The Popol Vuh
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
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
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.
This is the beginning of the old traditions of this place called Quich Here
we shall write and we shall begin the old stories, the beginning and the origin
of all that was done in the town of the Quich by the tribes of the Quichnation.
And here we shall set forth the revelation, the declaration, and the narration
of all that was hidden, the revelation by Tzacol, Bitol, Alom, Qaholom, who are
called HunahpVuch, HunahpUti Zaqui-NimTzi, Tepeu, Gucumatz, u Qux cho,
u Qux Pal Ah RaxLac, Ah RaxTzel, as they were called.*And [at the same time] the declaration, the combined narration of the Grandmother
and the Grandfather, whose names are Xpiyacoc, and Xmucan**helpers and protectors, twice grandmother, twice grandfather, so called in the
Quiche chronicles. Then we shall tell all that they did in the light of existence,
in the light of history.
*These are the names of the divinity, arranged in pairs
of creators in accord with the dual conception of the Quich Tzacol and Bitol,
Creator and Maker. Alom, the mother god, she who conceived the sons, from al,
"son," al, "to give birth." Qaholom, the father god who begat the sons, from
qahol, "son of the father," qaholah, "to beget." Ximez calls them mother and
Father; they are the Great Father and the Great Mother, so called by the Indians,
according to Las Casas; and they were in heaven.
**Xpiyacoc and Xmucan the old man and the old woman
(in Maya, xnuc is "old woman"), equivalents of the Mexican gods Cipactonal and
Oxomoco, the sages who, according to the Toltec legend, invented their astrology
and arranged the counting of time, that is, the calendar. Although in the Quich
legend there was also the other abstract pair previously mentioned, Xpiyacoc and,
above all, his consort Xmucan this pair had a more direct contact with the things
of this world; together they were what the Mexican archaeologist Enrique Juan
Palacios calls "the active Creator-couple who are directly concerned with the
making of material things."
This we shall write now under the Law of God and Christianity; we shall bring
it to light because now the Popol Vuh, as it is called,***cannot be seen any more, in which was clearly seen the coming from the other side
of the sea and the narration of our obscurity, and our life was clearly seen.
The original book, written long ago, existed, but its sight is hidden to the searcher
and to the thinker. Great were the descriptions and the account of how all the
sky and earth were formed, how it was formed and divided into four parts; how
it was partitioned, and how the sky was divided; and the measuring-cord was brought,
and it was stretched in the sky and over the earth, on the four angles, on the
four corners, as was told by the Creator and the Maker, the Mother and the Father
of Life, of all created things, he who gives breath and thought, she who gives
birth to the children, he who watches over the happiness of the people, the happiness
of the human race, the wise man, he who meditates on the goodness of all that
exists in the sky, on the earth, in the lakes and in the sea.
***Popo Vuh, or Popol Vuh, literally the "Book of the
Community." The word popol is Maya and means "together," "reunion," or "common
house." Popol na is the "house of the community where they assemble to discuss
things of the republic," says the Diccionario de Motul. Pop is a Quichverb which
means "to gather," "to join," "to crowd," according to Ximez; and popol is a
thing belonging to the municipal council, "communal," or "national." For this
reason Ximez interprets Popol Vuh as Book of the Community or of the Council.
Vuh or u is "book," "paper," or "rag" and is derived from the Maya bn or n,
which means at the same time both paper and book, and finally the tree, the bark
of which was used in making paper in ancient times, and which the Nahua call amatl,
commonly known in Guatemala as amatle (Ficus cotinifolia). Note that in many words
the n from the Maya is changed to j or h in Quich Na, "house" in Maya, is changed
to ha, or ja; hn or n, "book" in Maya, becomes vuh or h in Quich
This is the account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless,
still, and the expanse of the sky was empty.
This is the first account, the first narrative. There was neither man, nor
animal, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests;
there was only the sky.
The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the calm sea and
the great expanse of the sky.
There was nothing brought together, nothing which could make a noise, nor anything
which might move, or tremble, or could make noise in the sky.
There was nothing standing; only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and
tranquil. Nothing existed.
