POPOL VUH: THE MAYAN BOOK OF THE DAWN OF LIFE
translated by Dennis Tedlock with commentary based on the ancient knowledge of the modern Quiche Maya
(C) Copyright 1985, Dennis Tedlock
Are 4u ua nuta4alibal, nupresenta
chiquiuach ri nantat, comon chuchkajauib
mu4hulic uleu, mu4hulic poklaj, mu4hulic bak.
You cannot erase time.
THE TRANSLATOR of the Popol Vuh, as if possessed by the story the Popol Vuh tells, must wander in darkness and search long for the clear light. The task is not a matter of deciphering Maya hieroglyphs, since the only surviving version of the Popol Vuh is a transcription into alphabetic writing, but the manuscript nevertheless abounds with ambiguities and obscurities. My work took me not only into dark corners of libraries but into the forests and tall cornfields and smoky houses of highland Guatemala, where the people who speak and walk and work in the pages of the Popol Vuh, the Quiche Maya, have hundreds of thousands of descendants. Among them are diviners called "day-keepers," who know how to interpret illnesses, omens, dreams, messages given by sensations internal to their own bodies, and the multiple rhythms of time. It is their business to bring what is dark into "white clarity," just as the gods of the Popol Vuh first brought the world itself to light.
The Quiche people speak a Mayan language, say prayers to Mayan mountains and Mayan ancestors, and keep time according to the Mayan calendar. They are also interested citizens of the larger contemporary world, but they find themselves surrounded and attacked by those who have yet to realize they have something to teach the rest of us. For them it is not that the time of Mayan civilization has passed, to be followed by the time of European civilization, but that the two have begun to run alongside one another. A complete return to conditions that existed before Europeans first arrived is unthinkable, and so is a complete abandonment of indigenous traditions in favor of European ones. What most worries day-keepers about people from Europe, and specifically about missionaries, is that they confuse the Earth, whose divinity is equal to that of the celestial God, with the devil. As day-keepers put it, "He who makes an enemy of the Earth makes an enemy of his own body."
In the western part of what was once the Quiche kingdom is a town called Chuua 4,ak or "Before the Building." It is listed in the Popol Vuh as one of the citadels that were added to the kingdom during the reign of two great lords named Quicab and Cauizimah. When they sent "guardians of the land" to occupy newly conquered towns, Before the Building was assigned to nobles whose descendants still possess documents that date from the period of the Popol Vuh manuscript. Among contemporary Guatemalan towns it is without rival in the degree to which its ceremonial life is timed according to the Mayan calendar and mapped according to the relative elevations and directional positions of outdoor shrines. Once each 260 days, on the day named Eight Monkey, day-keepers converge from all over the Guatemalan highlands for the largest of all present-day Mesoamerican ceremonies that follow the ancient calendar. That Before the Building was already a religious center before the fall of the Quiche kingdom is indicated by the Nahua name that Pedro de Alvarado's Mexican-Indian allies gave it: Momostenango, meaning "Citadel of Shrines." It was in this town that I began my search for someone who might be able to light my way through some of the darker passages of the Popol Vuh. At the same time I began making sound recordings of contemporary narratives, speeches, and prayers, looking for passages that might resemble the Popol Vuh.
For field-workers in a Citadel of Shrines, visiting sacred places, listening to prayers and chants, and learning how to reckon time according to the continuing rhythms of the Mayan calendar can be a dangerous business. Barbara Tedlock and I almost came to the point of giving up our various research projects and leaving town when a day-keeper named Andres Xiloj divined that we had not only annoyed people at shrines but had entered the presence of these shrines without even realizing that we must be ritually clean in order to do so. But it was this same day-keeper, a man who is also the head of his patrilineage, who took on the task of answering all our inquiries about the shrines, the people who went there, the calendar, and the process by which he had divined the nature of our offense. One day, when we had come to the point of asking for a detailed description of the training and initiation of day-keepers, he dropped what seemed to be a broad hint that the best way to find out the answer to such questions would be to undertake an actual apprenticeship. After debating the meaning of his remarks all night, we asked him the next day whether he had meant that he would in fact be willing to take us on as apprentices, and he said, "Of course." There followed four and a half months of formal training, timed according to the Mayan calendar, that left us much more knowledgeable than we had ever intended to be.
Diviners are, by profession, interpreters of difficult texts. They can even start from a nonverbal sign, such as an ominous invasion of a house by a wild animal, and arrive at a "reading," as we would say, or ubixic, "its saying" or "its announcement," as is said in Quiche. When they start from a verbal sign such as the name of a day on the Mayan calendar, they may treat it as if it were a sign from a writing system rather than a word in itself, arriving at "its saying" by finding a different word with similar sounds. It should therefore come as no surprise that a diviner might be willing to take on the task of reading the Popol Vuh, whose text presents its own intriguing difficulties of interpretation.
