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Literature / Popol Vuh

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"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."

The Popol Vuh (meaning "Book of the People"), recorded by Spanish priest Francisco Ximénez after a lost but presumably real Mayan work, 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. It is one of the major sources of Mayan Mythology.

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 Spanish Conquest of the Maya, in midst of the process of Christianization on the land, which means there is a heated debate about the reliability of its contents. The mainstream opinion is that it is a reasonably faithful recording of native beliefs with only some inevitable Christian influences, although others are more skeptical. Ximénez recorded both the original text in K'iche Mayan and his own translation, but it is still unclear whether the original source was another written codex or an oral recitation, or how old or reliable was this source in the first place.

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, the conquest arrives and the rulers convert to Christianity, with their Quiché names leaving their place to adopted Spanish names and surnames. It's the end of an age - and the beginning of another.

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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Quiché civilization is conquered and most of their ancient worship stops after their conversion to Christianity. On the other hand, the end of the text shows their ruling lineages will keep on under their new names and religion,note  and in a meta way, the codex itself ensures their beliefs will not be lost.
  • 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.
  • 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. The original Mayan author might have been already a Christian at the time of compiling the work.
  • Light Is Not Good: Vucub Caquix the demonic macaw tyrannises the world by claiming to be the sun and moon. The hero twins put a stop to this (and become the real sun and moon later on).
  • 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: A rare heroic example in Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué. Also notable in that pretty much every single character 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.