There was only immobility and silence in the darkness, in the night. Only the
Creator, the Maker, Tepeu, Gucumatz, the Forefathers,*were in the water surrounded with light.**They were
hidden under green and blue feathers, and were therefore called Gucumatz. By nature
they were great sages and great thinkers. In this manner the sky existed and also
the heart of
*E Alom, literally, those who conceive and give birth,
e Qaholom, those who beget the children. In order to follow the conciseness of
the text here the two terms are translated as the "Forefathers."
**They were in the water because the Quichassociated
the name Gucumatz with the liquid element. Bishop Niez de la Vega says that
Gucumatz is a serpent with feathers, which moves in the water. The Cakchiquel
Manuscript says that one of the primitive peoples which migrated to Guatemala
was called Gucumatz because their salvation was in the water.
Heaven, which is the name of God and thus He is called.
Then came the word. Tepeu and Gucumatz came together in the darkness, in the
night, and Tepeu and Gucumatz talked together. They talked then, discussing and
deliberating; they agreed, they united their words and their thoughts.
Then while they meditated, it became clear to them that when dawn would break,
man must appear. Then they planned the creation, and the growth of the trees and
the thickets and the birth of life and the creation of man. Thus it was arranged
in the darkness and in the night by the Heart of Heaven who is called Hurac.
The first is called CaculhHurac. The second is ChipiCaculh The third
is Raxa-Caculh And these three are the Heart of Heaven.
Then Tepeu and Gucumatz came together; then they conferred about life and light,
what they would do so that there would be light and dawn, who it would be who
would provide food and sustenance.
Thus let it be done! Let the emptiness be filled! Let the water recede and
make a void, let the earth appear and become solid; let it be done. Thus they
spoke. Let there be light, let there be dawn in the sky and on the earth! There
shall be neither glory nor grandeur in our creation and formation until the human
being is made, man is formed. So they spoke.
Then the earth was created by them. So it was, in truth, that they created
the earth. Earth! they said, and instantly it was made.
Like the mist, like a cloud, and like a cloud of dust was the creation, when
the mountains appeared from the water; and instantly the mountains grew.
Only by a miracle, only by magic art were the mountains and valleys formed;
and instantly the groves of cypresses and pines put forth shoots together on the
surface of the earth.
And thus Gucumatz was filled with joy, and exclaimed: "Your coming has been
fruitful, Heart of Heaven; and you, Hurac, and you, Chipi-Caculh Raxa-Caculh"
"Our work, our creation shall be finished," they answered.
First the earth was formed, the mountains and the valleys; the currents of
water were divided, the rivulets were running freely between the hills, and the
water was separated when the high mountains appeared.
Thus was the earth created, when it was formed by the Heart of Heaven, the
Heart of Earth, as they are called who first made it fruitful, when the sky was
in suspense, and the earth was submerged in the water.
So it was that they made perfect the work, when they did it after thinking
and meditating upon it.
The Popol Vuh, or Sacred Book of the ancient QuichMaya, as it has been happily
subtitled, is, beyond any shadow of doubt, the most distinguished example of native
American literature that has survived the passing centuries.
The original redaction of this most precious fragment of ancient American learning
is now lost; however, it seems first to have been reduced to writing (in characters
of the Latin script), in the middle of the sixteenth century, from oral traditions
then current among the Quich by some unknown but highly educated, not to say
literary, member of that race.
This now lost original was again copied in the Quichlanguage, again in characters
of the Latin script, at the end of the seventeenth century, by Father Francisco
Ximez, then parish priest of the village of Santo Tom Chichicastenango in
the highlands of Guatemala, directly from the original sixteenth-century manuscript,
which he had borrowed for the purpose from one of his Indian parishioners.
The Popol Vuh is, indeed, the Sacred Book of the QuichIndians, a branch of
the ancient Maya race, and contains an account of the cosmogony, mythology, traditions,
and history of this native American people, who were the most powerful nation
of the Guatemala highlands in pre-Conquest times. It is written in an exalted
and elegant style, and is an epic of the most distinguished literary quality.
Indeed, the chance preservation of this manuscript only serves to emphasize
the magnitude of the loss which the world has suffered in the almost total destruction
of aboriginal American literature.
