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The ‘Popol Vuh’ of the Maya Tradition

The Origin of the Kosmos And
Man In the Central American Wisdom
 
 
John Garrigues
 
 
 
An image of the feathered serpent at Teotihuacán (Wikipedia)
 
 
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Editorial Note:
 
The following text was first published
by “Theosophy” magazine,  Los Angeles,
January 1928 edition, pp. 113-120.  It had
no indication as to the name of the author. An
analysis of its contents and style indicates it was
written by Mr. John Garrigues, who added the notes.
 
(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)
 
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The Popol Vuh was composed by a native of Guatemala in the 17th century from traditions handed down by the priests of the Feathered-Serpent, and translated from the Quiche (a dialect of Maya) into Spanish by Francisco Ximenez.
 
This work attracted the attention of the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, who in turn translated it into French, and it is his rendition that writers of English have used as the basis of their studies.[1] Popol is the word for the assembly of the nobles and hence has sometimes been called The Book of the Holy Assembly, identical in title with one of the books of the Kabbalah. In the introduction to the original manuscript, however, the unknown author states that since the “Word of God” has been promulgated, hereafter during the cycle of Christianity, the Book of the Azure-green Veil is no longer to be seen, in which it could be clearly perceived that it had come from the further shore of the sea; which Book has been called “The Record of Human Existence in the Overshadowing World, and How Man Saw Light and Life”.  It is divided into four parts, treating respectively of Creation, the Mysteries, Civilization, and the Priesthood. It introduces us at once to four creative gods, “sung and celebrated” under nine names, collectively called the Feathered-Serpent, making ten in all; and these are divided into two hosts, the solar and lunar, called twice great father of the sun and twice great mother of the moon.
 
Chapter one begins:
 
“This is the First Book written of old, but the perception of it is hidden from him who looks with his eyes and who thinks with his brain. Marvellous is both its appearance, and its recital of the times in which was completed the formation of all that is in the heavens and on the earth, the making symmetrical and the quadrangulation of its signs, the measure of its angels, their alignment, and the establishment of parallels on the heavens and on the earth, at the four cardinal points.” It then proceeds to narrate how everything was in latency, and void was the immensity of space. All was immobility and silence, in the darkness, in the night; only the Creator, the Former, the Dominator, the Feathered-Serpent, they-who-engender, they-who-give-being, hovered over the water as a dawning light. They are enveloped in green and azure: that is why their name is Gucumatz (Feathered-Serpent). Of the greatest sages is their being. Then came his Word with the Dominator and the Feathered-Serpent; and they consulted together and meditated, and while they consulted, it became day. And at the moment of the dawn, MAN manifested himself,[2]while they, in the darkness and in the night, were holding counsel upon the production and growth of trees and creeping vines, of sentient beings and humanity, by him who is the Heart of the Heavens, whose name is Hurakan.[3] Lightning is the first sign of Hurakan; the second, the path-of-the-lightning; the third is the thunderbolt. And these three are the Heart of the Heavens.
 
Thus, of a truth, the Creation took place, and the Earth was spoken into being. “Earth!” cried they, and instantly it took form. Like a mist or cloud was its beginning. Then the mountains rose up out of the water. Only by a magical power could that be performed which had been meditated upon as to the shadowing forth of the mountains and valleys, and at the same time the cypress and the pine appeared. Then was the Gucumatz filled with joy, crying out: “Blessed be thy coming, O Hurakan! Our work, our labor, has accomplished its end.” The earth then was covered with various forms of animal life. And the Creator and Former said to the animals: “Speak now our name!” But the animals could not speak as a man. Then said their Makers: “Our glory is not yet perfect, since ye cannot invoke us. Dens and food shall ye have, but as to your flesh, it shall be eaten. This is your destiny.”
 
