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date: 30 November 2020

Contextualizing the Popol Wuj from Friar Ximénez to the Digital Agefree

  • Néstor QuiroaNéstor QuiroaDepartment of Modern and Classical Languages, Wheaton College


Regarded as an ethnohistorical treasure, the Popol Wuj narrative has been read exclusively as a freestanding, self-contained text used to inquire into a history far removed from when it was actually created. Consequently, the colonial context of the text itself has been minimized, including the central role of Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez as transcriber and translator of the only copy in existence. The present study delineates a historical trajectory of the Popol Wuj, reframing the narrative within its colonial ecclesiastic context. It explores the physical structure of Friar Ximénez’s 18th-century manuscript, preserved as MS 1515 by the Newberry Library in Chicago, to demonstrate that his work was first and foremost a series of religious treatises intended to carry out the conversion of the K’iche’ to Christianity. As a cautionary word, rather than revisiting the old, biased approach of questioning the authenticity and authorship of this Popol Wuj narrative, the current study suggests a broader reading, addressing the complexities intrinsic in this text, particularly the fact that the narrative was the result of the cultural contact between mendicant friars, whose main objective was to evangelize, and indigenous groups, who strived to maintain their cultural continuity by recording their oral history in the face of such a threat. Finally, this study invites scholars to ponder on the implications that the present structure of Ximénez’s manuscript (MS 1515) presents for future Popol Wuj studies as the narrative enters the age of electronic information and digital imaging.

The Popol Wuj narrative is the name given to a 16th-century Maya K’iche’ creation myth of the Guatemala Highlands. This narrative is one of the most studied indigenous texts of Mesoamerica because of its reputed pristine, authentic pre-Hispanic indigenous content. This “sacred book” or “Maya Bible,” as this narrative has come to be known, has reached a broad audience as it has been translated into over fifteen languages, has been presented as an animated film shown at educational institutions of various levels, and is often included in university core courses. In 1971, the Popol Wuj was named the “National Book” by the Guatemalan government, making it part of the government’s autochthonous indigenous patrimony. Additionally, the narrative has been used as a source for numerous ethnohistorical studies, and its mythological context has profoundly influenced most Guatemalan literature from the early 19th century to the present. Most significantly, in the political arena the Popol Wuj has become the basis for what Maya writer Victor Montejo defines as the revitalization of the Maya culture, as well as for the rebirth of the “Maya movement,” a process by which the Maya people are reclaiming political space and the right to a cultural and spiritual existence in Guatemalan society.1

Most Popol Wuj scholars have conceived the narrative primarily in precolonial terms with emphasis on its native facets, but in so doing, they have disregarded its colonial context and the historical circumstances within which the text was produced. Specifically omitted are the facts that the Guatemalan Highlands were being proselytized by Dominican missionaries at the time the narrative was originally recorded by native K’iche’ authors in the middle of the 16th century, and that one hundred and fifty years later, the transcriber and translator of the Popol Wuj, the Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez, undertook his work explicitly to refute Maya K’iche’ religious idolatry. Thus, placing this narrative within its historical colonial context, and including the role and voice of Ximénez regarding his work, widens the scope of the narrative’s interpretation and allows a deeper understanding of the Maya K’iche’ religious conversion process, the methodology used by missionary friars to achieve this conversion, and the spiritual situation of colonial Guatemala in general. In all, this facet of the manuscript is only possible when the Popol Wuj narrative is approached in the original structure conceived by Friar Ximénez, prior to its digitization and conservation treatment in 2011 by the Newberry Library in Chicago.

The Creation Story at a Glance

The Popol Wuj is typically presented as a freestanding text in two sections, with the first containing the epic myth that, in a series of complex episodes, recounts the creation of the universe as well as of the K’iche’ people. The account begins with the primordial creation of earth, when the gods of the sea joined with the gods of the sky to create the world and form human beings. Three attempts to create humans resulted in disappointment—the creatures all fell short of the gods’ requirements for reproduction and veneration. The first beings became the predecessors of forest animals, the second beings (or mud people) dispersed into dust, and the wooden people of the third attempt became the predecessors of the monkeys.

The creation narrative is then interrupted to recount the heroic deeds of Junajpu and Ixb’alanq’e, or the hero twins, as they have been named by contemporary scholars. In fact, most of the mythological account in the Popol Wuj narrative is comprised of their heroic deeds and triumphs, which ensured the ultimate fulfillment of the gods’ creation plan. First, they defeated Wuqub’ Kiaqix (Seven Macaw) and his two sons Zipacna and Kab’raqan, whose arrogance and uncontrolled power disrupted the creation process. The narrative reveals the origin of the hero twins by recounting the lives of their father and uncle, Jun Junajpu and Wuqub’ Junajpu, who were sacrificed by the lords of the underworld in Xib’alb’a. Like their father, the hero twins were summoned to play a ball game in Xib’alb’a, but ingeniously defeated the underworld lords Jun Kame and Wuqub’ Kame through magic tricks. This mythological section concludes as Junajpu and Ixb’alanq’e ascend to the sky to occupy their places in the cosmos as the sun and the moon.

