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A Sight of the Bright Life

The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala

translated and with an Introduction by Munro S. Edmonson
Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, 291 pp., $10.50 (paper)

Every approach to the indigenous literature of the Americas, and in particular to those works whose forms and main or entire impulse antedate the European conquest, is troubling, and this is so in close proportion to the degree to which the reconstruction evokes the life and excitement of the original. The fact that the reconstructions are indispensable to us common readers—that our knowledge of these words out of the past of the Americas in which we were born and learned to speak depends (entirely, in most cases) on their representations in languages brought from Europe by the same conquest that overran the American natives—is and should be a part of what troubles us, as it is part of the uneasy elusive richness of our cultural lives, and of the bad conscience and sense of inherited deprivation which these works stir in us.

We come to them as to remnants salvaged from the burned-out libraries of the East, and even as our means of comprehending some of the surviving works appear to improve, they shed light as well on the surrounding void, making clearer how much has been lost. They remind us that the libraries are still burning, in Vietnam and Cambodia, in Latin America, and in our own West, under the auspices of the same unleashed rapacity and self-righteousness that engineered the destruction of our Indies from the beginning.

For unless our concern with these works is nothing but dilettantism, vanity (amateur or professional), the collector’s disguise of idleness, one thing that troubles us in their presence is the growing certainty that what has been lost was rightfully ours, a part of ourselves not only in so far as we are Americans, but in so far as we are a people—or people—at all. As for being Americans, the dead (if only in Blake’s sense) who have acted in our name, the speculators, the exploiters, the Andrew Jacksons, the Nixons, seem never to have had any doubt that the designation meant simply belonging to an immense enterprise for the unlimited bloating of the members’ egos, and they still call this pathetic club their dream. Whereas many of the best of the invaders and their descendants have spent much of their lives trying to determine, for their own sakes and ours, just what, in fact, it might mean to be American. The inquiry, more often than not, has bespoken a painful awareness of something missing, of a handicap inherent in the unhealing rawness of their—and our—situation.

There must be few instances in history of a population telling itself as often and as piously that it was a “people,” and with as vague and ill-imagined a notion of what the term entails, as we have done, and do. Yet we have only to open the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya Indians—even transposed into another language—to recognize that the voice that is speaking to us is that of “a people” in a different sense, in the sense of Nietzsche’s “Where there is still a people, it does not understand the state and hates it as the evil eye, and the sin against customs and rights.”1 Whereas we, if we are a people at all, or are still, or ever were, are now perched incongruously on the base of the new idol itself, the state, as though a new flood were all around us. When it comes to being people in the sense of being our free selves, we are drawn with a peculiar insistence by these works to the recognition that what of America has been lost to us was ours like our own forgotten dreams, and that it had something to impart to us about ourselves, which we may now have to grope for in nameless bewilderment, before we can truly awaken.

It is ironic but not surprising that the very time when we realize such a loss should also produce a new attitude to the value of the works themselves, embodied in new scholarship and perhaps most of all in new translations. I am thinking, among others, of the translators in Jerome Rothenberg’s two recent collections, Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin;2 of Rothenberg’s own translations and theories on the subject; of the magazine Alcheringa, edited by Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock (in which a section from Professor Edmonson’s Popol Vuh first appeared); of Tedlock’s own Zuñi translations and his critical writing on the subject of translating “primitive” works; of such recent productions as the beautiful reprint, in 1969, of the Navajo ceremonial Where the Two Came to Their Father,3 with a commentary by Joseph Campbell, a work which I mention in particular because it invites thematic comparison with sections of the Popol Vuh.

Professor Edmonson’s work, both the broad and agile erudition and the ground-breaking translation, at once takes a salient place in this wave of interest and involvement. But if it were not for the nature of Edmonson’s translation of the Popol Vuh and his insistence on the importance of the translation itself, I would not presume to comment on his work; the scholarship alone, both in the present work and in Lore,4 his “Introduction to the Science of Folklore and Literature,” is daunting to a layman who knows no Quiche and to whom the publication of the original text beside the present translation affords a pleasure that has little to do with literal comprehension.

Before Professor Edmonson’s translation of the Popol Vuh, eleven others existed from the Quiche original (into Spanish, French, English, Russian, German, Italian, and Japanese), and a further nineteen versions based on those translations. Professor Edmonson set about to provide a twelfth translation from the Quiche

…largely owing to the failure of the previous versions to deal accurately with its major stylistic feature. It is my conviction that the Popol Vuh is primarily a work of literature, and that it cannot be properly read apart from the literary form in which it is expressed. That this form is general to Middle America (and even beyond) and that it is common to Quiche discourse, ancient and modern, does not diminish its importance.

