The Popol Vuh (meaning "Book of the People"), written by an anonymous person, is the most complete piece of Mesoamerican narrative that survives to this day. It narrates the beliefs of the Quiché (K'iche'), one of the most successful of the tribes that descended from the Maya, living in what is today Guatemala.
Important to note about the Popol Vuh (and included in most versions as a preamble) is the story of the book itself. It was written after the Conquest, by an already converted Indian (who kept his ancient beliefs hidden), as a way to preserve his culture. It was later found and translated several times, sadly losing some of its wonder in the process
The first part recounts the creation of the universe. Tepeu and Gucumatz (Quiché version of Quetzalcoatl/Kukulcán, Tepeu is more widely disputed but some equate him to the Aztec Tezcatlipoca) create the trinity god Huracán, who creates the earth and everything on it. In order to have someone to praise them, the first race of men is created out of wood, but the gods soon find out they can't think and destroy them with a flood. Then the narration gets distracted and follows the adventures of twin folk heroes Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué as they cause (on orders from Huracán) the downfall of the proud demon/god/primitive man (again, interpretations vary) Vucub-Caquix, who pretended to be the real sun, followed by an account of the murder of the two sons of Vucub-Caquix, Zipacná and Cabracán, also by the hands of the twins; the first one due to his (kinda justified) murder of a group of 400 young men that became Motz, aka the stars, and the second one for shaking mountains and general douchebaggery.
The second part tells the saga of Hun-Hunahpú, father of the heroic twins of the first part, and his brother Vucub-Hunahpú, as they are tricked and killed by the Thirteen Lords of Xibalbá, the Maya version of the underworld. The story then tells of how Ixquic, daughter of one of the Lords, becomes pregnant via the tree that had grown over Hun-Hunahpú's corpse and gives birth to Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué, who eventually defeat the Lords of Xibalbá in retaliation, after which they become the sun and the moon.
The third part of the story goes back to Tepeu and Gucumatz, who finally manage to create the first four men out of corn, and the first four women later. The story then tells the division of the first tribes and their lineages. At the end of the chapter the author explains the necessity of human sacrifice for the Quiché, in honor of their patron god of fire Tohil (who happens to have a lot of similarities to the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, though some believe this is a coincidence).
The fourth part deals with the struggles of the Quiché with the other tribes, the lineage of their rulers and of the cult of Tohil. At the end, a certain noteworthy event known as the Spanish Conquest happens and the Quiché meet their doom. Cue one of the most depressing endings in the history of humanity:
"And this was the life of the Quiché, because no longer can be seen [the book of the Popol Vuh]
which the kings had in older times, for it has disappeared.
In this manner, then, all the people of the Quiché, which is now called Santa Cruz, came to an end."
Tropes found in this work include:
- Ambiguously Human: it is never specified what Vucub-Caquix and his sons really are, same with Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué and most characters.
- Arc Number: the Quiché really liked the number 2. They loved it almost as much as they loved the number 4.
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué, as well as the 400 young men.
- Badass: Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué. Going to the underworld with nothing but a slingshot.
- Blue and Orange Morality: not as prevalent as with the Aztecs, but the Quiché still made their share of human sacrifices.
- Dark Is Not Evil: interestingly, the Lords of Xibalbá are associated with darkness and play an antagonistic role, but they aren't as explicitly evil as Vucub-Caquix. This is because they represent death and illness, hence they are hateful but never killed, as opposed to the punishment of Vucub-Caquix and sons.
- Disproportionate Retribution: the 400 young men decide to kill Zipacná after he helps them moving a log. It is widely believed that they really did it because he helped with a condescending attitude but that's still pretty extreme.
- Downer Ending: the Quiché civilization is conquered and most of their beliefs are forgotten after they are converted.
- Evil Is Petty: Vucub-Caquix and sons.
- Hijacked by Jesus: not as prevalent as one may think for an Indian work post-conquest, but some similarities are jarring. Women are created while men sleep, the mother of the hero is a virgin, etc.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: counting all the secondary gods, the gods that helped in the different creations of humans and the lineages you get quite the list.
- Lost in Translation: lions and tigers are mentioned, which in fact did not exist in the area. Somewhere along the translations the real animals mentioned were lost. They may stand in for jaguars and ocelots, which actually lived in the area.
- Rule of Three: if you count their first attempt trying to make animals into talking, thinking and praising them, Tepeu and Gucumatz do not succeed into making real humans until their third time.
- Single-Minded Twins: Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué could easily be one single person, as well as many of the many duos that appear in story.
- Those Two Guys: rare heroic example in Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué. Also notable in that pretty much every single charater is part of a duo, including the fathers, the mentors, and the gods. Even most of the Lords of Xibalbá are described in duos.
- You Killed My Father: Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué to the Thirteen Lords of Xibalbá.