When Andres Xiloj was given a chance to look at the text of the Popol Vuh, he produced a pair of spectacles and began reading aloud, word by word. His previous knowledge of alphabetic reading and writing was limited to Spanish, but he was able to grasp the orthography of the Popol Vuh text with very little help. When he was puzzled by archaic words, I offered definitions drawn from Quiche dictionaries compiled during the colonial period; in time, of course, he readily recognized the more frequent archaic forms. He was never content with merely settling on a Quiche reading of a particular passage and then offering a simple Spanish translation; instead, he was given to frequent interpretive asides, some of which took the form of entire stories. In the present volume the effects of the three-way dialogue among Andres Xiloj, the Popol Vuh text, and myself are most obvious in the Glossary and the Notes and Comments, but they are also present in the Introduction and throughout the translation of the Popol Vuh itself.
My work in Guatemala took me not only to the town called Before the Building (Momostenango), but to the ruins of Rotten Cane (Utatlan), to the mountain called Patohil, to the pile of broken stones at Petatayub, and to towns such as Santa Cruz Quiche, Spilt Water (Zacualpa), Above the Nettles (Chichicastenango), Above the Hot Springs (Totonicapan), Willow Tree (Santa Maria Chiquimula), and Under Ten Deer (Quezaltenango). To the patron saints and earthly spirits of all these places I pay my respects, especially to Santiago and his scribe, San Felipe, at Momostenango; to San Juan and to the divine Uhaal and Roz Utz stones at Agua Tibia; and above all to Uhaal Zabal, 4huti Zabal, and Nima Zabal.
Library pilgrimages have taken me to nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Tozzer Library at Harvard; to the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; to the Latin American libraries at Tulane in New Orleans and the University of Texas in Austin; to the special-collections library at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City; to the Archivo General de Centroamerica in Guatemala City; and to the Newberry Library in Chicago, where I saw, felt, smelled, and heard the rustle of the manuscript of the Popol Vuh.
Such is the magnitude of the present project that it stretched over nine years; except for one of these years and part of another, it necessarily took a backseat to the countless complexities of university life. Most of the Guatemalan fieldwork was carried out during the summer of 1975 and throughout 1976. Much of my effort to transform masses of research and multiple trial runs at translation into a book was made during evenings and weekends at home, and it was also carried on during all-too-brief retreats to such places as Tepoztlan, south of Mexico City; Panajachel, on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala; and in the woodlands and rocks near Cerrillos, New Mexico, south of Santa Fe. But even when one is confined to Massachusetts, there are ways in which the world of the Popol Vuh makes itself felt. During the months in which
I completed the manuscript for the book you now hold in your hands, I could see Venus as the morning star if I looked out the window of my study early enough.
Thinking back over my work on the Popol Vuh brings a great many people to mind; I apologize in advance to those who should have been remembered here but were not. Having learned my lessons about ancestors from my Quiche master, I will begin with persons who are now deceased. Robert Wauchope, when I first began my graduate work at Tulane in 1961, soon became convinced that I should eventually go to Guatemala to do archaeological fieldwork; he lived long enough to know that fourteen years later I finally did get to Guatemala, but as an ethnologist, linguist, and translator rather than an archaeologist. My first lessons in how to read and interpret manuscript sources from Spanish America were given to me by France V. Scholes in the Coronado Library at the University of New Mexico, during the summer of 1964. He and Wauchope enjoyed full careers, but the career of Thelma Sullivan, the finest of all scholars working with texts in the Nahuatl language, was cut short; she stood out among Americanists in general as one of those rare individuals who realize and demonstrate that precision in translation is not to be confused with mechanical literalness. Also cut short was the career of Fernando Horcasitas, who gave a splendid lecture on Nahuatl theater one fine warm evening in Cuernavaca when Barbara Tedlock and I were waiting for the Guatemalan border to reopen after the great earthquake of 1976.
And then there is Abelino Zapeta y Zapeta, who in 1979 became the first Quiche to serve as mayor of Santa Cruz Quiche in centuries. He offered gracious words of greeting to an international conference on the Popol Vuh that took place in his town. For the time being it must also be said that he was the last Quiche to serve as mayor. A year after the conference, while he was riding home from work on his bicycle, he was assassinated by gunmen who were seen driving away in an army jeep. The day may come when the Popol Vuh will be entirely at home in Santa Cruz Quiche, the town where it was written, but that day may not be soon.
Turning to those who are still living, and beginning with graduate school, I first think of Munro S. Edmonson. I have come to disagree with him about a great many matters affecting the Popol Vuh, as he well knows, but I have not forgotten his seminar on the Maya at Tulane, which I took more than twenty years ago. When he offered a list of possible research topics to the students in that seminar, I was the one who chose to do a class presentation and term paper on the Popol Vuh. But my first fieldwork in anthropology took me closer to my home in New Mexico: I went to the Zuni, who live on the northern frontier of Mesoamerica. When it came, at long last, to doing field research among the people whose ancestors wrote the Popol Vuh, it was Robert M. Carmack, of the State University of New York at Albany, who introduced Barbara Tedlock and myself to the western highlands of Guatemala. He did this with a generosity that is rare among ethnographers- and with a wisdom, still rarer, that led him to abandon us to our fate once he had gotten us into the field.
