Invitation to World Literature
Popol Vuh – Map & Timeline
Amidst the Spanish names for countries, cities, and regions on this map, you can see traces of the original Mayan inhabitants—the cities of Izapan, Copán, and Chichén Itzá. The shaded area is the land of the Quiché Mayans, the people who wrote and kept the Council Book, Popol Vuh. While the Spanish incorporated all of Mexico and Central America into one vast colony, the Quiché Mayans preserved their culture and language, and now share their great creation story with the world.
This timeline shows both the history of the Mayan story of creation and the history of Mayan politics and religion that influenced that story.
13th century BCE
Olmec civilization flowers in the region that would later become Mayan.
1st century BCE
The Izapan culture thrives in the heart of future Mayan lands, and may have directly influenced the development of the Mayans.
The Early Classic Period of Mayan civilization. Hieroglyphic texts are sculpted in stone and stucco, painted onto pottery, and written on strips of paper folded to form books. The great city of Teotihuacan dominates the central Mexican highlands and establishes trade with the lowland Mayan cities, like Tikal.
The Late Classic Period of Mayan civilization. Teotihuacan falls and lowland city-states rise, including Chichén Itzá and Copán.
The power of the large city-states shrinks, as warfare and overpopulation weaken the Mayans. Most of the Mayan population is in two regions, in northern Yucatán (Atlantic coast) and the southern highlands (Pacific coast)
The Late Postclassic Period of Mayan civilization. The rise of the kingdom of Mayapán in the north and Quiché in the south, as the last great Mayan city-states. Writing is now not carved as often; it is mostly written on paper and plastered walls.
The first Spaniard to discover the Mayans is a sailor washed ashore who joins the group he meets, leaving his European identity behind. This event marks the end of Mayan Empire.
The Spanish, under Cortes and then his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado, explore the northern Mayan kingdom and eventually conquer it. The Spanish introduce a program to wipe out Mayan culture that continues in varied ways to the present day.
A Spanish priest, Father Ximénez, transcribes and translates the Quiché version of Popol Vuh in a document that has Spanish in one column and Quiché in another.
The American diplomat and lawyer John Lloyd Stephens and the English topographical artist Frederick Catherwood begin a series of explorations of Mayan regions. They publish their findings, including the ruins of Tikal, and the glory of Mayan civilization is first made known to the world at large.
Adrián Recinos rediscovers Ximénez’s manuscript and has it published, rescuing it from obscurity.
Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz discovers the tomb of a Mayan priest-king, Pacal, at Palenque in southern Mexico. It is the first tomb found inside a Mayan pyramid.
The first Mayan hieroglyphs are catalogued. Looting of Mayan sites becomes almost uncontrollable.
Rigoberta Menchu, a Quiché woman from Guatemala, wins the Nobel Peace Prize for her autobiography, in which she describes the cultural struggles of the Maya and the political problems and civil warfare of Guatemala under repressive regimes during the 1970s and 1980s.
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.