Invitation to World Literature
Popol Vuh Popol Vuh – Read the Text
Read the Excerpt
Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life
Translated by Dennis Tedlock,
This is the beginning of the Ancient Word, here in this place called Quiché. Here we shall inscribe, we shall implant the Ancient Word, the potential and source for everything done in the citadel of Quiché, in the nation of Quiché people.
And here we shall take up the demonstration, revelation, and account of how things were put in shadow and brought to light by
The Maker, Modeler,
Named Bearer, Begetter,
Hunahpú Possum, Hunahpú Coyote,
Great White Peccary, Coati,
Sovereign Plumed Serpent,
Heart of the Lake, Heart of the Sea,
plate shaper, bowl shaper, as they are called,
also named, also described as
the midwife, matchmaker
named Xpiyacoc, Xmucane,
twice a midwife, twice a matchmaker,
as is said in the words of Quiché. They accounted for everything—and did it, too—as enlightened beings, in enlightened words. We shall write about this now amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now. We shall bring it out because there is no longer
a place to see it, a Council Book,
a place to see “The Light That Came from
Beside the Sea,”
the account of “Our Place in the Shadows.
a place to see “The Dawn of Life,”
as it is called. There is the original book and ancient writing, but the one who reads and assesses it has a hidden identity. It takes a long performance and account to complete the lighting of all the sky-earth:
the fourfold siding, fourfold cornering,
measuring, fourfold staking,
halving the cord, stretching the cord
in the sky, on the earth,
the four sides, the four corners, as it is said,
by the Maker, Modeler,
mother-father of life, of humankind,
giver of breath, giver of heart,
bearer, upbringer in the light, begotten in
worrier, knower of everything, whatever
This is the account, here it is:
Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums, and it is empty under the sky.
Here follow the first words, the first eloquence:
There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, forest. Only the sky alone is there; the face of the earth is not clear. Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky; there is nothing whatever gathered together. It is at rest; not a single thing stirs. It is black, kept at rest under the sky.
Whatever might be is simply not there: only murmurs, ripples, in the dark, in the night. Only the Maker, Modeler alone, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, the Bearers, Begetters are in the water, a glittering light. They are there, they are enclosed in quetzal feathers, in blue-green.
Thus the name, “Plumed Serpent.” They are great knowers, great thinkers in their very being.
And of course there is the sky, and there is also the Heart of Sky. This is the name of the god, as it is spoken.
And then came his word, he came here to the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, here in the blackness, in the early dawn. He spoke with the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, and they talked, then they thought, then they worried. They agreed with each other, they joined their words, their thoughts. Then it was clear, then they reached accord in the light, and then humanity was clear, when they conceived the growth, the generation of trees, of bushes, and the growth of life, of humankind, in the blackness, in the early dawn, all because of the Heart of the Sky, named Hurricane. Thunderbolt Hurricane comes first, the second is Newborn Thunderbolt, and the third is Sudden Thunderbolt.
So there were three of them, as Heart of the Sky, who came to the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, when the dawn of life was conceived:
“How should the sowing be, and the dawning? Who is to be the provider, nurturer?”
“Let it be this way, think about it: this water should be removed, emptied out for the formation of the earth’s own plate and platform, then should come the sowing, the dawning of the sky-earth. But there will be no high days and no bright praise for our work, our design, until the rise of the human work, the human design,” they said.
And then the earth arose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth. For the forming of the earth they said “Earth.” It arose suddenly, just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding. Then the mountains were separated from the water, all at once the great mountains came forth. By their genius alone, by their cutting edge alone they carried out the conception of the mountain-plain, whose face grew instant groves of cypress and pine.
And the Plumed Serpent was pleased with this:
“It was good that you came, Heart of the Sky, Hurricane, and New Born Thunderbolt, Sudden Thunderbolt. Our work, our design will turn out well,” they said.
And the earth was formed first, the mountain-plane. The channels of water were separated; their branches wound their way among the mountains. The waters were divided when the great mountains appeared.
Such was the formation of the earth when it was brought forth by the Heart of the Sky, Heart of Earth, as they are called, since they were the first to think of it. The sky was set apart, and the earth was set apart in the midst of the waters.
Such was their plan when they thought, when they worried about the completion of their work.
Now they planned the animals of the mountains, all the guardians of the forests, creatures of the mountains: the deer, the birds, pumas, jaguars, serpents, rattlesnakes, fer-de-lances, guardians of the bushes.
A Bearer, Begetter speaks:
“Why this pointless humming? Why should there merely be rustling beneath the trees and bushes?”
“Indeed—they had better have guardians,” the others replied. As soon as they thought it and said it, deer and birds came forth.
And then they gave out homes to the deer and birds:
“You, the deer: sleep along the rivers, in canyons. Be here in the meadows, in the thickets, in the forests, multiply yourselves. You will stand and walk on all fours,” they were told.
