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The Popol Vuh


On March 2–3, 2012, the University of California, Merced, sponsored a symposium entitled “Popol Vuh! A Symposium Celebrating the Ancient Maya Creation Myth in Literature, Iconography, Epigraphy, Ethnohistory and Archaeology.” The conference featured Dr. Michael Coe as the keynote speaker, along with several other prominent Maya scholars, including Dr. Allen Christenson, Professor of Precolumbian Studies at Brigham Young University.


Obviously, the conference from an overall perspective dealt with the civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica—especially the Maya, who were viewed as the “mother civilization” of the New World for a little more than a century following the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830. Numerous references were also made to the Olmecs, who since the 1940s have had the distinction of being the mother civilization of the New World.


If the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica, as we unequivocally maintain they did, then we suggest that believers in the Book of Mormon should be knowledgeable about Olmec and Maya archaeological, geographical, historical, and cultural discoveries that might impact our knowledge about the Book of Mormon.


However, our unofficial estimate suggests that only around 10 percent of the adult members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have any substantial knowledge about the Olmecs and the Maya—especially is that estimate correct in relation to the Olmecs. Further, we estimate that even less than 10 percent of the adult Church members are knowledgeable about the Popul Vuh. “What tragedies!” we say to ourselves.


We maintain that one of the goals of Book of Mormon Mesoamericanists should be to help educate Church members about Mesoamerican cultures that were extant during the events recorded in the Book of Mormon. That thinking encompasses information about the Mesoamerican book we know today as the Popol Vuh.


Simplistically, what is the Popul Vuh? We quote here from the symposium’s announcement:


The Popul Vuh of the ancient Maya is one of the oldest and most complete Precolumbian literary texts to survive the Spanish Conquest. The text has been translated over 82 times, into European and Maya languages as well as Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Its elegant poetry has been compared to the Iliad and Odyssey of Greece or the Ramayana of India. It is commonly referred to as the Maya “Bible” and the analogy is well-earned, as it is in fact “biblical” in its temporal depth and overarching cosmological foundations. But, here the comparison ends as it is demonstratively an ancient text, parts of which can be traced to the Preclassic period. The text has become a valuable resource in understanding ancient Maya cosmology, myth and religion, and provides a window into the soul of ancient Maya people by giving us a glimpse into their values, morals, and beliefs.


We were privileged to attend the conference. Following are a few of our observations that are related to what we heard at the conference:


·       The Popul Vuh is clearly an ancient Mesoamerican text whose origins probably coincide with the Middle Preclassic or Late Preclassic time periods—or a date-or-origin time that coincides at some point with the Nephites of the Book of Mormon. (See also “Popol Vuh Discovery,” http://www.miradorbasin.com/; use links to read about the work of Dr. Richard Hansen in the lowland Maya territory of Mesoamerica.)


·       The original Popul Vuh was a hieroglyphic book that may have originated in lowland Maya territory but that is now associated with highland Maya. “Of the many hieroglyphic books that once existed in the highlands, including the Precolumbian version of the Popul Vuh, not a single one is known to have survived.” (Allen J. Christenson, Popul Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007], 34)


·       The Spanish authorities of the Conquest systematically destroyed the hieroglyphic books of the Maya. Apparently, Quiche Maya scribes in some instances attempted “to preserve what they could of their literature by transcribing their contents into a form which would make them safer from the fiery purges of Christian authorities.” (Christenson, 36) The Popol Vuh was apparently one of such translations from the hieroglyphic version to the Quiche Maya version, probably between the years AD 1554–58.


·       Sometime between AD 1701–04, Francisco Ximenez, the parish priest of Chichicastenango, learned about the Quiche translation, obtained the manuscript, and translated it into Spanish. “It is unknown what happened to the sixteenth century manuscript, although presumably Ximenez returned it to its Quiche owners. It is possible that the original may still survive in the possession of village elders or in the town archives of Chichicastenango.” (Christenson, 40)


·       Ximenez’s translation was forgotten about until the Guatemalan Civil War of 1829. In 1854, Carl Scherzer, an Austrian, saw the manuscript, had a copy made, took it with him to Europe, and then published Ximenez’s Spanish version in 1856, the first time the Popol Vuh appeared in print.


·       Since then, over fourscore translations have been made, most of them from Ximenez’s Spanish version. However, as an eventual outcome of his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ among the Quiche Maya of highland Guatemala, Allen Christenson translated the Popol Vuh from the Quiche version into English.


·       At the Popul Vuh conference in Merced, the respect and admiration for Allen Christenson among the conference’s participants and attendees was obvious. He probably was the only person in attendance who was fluent in Quiche Maya, and his translation of the Popol Vuh from the Quiche version rather than from the Spanish version unquestionably by itself established him as the foremost Popol Vuh scholar at the conference.