Again there is counsel in heaven. “Let us try again; let us make them who are to be our vehicles and nourishers.” So the Creators determined to make man. Of red earth they moulded his flesh; but when they had made him, they saw it was not good. He was without coherence, strengthless, inept, watery; he had been endowed with speech, but he had no intelligence; and straightway he was consumed in the water without being able to stand upright.[4] Again the gods took counsel. It was decided to make man of the wood of the tzite cork-tree, and woman of the marrow of the zibac (willow);[5] but the result was in no wise satisfactory - they were merely wooden mannikin. And these are the people who inhabit the surface of the earth. They existed and multiplied, but had neither heart nor intelligence, nor memory of their Creators. They led a useless life and lived like the animals. They were but an attempt at men. Because they had not directed their thoughts to the Heart of the Heavens, the face of the earth grew dark, and a dismal rain began to fall. Then came the nature sprites, big and little, and the animals that had formerly served them, to torment them; even their utensils took shape and voice to add to their misery. Then the men ran hither and thither in despair. They sought refuge upon the house-tops, but the houses crumbled beneath them; they tried to climb the trees, but the trees shook them down; they attempted to enter the caverns, but the caverns closed before them.[6] Thus was accomplished the destruction of these creatures, save a few of their descendants who now exist in the  woods as little apes.[7]
 
Now there existed upon the earth a race of Titans, the first of whom was Vukub-cakix (Seven-macaws) by name.[8] He was surpassingly vain and boasted that he was the sun and the moon, although as yet were not revealed the sun, the moon nor the stars. He was finally overcome by extracting his emerald teeth and substituting therefor grains of maize, during which operation his eyeball was injured.[9] His two sons, who created mountains and caused earthquakes, were also disposed of, thus bringing to an end this insolent brood.
 
The second part of the Popol Vuh deals with the trials of initiation. The Father and Mother of Life had two children, each of whom were named Ahpu (air-gun):[10] Hunhun-Ahpu (Two-fold master of air-gun) and Vukub-hunahpu (Seven-fold master of air-gun), who was a celibate. Now these two practised ball-playing [11] every day, and on a time approaching the vicinity of Xibalba (the Underworld)[12], so disturbed the rulers of that abode that they inquired who it was that was making such a commotion over their heads. Thereupon they all took counsel together and challenged the young devotees to a game of ball in their realm, with the intention of vanquishing them. The youths having crossed a stream of boiling water, a river of blood and a third stream in safety, came to a place where four roads met. Here they took the wrong road and soon found themselves in the hall of Xibalba. Here they saw two seated figures which they saluted, only to find they were dummy kings. They were next invited to sit on the seat of honor, which turned out to be an incandescent stone that burned them. They were then conducted to the House of Shadows. Now the trials of Xibalba were of divers kinds. Besides the House of Shadows, was the House of Cold, the House of Tigers, the House of Bats, and the House of Spears. These the youths did not enter, and, having failed in their earlier tests, they were promptly sacrificed, the head of Hunhun-Ahpu being suspended in the midst of a calabash tree, which immediately covered itself with fruit. The Xibalbians forbade any one to come near the tree, but a young princess, Xquiq, hearing the tale of the tree, desired to taste its fruit and, approaching it, was impregnated by the dead head’s saliva.[13] The twin heroes born to her were Hunahpu and Xbalanque, whose magical powers were evidenced from childhood. In due course of time they were also challenged to meet the trials of Xibalba. Before setting out, each one planted a cane in the interior of their grandmother’s house: if it dried out, it was to be the sign of their death, but if it blossomed, they were alive. With divine assistance the brothers passed all the tests successfully, even going so far as to voluntarily immolate themselves on a funeral pyre. After three days, however, their ashes assumed the shape of men-fishes which later became two beautiful youths, in which their former traits manifested themselves again. As magicians they entertained the lords of Xibalba with phenomena which the latter insisted be tried on them and by which they met their death - the brothers taking care not to resurrect them and thereafter reigning in their stead.
 
