Invitation to World Literature
Popol Vuh Popol Vuh – Expert’s View
Experts' View: The Creation of Humans
An excerpt from Popol Vuh
The opening of the story in which the gods create humans
“And they [the gods] said, speak therefore our names. Worship us, for we are your mother and your father. Call upon us. Worship us, the animals were told. But they did not succeed.
They did not speak like people. They only squawked and chattered and roared. Their speech was unrecognizable. The gods said, ‘We shall now make one who will give us honor. Your calling will merely be to have your flesh eaten.’
Their bones were ground up, they were broken into pieces. Their faces were ground up because they proved to be incapable of understanding before the face of their mother, and the face of their father.”
“In the very beginning of the story they talk about how there isn’t even anything to make a story out of, and then you get the first words: ‘Only the maker, modeler, alone: Sovereign Plume Serpent. The bearers, begetters, are in the water, and the sky and also the Heart of Sky.'”
“You have the origin of the universe and then the gods want to be praised. They want somebody who can praise them and pray to them with speech and knowledge. The first beings they create to do this are animals.”
“The humans who were made out of wood looked a little bit better— but they did not have feelings and they did not remember their creators.”
“The wooden men don’t pray back to their gods. And because they’re not praying back to the gods, the gods get a little bit upset and they figure, this is not going to work, let’s just end it.”
“Right at the start you have this idea of the flawed creator. It’s not like the Judeo-Christian God who makes it and it was good. They’re like oh, we made it, and it sucks. Let’s get rid of it and start again.”
David Damrosch Sums It Up
One of the great questions taken up by the world’s creation myths is how and why people came to be. Granting (as many traditions have done) that the world was created by all-powerful gods and goddesses, just what did they need people for? The Babylonians and the ancient Greeks agreed that we were put on Earth to serve the gods, offering them pleasing sacrifices. In the Bible, Adam and Eve are assigned the task of gardeners, tending God’s creation. Popol Vuh’s account of the creation of humans is comparable to these other stories, but with a distinctive emphasis on speech and memory. The gods don’t appear to want food offerings or any practical kind of service: they want to be praised, and they are disappointed by the wooden people because the wooden people lack feelings and can’t remember them. The story of creation is thus infused with the book’s pervasive concern with the fragility of memory. It highlights the quintessential human capacity to preserve memory through language, so that people can honor their creators—both the divine creators of the universe and also the human ancestors and the native culture whose memory Popol Vuh seeks to preserve “amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now.”
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.