Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya

author: Victor Montejo
translator: David Unger
illustrator: Luis Garay
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 1999
grades 6-up 

If you follow the story of the creation and survival of the Popol Vuh —the sacred book of the Maya, one of the oldest and most profound and influential books of the Americas—you will also follow the trail of the creation and survival of the Maya themselves. In the language of the K’iche’, Montejo writes in the introduction, “pop” means “straw mat,” a Mayan metaphor for “power,” and “vuh” or “wuj,” means “paper,” so Popol Vuh essentially means “the Book of Power.” This sacred text was created thousands of years ago, both orally and in Maya hieroglyphic script.

When the Spanish came to conquer, their trail of destruction included the burning of the Mayan sacred codices. But the stories survived in the Mayan oral tradition, and in 1558, they were again put into writing by a young Mayan man who had learned to write the K’iche’ language in Latin characters. The Popol Vuh was lost, found in 1701, translated into Spanish, then lost again for more than a century, resurfaced in 1854, was taken to Europe and translated into French, lost yet again, bought and sold a number of times, and finally found its way back to the Americas, where it is now housed in Chicago’s Newberry Library. This surviving Popol Vuh is written in parallel K’iche’ and Spanish, and a number of different versions and interpretations exist.

Victor Montejo, a retired professor of Native American Studies at the University of California at Davis, is a poet, storyteller, human rights activist and anthropologist, studying in depth his own Jakaltek Mayan people. After the destruction of his village of Jakaltenango, in which Guatemalan soldiers killed his brother[1], Montejo’s name appeared on a death squad list and he was forced to flee to the US. Since then, his life’s work has been to make known, in a variety of ways, both the Mayan traditional stories[2] and the continuing human rights violations confronting the Maya. The oral stories of the Popol Vuh, in the Jakaltek language, remain in his memory and course through his blood.

In his adaptation of the Popol Vuh, Montejo has made a written version of these stories accessible to children for the first time. The stories—of gods and demigods and the creation of the natural world—are told in four parts. The first and third parts consist of the creation stories of the earth, the animals, and the humans. After a few false starts—the clay people and the wooden people have to be destroyed because neither has the ability to give proper thanks—the Creators and Makers, the fathers and mothers of all things, settle on the corn people, who alone have both language and limited vision.

The second part (which takes place before the creation of the humans) tells of the adventures of Jun Junajpu and Wuqub’ Junajpu, the first set of twins, whose encounter with the Lords of Xib’alb’a—the gods of the underworld—ends in disaster; and the twins’ descendants, Junajpu and Ixb’alanke, the Amazing Twins, who finally defeat the Lords of Xib’alb’a—not only because they have magical powers, but also because they’ve learned the lessons of the past and rely on the animals and insects for information and assistance. Part Four is a narration of the founding of the tribes, the story of the death of the first fathers, and the genealogy of the K’iche’ kings and their descendants. The book ends with a helpful glossary of gods, demigods, the lords of Xib’alb’a, the human world, animals, plants and places.

Montejo’s book features an excellent translation by Guatemalan-born writer and translator David Unger; and Spanish-speaking children will enjoy hearing and reading Montejo’s original Spanish-language adaptation, Popol Vuj: Libro Sagrado de los Maya (Groundwood, 1999).

Talented Nicaraguan artist Luis Garay has rendered the full-page illustrations and several double-page spreads in deep, rich acrylic colors, on a palette of mostly browns, greens and blues. His amazingly detailed paintings of lush jungle scenes depict the gods and demigods, for the most part, as ordinary-looking human beings—including the fearsome gods of Xib’alb’a, whose only difference from everyone else is their masks. Like traditional oral stories, Montejo’s tellings do not talk down to young readers and listeners; rather, these vivid images and characterizations will captivate them.

In the Popol Vuh, children learn, and adults are reminded, not only how things came to be, but also how everything is related; there is subtlety and complexity, and the young reader, who is assumed to be intelligent, is gently teased into understanding what is to be understood. I would not hesitate to read this beautiful book with younger children. However, because of the nature of the stories, I would not assign it as individual reading—any more than I would any other sacred text. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

A few words about traditional stories and the Popol Vuh

Sacred traditional stories embody and transmit the mythos of a people: they tell of how things came to be and they relay—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—instructions about right relation to the world. For millennia, people with the kind of “oral memory” who could preserve these stories, detail by detail, year after year, were entrusted to transmit them. Over time, the stories have changed, yet they are still passed on, like an original seed, from generation to generation.

As children mature, the stories grow in meaning for them. Mayan children might ask an elder relative to tell them a particular story, over and over, and each time they hear the story, they learn more. A child might ask, for instance, “Grandma, tell me the one about how the mosquito helped the Amazing Twins.” The elder does not recite a moral; to do so would be to insult the child’s intelligence and autonomy. And it would not occur to a child to ask what the story is supposed to teach. As children mature, they learn. There’s plenty of time.

It’s been said that, once a traditional oral story has been put into print, it is no longer traditional because it no longer has the flexibility of orality. It’s also been said that, because of the centuries of invasion and occupation of the world’s Indigenous peoples, there is probably no totally “authentic” telling of anything anymore.

As with traditional stories such as the Popol Vuh, there will always be questions. After the Spanish destroyed the sacred Mayan codices, did the Catholic Church change and subvert the teachings of the Popol Vuh? In its written form, did the Church rework the ancient story to make it fit into their theology so that it would be easier to convert the Maya? In Montejo’s version of the Popol Vuh, there appear to be analogies to the Christian concepts of “virgin birth,” “resurrection” and “hell.” Is it possible that the Popol Vuh, which is older than Christianity, already contained these concepts? We may never know.

(posted 4/7/13)

[1] In his Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village (Curbstone, 1987), an eyewitness account of the army attack on his village and its tragic aftermath, Montejo describes the daily reality of dictatorship and repression.

[2] See, for instance, El Q’anil: Man of Lightning (University of Arizona, 2001) and The Bird Who Cleans the World and other Mayan Fables (Curbstone, 1991).

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