Invitation to World Literature
Popol Vuh Popol Vuh – Key Points
Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts
- What do the twins One Hunahpú and Seven Hunahpú have in common with the twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué? How are they different? Why do you think that both sets of heroes are twins? Are there similar twins in European myths? (e.g. dioscuri) What is special about twins? Why are there two sets of twins?
- How do Hunahpú and Xbalanqué outwit the gods and avoid the fate of their father and uncle?
- What is the problem with the wooden people?
- How do the Quiché rise to prominence, and what does their rise have to do with fire?
- Why do you think the gods allowed the Earth to remain in total darkness for so long, without a sun?
- Why do you think the story of creating humans stops just before the real humans are finally created? What is the purpose of diverting the story back to the hero twins?
- There is a flood story in Popol Vuh. How is it like and unlike the flood stories in the Biblical Book of Genesis and The Epic of Gilgamesh?
- Why do the Maya migrate from their ancestral home of Tulan to their new Guatemalan home? How does language figure in the story?
- What does the ball game the hero twins play seem to represent? Does any other creation myth include a sport? What might it stand for?
- Why do the gods want humans to exist? Are they meant simply to provide worship for the gods, or are humans meant to be caretakers of the Earth?
- What role does trickery play in the story? How do the tricks of the hero twins compare to those of Monkey in Journey to the West?
- Violence is a common occurrence in this work, as well as in many others. Why and how does violence function in this text, especially in great Creation myths and stories (i.e. The Flood in the Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh)? Why is there violence depicted between humans and humans as well as humans and gods?
Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking
- Why was it important to the original Mayan authors to include the lineages of noble leaders? Why was it important to the Mayan translators, working under Spanish rule, to preserve those records?
- What does it say about the gods that they make mistakes? Their first three attempts at making humans all fail. Does this take away from their godliness? Are the Mayan gods supposed to be perfect, all-powerful, or all-wise?
- Unlike many creation narratives, in Popol Vuh there is no single, all-powerful god who creates everything. Many gods at many levels of influence cooperate to create the universe. What does this tell you about Mayan culture? Does it appeal to you?
- Why do you think the Quiché are the greatest of human tribes in the story? How do they get their predominance, and how do they show their superior intelligence or trickery?
- What are your thoughts about stories told within stories? Why is this narrative style significant? What other stories do you know that tell tales within a larger narrative?
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.