The Popol Vuh is in poetry, and cannot be accurately understood as prose. It is entirely composed in parallelistic (i.e., semantic) couplets…. When I had read enough Quiche texts to begin to comprehend the fundamental importance of this feature in them, it seemed to me that a poetic translation of the Popol Vuh might be very helpful in clarifying its ambiguities. The various difficulties of the text leave the translator with an embarras de richesse: often a dozen or more quite disparate meanings may legitimately be proposed for a particular monosyllabic root. Knowledge that the author was writing in couplets may diminish this near-hopeless ambiguity by half or even more.

The present translation, therefore, has the double object of demonstrating the importance of this mechanism for comprehension of Middle American literature and of presenting in improved translation what is probably the most splendid literary monument of aboriginal America.

The Popol Vuh is a story of origins—the origins of the Quiche Maya of the highlands of what is now Guatemala. They are “the people.” The focus, in part of the work, is still sharper, for the latter part of the story is told from the point of view of a single ancestral lineage of the Quiche. At the same time it evokes the whole Quiche view of existence, as that was expressed and passed on in their language. “This is the root of the former word,” the poem (in this translation) begins. “Here is Quiche by name.” And apart from the Quiche and their ancestry, there is no single hero; the poem comes closest to being a heroic epic in the second and third sections, which tell of the ordeals and victory of the divine twins, Hunter and Jaguar Deer, before they became the sun and moon.

The Quiche text that has survived, written in the mid-sixteenth century, was based—though how closely no one can say—on a lost pre-Columbian version, probably a hieroglyphic codex. Sections of the story, with or without the codex, were probably used on ceremonial occasions. The anonymous author of the text as it stands gives the reason for writing it down in the European script:

We shall save it Because there is no longer
A sight of the Book of Counsel, A sight of the bright things come from beside the sea,
The description of our shadows, A sight of the bright life, as it is called.

In the Quiche mythology, as in the mythologies of many other peoples, particularly of the Americas, the present world is seen not as the first but as the latest, the fourth, in a series of creations. In the introductory legend of the Navajo Where the Two Came to Their Father, which again sets out to tell of “the beginning of people,” there is a glimpse, at the start, of a prior world, where the people prayed to “the four mountains” until the mountains lost their strength. “So the people began to wander, and could find no rest.” The Navajo story tells of the flood and the emergence of the survivors through the hollows of a reed, into what would become the present world. The Popol Vuh falls into four divisions, corresponding with the four successive creations. The first contains a vision of genesis, recounted as a memory, now imperfect, of the earlier narrative in the lost sacred codex:

Great was its account And its description
Of when there was finished The birth
Of all of heaven And earth:
The four creations, The four humiliations,
The knowledge Of the four punishments,
The rope of tying together, The line of tying together,
The womb of heaven, The womb of earth.

* * *

Here is the description Of these things:
Truly it was yet quiet, Truly it was yet stilled.
It was quiet. Truly it was calm.
Truly it was solitary. And it was also still empty, the womb of heaven.

The story of the word of the Heart of Heaven, “1 Leg by name” (in fact a trinity composed of 1 Leg Lightning, Dwarf Lightning, and Green Lightning), coming to Majesty and to Quetzal Serpent, and their “thinking” of the first creation—

And the birth of life And humanity
In the obscurity In the nighttime

—is, much of it, of great magnificence. Light comes to be when they say:

What if it were planted? Then something would brighten—

But the creation had as its goal a human form that could glorify it, and could answer when the makers said:

Talk then, And call to us.
Worship us.

Instead, after the animals had shown themselves unable to respond to the divine invitation, and the first mud men had fallen back into shapelessness, their minds full of darkness, the first creation produced as its crowning achievement wooden dolls, which the makers hoped at first might prove to be capable of adoration, and therefore fully human.

It is turning out well, this doll Carved of wood.
It speaks. Something on earth talks.

But language, and the other human attributes of the dolls, did not render them complete.

They did not again recall him who is the Heart of Heaven And so they fell there.

And they were destroyed by means of a familiar catastrophe—the flood again. But before it destroyed them, the possessions of their unconsecrated lives on earth rose up against them and condemned them. The few survivors of the deluge were turned (“it is said”) into the monkeys.

