Book Review

The Mayan Popol Vuh

By Eloise Hart

Dennis Tedlock's recent translation of the Quiche Mayan Popol Vuh* is one of the finest, and as such is attracting widespread attention. It, together with his introduction, glossary, notes, and comments, offers insights into the treasury of knowledge these ancient peoples had regarding the beginnings, past, and future history of the cosmos and man, a knowledge which is validated by similarities in early Egyptian, Babylonian, Hindu, and Tibetan scriptures.

*[Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings, translated with commentary by Dennis Tedlock, Simon and Schuster, New York, 380 pages, 1985.]

Thanks to Tedlock's intuitive and scholarly exposition these similarities emerge from the seemingly ambiguous and grotesque characterizations with which Mayan and pre-Mayan sages encapsuled their cherished tradition. Later generations have unfortunately taken these characterizations literally and in so doing have perverted and degraded what was once part of "The Light That Came from Across the Sea," as the Popol Vuh has been called -- a title indicating that Mayans, like Christians and Buddhists, believe that spiritual knowledge can be obtained only by crossing over to the other shore, i.e., by reaching a higher awareness. The Popol Vuh is also called by the Quiches, whose descendants still live in the highlands of Guatemala, the "Council Book" and is referred to as a "seeing instrument." They believe that by it one can come to know everything under the sky and on the earth to the very limits of space and time, as did the first humans before the gods confined their sight to what was obvious and nearby.

Written "in enlightened words by enlightened beings" who hid their faces in anonymity, the Popol Vuh records the Oher Tzih, the 'Ancient Word," relating to the formation of the sun, moon, earth and her creatures -- which began when:

There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, forest. Only the sky alone is there: the face of the earth is not clear. Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky; there is nothing whatever gathered together. It is at rest; not a single thing stirs. It is held back, kept at rest under the sky. -- p. 72

No thing existed but a vast empty sky and a great calm sea -- until the gods who dwelt in the primordial sea, called collectively Heart of the Sea, Heart of the Lake and, individually, Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter, and Sovereign Plumed Serpent, the Maker of the Blue-Green Plate and the Blue-Green Bowl (the visible earth and sky), joined with the gods of the primordial sky, called collectively Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth. Together these Great Ones conceived the emergence of the earth which arose "just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding. Then the mountains were separated from the water, all at once the great mountains came forth." And there were plants and, in time, people. The gods set in motion the process of "sowing," seeds sprouting in the dark and mysterious regions beneath the earth leading to their "dawning." This is an ingenious way of conveying the idea that when motion began, preexisting karmic potentials awakened, grew, and developed in ethereal regions until their dawning or birth on this plane of cognition. This process Tedlock compares to the birth of a child: its "sowing" and growth in the womb, followed nine months later by its emergence into light; and at death, its "sowing," the dispersion of its elements into the earth, followed by the soul's "dawning" when it becomes a spark of light in the darkness (p. 34).

The Popol Vuh's picturesque description of the gods' attempts to create people who could walk, work, talk in an articulate and measured way, reverence the gods, and live according to the rhythms of the year, parallels the stages of development of the early races delineated in the Stanzas of Dzyan [cf. The Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky]. For example, according to the Quiche account, the first efforts were unsatisfactory: the humans produced had no arms, could not work, nor could they speak intelligently; they just kept loosening, softening, disintegrating, and finally dwindled away (p. 79). While in Stanza IV, those of the early races, having "neither form nor mind . . . are called the Chhaya [image or shadow]." Although they were succeeded by a race that "could stand, walk, run, recline, or fly. Yet it was still but a Chhaya, a shadow with no sense. . ." [The Secret Doctrine, 11, 17.]

In a third attempt the Mayan gods consulted their "grandparents," and then formed men of wood from the coral tree and women of the pith of reeds, and although these beings multiplied and peopled the earth, the gods soon discovered that "there was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds, no memory of their mason and builder. They just went and walked wherever they wanted. Now they did not remember the Heart of Sky" (p. 83), and so they were destroyed by a great flood. Theosophical teachings describe the beings of the early third race as humanlike in appearance, having bones, physical organs, skin, and hair but, lacking mind, they were not yet truly human. However, after the midpoint of that race, many millions of years ago, when their latent mind began to awaken, these heretofore pure and innocent androgynous "humans" became distinctly male and female.

The awakening of mind is beautifully narrated in the Popol Vuh. It relates that after repeated failures, the gods, instead of trying again to produce intelligent beings, turned their attention to making the earth more suitable for human habitation. This was accomplished when celestial divinities came together and, participating in the symbolic "ball games," contributed their special renovating gifts. Then, when the gods thought together, they realized what was needed and were able to produce men and women as they had first envisioned them.

