Introduction to The Mayan Popol Vuh

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post or two (e.g., here and here) I’ve made a friend here in Spain who lives in a cave and makes his living playing guitar on the street. Simon is 60 years old and manages to live on the 10 Euros or so that his music affords each day.

At my invitation, I spend at least an hour or so with him weekly in conversation — usually on Wednesdays. The point is to better my grasp of Spanish. In the process, I’m learning about the underclass in the Granada area, and about simple living among those who have chosen to drop out of the rat race. I’m learning so much.

In any case, my friend is very thoughtful. He and I are studying together the Mayan “Bible,” the Popol Vuh. It contains that culture’s myths about the origin of the universe. For ecologists such as Joanna Macy, the book points us in the direction of the “deep ecology” that all of us must travel to save the planet. Simon is definitely moving that way.

For those who might be interested, my next number of posts will share my thoughts on the readings my friend and I are discussing. For instance, what follows is my summary of the book’s 40 page introduction (complete with page references to the volume pictured above). See what you think.

The Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh is the Bible of the Mayan people (31). Unlike some other indigenous peoples, the Mayans were particularly sensitive ecologically speaking (11).

Accordingly, and unlike the West’s mechanical view, the Popol Vuh represents a work of what Joanna Macy calls “deep ecology.” It imagines an organic, living universe inhabited by conscious animals who communicate with human beings in ongoing dialog (9-11, 17).

Moreover, according to the Mayan Bible, everything in the universe is part of a whole – of a “holonarchy” (10). It contains no distinction between human beings and nature. Rather, everything exists within a network of relationships (11). Each human embodies a connection with particular elements of created reality, e.g., with mud, wood, or corn. (17). Besides this, every human has a twin spirit (or nahual) within the animal kingdom. Examples of nahuals (totems?) include the swordfish, jaguar, quetzal, serpent, owl, etc.  (17, 21).

At its beginning, the Popol Vuh recounts the origins of the universe as created by Great Spirits called “Creators” and “Shapers.” They represent different aspects of Nature – viz., Gaholom [the infinite Divine Empty Space within which creation takes place] Tzacol [the Divine Will incarnate in nature), Bitol (the Divine Energy found within every creature], and Alom [the Divine Mystery — the incomprehensible, and ineffable within created reality] (39-40).

Creation results from an interplay between those Creators and Shapers. Gaia (a complex entity comprising soil, oceans, atmosphere, and all living beings) is the result (21). Creation is divided into four parts, north, south, east, and west, represented by the colors white, yellow, red, and blue (14).

According to the Mayans, human beings are complex creatures. They have somehow evolved from simians (21). The masculine embodiment, Hunahpu and Ixbalanque are at the same time heroes and abusers of their powers. They often are depicted as mistreating animals. Sometimes they even practice human sacrifice – though it’s not clear to what extent such inclusions in the Popol Vuh were late additions influenced by colonialism, feudalism, and their accompanying bellicosity (28).

Meanwhile, their mother, Xquic, is kind to the animals and always enjoys success in her relationship with them (24). However, it is the Great Abuela, Xmucane, (not a masculine God) who turns out to be the Heart of the Earth (25). She embodies the ethic of care for the other who always has value and manifests Spirit – even the humble ant (26). 

The moral of the Popol Vuh is “Treat all creatures – all of creation – with loving care or one day disaster will strike” (20). The entire non-human world will rise to mutilate and destroy its abusers (21).