So then they established the nests of the birds, small and great:
“You, precious birds: your nests, your houses are in trees, in the bushes. Multiply there, scatter there, in the branches of trees, the bushes,” the deer and birds were told.
And then the deer and birds were told by the Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter:
“Talk, speak out. Don’t moan, don’t cry out. Please talk, each to each, within each kind within each group,” they were told—the deer, birds, puma, jaguar, serpent.
“Name now our names, praise us. We are your mother, we are your father. Speak now:
Newborn Thunderbolt, Sudden
Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth,
speak, pray to us, keep our days,” they were told. But it didn’t turn out that they spoke like people: they just squawked, they just chattered, they just howled. It wasn’t apparent what language they spoke; each one gave a different cry. When Maker, Modeler heard this:
“It hasn’t turned out well, they haven’t spoken,” they said among themselves. “It hasn’t turned out that our names have been named. Since we are their mason and sculptor, this will not do,” the Bearers and Begetters said among themselves. So they told them:
“You will simply have to be transformed. Since it hasn’t turned out well and you haven’t spoken, we have changed our word:
“What you feed on, what you eat, the places where you sleep, the places where you stay, whatever is yours will remain in the canyons, the forests. Although it turned out that our days were nor kept, nor did you pray to us, there may yet be strength in the keeper of days, the giver of praise whom we have yet to make. Just accept your service, just let your flesh be eaten.
“So be it, this must be your service,” they were told when they were instructed—the animals, small and great, on the face of the earth.
And then they wanted to test their timing again, they wanted to experiment again, and they wanted to prepare for the keeping of days again. They had not heard their speech among the animals; it did not come to fruition and it was not complete.
Again there comes an experiment with the human work, the human design, by the Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter:
“It must simply be tried again. The time for the planting and dawning is nearing. For this we must make a provider and nurturer. How else can we be invoked and remembered on the face of the earth? We have already made our first try at our work and design, but it turned out that they didn’t keep our days, nor did they glorify us.”
So then comes the building and working with earth and mud. They made a body, but it didn’t look good to them. It was just separating, just crumbling, just loosening, just softening, just disintegrating, and just dissolving. Its head wouldn’t turn, either. Its face was just lopsided, its face was just twisted. It couldn’t look around. It talked at first, but senselessly. It was quickly dissolving in the water.
“It won’t last,” the mason and sculptor said then. “It seems to be dwindling away, so let it just dwindle. It can’t walk and it can’t multiply, so let it be merely a thought,” they said.
So then they dismantled, again they brought down their work and design. Again they talked:
“What is there for us to make that would turn out well, that would succeed in keeping our days and praying to us?” they said. Then they planned again:
“We’ll just tell Xpiyacoc, Xmucane, Hunahpú Possum, Hunahpú Coyote, to try a counting of days, a counting of lots,” the mason and sculptor said to themselves. Then they invoked Xpiyacoc, Xmucane.
Then comes the naming of those who are the midmost seers: the “Grandmother of Day, Grandmother of Light,” as the Maker, Modeler called them. These are names of Xpiyacoc and Xmucane.
When Hurricane had spoken with the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, they invoked the daykeepers, diviners, the midmost seers:
“There is yet to find, yet to discover how we are to model a person, construct a person again, a provider, nurturer, so that we are called upon and we are recognized: our recompense is in words.
our grandmother, our grandfather,
let there be planting, let there be the dawning
of our invocation, our sustenance, our
by human work, the human design,
the human figure, the human form.
So be it, fulfill your names:
Hunahpú Possum, Hunahpú Coyote,
Bearer twice over, Begetter twice over,
Great Peccary, Great Coati,
plate shaper, bowl shaper,
incense maker, master craftsman,
Grandmother of Day, Grandmother of Light.
You have been called upon because of our work, our design. Run your hands over kernels of corn, over seeds of the coral tree, just get it done, just let it come out whether we should carve and gouge a mouth, a face in wood,” they told the daykeepers.
And then comes the borrowing, the counting of days; the hand is moved over the corn kernels, over the coral seeds, the days, the lots.
Then they spoke to them, one of them a grandmother, the other a grandfather.
This is the grandfather, this is the master of the coral seeds: Xpiyacoc is his name.
And this is the grandmother, the daykeeper, diviner who stands behind others: Xmucane is her name.
And they said, as they set out the days:
“Just let it be found, just let it be discovered,
say it, our ear is listening,
may you talk, may you speak,
just find the wood for the carving
by the builder, sculptor.
Is this to be the provider, the nurturer
when it comes to the planting, the dawning?
You corn kernels, you coral seeds,
you days, you lots:
may you succeed, may you be accurate,”
they said to the corn kernels, coral seeds, days, lots. “Have shame, you up there, Heart of Sky: attempt no deception before the mouth and face of Sovereign Plumed Serpent,” they said. Then they spoke straight to the point:
“It is well that there be your manikins, woodcarvings, talking, speaking, there on the face of the earth.”
“So be it,” they replied. The moment they spoke it was done: the manikins, woodcarvings, human in looks and human in speech.
