"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
August 24, 2012
"You Make Them Live Again by Speaking Their Words": The Popol Vuh and Respect for Ancient Scripture
by Jeff Lindsay

I have begun looking at Dr. Allen J. Christenson's recent translation of the ancient Popol Vuh, a sacred text from the Mayan people. The translation was published in 2003 and electronically in 2007. It is entitled POPOL VUH: Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People (Mesoweb Publications, 2007), available at "http://www.personal.psu.edu/abl128/PopolVu/PopolVuh.pdf" and also at "http://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Christenson/PopolVuh.pdf."

Dr. Christenson is LDS. Some of the comments in his preface might be especially interesting to LDS audiences, though they should be interesting to all readers.

The preface and introduction are beautifully written. I especially enjoyed his personal account of how the elderly Quiché people he encountered one night showed deep respect for sacred written words of their ancestors (p. 6):

Before the others left for the night, I asked if they would like to hear the words of their fathers. This was greeted with indulgent smiles of disbelief, since few of their parents were alive and they were sure that I couldn’t have known them. But I told them that it wasn’t their fathers’ words that I carried with me, but rather those of their fathers’ fathers’ (repeated many times) fathers, dating back nearly five hundred years. I happened to have with me a copy of the Popol Vuh manuscript, a book that was compiled in the mid-sixteenth century at a town that still exists less than thirty miles from where we sat. I began to read from the first page of the book:

THIS IS THE ACCOUNT of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm.

Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.

THESE, then, are the first words, the first speech. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest. All alone the sky exists. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of all the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs. All is languid, at rest in the sky. There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night. All alone are the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons. Luminous they are in the water, wrapped in quetzal feathers and cotinga feathers. (Popol Vuh, pp. 67-69)

After I had read a page or two from the account of the creation of the earth, I stopped and waited for their reaction. No one spoke for some time. Finally, the elderly man with the sick boy asked if he might hold the unbound pages of the manuscript copy for a moment. He gently took it from my hands and with great care turned its pages.

“These are the words of my ancient fathers?” he asked.


“Do you know what you have done for them?” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, so I didn’t answer at first. “You make them live again by speaking their words.”

I love that. I read it before I realized that the translator was an LDS scholar, but sensed through his respect for the ancients and in sharing this story that he "got it." Ancient scripture is a treasure to be cherished. It turns the hearts of the children to the fathers.

The Popol Vuh has often been of interest to LDS people if only for the fact that it reminds us that some ancient Native Americans prized the written word and kept texts that described the Creation and other important events.  It also reminds us that traditions not just of writing but of sacred scripture and prophecy were had in Mesoamerica.

In considering where in the Americas The Book of Mormon might have taken place, one of the many factors pointing to Mesoamerica is the existence of ancient writing there. Established traditions of advanced writing systems flourished anciently in that region. Christensen (p. 23) observes that the Mayans had an advanced writing system combining phonetic and logographic elements capable of writing any word that could be spoken (p. 23):

Las Casas was particularly impressed by the fact that the Maya could write “everything they desired.” The Maya were, in fact, the only people in the New World who had a writing system at the time of the Spanish conquest which had this capability.

The Mayans apparently had thousands of texts when the Spaniards came. One of the greatest tragedies of history was the wanton destruction of Mayan records by the Spanish, wiping out almost all their writings, including sacred texts (p. 23):

Only four lowland Maya codices are known to have escaped these purges. We can only add our own laments to those of the Maya over the irretrievable loss of a people’s literary heritage. Of the many hieroglyphic books that once existed in the highlands, including the Pre-Columbian version of the Popol Vuh, not a single one is known to have survived.

A Sacred Book from Across the Sea?

A few things of special interest to LDS readers crop up in the Popol Vuh. On page 23, Christenson writes:

In the preamble to the Popol Vuh, its Quiché authors wrote that the contents were based on an ancient book from across the sea (p. 64). In a later passage, the source of these writings is identified as Tulan, which they located across the sea to the east (p. 259), apparently a reference to the Maya lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. The Quiché lords held these “writings of Tulan” in great reverence and consulted them often (p. 287).

I cannot help but wonder if that land across the sea to the east, the source of the sacred book that the ancients used to consult often, might have been a little further east than Yucatan. Say, perhaps, Jerusalem? Well, that's just hopeful speculation for now, so I'll have to settle for the Yucatan.

Scripture and Sacred Stones as Instruments of Vision

Another interesting little gem, so to speak, comes from pages 24-25:

The fact that the contents of the original Popol Vuh predated the Spanish conquest gave them an aura of mystery and power. Its authors referred to the ancient book upon which the Popol Vuh was based as an ilb'al, meaning “instrument of sight or vision” (p. 64; lines 51-52).

The word is used today to refer to the clear quartz crystals that Quiché priests use in divinatory ceremonies. It may also be used to refer to magnifying glasses or spectacles, by which things may be seen more clearly. Thus the rulers of the Quichés consulted the Popol Vuh in times of national distress as a means of seeing the future:

They knew if there would be war. It was clear before their faces. They saw if there would be death, if there would be hunger. They surely knew if there would be strife. There was an instrument of sight. There was a book. Popol Vuh was their name for it. (p. 287)

LDS readers might recall the discourse in Alma 37 (and elsewhere in LDS scripture) that links the special interpreters, the stone, with the revelatory gift of seeing or prophecy and with translation of scripture. Also related is the topic of the Urim and Thummim or also the seerstone, tools used to help a seer see. Interesting, in my opinion.

Another Redundant Text?

One of the most common complaints against The Book of Mormon can also be fairly lodged against the Popol Vuh. Christenson explains the "problem" with the Popol Vuh on page 34:

Yet the beauty of Quiché poetry may sound awkward and repetitive when translated into European languages. Some translators in the past have ignored or failed to recognize the poetic nature of the Popol Vuh, particularly its use of parallelism, and have tried to improve its seemingly purposeless redundancy by eliminating words, phrases, and even whole sections of text which they deemed unnecessary. While this unquestionably helps to make the story flow more smoothly, in keeping with our modern taste for linear plot structure, it detracts from the character of Quiché high literature. Welch points out that “in many ancient contexts, repetition and even redundancy appear to represent the rule rather than the exception” (Welch 1981, 12).

Yes, he's quoting John Welch of chiasmus fame. And yes, chiasmus is one of the forms of parallelism found in the Popol Vuh (see pp. 37-39 of the Introduction), as in The Book of Mormon, and in ancient Hebraic poetry. Cool. (Yes, chiasmus is a complex issue and its presence is not necessarily proof of anything, but deliberate, artistic chiasmus in sacred texts is noteworthy for several reasons. See related discussions at Mormanity.org and related content at JeffLindsay.com.)

I am grateful for the beautiful translation and respectful introductory comments that Professor Christenson has offered, and thank him for his service to the Quiché people. By helping to preserve and share the words of the ancients, he has helped them to live again for their descendants and for us. 

I hope you'll read at least some of the Popol Vuh and be grateful for the miracle of its preservation. I hope you'll be even more grateful for the miracle of the preserved text of The Book of Mormon, a sacred text from ancient writers who saw our day and speak to us now as a voice from the dust.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.

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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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