In contrast to the Aztec and allied peoples of central Mexico, the Maya of southeastern Mesoamerica were very poorly described by the early Spanish missionaries and other observers. However, for the Quiché and Cakchiquel nations of the Guatemalan highlands, we have some extremely important ethnohistoric documents that cover a vast realm of religious, political, social, and perhaps historical information.
One of these is the famous Popol Vuh, sacred book of the Kavek lineage that ruled the Quiché Maya on the eve of the Conquest. There have been many translations from the Quiché original, into Spanish, English, French, German, and even Russian. Probably the best known is that of the late Adrián Recinos. The question is how the Edmonson translation compares with his. The most striking difference is that in the present volume, the translator has recognized that the Quiché text is presented in the form of poetic couplets, in which either the same thing is said in different ways, or related concepts are contrasted with each other. In this way, Quiché poetry is seen to be remarkably similar to the highly metaphorical flor y canto of the Aztec muse.
It must have seemed as strange to the Spaniards as it does to us, but the Popol Vuh is essentially a título, a document written in modified Spanish characters, setting forth the claims of the Kavek to land and tribute that they said was their right. This great epic begins with the first creation of the world, described in terms as stirring as the first two chapters of Genesis, with the creator gods moving and thinking beneath the surface of the all-encompassing sea. The next section deals with the exploits of two pairs of divine brothers. The first pair is summoned to the dread Underworld by the infernal deities, and is slain by the latter after undergoing a terrible series of ordeals, including defeat in the sacred ball game. The second set, the Hero Twins, make the same journey but fool the Underworld lords by tricking and eventually defeating them; having triumphed over death, they reach apotheosis by rising as the sun and the moon.
In the final creation, mankind is formed and maize discovered. The tribal ancestors are gathered in Tula, the never-never land to which almost all Mesoamerican dynasties looked. Eventually, the Quiché migrate under their tribal leaders along a trail of tribulation, fighting not only men but gods. They reach their present territory, and the organization of Quiché is codified under the rule of a series of “Great Houses,” each with its rank and tribute.
I believe that, with a few possible Christianized phrases and words, all of this must represent a transcription from a pre-Conquest original written in hieroglyphs. Some of it, particularly the creation sequence and the exploits of the two pairs of brothers, is undoubtedly extremely ancient, mythological material that was shared by most Mesoamerican peoples. I have found, for instance, explicit reference to the Hero Twins on Maya vases of the Classic Period (A.D. 300-900). For this reason, the Popol Vuh is perhaps the most important single document that we have for any Mesoamerican people.
I am in no position to evaluate the linguistic accuracy of Edmonson’s translation. However, there are serious deficiencies in the way he has identified certain animals and plants, which reveal that Edmonson, in contrast to Recinos, has only a cursory knowledge of highland Maya culture and environment. For instance, the Quiché ’aq is rendered as “pig,” a Spanish introduction, when “peccary” is surely meant. Because of the wealth of ethnozoological and ethnobotanical references in the Popol Vuh, I must admit that I prefer the Recinos version and notes over Edmonson’s. Nevertheless, the latter has grasped, unlike any other translator, the vivid poetic qualities of the Quiché text.