The historical section begins with the K’iche’ gods’ fourth and final creation of human beings. In this successful attempt, they found the required elements for creating perfect human beings: yellow and white corn. The first four K’iche’ men formed were named B’alam K’itze’ (Jaguar Quitze), B’alam Aq’aab’ (Jaguar Night), Majukotaj (Not Right Now), and Iki B’alam (Dark Jaguar). These men were given wives and became the founders of the four K’iche’ lineages. One of the dominating events in this section is the long-awaited sunrise. The historical narrative concludes with a detailed description of the progeny of the four K’iche’ men, up to the time of the kings who were in power when Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado and his military forces penetrated Guatemala in 1524.

Origins of the Popol Wuj

Although there is no firm consensus about the authors or the time period of its original composition, it is believed that the Popol Wuj narrative was written by one or more Maya K’iche’ authors during the middle of the 16th century, a time when the highland Mayas were undergoing colonization and religious conversion. There are sufficient indications in the preamble to the stories that suggest that the main objective of the native author(s) was to preserve their cultural-oral tradition as they faced the threat of evangelization. These native author(s) represented the new generation of Christianized and educated natives who transposed the narrative based on a precolonial text, and most likely their oral tradition, into the K’iche’ language using Latin script. In one of the most assertive studies of the Popol Wuj, researcher Ruud van Akkeren demonstrates how members of the K’iche’ ruling elite, the Kaweq chinamit of Q’umarkaj-Utatlán (near present-day Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala), had a vested political interest in creating such a narrative to legitimize their political status and power within the new colonial system.2 According to van Akkeren, the writing of the Popol Wuj narrative by the Kaweq was a political maneuver by which they legitimized their own history, portraying themselves favorably as the founders and rulers of the great K’iche’ kingdom.3

In an attempt to understand the origins of the Popol Wuj narrative, researchers have gone a step further, theorizing about the existence of a precolonial hieroglyphic text that miraculously survived the Spanish invasion and was used by the native author in the 16th century.

In his 1992 study, “The Popol Vuh as a Hieroglyphic Book,” anthropologist Dennis Tedlock, author of the seminal English translation of the Popol Wuj narrative (1985), explains that the alphabetical Popol Vuh was preceded by a “nab’e wujil, ojer tz’ib’am puch, an ‘original book and ancient writing’.”4 More specifically, Tedlock links the Popol Wuj narrative at a metaphorical-astronomical level with the pre-Colombian codices, stating: “All in all, it seems quite likely that the hieroglyphic Popol Vuh, like the Dresden Codex, contained a Venus table, an eclipse table, and a new year’s almanac.”5 Tedlock adds, “If the illustrations of this hypothetical codex differed from those of the known codices, they may have had a greater resemblance to classic Maya painting . . .”6 Here Tedlock alludes to the work of Michael Coe and Justin Kerr, whose research also suggest links between the Popol Wuj narrative and Classic Maya pottery and stelas found at archeological Maya sites.7

While the idea of the existence of an urtext Popol Vuh version as a stand-alone codex in hieroglyphic form has considerably influenced the perception of the Popol Wuj narrative over time, this theory has some shortcomings, particularly as pointed out by van Akkeren, who states that the Popol Wuj “is not a literal transcription from a hieroglyphic or pictographic book . . .” as the Maya writing system was not equipped to narrate the intricate stories and dialogues found in the narrative.8 Instead, van Akkeren highlights the structure of the Dresden Codex with its terse and condensed sentences as evidence of the limitations found in Maya script to create a fluid and detailed narrative.9 Furthermore, Friar Ximénez’s own words in the prologues he attached to the Popol Wuj stories dispel any immediate idea of a hieroglyphic text during this time by directly referencing the opening lines of the Popol Wuj narrative itself, which ironically have been used by scholars to theorize an ancient precolonial Popol Vuh. He stated:

It is said . . . that it was written in the time of Christendom, because even though there was a book where all these things were written down, and that it came from the other side of the sea, it can no longer be read now. What it is certain is that such book never appeared nor was ever seen . . .10

Friar Ximénez’s statement demonstrates that he never viewed a hieroglyphic Popol Wuj, and that he based his transcription and translation on a Latinized K’iche’ text he obtained during his tenure as a priest among the K’iche’ in the Guatemalan Highlands. His life and works provide important information to ground the history of the Popol Wuj narrative.