Among the people of Guatemala, I give special thanks to Andres Xiloj Peruch, who not only traveled with me through the Quiche text of the Popol Vuh but taught me how to read dreams, omens, and the rhythms of the Mayan calendar. Thanks also go to his daughter Maria, who has boundless patience and kindness; to Santiago Guix, who showed the way down many a path; to Gustavo Lang, who offers a steady hand in any emergency; to Lucas Pacheco Benitez, who combines a warm heart with an intimate knowledge of the spiritual properties of stones; to Celso Akabal, who offers genial toasts at his home near the shrine called the Great Place of Declaration; to Vicente de Leon Abac, who knows how the ancient customs originated; to Esteban Ajxub, who eloquently prays and sings for others; and to Flavio Rojas Lima, who knows how to make foreigners feel welcome at the Seminario de Integracion Social Guatemalteca.
In matters of Native American linguistics and poetics, I am especially thankful for more than fifteen years of unceasing dialogue with Dell Hymes. Others who come to mind here are Allan Burns, the first to reveal that conversation is the root of all Mayan discourse; Lyle Campbell, who went beyond his normal duties in providing myself and others with an introductory course in Quiche at the State University of New York at Albany in the fall of 1975 and who taught me the value of Cakchiquel sources; Ives Goddard, who convinced me that even the most intractable manuscript materials on Native American languages may conceal moments of great accuracy; T. J. Knab, who helped me with Nahuatl loanwords in the Popol Vuh and with Nahuatl metaphors; and James L. Mondloch, who answered some of my questions about Quiche syntax.
In matters of ethnography, ethnohistory, and archaeology I think of Duncan Earle, who revealed that the "mushroom head" of the Popol Vuh is in fact an herb; Gary Gossen, who knows that in trying to comprehend the contemporary highland Maya we are dealing with nothing less than a civilization; Doris Heyden, the first to reveal the full meaning of the secret cave at Teotihuacan; Alain Ichon, who excavated the site called Thorny Place in the Popol Vuh; David H. Kelley, who personally convinced me in far-off Calgary that classic Maya vase paintings do indeed illustrate scenes from the Popol Vuh; J. Jorge Klor de Alva, who knows that the "spiritual conquest" of Mesoamerica has in fact never taken place; Linda Schele, who brought the hieroglyphic texts of Palenque closer than ever to the Popol Vuh at the eighth Workshop on Maya Hieroglyphic Writing in Austin; and Nathaniel Tarn, who in earlier times played the role of anthropologist among neighbors of the Quiche and later returned as a poet.
Anthony Aveni, John B. Carlson, and Floyd G. Lounsbury have heard out my ideas concerning the calendrical and astronomical interpretation of the Popol Vuh. Michael D. Coe, who well knows what a calabash tree is, not only provided welcome praise for the translation but generously permitted the use of the vase drawings reproduced here. Peter T. Furst and Jill Leslie Furst are steady friends who can be counted upon to do unexpected things, like raising toads, cooking sharks, and praising the fertility of skeletons. But above all I am grateful to my wife-colleague Barbara Tedlock, scholar and artist, who has meanwhile been telling her own story about places and times in Guatemala.
At various times over the years I have discussed portions of this work with four past and present colleagues in the University Professors Program at Boston University, all of whom have views on the subject of translation: William Arrowsmith, Rodolfo Cardona, D. S. Carne-Ross, and Herbert Mason. Others who have lent patient ears include the poets Robert Kelly, George Quasha, Jerome Rothenberg, and Charles Stein, along with the book-rancher Gus Blaisdell and the apple-farmer Jeff Titon. Thanks also go to Richard Lewis, of the Touchstone Center in New York, who provided me with the opportunity to do a public performance of parts of the translation at the American Museum of Natural History.
My fieldwork in Guatemala in 1976 was done with the aid of a Fellowship for Independent Study and Research from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Released time for the continuation of the translation of the Popol Vuh was provided, during the academic years 1979-80 and 1980-81, by a grant from the Translations Program at the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is ably and thoughtfully administered by Susan Mango. During 1980-81 I received additional aid in the form of a sabbatical leave from Boston University.
From the beginning of our work on the Popol Vuh, Andres Xiloj felt certain that if one only knew how to read it perfectly, borrowing the knowledge of the day lords, the moist breezes, and the distant lightning, it should reveal everything under the sky and on the earth, all the way out to the four corners. As a help to my own reading and pondering of the book, he suggested an addition to the prayer that day-keepers recite when they go to public shrines. It goes like this:
Make my guilt vanish,
Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth;
do me a favor,
give me strength, give me courage
in my heart, in my head,
since you are my mountain and my plain;
may there be no falsehood and no stain,
and may this reading of the Popol Vuh
come out clear as dawn,
and may the sifting of ancient times
be complete in my heart, in my head;
and make my guilt vanish,
my grandmothers, grandfathers,
and however many souls of the dead there may be,
you who speak with the Heart of Sky and Earth,
may all of you together give strength
to the reading I have undertaken.
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