THE POPOL VUH

Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya




Leaving the Books of Chilam Balam, we will now move on to other Mayan texts regarding the Great Flood. One particular Mesoamerican document containing a flood legend certainly worthy of our attention is the sacred book of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala known as the Popol Vuh. Chapter III is basically devoted to a description of this event which, as in the apparently related Aztec cosmology, is only one in a series of cosmic destruction/renewal cycles.

As wonderful a work as it is, presenting a very picturesque version of the Creation, the Great Flood, and the migrations and battles of the Quiché people, it presents very little direct evidence favoring Atlantis. While colorful from a literary standpoint, the flood story itself can be rather confusing to European minds. The highly symbolic story begans with the creation of a race of wooden beings (one of several attempts to create humans) who lacked a mind capable of acknowledging the Creator, and were thus deemed a failure.

"Immediately the wooden figures [men] were annihilated, destroyed, broken up, and killed . . . A flood was brought about by the Heart of Heaven [Huracán]; a great flood was formed which fell on the heads of the wooden creatures . . . But those that they had made, that they had created, did not think, did not speak with their Creator, their Maker. And for this reason they were killed, they were deluged. A heavy resin fell from the sky. The one called Xecotcovach came and gouged out their eyes; Camalotz came and cut off their heads; Cotzbalam came and devoured their flesh. Tucumbalam came, too, and broke and mangled their bones and their nerves, and ground and crumbled their bones.

"This was to punish them because they had not thought of their mother, nor their father, the Heart of Heaven, called Huracán. And for this reason the face of the earth was darkened and a black rain began to fall, by day and by night . . . The desperate ones [the men of wood] ran as quickly as they could, they wanted to climb to the tops of the houses, and the houses fell down and threw them to the ground; they wanted to climb to the treetops, and the trees cast them far away; they wanted to enter the caverns, and the caverns repelled them.

"So was the ruin of the men who had been created and formed, the men made to be destroyed and annihilated . . ." (Popol Vuh, Part I, ch. 3; Goetz & Morely, 1950)

The enemies of man mentioned above, which come and dismember him almost piece by piece, are difficult to identify (Christenson, 2003). They surely represent certain forces of nature associated with the disaster who aid in the destruction of the wooden creatures—we get our word "hurricane" from the Mayan deity Huracán. Chapter 4 continues with a description of the aftermath of the "great flood" which had left the world in a dim and gloomy state:

"It was cloudy and twilight then on the face of the earth. There was no sun yet . . . The sky and the earth existed, but the faces of the sun and the moon were covered . . . The face of the sun had not yet appeared, nor that of the moon, nor the stars, and it had not dawned . . . all this happened when the flood came because of the wooden people." (Ibid, Part I, ch. 4.)

There had been earlier attempts to translate the Popol Vuh, one in particular by the Mayanist turned Atlantist, the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg. I am including portions of his translation for comparison. My first thought was that the Abbé had deliberately "slanted" his translation toward an Atlantis interpretation; but looking deeper into the problem I see grounds for other explanations. Translated from the French into the English, here is his version:

"Then the waters were agitated by the will of the Heart of Heaven (Hurakán), and a great inundation came upon the heads of these creatures . . . They were engulfed, and a resinous thickness descended from heaven . . . the face of the earth was obscured, and a heavy, darkening rain commenced—rain by day and by night . . .

There was heard a great noise above their heads, as if produced by fire. Then were men seen running, pushing each other, filled with despair; they wished to climb upon their houses, and the houses tumbling down, fell to the ground; they wished to climb upon the trees, and the trees shook them off; they wished to enter into the grottoes (caves), and the grottoes closed themselves before them . . . Water and fire contributed to the universal ruin at the time of the last great cataclysm . . ." (de Bourbourg, 1855-1868)

There may be other reasons, just as valid, for the observed differences. One of these could derive from the fact that in the past three hundred years the Popol Vuh has been translated approximately thirty times into seven different languages. Unfortunately, most of these translations were not based on the original Quiché-Maya text, but on various Spanish versions derived from it.

