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Popol Vuh Preface

The Popol Vuh

The Sacred Book of The Mayas

The Book of The Community

English Version by

Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley

( 1950 by the University of Oklahoma Press)

Translation by Adri Recinos



Of all American peoples, the Quich of Guatemala have left us the richest mythological legacy. Their description of the Creation as given in the Popol Vuh, which may be called the national book of the Quich, is, in its rude strange eloquence and poetic originality, one of the rarest relics of aboriginal thought.

The national book of the Quich which contains the mythology, traditions, and history of this remarkable American people, was not known by the scientific world until the past century, when two European travelers, Carl Scherzer and Abb Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, published, respectively, the first Spanish version made in Guatemala at the beginning of the eighteenth century and a contemporary French translation. The two illustrious travelers visited the Central American countries almost at the same time, in 1854 and 1855, and both interested themselves in the study of the aboriginal races of Guatemala, which were those that had reached the highest degree of civilization in the center of the New World.

In the library of the University of San Carlos in the city of Guatemala, Scherzer found the manuscript which contains the transcription of the Quichtext and the first Spanish version of the Popol Vuh, made by Father Francisco Ximez of the Dominican Order. This first Spanish version of the Quichdocument was published by Scherzer in Vienna in 1857.

The AbbBrasseur de Bourbourg carried his interest in the Indian cultures of Guatemala much further. Having lived for some time in the country, he was in contact with the Indians, learned the Quichand Cakchiquel tongues, and upon his return to Europe he published in Paris, in 1861, a handsome volume entitled Popol Vuh, Le Livre Sacret les mythes de l'antiquitamicaine, avec les livres hoiques et historiques des Quich, which contains the original Quichtext, a translation into French, an extensive introduction, and rather full notes.

The publication of this work at once attracted the attention of the public to the native peoples of Central America, whose existence and cultural achievements were at that time completely unknown in Europe and the United States. Since then, the book has been used by historians and ethnologists in their investigations of the native races and civilizations of America.

Brasseur de Bourbourg collected a number of old manuscripts in Guatemala, which he took with him to Europe and used in his writings on the history and the Indian languages of Central America. Among them was the volume which contains the Arte or grammar of the three principal languages of Guatemala, the Cakchiquel, the Quich and the Zutuhil, written in the eighteenth century by the same Father Francisco Ximez, who was parish priest of Santo Tom Chuil the present Chichicastenango. The same manuscript volume includes also the transcription and translation of the Popol Vuh, composed of 112 folios written in two columns, which has the title Empiezan las historias del origen de los indios de esta provincia de Guatemala. This volume, in the handwriting of Father Ximez, was acquired in Europe by Edward E. Ayer, and today forms part of the valuable linguistic collection which bears his name and is preserved in the Newberry Library of Chicago.

The catalog of the Ayer Collection, however, did not list the manuscript of the Historias del origen de los indios, which as has been said, is bound together with that of the Arte de las tres lenguas by Father Ximez. For this reason it was a very pleasant surprise to me to find it at the end of that volume, when I visited the Newberry Library for the first time in 1941. I wish to express here my gratitude to Mary Lapham Butler, in charge of the Edward E. Ayer Collection, for the facilities which she made available to me to complete my research in that center of study.

Comparing the original text transcribed by Ximez with the text published by Brasseur de Bourbourg, I noticed some differences, important omissions, and other changes which affect the interpretation of the Quichdocument. Furthermore, the possibility of clarifying and correcting passages in the existing translations stimulated my desire to undertake a new version direct from the original Quich into Spanish. Thus, by making use of the work of my predecessors in this field, I would somewhat advance knowledge of the document that Bancroft has called the most valuable heritage which we have received from aboriginal American thought.

When the Spanish version was published in Mexico in 1947, my distinguished friend Sylvanus Griswold Morley, recognized as the highest authority on the Maya civilization, became interested in having an English translation made of this old book of the Quich It seems strange, indeed, that while this historical and mythological masterpiece is known in several Spanish, French, and German translations, there is no complete version in English for the use of readers and students of the English-speaking world. Mr. Morley's enthusiasm found generous response in the Rockefeller Foundation, always disposed to lend its support to intellectual pursuits, and with its valuable assistance the present English translation has been carried to a happy conclusion.

In both the Spanish and the English version of the Popol Vuh, I have tried to keep to the original text and to adjust myself strictly to the peculiarities of the Quichlanguage, which is simple and synthetical and yet does not lack elegance of expression. It would have been easy to give the narrative a literary form more pleasing to the modern reader; but this could have been done only by sacrificing the fidelity which must be the translator's guide in a work of this kind. In general I have tried to preserve the original construction, its passive forms and its frequent repetitions. In doing so, I have found very helpful the grammars and vocabularies of the Quichand Cakchiquel languages compiled by the Spanish missionaries, which may be consulted in various libraries of Europe and the United States.

The words of the original manuscript appear in footnotes when they have been omitted or altered in the transcription by Brasseur de Bourbourg. The spelling is that of the original text. Father Francisco de la Parra, in the middle of the sixteenth century, invented four characters to represent certain sounds peculiar to the Indian languages of Guatemala. These phonetic signs sometimes appear in the Ximez manuscript, but they are not reproduced here because it is not considered necessary. In their place the generally accepted equivalent is given. The sound of v is the same as that of u, as was the custom in Spanish colonial times. The h has the same sound as in English. The initial x which occurs in certain Quich words and proper names is the sign of the feminine and the diminutive and is pronounced like sh. For example, Xbalanquand Xmucanare pronounced Shbalanquand Shmucan respectively.

The original manuscript is not divided into parts or chapters; the text runs without interruption from the beginning until the end. In this translation I have followed the Brasseur de Bourbourg division into four parts, and each part into chapters, because the arrangement seems logical and conforms to the meaning and subject matter of the work. Since the version of the French Abbis the best known, this will facilitate the work of those readers who may wish to make a comparative study of the various translations of the Popol Vuh.

The etymology of the proper names is a difficult matter and lends itself to dangerous conjectures and deceptive suppositions. For this reason, I have accepted only those which seem natural, without entering into an analysis of the components of the ancient names, a work which seldom gives real results. In various places, however, I have pointed out the relation of these names to others of the Maya tongue, to which the Quichhas a close resemblance, and sometimes with the Nuatl tongue of Mexico, which has greatly influenced the languages of Central America.

I have also proceeded with caution in the use of geographical names. Some of the places mentioned in the text still retain their old names; but many others are known by the Mexican or Spanish names which were given to them after the Conquest. The modern names of the ancient places which it has been possible to identify may be found in the notes.

The map of the Maya-Quichregion, which has been especially prepared for the better understanding of the book, gives an idea of the wanderings of the Guatemala tribes and of their final settlement in the interior of the country. It serves, also, in my opinion, to explain the geographical and ethnical unity which exists among the peoples of southern Mexico and Yucat and the native races which in pre-Columbian times occupied the land of Guatemala; and shows clearly the course of the large rivers, through which in those days an active intertribal trade was carried on.

I wish to express my gratitude to the Rockefeller Foundation for its valuable help, as well as my appreciation of the brilliant co-operation of my late friend Sylvanus G. Morley and of the able American writer Miss Delia Goetz in the making of the present English version. I wish also to mention the contribution of Isaac Esquiliano in the design of the dust jacket. And last, but not least, I wish to acknowledge the interest and encouragement of the University of Oklahoma Press with regard to the publication in English of the Quichbook.


Guatemala, C. A.


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