SYLVANUS G. MORLEY
Museum of New Mexico
Then they made the small wild animals, the guardians of the woods, the spirits
of the mountains, the deer, the birds, pumas, jaguars, serpents, snakes, vipers,
guardians of the thickets.
And the Forefathers asked: "Shall there be only silence and calm under the
trees, under the vines? It is well that hereafter there be someone to guard them."
So they said when they meditated and talked. Promptly the deer and the birds
were created. Immediately they gave homes to the deer and the birds. "You, deer,
shall sleep in the fields by the river bank and in the ravines. Here you shall
be amongst the thicket, amongst the pasture; in the woods you shall multiply,
you shall walk on four feet and they will support you. Thus be it done!" So it
was they spoke.
Then they also assigned homes to the birds big and small. "You shall live in
the trees and in the vines. There you shall make your nests; there you shall multiply;
there you shall increase in the branches of the trees and in the vines." Thus
the deer and the birds were told; they did their duty at once, and all sought
their homes and their nests.
And the creation of all the four-footed animals and the birds being finished,
they were told by the Creator and the Maker and the Forefathers: "Speak, cry,
warble, call, speak each one according to your variety, each, according to your
kind." So was it said to the deer, the birds, pumas, jaguars, and serpents.
"Speak, then, our names, praise us, your mother, your father. Invoke then,
Hurac, Chipi-Caculh Raxa-Caculh the Heart of Heaven, the Heart of Earth,
the Creator, the Maker, the Forefathers; speak, invoke us, adore us," they were
But they could not make them speak like men; they only hissed and screamed
and cackled; they were unable to make words, and each screamed in a different
When the Creator and the Maker saw that it was impossible for them to talk
to each other, they said: "It is impossible for them to say our names, the names
of us, their Creators and Makers. This is not well," said the Forefathers to each
Then they said to them: "Because it has not been possible for you to talk,
you shall be changed. We have changed our minds: Your food, your pasture, your
homes, and your nests you shall have; they shall be the ravines and the woods,
because it has not been possible for you to adore us or invoke us. There shall
be those who adore us, we shall make other [beings] who shall be obedient. Accept
your destiny: your flesh shall be torn to pieces. So shall it be. This shall be
your lot." So they said, when they made known their will to the large and small
animals which are on the face of the earth.
They wished to give them another trial; they wished to make another attempt;
they wished to make [all living things] adore them.
But they could not understand each other's speech; they could succeed in nothing,
and could do nothing. For this reason they were sacrificed, and the animals which
were on earth were condemned to be killed and eaten.
For this reason another attempt had to be made to create and make men by the
Creator, the Maker, and the Forefathers.
"Let us try again! Already dawn draws near: Let us make him who shall nourish
and sustain us! What shall we do to be invoked, in order to be remembered on earth?
We have already tried with our first creations, our first creatures; but we could
not make them praise and venerate us. So, then, let us try to make obedient, respectful
beings who will nourish and sustain us." Thus they spoke.
Then was the creation and the formation. Of earth, of mud, they made [man's]
flesh. But they saw that it was not good. It melted away, it was soft, did not
move, had no strength, it fell down, it was limp, it could not move its head,
its face fell to one side, its sight was blurred, it could not look behind. At
first it spoke, but had no mind. Quickly it soaked in the water and could not
And the Creator and the Maker said: "Let us try again because our creatures
will not be able to walk nor multiply. Let us consider this," they said.
Then they broke up and destroyed their work and their creation. And they said:
"What shall we do to perfect it, in order that our worshipers, our invokers, will
Thus they spoke when they conferred again: "Let us say again to Xpiyacoc, Xmucan
HunahpVuch, HunahpUti 'Cast your lot again. Try to create again.' " In this
manner the Creator and the Maker spoke to Xpiyacoc and Xmucan
Then they spoke to those soothsayers, the Grandmother of the day, the Grandmother
of the Dawn, as they were called by the Creator and the Maker, and whose names
were Xpiyacoc and Xmucan
And said Hurac, Tepeu, and Gucumatz when they spoke to the soothsayer, to
the Maker, who are the diviners: "You must work together and find the means so
that man, whom we shall make, man, whom we are going to make, will nourish and
sustain us, invoke and remember us."