No woman gave birth to them, nor were they begotten by the builder, sculptor, Bearer, Begetter. By sacrifice alone, by genius alone they were made, they were modeled by the Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter, Sovereign Plumed Serpent. And when they came to fruition, they came out human:
They talked and they made words.
They looked and they listened.
They walked, they worked.
They were good people, handsome, with looks of the male kind. Thoughts came into existence and they gazed; their vision came all at once. Perfectly they saw, perfectly they knew everything under the sky, whenever they looked. The moment they turned around and looked around in the sky, on the earth, everything was seen without any obstruction. They didn't have to walk around before they could see what was under the sky; they just stayed where they were. . . . After that, they thanked the Maker, Modeler. -- p. 165

They were reverent, they were givers of praise, givers of respect. But the gods, feeling these humans could see and know too much, blinded their eyes "as the face of a mirror is breathed upon. Their eyes were weakened. Now it was only when they looked nearby that things were clear. And such was the loss of the means of understanding, along with the means of knowing everything, by the four humans. The root was implanted" (p. 167).

For a time these first humans were happy and multiplied, their descendants scattering over the face of the earth. But eventually they grew weary of wandering about in darkness. When Tohil, the divine lightbringer, the "Obsidian Mirror," suggested they go on a pilgrimage in search of light these people who had originally been of one family set out together on a long journey. They crossed a "sea," descended into the lowlands by way of the Great Abyss and, after ascending the highlands, they climbed to the peak of the mountain named Place of Advice. Here they held council together, these people of the various tribes. They fasted, hid their gods from danger, and waited for the clear light. Finally, Venus, the daybringer, arose in such wonder and glory the people rejoiced and gave thanks.

Then, unexpectedly, the Sun himself appeared. On this one occasion he showed his entire person in all its dazzling and searing splendor -- "it is only his reflection that now remains. . . . 'The sun that shows itself is not the real sun' " (p. 182). A corresponding event is described in chapter xi of the Bhagavad-Gita. Krishna, the eternal and supreme, shows his disciple, Arjuna, his divine form -- the whole universe animate and inanimate -- and because mortal vision cannot encompass this sovereign power and might, he gave Arjuna the "divine eye."

For the Mayans this event, "when the sun is born, when the face of the earth is lit," has double importance. It marked the awakening of thinking, caring, and responsible human beings, and also their spiritual unification. As the Popol Vuh expresses it: "there were countless people, but there was just one dawn for all tribes," one truth. Thereafter, men and women coordinated their actions with the cycles of the sun, moon, and planets, especially with those of Venus and Mars, whose cyclic movements and phases are meticulously recorded in their calendrical inscriptions. In addition, they were able to use with understanding and skill the gift of fire Tohil had given. With it, and with knowledge obtained from the divine daykeepers who for a time continued to rule their kingdom, the Mayans developed a civilization whose works of art and architecture, whose knowledge of mathematics and astronomy continue to amaze us.

Who were these daykeepers and diviners who are said to see and move beyond the present, and to bring what was dark into white clarity? According to the Popol Vuh the Quiche rulers

knew whether war would occur; everything they saw was clear to them. Whether there would be death, or whether there would be famine, or whether quarrels would occur, they knew it for certain, since there was a place to see it, there was a book. "Council Book" was their name for it. -- pp. 31-2

In later generations a few heroic individuals set out to obtain this knowing. Symbolically they followed the path of their fathers, journeyed east across the same sea, lowlands, and highlands, ascended the same sacred mountain and beheld the sun's dawning. Returning from the heights those who succeeded appeared in what the Popol Vuh calls "fiery splendor," and were adorned with divine regalia and titles of high honor. As Keeper of the Mat, such a one was later called Plumed Serpent, "a true lord of genius." He, like the Buddhist lohan, was said to be able to appear in any place, time, or form he desired. On occasion a Plumed Serpent would climb to the sky; on another he would go down the road to Xibalba (the underworld). He could assume many forms, among them that of a serpent, an eagle, or a jaguar.

Descendants of the Plumed Serpent brought back "from across the sea . . . the writings about Tulan." Dennis Tedlock suggests that these writings may have been parts of the hieroglyphic version of the Popol Vuh -- hence its title, "The Light That Came from Across the Sea" -- which "contained not only writings about the gods whose movements prefigured those of celestial lights, but about such human affairs as those of Tulan" (pp. 54-5) -- the city in the east where, before the first sunrise, the tribes were assigned their gods.

Some of these human affairs are described with great humor, as are the initiatory trials undertaken by those desiring self-transformation. While many of these ordeals parallel those described in Egyptian and Greek Mystery tales, the Mayan emphasis on cooperation, ingenuity, and jest is particularly appealing. Readers, led on in this way, come to marvel at the subtle wisdom contained in this book. Truly, it is a "seeing instrument," but one whose practical application and amazing information cannot be fully appreciated until the countless peoples of the world unite in reverence of truth. Then, mankind will once again see and know all things, and be able to speak and understand the language of the gods -- of the ancient Popol Vuh.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1986; copyright © 1986 Theosophical University Press)

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