Creatures of the Popol Vuh

Belonging among the beasts and the gods in Mayan cosmology | Aeon Essays
Creation by Diego Rivera. Watercolour painted in San Francisco, California, during the summer of 1931, originally commissioned to illustrate a never-published English translation of the Popol Vuh by John Weatherwax. Courtesy the Library of Congress

For the K’iche’ Mayans, animals were not lower beings but neighbours, alter egos and a way to communicate with the gods

by Jessica Sequeirais a writer, literary translator, and editor of Firmament magazine published by Sublunary Editions. She is based at the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Edited by Sam Haselby

Animals are everywhere in the Popol Vuh. They leap and lick and crawl and bite and squawk and hoot and screech and howl. They are considered sacred, not as disembodied beings in some faraway place, but in their coexistence with humans, day by day in the forests. The Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, with its gorgeous blue-green plumage, birthed the world from a vast and placid ocean. The Popol Vuh provides the narrative of this creation of humankind and the subsequent mythology, history and culture of the K’iche’ Mayan Indigenous people in central highland Guatemala.

Animal, human and godlike worlds form a flowing whole, communicating and shapeshifting, engaged in relations of love, friendship, rivalry, instinct. In the Popol Vuh, humans don’t domesticate or sentimentalise animals, but recognise their form of existence. They hunt them, send them on errands, take down their messages from gods, sacrifice them, play games with them. The animal was not a lower being, over whom, as the Europeans believed, God had granted man dominion. For the K’iche’ Mayans, animals were neighbours, alter egos and a form of communication with the gods.

The first half of the Popol Vuh is circular and mythological, drawing from a mystical notion of time linked to the firmament. The second half is more historical and linear, chronicling events from the reigns of Mayan kings to the tragic arrival of the Spanish colonisers. Based on oral and performative traditions, the Popol Vuh as a whole displays a fascinating self-awareness about the changing relationship with gods and animals, in which new ideas of morality, sedentary existence, subservience to gods who offer temporary happinesses, such as food and women, and control over animals differ from the more fluid arrangements of times before, preceding and possibly auguring the Spanish conquest.

Originally written on bark or deer skin, the Popol Vuh was compiled by nobility in the town of Santa Cruz del Quiché around 1550, during the first years of colonialism. The work draws on lost narratives that stretch back to a more ancient, pre-Columbian past. Today, it is often still referred to as the Mayan Bible, even if putting an adjective before the religious book of another tradition doesn’t do justice to the way that the Popol Vuh’s ideas about selfhood and animality parallel at times, but frequently diverge from, those of the Catholic tradition.

In the first half of the Popol Vuh, animals are messengers for gods and men, able to communicate with both groups as well as each other. They are by turns vengeful and collaborative, working together to thwart plans (a concerted ganging-up) or push them along (a coordinated helping-out). Animals can be obliging beings; a horde of ants assists Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, twins and heroes of the Popol Vuh, to drive their enemies from the ravine to the road. The animals aren’t necessarily magical, so much as practical and wily. Black howler monkeys, jaguars, rattlesnakes, armadillos, bats, louses, toads, snakes, hawks, owls, wild boars, turtles, rabbits, doves, mosquitos, red and black ants, and other species – there are more than 30 ­– appear on the scene and often steal the show.

Imagine a line of ants sprints past, a flash of fur, a pair of shining eyes in the dark. A butterfly with a striking turquoise pattern flutters its wings. These are beautiful, ephemeral, needed. People, in the Popol Vuh, are created thanks to animals. Hunahpú and Xbalanqué are born because owls connived with their mother to trick the lords of Xibalba. Before that, gods attempt to create the very first people from mud, then from wood, but they fail. At last, mountain cats, coyotes, small parrots and crows bring the corn that the gods use to make maize dough, grinding it into drinks nutritious enough to build strength. In this culture, corn is at the base of everything…


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