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January 10, 2024
Holley Moyes, Allen J. Christenson, and Frauke Sachse, eds. The Myths of the Popol Vuh in Cosmology, Art, and Ritual Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2021. 348 pp.; 89 b/w ills. Cloth $108.00 (9781607323389)

The Popol Vuh is a record of the mythology and history of the K’iche’ Maya people dating to the mid-1500s. Its authors—members of the local Maya elite—wrote down their most valuable stories to preserve them from the destruction inflicted by the European colonizers upon the Maya people, including the burning of their pre-Hispanic manuscripts. The book was hidden and miraculously survived, becoming the only surviving Maya text from that period and region. Many of the stories told in its pages can also be seen in images depicted on ancient Maya stelae and ceramic vases, and even in the built environment of pre-Hispanic sites. Thus, the Popol Vuh has been extremely important in the study of Maya cosmology, both ancient and modern-day, as well as in Mesoamerica more broadly. The Popol Vuh has functioned as a connecting link between the ancient past, the Colonial period, and the current-day versions of myths and practices in the Maya area. In fact, some may argue that its contents have been overused in the efforts to interpret the ancient past. It is a tricky balance to find the points of similarities, recognize when there are discrepancies, and make interpretations with caution. The Myths of the Popol Vuh in Cosmology, Art & Ritual threads this balance successfully, exploring topics where the text of the Popol Vuh aids in interpreting pre-Hispanic visual materials, and vice versa, and pointing out the limitations of such a comparative approach. The essays in this book rely on visual materials, alongside the archaeological and written evidence, to provide new insights into ancient Maya visual culture and cosmology using the Popol Vuh as a unifying theme.

The book opens with a profound preface by Michael Coe, a prominent Mesoamericanist who was amongst the early pioneers in this field of studies and who was one of the first to make connections between ancient Maya visual materials and the text of the Popol Vuh. Coe narrates his personal experiences with the Popol Vuh and how it influenced his own research. The introduction by Christenson and Sachse provides a brief history of the manuscript and how it has been used in Mesoamerican studies. A range of scholars contributed to the eleven chapters that follow, including archaeologists, epigraphers, anthropologists, and art historians, providing a wealth of information, some of which might be too specialized for nonexperts, but overall, very enlightening. These chapters are then divided into four sections. Section one, “Understanding Highland Maya Worldviews Through the Mythologies of the Popol Vuh” focuses more locally on the Highlands of Guatemala, including the K’iche’ area, fittingly since the Popol Vuh contains a history of the K’iche’ lineages. The three chapters in this section have at their core the understanding that deities, human beings, and maize need each other to exist. Christenson’s essay uses the sections of creation from the Popol Vuh with modern-day ritual practices in the Santiago Atitlan area to demonstrate the interrelationship between humans and deities. Sachse uses the metaphor of “maize is life” to reflect on the life trajectory of human beings as individuals and as groups of people who take root, then grow to become lineages and expand, just as a plant of maize or a milpa do. Cojtí Ren’s essay explores the ritual of the “new dawn” and the three different phases groups undergo: from a creation in darkness to a nomadic life and lastly, a settled population with differentiated political hierarchies.

Section two, “The Popol Vuh in Understanding the Archaeological Record” is largely devoted to archaeological data. Jaime Awe’s chapter discusses how a burial cache from the site of Cahal Pech, Belize, is evidence that the myth of the Hero Twins existed even in the Preclassic period. Guderjan and Snider take the site of Blue Creek, Belize to discuss how changes in ruling dynasties were reflected in the architecture and how the myths of the Popol Vuh help in finding the evidence of these changes. Lastly, Moyes and Awe take the archaeological remains found in the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize, to demonstrate that the same elements that are used to order the world in the Popol Vuh are also found amongst the ritual offerings in the cave, and thus, suggest that the same ordering principles existed throughout time and space in the Maya area.