The third part of the Popol Vuh continues the story of creation: Once more the gods commune together and the Creator and Former made four perfect men[14] - wholly of yellow and white maize was their flesh composed.[15] The name of the first was Balam-Quitze; of the second, Balam-Agab; of the third, Mahucutah; of the fourth, Iqi-Balam.[16] They had neither father nor mother, neither were they made by the ordinary agents in the work of creation, but their coming into existence was a miracle extraordinary, wrought by the special intervention of the Creator. Verily, at last, did the gods look on beings who were worthy of their origin. Grand of countenance and broad of limb, the four sires of our race stood up and looked. And their great clear eyes swept rapidly over all, for they saw all things, both great and small, in heaven and on earth.[17] But this was not pleasing to the gods - heaven had overshot the mark. “What shall we do with man now?” said they. “These are as gods; they would make themselves equal with us; lo, they know all things.[18] Let us now contract their sight.” Thereupon the Heart of the Heavens breathed a cloud over the pupil of the eyes of the men, and a veil came over it as when one breathes on the face of a mirror; thus was the globe of the eye darkened; neither was that which was far off clear to it any more, but only that which was near.[19]
 
Then the four men slept and four women were made,[20] and these became the ancestors of the various branches of the Quiche race. At first the tribes lived happily under the bright and morning star, precursor of the yet unseen sun. They had as yet no worship, save the breathing of the instinct of their souls, as yet no altars to the gods; only they gazed up into heaven, not knowing what they had come so far to do![21] They were filled with love and obedience,[22] and lifting their eyes toward heaven, they thus invoked the Deity:
 
“Give us to walk always in an open road, in a path without snares; to lead happy, quiet, and peaceable lives, free of all reproach.”
 
So they lived in joy, the black men and the white together, and they had but one language. There they lived awaiting the rising of the sun; but no sun came, and the four men and their descendants grew uneasy. “We have no person to watch over us,” they said, “nothing to guard our symbols.” So the four men and their people set out for Tulan-Zuiva, otherwise called the Seven Caves,[23] and there they received gods, each man as head of a family, a god.[24] Balam-Quitze received the god Tohil; Balam-Agab, the god Avilix; and Mahucutah, the god Hacavitz - all very powerful gods, but Tohil, the creator of fire, was the god of the whole Quiche nation. The tribes of Tamub and Ilocab likewise received gods at the same time. Here also the language of all the families was confused, so that no one of the first four men could any longer understand the speech of another.[25] Therefore they decided to leave Tulan; some went eastwards and some came this way. And their hearts grieved, for long was the way and many of them were left on the road. Nevertheless they passed to this side as if there had been no sea; for they passed on scattered stones, and they called the place “Arranged stones and torn sands,” a name which was given them in their passage in the inside of the sea.[26]
 
Afterwards, on account of the rain and hail, there was no more of the fire that made itself for the four men. Then Tohil created fire for them by stamping with his sandal. Also had the fire of the tribes gone out and they were perishing of the cold, but when they came to the patriarchs and asked for fire, they were not well received. Then appeared before them a messenger from Xibalba, who spoke to them in this wise: “Give no more fire to the tribes until they have given to Tohil. Wherefore ask Tohil what he shall require for the fire.” And straightway he disappeared without, however, ceasing to exist. Then word went forth from Tohil that the tribes should learn to renew the fire by sacrifice.[27] Nevertheless, one band stole the fire in the smoke, and straightway their majesty and wisdom, hitherto in them in obscurity, came to them at Tulan.[28]
 
Now about this time the three gods spoke to the four men: “Lo, dawn already approaches, now we must rise up; let us not stay here; carry us into some secret place.” Thereupon the gods were hidden;[29] Tohil and Avilix in deep ravines of the forest, but Hacavitz was established on a great pyramid, and Hacavitz is the name of the mountain to this day. At last the sun commenced to advance and there was great rejoicing. The dawn enlightened all the nations at the same time. Yet was not the sun then in the beginning the same as now; his heat wanted force, and he was but as a reflection in a mirror - verily, not at all the same sun as that of today. Nevertheless he dried up and warmed the surface of the earth, and answered many good ends. Another wonder when the sun arose! The three tribal gods, Tohil, Avilix and Hacavitz, were turned into stone, as were also the gods connected with the lion, the tiger, the viper, and other fierce and dangerous animals. Perhaps we should not be alive at this moment - because of the voracity of these fierce animals - had not the sun caused this petrifaction.[30] And the people multiplied on Mount Hacavitz, and here they built their city.  It is here also that they began to sing their song, called Kamucu (we see). And this is what they said in singing: “Alas! we ruined ourselves in Tulan, there lost many of our kith and kin, they still remain there, left behind! We indeed have seen the sun, but they - now that his golden light begins to appear, where are they?”
 