Friar Francisco Ximénez and the Popol Wuj

In 1688, Francisco Ximénez arrived in Guatemala and was ordained a year later in the province of San Vicente de Chiapas. He held various positions within the Dominican Order, including master of novices, vicar of the convent of Guatemala, general procurator of the Dominican Order, and parish priest (doctrinero) for several indigenous towns between 1701 and 1721, including Chichicastenango, Rabinal, Santo Domingo Xenacoj, San Raimundo, and Sacapulas in the western highlands of Guatemala.11 During this period, Ximénez learned several Mayan languages, including K’iche’ and Kaqchikel, and acquired deep knowledge of the culture, traditions, and religious beliefs in the region. Friar Ximénez led a prolific intellectual life, producing works such as: Historia de la Provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Guatemala de la Orden de Predicadores (1715), Historia natural (1722), and a linguistic study of K’iche’, Tz’utujil, and Kaqchikel languages titled, El tesoro de las tres lenguas (1701–1704). His most important contribution was the transcription and Spanish translation of the K’iche’ stories known today as the Popol Wuj, which he placed within a series of religious treatises to train missionary Dominican friars as to the most effective method to convert the native population to Christianity. Today, his transcription and Spanish translation represent the only surviving copy of the native K’iche’ text, since the original he reported viewing has never been seen, except by Friar Ximénez himself.

Friar Ximénez’s transcription and translation of the K’iche’ stories became part of the Dominican monastery archives and remained practically in oblivion until the middle of the 19th century, when the European explorer-scholars Austrian Karl Scherzer and French Abbé Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg rediscovered his manuscripts. Both Scherzer and Brasseur de Bourbourg viewed the manuscript at the library of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, where it had been archived after the Liberal government confiscated Dominican archives during the first decades of the 19th century. Both researcher-scholars published versions of Friar Ximénez’s translation and transcription of the K’iche’ stories. In 1857 Scherzer titled his Spanish translation Las historias del origen de los indios. His report of his findings at the archive is critical to understand the history of the Popol Wuj because he stated that he saw three separate volumes authored by Friar Ximénez at the archive, and personally requested a handwritten copy of the third volume. He described this volume as containing a series of religious treatises, including a double-columned copy of the indigenous stories.12

Meanwhile, Brasseur de Bourbourg also acquired the third volume of Friar Ximénez’s manuscripts and transported it to France. In 1861, he eventually translated the K’iche’ stories into French, and for the first time officially titled the narrative Popol Vuh, or Popol Vuh, Le Livre Sacré et les Mythes de l’antiquité américaine. Given his particular interest in indigenous myths, Brasseur de Bourbourg also extracted the K’iche’ stories section from Friar Ximénez’s manuscript, thus creating the idea that the Popol Wuj narrative was a freestanding precolonial sacred text. His translation ultimately became the basis for numerous studies on Maya mythology. But, most significantly, his version invited readers to identify this section as independent and unrelated to the rest of Ximénez’s works contained in this volume. The manuscript remained in Brasseur’s personal collection until his death in 1874, after which it was acquired by the book dealer Alphonse Pinart and subsequently sold to the American collector Edward E. Ayer. In 1911, Ayer donated the manuscript to the special collection of indigenous manuscripts at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where it was catalogued as Arte de las tres lenguas, with the numerical classification of MS 1515.

This historical trajectory of the Popol Wuj narrative is not always clear and consequently has generated an extensive scholarly debate regarding the authorship, date of composition, and, overall, the authenticity of Friar Ximénez’s manuscript. Scholars have spent countless hours digging into the available scattered evidence with little success, attempting to straighten out the many unknowns surrounding the text. Researcher Jack J. Himelblau best summarized such attempts, stating that “questions regarding the copyist of the Popol Vuh and the manuscript are either unanswerable or elicit speculative responses . . .”13 Two of the most controversial studies were conducted by the Guatemalan scholar Daniel Contreras and the Mexican ethnographer René Acuña, who suggested that the Popol Wuj narrative was an “apocryphal” text, possibly composed by a Dominican missionary friar such as Friar Domingo de Vico or Friar Ximénez himself.14 Their assertions were based on the supposed hidden biblical themes in the narrative, and on the conclusion that a highly sophisticated narrative such as the Popol Wuj could only have been written by missionary friars who were knowledgeable about European narratives and children’s tales.15