Section three, “Comprehending Classic Maya Art and Writing Through the Myths of the Popol Vuh” and Section four, “Mythological Continuities and Change” deal with visual depictions and writing from the Preclassic to the Postclassic periods. Macleod’s essay delves into a lengthy and detailed analysis of narrative scenes found on painted ceramics, often called “Baby Jaguar” and “Snake Lady,” connecting them with the deeds of the Hero Twins. Bassie-Sweet and Hopkins focus on the words used to describe various birds throughout Mesoamerica beyond the identification of the particular species to include the meanings attached to each type of bird, and thus provide more insight into the stories of the Popol Vuh and the myths gathered from pre-Hispanic objects. Chinchilla Mazariegos challenges the long-held idea that the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh are the same beings as the Headband twins found on Classic period ceramics, and instead focuses on solar and lunar aspects of these individuals.

The last two chapters focus on the Great Bird, an avian deity who is now understood to be a co–essence of the deity Itzamnaaj. Guernsey looks at the Preclassic site of Izapa where stelae show a common story of the defeat of this bird by one of the Hero Twins. She compares these with other Classic Maya examples, and with the story as it is told in the Popol Vuh, to show the similarities and the differences, encouraging others to embrace the changes that happen to myths and practices over time and space. The last chapter by Nielsen et al. is the only one to expand beyond the Maya area into Teotihuacan. One of the murals from the Pinturas Realistas group of murals found in the Tetitla compound depicts a scene with a large bird who, the authors argue, is the equivalent of the one from the Popol Vuh, and is shown in the act of defeat as it loses all its wealth.

The contributions of The Myths of the Popol Vuh are twofold. One is the actual interpretations provided on various aspects of Maya cosmology, whether it is the story of the defeat of the Great Bird, the rituals of the creation of the world, or any of the other stories found in the archaeological records. The other is the methodological approach that the authors take in using a text, the Popol Vuh, that was written at a particular time and place that is distant from the materials that it is being used to interpret. Because the Popol Vuh is such a unique and rich text, it is very easy to overuse its contents and find correlations all over the Maya area. In this book, however, each scholar relies on the Popol Vuh to various degrees, and in a refreshing way, most reflect on the limitations of using the text too closely. In these chapters, it is easy to see how the main themes that appear in the Popol Vuh can be found elsewhere in the Maya area, both in time and geographical locations. However, the authors also recognize that it cannot be assumed that there were no changes in these topics, representations, and ideas, and in fact, most of them show both the similarities and discrepancies. They do not hesitate to say that each place and time had their own way of showing these core ideas, and that yet, there are these core ideas that appear throughout the Maya area (what Chinchilla Mazariegos, following Alfredo López Austin, refers to as “nodal subjects”).

The overall sentiment of the book is that one can look for the similarities, and seeming continuities, but one cannot assume that the meanings are identical. The field of Maya studies, and Mesoamerican studies at large, has relied on aspects that are seemingly continuous throughout a large period of time and over multiple areas to provide interpretations of visual materials and to understand the cosmology and history of these ancient peoples. It has produced invaluable information. At the same time, some scholars have also cautioned against this approach pointing out that it is not possible for things to remain the same over such a vast area and long period of time; major historical events happened over those thousands of years that naturally led to shifts in meaning and uses of symbols and stories. And yet, the visual records show that many visual elements remain in use, and many concepts as well. The tension between these approaches has always been and always will be, a part of Mesoamerican studies. Most of the contributors of Myths of the Popol Vuh are open to these disjunctions, they allow for the changes to exist and instead of ignoring them, they consider them as spaces where one can explore and expand their knowledge. It is refreshing to read these essays as part of a more recent trend in Maya studies that tackles these tensions and to see how even a core text, such as the Popol Vuh, can be reexamined and used in a very complex manner, and what types of knowledge it can produce.

The essays in Myths of the Popol Vuh show how the Maya people used their mythology in ways that fit their local needs creating their unique local versions. The Popol Vuh is just one more example of these local adaptations of their cosmology connected to or reflecting a particular historical moment. As Guernsey states: “The Popol Vuh, in this sense, was rich with patterns of the past—even from the deep, Late Preclassic past—but it was also utilized to negotiate its own unique present” (282). In this sense, Myths of the Popol Vuh is a unique collection of essays that brings studies of the Popol Vuh to current academic discourses in, and beyond, Mesoamerica.

Diana Rose
Independent Scholar