The early portion of the fourth part of the Popol Vuh tells how the four patriarchs withdrew from association with their fellows, but were occasionally seen, together with the gods, in the mountains and forests; human sacrifice began to be secretly practised and strife with the other tribes began. First the tribes tried to entrap the three gods, failing in which they organized an armed effort, which was repulsed by the letting loose of numberless bees and arrows, so that they were finally reduced to submission. Now it came to pass that the life of the four men was drawing to a close. No bodily sickness nor suffering came upon them, but they were informed that their death was near. Then they called their wives and their sons around them to receive their last commands and in the anguish of their hearts they sang the sad song, Kamucu, the same they had sung when first the sun rose. Then instantly the four old men were not, but in their place was a great bundle; and it was never unfolded, neither could any man find seam therein upon rolling it over and over. Therefore was it called “The Majesty Enveloped;”[31] and it became a memorial of these fathers, and was held very dear and precious in the sight of the Quiches and incense was burned before it. Thus disappeared on Mount Hacavitz the first men, who came from the East, from the other side of the sea. Long time had they been here when they died; and they were very old, and surnamed The Venerated and The Sacrificers.
 
After the death of the old men, their sons, in conformity to the recommendation of their fathers, passed over the sea. And when they arrived in the East before the lord Nacxit,[32] the name of the great lord, whose power was boundless, he conceded them the sign of royalty and all that it represents. The remainder of the book is concerned with the history of the various tribes and an account of the great Adept-King Gucumatz, who ascended every seven days into heaven, every seven days into Xibalba and every seven days put on the nature of the serpent and verily became serpent. The narrative ends with an account of the building of the great White Temple in which was preserved a square black divining stone,[33] and the organization of the priesthood.
 
NOTES:
 
[1] The best generally available condensed translation in English is found in Bancroft’s Native Races, Vol. III, p. 44.
 
[2] From the beginning MAN works behind the scenes, laying the plans for those gradually evolving vehicles of the soul into which he may fully incarnate when they are perfect.
 
[3] Huraken (or Hurler), whence our word hurricane, is Jupiter. The Word calls into activity his three-fold electric fire.
 
[4] See Secret Doctrine, I, p. 345.
 
[5] In the Norse mythology the first human pair is made from two kinds of wood, the ash and the alder, one strong, the other pliant. Zibac (sibac) means “egg” in the mystery language of the initiation caves, hence the reference is to the egg-born, produced by the power (Kriyasakti) of the holy sages of the early Third Race.
 
[6] Evidently the description of an earthquake.
 
[7] The apes are here shown to be descendants of “the Mindless.”
 
[8] The macaw is the small parrot-eagle found sculptured on many monoliths and temples in Central and South America. It was the symbol of the sun and is still our national emblem. Note the number 7 in this and following names.
 
[9] The substitution of the maize suggests the institution of agriculture in place of lawless Titanic rule or brute force. Connote the Greek Titan, Polyphemus, whose single eye was put out by Odysseus.
 
[10] The air-gun of sarbacan was a hollow cane or reed in which was placed the weapon, a stone, knife or arrow, expelled by the force of the breath.
 
[11] Ball-playing, a kind of tennis, was a religious exercise taught by the priests and practised only by the nobles in halls consecrated by prayer. In the Popol Vuh the game is evidently a symbol or veil for psycho-spiritual action taking place in the human organism during occult training.
 
[12] Xibalba, the Land of Shadows, is thought by some to stand for Atlantis. Although the names of its ten princes and dummy kings correspond in a general way to the ten princes and King-pair of Plato’s Atlantis, it also symbolizes the lower astral nature, which has to be overcome. So like the Egyptian mystic initiations are those of the Popol Vuh that Brasseur de Bourbourg thought it must have plagiarized them. The various houses mentioned are similar to those in the visions of Enoch, described in the apocryphal book of that name.
 
[13] Compare Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit. By analogy also, the dead head may stand for a pralaya in which are stored the life-energies for a new manifestation and a new race of men.
 
[14] The four men typify four races.
 
[15] Yellow was the color of the first solid race. It was the golden yellow of the Fourth also which became black with sin. See The Ocean of Theosophy, by W.Q. Judge, Theosophy Co., Los Angeles, p. 68, for food in connection with reincarnation.
 
