been possible that the animals say our name, that of their makers and modelers; this is not good. We will make other obedient beings and they will invoke us. Their meat shall be for food, for chewing. This will be their purpose."

The animals tried again but they could not make their screeches invoke the makers and modelers; only screaming and shouting was heard, confusion. Their lot remained definitive: to be food one for another.

Next: The Creation of Man

1. I have preferred to use Tedlock's "Maker and Modeler" to Sandoval's "Creator and Shaper". Maker and Modeler are closer to the original intent of the original Quiché. They also convey the parallelism found in the Bible where God is referred to in the plural (see KJV Gen. 1: 26, Gen. 3: 22)

2. One should not hastily conclude that the rest of the Popol Vuh oral tradition is corrupt because of their mention of Christianity and using the Latin alphabet to transmit it. There is more evidence in the Popol Vuh itself and in the history of its transmittal to rebut this conclusion than there is evidence to conclude they were somehow coerced or felt obligated to change the narrative to suit the theology of the Christian missionaries. To this very day, Quiché Day Keepers worship Christian figures separately from Mayan figures, each method of worship having its own particular theology and system of rituals, as a "failsafe" of sorts in the event that one system is incomplete and the other is more complete.

3. Tepeu means "king" or "sovereign," from the Náhuatl Tepeuh, tepeuani. The Maya form is ah tepehual. Ah is also an Egyptian prefix for "king" or "pharaoh", such as in Ahkenaten, Ahman Ra, etc.

4. Gucumatz, a serpent covered with green feathers, from the Quiché word guc (kuk in Maya), "green feathers," particularly those of the quetzal, and cumatz, serpent; it is the Quiché version of Kukulcán, the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl, the Toltec king, conqueror, culture hero, and god of Yucatán during the period of the Maya New Empire. The profound Mexican influence in the religion of the Quiché is reflected in this Creator-couple who continue to be invoked throughout the book until the divinity took the bodily form of Tohil, who in Part III is specifically identified with Quetzalcoatl.


  1. Very interesting Rob.

    I think, however, that we need to follow the advice of Brant Gardner and be careful when we compare the Book of Mormon to these later texts of the Maya. Why? Because it is hard to determine exact links between texts and we tend to read things into texts that aren't there when comparing the two.

    However, you certainly have brought up some interesting parallels. I guess it is more than possible that echos of earlier Lamanite and Nephite culture could turn up in these later writings, if only nominally. It is certainly worth investigating further, as other LDS writers have done in the past.

  2. I see where you're coming from, but I'm not as ready as Gardner and others to dismiss Mayan texts so quickly. There are evidences in them that quite clearly show there to be a continuum of Book of Mormon themes. While I respect Gardner's position on the matter, I feel that it's a subject that has been dismissed much too quickly. I think we would be remiss to ignore the few remnants we have of that culture on the basis of judgments about their provenance that may yet be proven incorrect as we uncover more inscriptions and murals in Central America.


We are happy to discuss any and every topic and question. We will give wide berth to a variety of opinions and ideas. The only thing we ask is that you return the favor by respecting our right to believe as we do and by not issuing lengthy, inflammatory diatribes meant to shock and confuse anyone not familiar with LDS teachings. They can certainly get that elsewhere. :)