Raid God, Chac

Prof. Allen Christenson (2003) observes: "Variant spelling of words occur throughout the manuscript and glottalized sounds in particular are haphazardly distinguished at best . . . long and short vowels are treated as separate letters in Quiché and should be distinguished when written. The Ximénez transcription of the Popol Vuh seldom makes such distinctions."

Looking at the second paragraph of de Bourbourg's translation, there seem to be no words or phrases in the Quiché original which could have contributed to the first and last sentences. And where are the wooden, mindless men of the original? One wonders at the many differences in the translations. Perhaps the Abbé was simply desirous of presenting a more "European compatible" text.

A depiction of the Rain God, Chac

Later translators in their footnotes occasionally mention "punctuation alterations" made by the Abbé. I assume such changes were made in good faith, but bias can sometimes cloud otherwise good judgment. The often short, clipped words in the Quiché tongue—combined with the frequent use of obscure deities—can allow for vastly different interpretations of a given phrase by the moving of a single punctuation mark. Sometimes such problems can be difficult to deal with.

So what connection, if any, can we find with Atlantis? Connections are tenuous at best. For instance, there were said to be thirteen tribes of people who, in those early beginnings, lived "in the East," which the American ethnologist H. H. Bancroft (1874) associated with Atlantis. For this story we must go to Part III of the Popol Vuh:

"The beginning is known too, of those of Tamub and those of Hocab who came together there in the East . . . Three groups of families existed, but they did not forget the name of their grandfather and father, those who propagated and multiplied there in the East . . . [naming the tribes] . . . These are only the principle tribes, the branches of the people which we mention; only of the principle ones shall we speak. Many others came from each group of the people, but we shall not write their names. They also multiplied there in the East." (Ibid. Pt. iii, ch. 3)

It is only when we come to Chapter 4 of Part III that Tulán is first mentioned as a part of a compound name, i.e., "Tulán-Zuiva". Bancroft (1874) sees significance in the similarity of consonants found in the names TuLaN and aTLaN (although "Atlan" per se is never mentioned). So what do we find in Chapter 4?

"Let us go and search . . . And having heard of a city, they went there . . . Now the name of the place where Balam-Quiché, Balam Acab, Mahaucutah, and Iqui-Balam and those of Tamub and Ilocab went was Tulán-Zuiva, Vucum-Pec, Vucuh Ziván. This was the name of the city where they went to receive their gods.

"So, then, all arrived at Tulán. It was impossible to count the men who arrived; there were very many and they walked in an orderly way." (Ibid., Pt. III, ch. 4)

It should be obvious from the above passage that Tulán is their destination, their place of arrival. It also appears that Tulán-Zuiva, Vucum-Pec, Vucuh Ziván are all referencing one location—Tulán. (It appears from the above that Tulán itself may have had more than one name.) The translators observe:

"This passage of the Popol Vuh is very interesting as proof of the common origin of the Quiché and the other people of Guatemala, and of the tribes which established themselves in ancient times in various parts of Mexico and Yucatán . . ." (Goetz & Morely, 1950) Aztec tradition gives the name of Chicomoztoc, which in Náhuatl also means "Seven Caves." But, not a clearly defined word about Atlantis anywhere.

We can, therefore, conclude that the Popol Vuh—with its stories of Creation, the Great Flood, and of tribal migrations giving great prominance to "the East"—actually contributes little in the way of "proof" of an Atlantean origin for the numerous Mesoamerican nations. Of course, we must always remain free to speculate on this intriquing question, and to seek new evidence.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bancroft, Hubert Howe, "Native Races of the Pacific States", New York, 1874.
Christenson, Allen J., "Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya," a translation and commentary by Christenson, Mesoweb, 2003.
de Bourbouurg, Brasseur, (translator) Popol Vuh, Le Livre Sacrá et les Mythes de l'Antiquité Américaíne, forming vol. i of Collectíon de Documents dans les Langues Indigánes, Paris 1855-1868.
Goetz, Delia & Morely, Sylvanus G., (translators) "Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya," University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1950.


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