The Popol Vuh tells the creation myth of the Mayan people who lived in the present
day Yucatan Peninsula. The myth was originally written in hieroglyphics, but
was translated into the alphabet in the 16th century. The story follows nicely
the geography and agricultural aspects of the Yucatan region. Throughout the
myth creation is written in terms of farming, which is reflective of the importance
Mayans place on raising crops, particularly the growing of maize.
Like many other creation myths from around the globe, the Popol Vuh reads that
in the beginning there was the void – the nothingness. The world consisted
of the sky and the sea. The gods resided in either the sky or the sea and realized
the great potential for the emptiness. One god from each region, Plumed Serpent
from the sky and Hurricane from the sea, came together to create the world.
The two “great thinkers” filled the emptiness through dialogue.
Whatever they said was created. This places an interesting twist on the importance
of language. To the Mayans, objects arise from what they’re called. Normally
when one thinks of this relationship it is the object that first exists and
then it is named; however, in the Popol Vuh this relationship is flipped.
The ancient text describes the creation of the landscape and life of the Earth
in agricultural terms. The two gods theorize on how the Earth will be “sewn”
and who will be its “provider.” This reflects the importance of
agriculture in Mayan culture. From the very beginning of this ancient text this
aspect of Mayan life is stressed.
First the mountains and plant life were created; however, the lack of sound
on the planet bothered the gods, so they created animals to live in the forests.
After the animals were constructed, the gods ordered them to pronounce themselves.
Naturally, the animals could only bark or grunt or howl. Because the animals
could not speak, they could not properly worship the gods, which proved unsatisfactory
to the deities. The two gods deemed that the animals were to never leave the
forests and were to be subservient to the greater humans who would soon be created
(“Just accept your service, just let your flesh be eaten”).
Next Plumed Serpent and Hurricane began experimenting with humans. The first
invention was mud people, but they quickly proved unsatisfactory as they kept
falling apart. Their heads wouldn’t turn and their faces were lopsided.
Because they mud was their basis of existence they were quickly dissolved when
exposed to water. The gods quickly did away with these mud people and started
The second experiment created wooden people. This batch of mankind proved somewhat
more successful as they could talk. Their bodies were sturdy; however, their
skin was dry and crusty, which made it difficult for them to move in a coordinated
manner. Worst of all, they had no memory and no emotions. Because of this they
were unable to properly respect their creators.
Furiously Hurricane sent a flood to do away with the failed wooden people. This
flood is similar to that present in The Old Testament; however, the Mayan flood
is the result of the gods failure to create a sufficient human race, whereas,
in The Old Testament God floods the Earth because He is unsatisfied with the
evil that has developed in the human race.
Those who survived the flood suffered vehemently as Hurricane sent monsters
to the Earth to destroy them. The first monster, Bloodletter, ripped off their
heads. Gouger of Faces plucked out their eyeballs and Crunching Jaguar and Tearing
Jaguar ripped off the people’s limbs and then ate them. Those who survived
the monsters’ onslaught then suffered as molten pitch rained down on them,
pulverizing their bodies to mere dust. The Earth then blackened and a continuous
rainstorm came. Wild animals broke into the remaining people’s homes where
their griddles and pots had already come alive. Terrified, the remaining wood
people attempted to run away, but everywhere they went they were halted. When
they went on their roofs, their houses collapsed. When they climbed trees, they
were shaken off the trees. When they ran to caves, the entrances shut in their
faces. The Popol Vuh claims that monkeys are all that remain of the wooden people
as monkeys somewhat resemble humans, but are “mere manikins.”
The gods greatly desired to create a successful race of human beings, who could
worship them properly. Once this respectable line of beings was created then
the sun, moon, and stars would become visible. To ensure that this third and
final experiment was successful, the gods sent four animals (a fox, a parrot,
a coyote, and a crow) to find a location for the creation. Once these animals
found a suitable location with a bounty of food, they brought back maize to
an old woman to grind up into a grainy paste. Hurricane and Plumed Serpent then
molded the first human beings out of this paste. In Mayan diet, maize served
as a staple food. The fact that they are created from this crop further emphasizes
the importance placed on agriculture in their society.
Four humans were initially created. They were known as “mother-fathers”
as they represented both the female and male components of the race. These “mother-fathers”
were an instant success as they could express themselves and comprehend the
world around them. They explored their world and the skies thoroughly as they
possessed great vision that allowed them to see through objects (X-Ray vision
if you will). At first the gods were pleased with their creation and its thirst
for knowledge, but soon the humans’ knowledge rivaled that of the gods.
If this were to continue then the humans would not worship and respect the gods
as they should, so Hurricane and Plumed Serpent clouded the humans’ vision.
The people began to multiply and fill the Earth; however, the sun still had
not risen, so the people wandered the Earth ceaselessly in darkness. Tired of
waiting, the people began migration to the east to search for the sun, but soon
began to suffer from starvation. The “mother-fathers” then climbed
a mountain and prayed to the gods. The gods were moved by the peoples’
prayers and sufferings. The sun began to rise and the people fell to their knees
in thanks. In the beginning, the sun’s rays were intolerable as they were
so hot; however, over time the people were able to enjoy the sun’s warmth
and light. They were allowed to farm the land as they wished, growing maize
and other necessary crops.
The Popol Vuh proves an interesting text as it contains many of the same elements
of other creation myths (i.e. in the beginning there was nothing, a great flood)
but, it places an original spin on each of these elements. The text also effectively
portrays important aspects of Mayan culture such as the importance of maize
in Mayan diet. The Popol Vuh is a great reflection of Mayan culture and its