The first book I read by Lewis Spence was
The Mysteries of Egypt: Secret Rites and Traditions, which I really liked. This
one, not so much. I think it is because the title is so misleading. It is not the Popol Vuh at all but a short (64 pages) commentary on it, and a few
examples of some of the myths, which did provide useful information, as
far as it went. Spence's explanations, however, were confusing, and I found that when I did further research, some questions I had
were answered. Also, keep in mind that previous to the 1900s, there was little research done on the Pre-Columbian peoples, so this book is of its time, and
outdated. However, while I do recommend not buying the book, you can
download it for free at
Project Gutenberg. Dover has a number of his writings, but again, I think most of them can be obtained as free eBooks. There are more
Internet Archive, but the one listed above does not seem to be available at either source. All of his books pertain to ancient
peoples, myths, legends, etc. and he also wrote a book about Atlantis, one of the many I have already downloaded, so I am looking forward to reading more by
him. Incidentally, the full title of this book is The Popol Vuh: The Mythic and Heroic Sagas of the Kʼicheʼs of Central America.
I have a great deal of interest concerning the Pre-Columbian people, so as I said, I was disappointed in this book, However, I found a more modern one that actually is the Popol Vuh, in translation, and have it bookmarked. It has a 51/2-star rating at Amazon. The Wikipedia page mentions Tedlock, and also, at the bottom of the page, has two PDF versions by Allen J. Christenson. One is a side-by-side translation of the English in the left column and the Kʼicheʼ, which is different dialect of the Mayan language in the right column. This is the link. The other version, however, could not be opened by a copied link, yet when I clicked the link on the Wikipedia page, I did get the PDF, which is a translation and commentary, so I have both now. Spence states that the Kʼicheʼ People lived in Guatemala, Honduras, and San Salvador. (I think he might have meant El Salvador.) Wikipedia only mentions Guatemala.
In any case, I will discuss a bit about the information and stories, as they appear in the book, referencing the Wikipedia page as needed. I will begin with the opening information concerning two very early translations of the Popol Vuh. But first, according to Spence, here is a quote concerning the title of the work.
The name "Popol Vuh" signifies "Record of the Community," and its literal translation is "Book of the Mat," from the Kʼicheʼ word "pop" or "popol,' a mat or rug of woven rushes or bark on which the entire family sat, and "vuh" or "uuh," paper or book, from "uoch" to write. The "Popol Vuh" is an example of a world-wide genre—a type of annals of which the first portion is pure mythology, which gradually shades off into pure history, evolving from the hero-myths of saga to the recital of the deeds of authentic personages. It may, in fact, be classed with the Heimskringla of Snorre, the Danish History of Saxo-Grammaticus, the Chinese History in the Five Books, the Japanese "Nihongi," and, so far as its fourth book is concerned, it somewhat resembles the Pictish Chronicle.
He speaks of two early translators, but gives different impressions of them than the Wikipedia page.
Spence says. "This interesting text, the recovery of which forms one of the most romantic episodes in the history of American bibliography, was written by
a Christianised native of Guatemala some time in the seventeenth century, and was copied in the Kʼicheʼ language, in which it was originally written, by a monk
of the Order of Predicadores, one Francisco Ximenes, who also added a Spanish translation and scholia." But Wikipedia says, "It was originally preserved
through oral tradition until approximately 1550, when it was recorded in writing. The documentation of the Popol Vuh is credited to the 18th-century
Spanish Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez, who prepared a manuscript with a transcription in Kʼicheʼ and parallel columns with translations into
Spanish." What they both agree on is that it was an oral tradition until sometime in the 1500s, but the source of the original text is unclear. It is my
understanding that the ancient Maya wrote in glyphs, as did the Egyptians, and I am unclear if the original translation or transliteration was not done from
these picture-symbols? Here is more info on
Ancient Maya writing, which the article states "was in use about 300 BC."
