Popol Vuh the Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiche Maya Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Popol Vuh the author sets the overarching setting: the continual tension between the forces of good and evil, order and chaos, and the divine and the human. The theme running throughout these conflicts is that of power; it is on the earth and through mankind that the Lords of Heaven are able to demonstrate their power; and this power requires mankind to adore and sustain the influence of the spirits. Essentially, man is needed by the divine in order for the divine to be praised, celebrated, and recognized as great. So, when the earth and water deities united their thoughts they immediately realized that man needed to appear or else there could be no glory or grandeur in the universe. In this respect, human beings, in the Popol Vuh are intended to be the vessels through which the power of the heavens can be demonstrated and played out. However, particularly what it is that human beings reflect about the heavens is very telling of what the Mayans valued in each individual; additionally, the Popol Vuh tells of the various detrimental qualities that were infused with man during his creation. Overall, the creation of man, according to the Popol Vuh, manifested in the qualities of rational thought, memory, multiplication, speech, and upright posture; there were the attributes demanded for a being to adequately adore and sustain the gods.

The Popol Vuh is organized in a very specific manner. It is significant that the whole tale begins with the deities' three failed attempts to create man in the three stories that comprise Part One. Fundamentally, the tales do not emphasize the nature of the failures; they only serve to demonstrate the apparent impossibility of a human being consisting of a mere a glob of mud, a piece of wood, or a common beast. To the Maya, man is something more than these; so the initial failures of the gods provide a preview of what mankind is not; by Part Three, therefore, it is possible to grasp what man is with reference to what he cannot be. Perhaps even more important than this perspective is, however, that the trial and error story of the creation of man indicates what the Mayans believed the purpose of man was: to love and praise the gods. Within this context, the unique characteristics of man must be viewed as simply the tools that the divine provided for man to satisfy their aims.

One of the qualities that must be centrally valued by the Maya, according to the Popol Vuh, is the ability to speak. This is the first major qualification that the gods set upon their creations. Specifically, they create beasts and tell them to multiply; they are exceedingly successful in this respect, but because they are only able to hiss and screech, they are unable to speak the names of the gods -- which is required to adore and invoke them. For this, the animals are condemned to the ravines and forests of the world. When the animals fail another test set by the gods, they are further condemned to be hunted and eaten. Thus, an organization and justification of the functioning of the world is set up in the Popol Vuh: man's ability to eat beasts is vindicated by the failure of animals to satisfy the needs of the gods.

The mud man that Tepeu and Gucumatz build illustrates the other basic qualities that the gods -- and the Maya in general -- value in human nature: the capacity to stand, see, think, and move. Although the mud man is able to speak initially, it is unable to do so with any sort of coherence. Basically, intelligence is required of man; so even if the mud man had been able to multiply, his offspring could not have possibly satisfied the needs of the gods.

The wooden men, it would seem, are more thoughtfully put together by both the creator-couple and by the diviners -- Xpiyacoc and Xmucane. The wooden men satisfy the requirements for man in all of the superficial ways, but in the ways that are not so apparent, they fail. Although speech, the ability to multiply, and the ability to walk are all afforded the wooden men, they have no souls or minds. Their talk means nothing because they lack the ability to remember the gods or their greatness; furthermore, their existence means nothing because they have no souls or blood that can feed the gods. This story, again, generates an explanation of the ordering of the world: the wooden men are punished for their near failure to become men by being beaten by the earthen tools, and ultimately, by becoming monkeys. Thus, the apparent similarities between humans and monkeys are explained by the Popol Vuh, and their position in the global hierarchy is justified.

Having established the key components of man, it is recognized that there are certain directions that men can take with their lives that are unacceptable. Namely, men are not in a position where they can exalt only themselves, and seek their own selfish ends. Zipacna, Cabracacan and Vuvub-Caquix represent this evil perspective. They challenge the inalienable majesty and power of the deities by simply glorying in themselves and ignoring the gods. Their pursuit of earthly mineral riches is seen as wrong, and their modes of deception are illustrated to be vile. Additionally, although it is Zipacna who does them in, the boys who got drunk and were beheaded seem to suggest the notion that alcohol should be avoided. This is a somewhat ambiguous value because it is not the majestic gods who condemn them to this fate; nevertheless, it would seem that the Popol Vuh is indicating that if one revels in his own victories by indulging, he is likely to be deceived by evil forces. Broadly, since man is given the capacity to adore and sustain the gods, it is only right for him to appropriately pay them homage; if he does not, he should expect to be punished.

This aspect of the philosophy of the Maya is more indirectly addressed with the stories of the twins. The Lords of Hell, essentially, make attempts at frustrating the intentions of the Heart of Heaven in creating mankind. In hell two facets of man became apparent: man must have blood in order to multiply, and he must have a soul that allows him to defy death. Ultimately, man is created out of the ingredients that make corn: Paxil and Cayala -- which was the spreading of the waters and the rotten matter of the water. Out if these emerged the yellow ears and the white ears of corn. The blood of man came directly from the corn and made up what man was meant to be. However, the gods recognized that men needed limitations in order to properly appreciate the majesty of the deities and their creations. As a result, the four first men that were created were blinded to the full depth of the world and could only see and understand that which was immediately in front of them. Largely, it would seem this was done so that human beings would not threaten the heightened position of the gods; they would be ideally placed to worship them.

The Mayan way of thought is perhaps what the Popol Vuh most successfully establishes. Centrally the notion of religious polarity is reflected strongly in the way the story is told; there is a division between the mythological story that is being told and the historical one. Obviously, this represents the idea that the Mayan people exist in both human and divine time. Additionally, the gods possess multiple aspects and are able to be both good and evil. Although they certainly exhibit certain patterns -- they seem to be open…

Sources Used in Document:


1. Nelson, Ralph. The Popol Vuh. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

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