The second creation, too, was concerned with godless pride.

   There was no sun.
But there was one who glorified himself, 7 Parrot by name.

And from him came such light as there was. The story of the second creation is that of the destruction of this monster by the divine twins Hunter and Jaguar Deer. It is here, in the two central sections of the poem, that the motifs of the Popol Vuh are closest to those of the Navajo Where the Two Came to Their Father with its twin heroes, Monster Slayer and Child Born of Water, the progeny of the Sun and of Changing Woman.

In his commentary on the Navajo myth, Joseph Campbell gives an abbreviated list of hero twins in other mythologies, and discusses the Navajo heroes’ relations to their divine parentage. The Quiche pair are not children of the sun; as I have mentioned, they themselves are to become the sun and moon. They are the grandchildren of the primal couple, Former and Shaper. Their father was a hero, 1 Hunter, himself one of a pair who had been lured to Hell by the lords of that place, to play ball, and there defeated and sacrificed. 1 Hunter had been decapitated and his skull hung in a gourd tree, where it was admired by Blood Chief’s maiden daughter, Blood Girl, and spat in the palm of her hand. From this, Blood Girl conceived and gave birth to the hero twins—as Changing Woman, from two different supernatural conceptions, brought forth the Navajo divine heroes.

But the subsequent ordeals of the two pairs differ remarkably. The Navajo heroes set out to see their father, to win from him the weapons that will enable them to rid their world of monsters. In his house they must undergo a series of deadly tests before he will acknowledge them and accord them his favor. In this, as in many other features of their story, they follow a familiar theme. The Quiche twins, on the other hand, descend into Hell to avenge their father. They avoid his errors and manage to survive the ordeals arranged by the lords of Hell, and to tie with the latter in a ball game, even though one of the twins is beheaded in the process and has to have his head carefully restored. Then, knowing that they can emerge from death itself unharmed, they allow themselves to be burned alive, cut into pieces, and their bones ground up and thrown into a river, after which they return whole. The lords of Hell are fascinated by their capacity to return from the dead, and ask to be destroyed and revived, in their turn; and the twins oblige, but only with the destruction. After which they console the heart of their father and walk up out of Hell into the sky.

The Navajo twins belong to the present creation, the Quiche heroes to the former one. In the following creation, according to the Popol Vuh, came “the beginning when man was invented” and the discovery of what was best fitted to sustain him—corn. The fourth section is an account of further efforts to make a human creature, and it is centered not on heroes but on the emergence of the people itself, its wanderings, legendary history, and the genealogy of those who were to tell the story, “the mothers of the word, the fathers of the word.” It is the rest of the Quiche Pentateuch, and its conclusion “finishes everything about Quiche.”

In his Introduction Professor Edmonson says he believes that “the stylistic subtleties of the Popol Vuh have eluded all its translators, including me.” That may be. Indeed, given the nature of poetry and that of translation it is bound to be so. There are awkward spots (“It was just a preliminary effort, / And it was just a demonstration person”) which I cannot believe bear much relation to the language of the original. I am not qualified to judge Professor Edmonson’s views of the importance of parallelism in Quiche discourse; in his English text there are places where the parallelism seems arbitrary to me. But these faults are rare, and minor, and the stroke of good luck for us is that Professor Edmonson’s ear proves, on the whole, to be of a delicacy and authority equal to his learning.

The result is that, of the translations of the Popol Vuh with which I am acquainted in English and Spanish, his is the first that makes it clear that the work is not first or last an anthropological document, but a poem, and one that still has great power. His work is, besides, what may be called a critical translation: in the ample, brilliant, and often beautiful footnotes, he discusses at point after point the meaning of the Quiche text, and reviews the solutions of each former translation for comparison. Relevant passages from other Quiche and related Middle American texts, details of Quiche measurement, music, agriculture, theology are also brought in to elucidate the poem. The result is a bold and (in so far as I can judge) triumphant contribution to our possession, in our language, of one of the great roots of the word of the Americas.

  1. 1

    In Zarathustra, Part I, “On the New I dol.”

  2. 2

    Technicians of the Sacred, Doubleday, 500 pp., $3.95 (paper); Shaking the Pumpkin, Doubleday, 504 pp., $8.95, $3.95 (paper).

  3. 3

    Princeton (Bollingen Series), 85 pp., 18 plates, $17.50.

  4. 4

    Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 480 pp., $9.95.

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