The other translator mentioned by both Spence and Wikipedia is French Abbot Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, who according to them, " Brasseur apparently stole the university's volume and took it back to France." Of him, they say:
"He became a specialist in Mesoamerican studies, travelling extensively in the region. His writings, publications, and recovery of historical documents contributed much to knowledge of the region's languages, writing, history and culture, particularly those of the Maya and Aztec civilizations. However, his speculations concerning relationships between the ancient Maya and the lost continent of Atlantis inspired Ignatius L. Donnelly and encouraged the pseudo-science of Mayanism."
And pertaining to the Popol Vuh, they also say, "In 1861 he published another significant work: a French
translation of the Popol Vuh, a sacred book of the Quiché (Kʼicheʼ) Maya people. He included a
grammar of the Kʼicheʼ language and an essay on Central American mythology."
Spence, however, gives him less credibility. He says, "The Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, a profound student of American archaeology and languages (whose euhemeristic interpretations of the Mexican myths are as worthless as the priceless materials he unearthed are valuable) . . . ." Incidentally, I had to look up the word "euhemeristic," and after I learned what it meant, I wholeheartedly believe in it, and I have been saying the same thing for decades. Wikipedia says it is, "an approach to the interpretation of mythology in which mythological accounts are presumed to have originated from real historical events or personages. Euhemerism supposes that historical accounts become myths as they are exaggerated in the retelling, accumulating elaborations and alterations that reflect cultural mores."
In any case, if you are as interested in this material as I am, there are now many more research sources and books that were not available in Spence's time. And since this is such a short book, I will share some of the stories and make it a short review also.
Let's start with my favorite god, who is not even mentioned in the Wikipedia article, but plays a big part in Spence's commentary. His name was Hurakan or Huracan. Hmm, now, what god do you think he was? If you guessed "the mighty wind," you would be right, and according to Spence, he was the big guy. "He called out 'earth,' and the solid land appeared," Now, what all-too-common phenomenon here in 2023 is named after him?? That's a no brainer, so I won't even type it in! I found that part interesting, and had no idea where our meteorological term came from. That makes me wonder how many of our other common words come from the Pre-Columbians, since I have an interest in word origins.
And here are Hurakan's helpers. "Hurakan had the assistance of three demiurges, named respectively Cakulha-Hurakan (lightning), Chipi-Cakulha (lightning-flash), and Raxa-Cakulha (track-of-the-lightning).
I have commented for years that pagan gods and their activities and interactions with other beings often bear resemblance to Bible stories. In any case, all myths deals with the same issues, like how everything was created and who created it, and how the beings that were created misbehaved and were thus punished. Myths also explain natural events, food, etc., and these stories are no exception.
The Popol Vuh is divided into four books, and the Wikipedia article linked above provides a brief summary of each. As Spence states, the myths evolve from being symbolic stories that relate the Kʼicheʼ people's history to actual history in the Fourth Book. Spence also provides a helpful commentary for each book.
In the Second Book, we read the story of Hunhun-Ahpu and Vukub-Hunahpu, sons of Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, the father and mother deities. They loved to play ball and ended up near Xibalba or the underworld, where they were lured by a challenge. However, when they got there, they were tricked, demeaned and eventually killed. The head of Hunhun-Ahpu was hung on a tree covered with gourds. Everyone in Xibalba was forbidden to eat the fruits of that tree. But the virgin princess Xquiq disobeyed. Hunhun-Ahpu spat into her hand and she became pregnant. This was arranged "by order of Hurakan, the Heart of Heaven." Anything sound Christian here? Forbidden fruit. Virgin birth . . . .?
Anyways, when her father discovered her state, the royal messengers of Xibalba, the owls, were ordered to kill her, but she tricked them, being protected by Hurakan. She went to her "mother-in-law," Xmucane, who didn't believe her story until she performed a miracle. She gave birth to twin boys, the heroes of the First Book, Hun-Ahpu, and Xbalanque. A rat that had been caught, but not killed, showed its gratitude by telling them the story of their father and uncle and how they were demeaned and killed in Xibalba. Therefore, the hero twins knew ahead of time the tricks that were played and were able to revenge their father and uncle in the underworld.
