The Popol Vuh
by Michael Bazzett
The Popol Vuh creation myth stems from the Mayan oral tradition, and was written down in the K’iche’ language between 1554 and 1558. With its roots in deeply communicative ritual, there is great emphasis placed on the relationship between speaking and hearing, as opposed to writing and seeing—“These are the first words. This is the first speaking.” The creators, Tz’aqol and B’itol, or Framer and Shaper, are alone in the world of their creation; they need beings to inhabit the Earth and to show gratitude. The life that dwells must be able to “sing of what we frame and shape”, to thank them, to pray to them, to say their names. In the introduction to his translation, Michael Bazzett writes about the difficulty of translating spoken word tradition in to print:
“Such a project is not without peril, of course. The Maya believe that ancestors are made to live again when we speak their words—the word they use is k’astajisaj, meaning ‘to endow with life’ or ‘to resurrect.’ As Allen Christenson relates in the introduction of his excellent translation: ‘When the words of the ancestors are read, or spoken aloud, it is as if that person had returned from death to speak again.”
Therefore, the act of translating itself is one of tactfully beckoning the Gods, with all of their history and dominion, back in to existence. Once on the page, they rise to the occasion by bringing us in to the world.
The Gods commit themselves to the trials of creating humanity, not only for the sake of worship, but also to sow the land, to greet the dawn, and to “feed the worlds.” First, they made animals:
“Why should rustling silence
Live alone beneath the trees?
‘Better there be guardians,’ they said,
and sudden as they spoke these thoughts
the deer and birds were there.”
But they could not speak the names of their creators, they could not fulfill the needs of those who shaped their lives. Valuing spoken language as the core of the human soul, this first creation is deemed a failure: “Language did not show its face…/So let us try again/to make one who gives praise,/to make one who provides and sustains. Alas, as soon as the words were spoken, the wooden figures were born to them, though as mere empty vessels, with neither blood, sweat, nor reasoning. Without such a depth, the figures could not recognize their creators, and the Gods had no use for the speaking figures. A great flood was summoned and finished them.
Bazzett translates the incantatory myth with bravery and responsibility. The incantatory nature of this translation requires both. The names of the Lords of the underworld, “One Death, Seven Death, Pus Demon, Jaundice Fiend, Flying Scab, Gathered Blood, Filth Demon, Puncture Fiend, Wingspan, and Packstrap,” are the words of nightmares, of violence and disease, of evil and wrong. It is these Underlords who set in to motion the story that delivers our heroes: Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Owls, the timeless representatives of death and wisdom, take the responsibility of calling the hideous names of the Underlords—taking the summoning power on to themselves with the confidence of sages. Once called upon, they set riddles and traps, which our heroes will either cleverly outwit or not survive.
Fortunately, these boys are superhuman, born of miraculous circumstances involving their mother and a tree—thus, they are blessed with a transcendent cleverness.
The Mayans have a word, “Kik’” in their language, that they use for any vital fluid, “be it the fluid coursing through a tree or the blood in the veins.” The conception of our epic’s heroes happens mystically in their mother’s hand with a droplet of saliva (kik’). Lady Blood descends to the Underworld to find this tree, hearing of its’ fruits. The tree hangs with a very special fruit—one made of the skull of One Hunahpu, serving a lifelong sentence for not out-smarting the Underlords. It is the saliva of his fruit that Lady Blood receives, thus divinely bringing forth her two bastard sons, who continue on the legacy of One Hunahpu’s masterful trickery.
In Bazzett’s Reader’s Companion, he speaks of the power of kik’ to bleed through the currents of life. “This merging of vital fluid and cosmic sphere, of blood and sun, generates a tremendous metaphoric possibility within the text, particularly when one’s opponent in the ball game is life itself.” The mother of the young boys kept the game a secret from them, since it was through this playing that the Underlords found and killed their fathers. The secret is revealed when the two boys catch a rat, who shares the information with them in exchange for his life. The game that Hunahpu and Xbalanque inherited from their fathers, One and Seven Hunahpu, orbits around a ball made of sap. Of the role of two generations of ball-players, Bazzett says:
“At first glance, this may not seem particularly industrious, yet they are visionaries who hold a divine spark, and in both pursuits they engage the unseen movements of fate and cosmos. In this way the ball inhabited the sun, a cosmic sphere that had to be kept eternally moving, held aloft by the dance of the game. As long as the game persisted, the players inhabited a divine space. Without their movements, time itself would cease.”
How curious that the presence of kik’ in the story is what the narrative depends to accelerate change just as heavily as language. For the Gods, spoken language is the impetus, and for the mortals, it is these vital fluids: blood in their bodies and hearts, saliva for their births, and sap for their pawn—the mastery over their place in the universe.