"Enter, then, into council, grandmother, grandfather, our grandmother, our
grandfather, Xpiyacoc, Xmucan make light, make dawn, have us invoked, have us
adored, have us remembered by created man, by made man, by mortal man. Thus be
"Let your nature be known, HunahpVuch, HunahpUti twice mother, twice
father, Nim-Ac, Nima-Tzi, the master of emeralds, the worker in jewels, the
sculptor, the carver, the maker of beautiful plates, the maker of green gourds,
the master of resin, the master Toltecat,*grandmother
of the sun, grandmother of dawn, as you will be called by our works and our creatures.
*Here the text seems to enumerate the usual occupations
of the men of that time. The author calls upon ahqual, who is evidently the one
who carves emeralds or green stones; ahyamanic, the jeweler or silversmith; ahchut,
engraver or sculptor; ahtzalam, carver or cabinetmaker; ahraxalac, he who fashions
green or beautiful plates; ahraxazel, he who makes the beautiful green vases or
gourds (called Xicalli in Nuatl,)--the word raxhas both meanings; ahgol, he
who makes the resin or copal; and, finally, ahtoltecat, he who, without doubt,
was the silversmith. The Tolteca were in fact, skilled silversmiths who, according
to the legend, were taught the art by Quetzalcoatl himself.
"Cast the lot with your grains of corn and the tzit**Do it thus, and we shall know if we are to make, or carve his mouth and eyes out
of wood." Thus the diviners were told.
**Erythrina corallodendron. Tzit arbol de pito in Guatemala;
Tzompanquahuitl in the Mexican language. It is used in both countries to make
fences. Its fruit is a pod which contains red grains resembling a bean which the
Indians used, as they still do, together with grains of corn, in their fortunetelling
and witchcraft. In his Informe contra Idolorum Cultores, Schez de Aguilar says
that the Maya Indians "cast lots with a large handful of corn." As is seen, the
practice which is still observed by the Maya-Quichis of respectable antiquity.
They went down at once to make their divination, and cast their lots with the
corn and the tzit "Fate! Creature!'' said an old woman and an old man. And this
old man was the one who cast the lots with Tzit the one called Xpiyacoc. And
the old woman was the diviner, the maker, called Chirac Xmucan
Beginning the divination, they said: "Get together, grasp each other! Speak,
that we may hear." They said, "Say if it is well that the wood be got together
and that it be carved by the Creator and the Maker, and if this [man of wood]
is he who must nourish and sustain us when there is light when it is day!
"Thou, corn; thou, tzit thou, fate; thou, creature; get together, take each
other," they said to the corn, to the tzit to fate, to the creature. "Come to
sacrifice here, Heart of Heaven; do not punish Tepeu and Gucumatz!''
Then they talked and spoke the truth: "Your figures of wood shall come out
well; they shall speak and talk on earth."
"So may it be," they answered when they spoke.
And instantly the figures were made of wood. They looked like men, talked like
men, and populated the surface of the earth.
They existed and multiplied; they had daughters, they had sons, these wooden
figures; but they did not have souls, nor minds, they did not remember their Creator,
their Maker; they walked on all fours, aimlessly.
They no longer remembered the Heart of Heaven and therefore they fell out of
favor. It was merely a trial, an attempt at man. At first they spoke, but their
face was without expression; their feet and hands had no strength; they had no
blood, nor substance, nor moisture, nor flesh; their cheeks were dry, their feet
and hands were dry, and their flesh was yellow.
Therefore, they no longer thought of their Creator nor their Maker, nor of
those who made them and cared for them.
These were the first men who existed in great numbers on the face of the earth.
Keep this website alive, a Donation will be highly appreciated
Please consider a donation supporting our efforts.
Please report broken links to the
This is a Non-Commercial Web page, © 1998-2011 L.C.Geerts The Netherlands all rights reserved.
It is strictly forbidden to publish or copy anything of my book without permission of the author, permission is granted for the recourses, for personal use only.