·       In the “Translator’s Preface” to his translation, Dr. Christenson says, “The Popul Vuh is the most important example of Precolumbian Maya literature to have survived the Spanish conquest.” We understand the veracity and rationale for that statement as it relates to the Spanish conquest. However, from the perspective of Mesoamerica as the location of all New World events of the Book of Mormon, we prefer the following statement: “The Book of Mormon is the most important and most accurately translated document that can be associated with Precolumbian Maya literature.”


·       Some Maya scholars at the Merced conference, especially Dr. Michael Coe, disassociated the Popol Vuh from any connection with the Bible and hence with Christianity. We disagree with that attitude and stance and maintain that a careful reading of the Popol Vuh will confirm many correlations between the Bible and the Popol Vuh. For example, in “The Primordial World” section, we read the following:


This is the account of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.


These, then, are the first words, the first speech. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest. All alone the sky exists. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of all the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs. All is languid, at rest in the sky. There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night. (Christenson, 68–69)


As another example, in “The Maiden Lady Blood and the Tree of One Hunahpu” section, we read the following:


When she heard the account of the fruit of the tree as told by her father, she was amazed by the tale:


“Can I not come to know it by seeing the tree that has been spoken of? I hear that its fruit is truly delicious,” she said.


Thus she went alone beneath the tree that was planted at Crushing Ballcourt:


“Ah! What is the fruit of this tree? Is not the fruit borne by this tree delicious? I would not die. I would not be lost. Would it be heard if I were to pick one?” asked the maiden.


Then spoke the skull there in the midst of the tree:


“What is it that you desire of this? It is merely a skull, a round thing placed in the branches of trees,” said the head of Hunahpu when it spoke to the maiden. “You do not desire it,” she was told.


“But I do desire it,” said the maiden.


“Very well then, stretch out hither your right hand so that I may see it,” said the skull.


“Very well,” said the maiden.


And so she stretched upward her right hand before the face of the skull.


We are not professing anything more here than our belief that the original writers of the Popol Vuh must have been knowledgeable, at least to some extent, about the creation story as we read it in the Bible’s Old Testament. After all, the Nephites had that information from the Brass Plates. They very likely disseminated the information at various times to the Lamanite “brethren.”


·       On the other hand, some Maya scholars at the conference hinted that the Popol Vuh as we have it today very likely would have had additional content that could be correlated with the Bible had not the original authors of the Quiche translation not been worried about the dire consequences associated with their involvement with such content if the Spanish authorities were to discover the Quiche translation. That is, the Popol Vuh scholars see a “content gap” in the Popol Vuh as we have it today; that gap perhaps could have been filled with additional content that could be correlated with the Bible.


·       Some Maya scholars seem to be convinced that evidences of the Popol Vuh are found pervasively throughout much of the “literature, iconography, epigraphy, ethnohistory, and archaeology” of the Maya beginning at some point in the Preclassic Period and extending throughout the Classic Period.


·       Other than the Book of Mormon itself, the Popol Vuh is probably the most valid evidence available that the Maya, who, from our perspective, lived almost exclusively in the territory of the Book of Mormon’s land southward, possessed a high-level writing system—a critical requirement in anyone’s attempts to identify the New World location of the lands of the Book of Mormon. In that respect, Bartolome de las Casas, one of the Spanish authorities in Guatemala, wrote that the hieroglyphic books of the Maya contained the history of the people’s origins and religious beliefs and were written with “figures and characters by which they could signify everything they desired; and that these great books are of such astuteness and subtle technique that we could say our writing does not offer much of an advantage.” Or, as Allen Christenson says, “Because of their phonetic nature, Maya glyphs may be placed together to form any word which can be thought or spoken.” (Christenson, 33) Further, the only place in the New World where a high-level written language was utilized during the Nephite period of the Book of Mormon was in the Maya country where the Popol Vuh was written—territory known today as Mesoamerica and referred to by the Nephites of the Book of Mormon as the land southward.


·       As Allen Christenson notes, “The authors of the Popol Vuh made clear that they based their writings on an imported text from the Maya lowlands.” That fact alone suggests that we should not excise the Maya lowlands from any proposed geography of the Book of Mormon. We know from the Book of Mormon that the “Nephite Maya” taught the “Lamanite Maya” how to write sometime in the second century BC (see Mosiah 24:6)—a time that apparently correlates very closely with the origin of the Popol Vuh.


Obviously, Maya scholars have much more to learn about and from the Popol Vuh. In a similar vein, Book of Mormon scholars have an even greater task of correlating the findings associated with the Popol Vuh with the message and origins of the Book of Mormon.


Blake J. Allen
Joseph L. Allen
Ted Dee Stoddard

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