This was the peopling of the face of the earth:
They came into being, they multiplied, they had daughters, they had sons, these manikins, woodcarvings. But there was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds, no memory of their mason and builder. They just went and walked wherever they wanted. Now they did not remember the Heart of the Sky.
And so they fell, just an experiment and just a cutout for humankind. They were talking at first but their faces were dry. They were not yet developed in the legs and arms. They had no blood, no lymph. They had no sweat, no fat. Their complexions were dry, their faces were crusty. They flailed their legs and arms, their bodies were deformed.
And so they accomplished nothing before the Maker, Modeler who gave them birth, gave them heart. They became the first numerous people here on the face of the earth.
Again there comes a humiliation, destruction, and demolition. The manikins, woodcarvings were killed when the Heart of the Sky devised a flood for them. A great flood was made; it came down on the heads of the manikins, woodcarvings.
The man’s body was carved from the wood of the coral tree by the Maker, Modeler. And the as for the woman, the Maker, Modeler needed the hearts of bulrushes for the women’s body. They were not competent, nor did they speak before the builder and sculptor who made them, and brought them forth, and so they were killed, done in by a flood:
There came a rain of resin from the sky.
There came the one named Gouger of Faces: he gouged out their eyeballs.
There came Crunching Jaguar: he ate their flesh.
There came Tearing Jaguar: he tore them open.
They were pounded down to the bones and tendons, smashed and pulverized even to the bones. Their faces were smashed because they were incompetent before their mother and their father, the Heart of the Sky, named Hurricane. The earth was blackened because of this; the black rainstorm began, rain all day and rain all night. Into their houses came the animals, small and great. Their faces were crushed by things of wood and stone. Everything spoke: their water jars, their tortilla griddles, their plates, their cooking pots, their dogs, their grinding stones, each and every thing crushed their faces. Their dogs and turkeys told them:
“You caused us pain, you ate us, but now it is you whom we shall eat.”
And this is the grinding stone:
“We were undone because of you.
Every day, every day,
in the dark, in the dawn, forever,
right in our faces, because of you.
This was the service we gave you at first, when you were still people, but today you will learn of our power. We shall pound and we shall grind your flesh,” the grinding stones told them.
And this is what their dogs said, when they spoke in their turn:
“Why is it you can’t seem to give us our food? We just watch you and you just keep us down, and you throw us around. You keep a stick ready when you eat, just so you can hit us. We don’t talk, so we’ve received nothing from you. How could you not have known? You did know that we were wasting away there, behind you.
“So, this very day you will taste the teeth in our mouths. We shall eat you,” their dogs told them, and their faces were crushed.
And then their tortilla griddles and cooking pots spoke to them in turn:
“Pain! That’s all you’ve done for us. Our mouths are sooty, our faces are sooty. By setting us on the fire all the time, you burn us. Since we felt no pain, you try it. We shall burn you,” all their cooking pots said, crushing their faces.
The stones, their hearthstones were shooting out, coming right out of the fire, going for their heads, causing them pain. Now they run for it, helter-skelter.
They climb up on the houses, but they fall as the houses collapse.
They want to climb the trees; they’re thrown from the trees.
They want to get inside caves, but the caves slam shut in their faces.
Such was the scattering of the human work, the human design. The people were ground down, overthrown. The mouths and faces of all of them were destroyed and crushed. And it used to be said that the monkeys in the forest today are a sign of this. They were left as a sign because wood alone was used for their flesh by the builder and sculptor.
So this is why monkeys look like people: they are a sign of a previous human work, human design—mere manikins, mere woodcarvings.
This was when there was just a trace of early dawn on the face of the earth, there was no sun. But there was one who magnified himself; Seven Macaw is his name. The sky-earth was already there, but the face of the sun-moon was clouded over. Even so, it is said that his light provided a sign for the people who were flooded. He was like a person of genius in his being.
“I am great. My place is now higher than that of the human work, the human design. I am their sun and I am their light, and I am also their months.
“So be it: my light is great. I am the walkway and I am the foothold of the people, because my eyes are of metal. My teeth just glitter with jewels, and turquoise as well; they stand out blue with stones like the face of the sky.
“And this nose of mine shines white into the distance like the moon. Since my nest is metal, it lights up the face of the earth. When I come forth before my nest, I am like the sun and moon for those who are born in the light, begotten in the light. It must be so, because my face reaches into the distance,” says Seven Macaw.
It is not true that he is the sun, this Seven Macaw, yet he magnifies himself, his wings, his metal. But the scope of his face lies right around his own perch; his face does not reach everywhere beneath the sky. The faces of the sun, moon and stars are not yet visible, it has not yet dawned.
And so Seven Macaw puffs himself up as the days and the months, though the light of the sun and moon has not yet clarified. He only wished for surpassing greatness. This was when the flood was worked upon the manikins, woodcarvings.
And now we shall explain how Seven Macaw died, when people were vanquished, done in by the mason and sculptor.
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.