[16] Balam-Quitze means Tiger-with-the-sweet-smile; Balam-Agab, Tiger-of-the-night; Mahucutah, the distinguished name; Iqi-Balam, Tiger-of-the-moon.
 
[17] See Secret Doctrine, II, 96; 221.
 
[18] The gods who evolve man’s form are lower than ourselves, called in the Secret Doctrine the lunar ancestors, or pitris. Hence when they see man endowed with mind, they are displeased, just as the Lord God of the Old Testament is. (Genesis III, 22.)
 
[19] The Atlanteans lost their spiritual vision and the “third eye” became atrophied.
 
[20] Compare the creation of Eve in Genesis.
 
[21] See Ocean of Theosophy, p. 60, for the purpose of man in evolution.
 
[22] Secret Doctrine, I, 210 - the origin of devotion.
 
[23] The Seven Caves stand for seven centers or zones on which the seven primitive groups of the first root race were born. Here they would seem also to refer to man’s seven principles. Tulan is spoken of as “the common cradle of our race;” there is one in the East, one in the West, one in Xibalba, and one “where God is.”
 
[24] The receiving of gods suggests the incarnation of the three higher principles in man. The four ancestors are said to have watched the star of the morning, precursor of the yet unseen sun. In a general way the sun implies a condition of the human race - when it shall be illumined by Manas. The Sons of Mind are said to have come from Venus (the star of the morning); but not all the human animal forms received the full light of mind. Some received only a spark, some were merely overshadowed by it; so, with the majority of the Quiches - it was in the beginning “verily, not at all the same sun as that of today,” that is, when Manas had become more fully incarnate in the race. The god of the fourth man is not taken into account, since he had no family; there were only three divisions of the Quiches.
 
[25] Compare the story of the confusion of tongues at the building of the Tower of Babel, in the Old Testament.
 
[26] This suggests a migration from Atlantis. Compare the Old Testament story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
 
[27] There is a resemblance between Tohil’s demand and that of the third chapter of the Gita: “With this nourish the gods, that the Gods may nourish you,” etc. Most translators think the demand was for human sacrifice, an interpretation possibly supported by subsequent events; but when human sacrifice was practised, the gods were hidden.
 
[28] The band who stole the fire recalls the story of Prometheus.
 
[29] The hiding of the gods may have several meanings. At least we see that the time comes when the Divine Beings withdraw from the world. Furthermore, in the course of civilization, which becomes ever more material, men forget the god within (Atma-Buddhi-Manas) and look for an external god to worship; and as their hearts become more stony, so do they worship idols of stone. Later on in the book the hidden gods, invoked by means of various practices, make known their presence by animating the stones.
 
[30] This refers undoubtedly to the gradual condensation of all forms of life, from the astral or semi-physical - symbolized by the rain and the cold - to the solid state, during which process the animal forms dwindled in size and so ceased to be a menace to man.
 
[31] The passing of the four old men suggests the disappearance of Enoch (Genesis, V, 24). Enoch is the term used for a “seer,” and his sudden taking away symbolizes the disappearance among men of the sacred and secret knowledge, called in the Popol Vuh “the Majesty Enveloped.”
 
[32] Nacxit was a name for Quetzalcoatl. Some commentators think “the East” refers to Atlantis, others, to the eastern part of Central America.
 
[33] The name of the stone and the temple in which it was preserved was Caabaha, meaning House of Sacrifice. The striking similarity between this name and the Mohammedan sacred stone, Kaaba, meaning square or cube, is what first revealed to Brasseur de Bourbourg the astonishing parallelisms to other religious systems found in the PopolVuh.
 
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See the volume “Popol Vuh - The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché-Maya”, English version by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley, from the translation of Adrián Recinos,  University of Oklahoma Press,  U.S.A., eight printing, 1972, 267 pp. 
 
Read also “Esotericism of the Popol Vuh - the sacred history of the Quiché-Maya”,  by Raphael Girardi,  Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, California, U.S.A., 1979, 359 pp.
 
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The ‘Popol Vuh’ of the Maya Tradition




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