Spence's commentary on this book is interesting concerning the Kʼicheʼ people's perception of the "underworld," and this applies to other Indigenous people, too. He says:
The "Popol Vuh" definitely describes Xibalba as the metropolis of an "Underworld"; and with such examples as that of the Cliff Palace Canyon in Colorado before us, it is difficult to think that allusion is not made to some such semi-underground abode. There the living rock has been excavated to a considerable distance, advantage being taken of a huge natural recess to secure greater depth than could possibly have been attained by human agency, and in this immense alcove the ruins of a veritable city may still be seen, almost as well preserved as in the days of its evacuation, its towers, battlements and houses being as well marked and as plainly discernible as are the ruins of Philæ. It is then not unreasonable to suppose that in a more northerly home the Kʼicheʼs may have warred with a race which dwelt in some such subterranean locality. A people's idea of an "otherworld" is often coloured by the configuration of their own country.
And here it is. Wow! How cool is that!
The paragraph above was followed by this rather poignant one. HA! It took Christians to create the hell of everlasting punishment . . . .
One thing is certain: a hell, an abode of bad spirits as distinguished from beneficent gods, Xibalba was not. The American Indian was innocent of the idea of maleficent deities pitted in everlasting warfare against good and life-giving gods until contact with the whites coloured his mythology with their idea of the dual nature of supernatural beings.
And here's another. One should be careful whom he calls "savage."
"The devil," says Cogolludo of the Mayas, "is called by them Xibilba, which means he who disappears or vanishes." The derivation of Xibalba is from a root meaning "to fear" from which comes the name for a ghost or phantom. Xibalba was, then, the Place of Phantoms. But it was not the Place of Torment, the abode of a devil who presided over punishment. The idea of sin is weak in the savage mind; and the idea of punishment for sin in a future state is unknown in pre-Christian American mythology.
And here's one similar to "original sin" and the Great Flood to punish them!! It is from the First Book.
Over a universe wrapped in the gloom of a dense and primeval night passed the god Hurakan, the mighty wind. He called out "earth," and the solid land appeared. The chief gods took counsel; they were Hurakan, Gucumatz, the serpent covered with green feathers, and Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, the mother and father gods. As the result of their deliberations animals were created. But as yet man was not. To supply the deficiency the divine beings resolved to create manikins carved out of wood. But these soon incurred the displeasure of the gods, who, irritated by their lack of reverence, resolved to destroy them. Then by the will of Hurakan, the Heart of Heaven, the waters were swollen, and a great flood came upon the manikins of wood. They were drowned and a thick resin fell from heaven.
And this last one is from the Third Book, and tells of the migration of the people southward. Spence states that the original seat of the Toltecs and Aztecs was British Columbia, which surprised me. There's also a hint of the Tower of Babel story. And the parting of the Red Sea!
Tulan was a place of misfortune to man, for not only did he suffer from cold and famine, but here his speech was so confounded that the first four men were no longer able to comprehend each other. They determined to leave Tulan, and under the leadership of the god Tohil set out to search for a new abode. On they wandered through innumerable hardships. Many mountains had they to climb, and a long passage to make through the sea which was miraculously divided for their journey from shore to shore. At length they came to a mountain which they called Hacavitz, after one of their gods, and here they rested, for here they had been instructed that they should see the sun. And the sun appeared. Animals and men were transported with delight. All the celestial bodies were now established. But the sun was not as it is to-day. He was not strong, but as reflected in a mirror.
And so, even though this book was not what I expected, it still contains a great amount of interesting
information, but again, we have made so much progress in the last century toward discovering the truth of these peoples, reading a more modern book would
be better. The free eBook linked above is exactly the same edition as the Dover book pictured. It was published in 1908. Here is the
Dover search page for other books by Spence. Even if you download the free eBooks from Project Gutenberg or Internet
Archive, you can read commentary and a number of pages on the Dover site, free. And you can read all my book reviews on Pre-Columbian Peoples on their
And finally, I have saved the best for last. If you do not want to read the Popol Vuh, here is an exquisitely animated film. The animations are from authentic Maya art, the music is delightful, and the story is told beautifully. Children would enjoy this film, too. It is an hour long, and highly recommended!
Popol Vuh: The Creation Myth of the Maya (1989) by Patricia Amlin
Below: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Maya mask. Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche.
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