To make matters worse, Munro Edmonson and Adrían Recinos, both translators of the Popol Wuj narrative, posed the existence of multiple Popol Wuj manuscripts based on the geographical location they believe the manuscript was written. First, they identified a precolonial hieroglyphic text as the “Manuscrito de Utatlán,” followed by a manuscript written in Latin script by Kaweq author(s) in the middle of the 16th century, titled “Manuscrito de Quiché.” Similarly, both scholars believed that the first rough copy of the K’iche’ narrative drafted by Friar Ximénez was at the city of Chichicastenango, so they titled it “Manuscrito de Chichicastenango.” In addition, they believed that a second complete copy of Ximénez’s manuscript, penned by multiple hands, “Manuscrito de Rabinal,” was created at the city of Rabinal; they identified this to be the only surviving copy of Ximénez’s manuscript.16 These speculations on the multiple versions of Friar Ximénez’s text ultimately call into question the authenticity of the manuscript now housed at the Newberry Library. However, based on the available information on Friar Ximénez’s life and writings, van Akkeren concludes that:

The manuscript at the Newberry Library is the most authentic manuscript of the Popol Vuh [Popol Wuj] that we have available. It is penned in Ximénez’s hand. Brasseur bought the manuscript from Ignacio Coloch, a native of Rabinal already bound in the order that it still retains in Chicago.17

This assertion leaves no question about Friar Ximénez’s manuscript at the Newberry Library. Furthermore, his findings provide two additional critical pieces of information on the history of the Popol Wuj. First, he delved into the historical persona of Ignacio Coloch from Rabinal, who allegedly provided Brasseur de Bourbourg with Ximénez’s manuscript. Second, he concludes that the binding of Friar Ximénez’ text now filed at the Newberry Library was probably completed by Pedro de Abella in 1846 as part of a binding project of parochial books at Rabinal.18 Given this information, there is substantial evidence to argue that the various sections of Ximénez’s manuscript were originally bound together, making it important to examine what this structure reveals about the colonial situation in which the narrative emerged.

The Popol Wuj as a Colonial Source

The Popol Wuj narrative is a product of the colonial encounter between the Maya K’iche’ and the Dominican Missionary Order in the Guatemala Highlands. Whether reference is made to the native manuscript that Friar Ximénez viewed, or to the transcription and translation he prepared, it is safe to state that the text is a product of its time. In both instances, but particularly in the case of Friar Ximénez in the 18th century, the narrative attests to an unequal religious encounter in which the sole objective of the Dominican Order was to eradicate indigenous beliefs to accomplish a more effective conversion of the Maya people to Christianity. Louise Burkhart’s research provides a useful point of departure for contextualizing the complexities of the Popol Wuj within its proper context. Burkhart states that most of the colonial manuscripts originated as a result of cultural contact between friars and indigenous groups, and consequently embody what she defines as a “colonial dialogue.”19 Of special relevance is Burkhart’s assertion that colonial texts have been analyzed primarily as single-sided, ethnographic sources, thus ignoring their ecclesiastic components. The Popol Wuj narrative is an example of both the dual nature of colonial texts and of the perils of approaching these colonial sources as single-sided. To summarize, the narrative has been primarily contextualized to study precolonial Maya culture alone, omitting the ecclesiastic context within which Friar Ximénez carried out his work. It would be inaccurate to underplay the ethnographic contribution that Ximénez’s transcription and translation of the K’iche’ text offers to studies of Maya culture in general, and more so, to deny the crucial insights this narrative provides to contemporary understandings of Maya K’iche’ myth. However, placing the Popol Wuj narrative within its Dominican context offers a broader understanding of the text itself, and of the spiritual conquest and cultural colonization of the K’iche’ in the Guatemala Highlands.

In short, the physical structure in which Friar Ximénez placed his transcription and translation of the K’iche’ stories must be considered first in any analysis of the text, because it was ultimately dictated by Ximénez’s proselytizing objectives. A closer analysis of the Popol Wuj at the Newberry Library, reveals that Ximénez conceptualized the Popol Wuj narrative as part of three religious treatises bound into a single volume, where each of the sections played a crucial function in the overall evangelization project of the K’iche’. A description is in order here: The first treatise (see Figure 1) was titled, “Arte de las lenguas Q’aq’chiquel, K’iche’ y Tz’utuhil” (Art of the Q’aq’chiquel, K’iche’ and Tz’utuhil languages), and is a lengthy grammatical study of the three most important Maya languages of the central and western Guatemalan Highlands, foliated from 1 to 94 recto.

Figure 1. MS 1515: First page of first treatise.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

The second treatise is a guide to instruct friars in the art of evangelization. Entitled “Tratado segundo de todo lo que debe saber un ministro para la buena administración de estos naturales” (Second treatise on what a minister must know for the good governing of these natives) it runs from folio 94 verso to 120 recto and includes a catechism and a confessional guide (Figures 2, 3, and 4).

Figure 2. MS 1515: First page of second treatise.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

Figure 3. MS 1515: First page of catechism.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

Figure 4. First page of confessionary.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

The third treatise contains the Popol Wuj narrative, and bears the original title of “Empiezan las historias del origen de los indios de esta provincia de Guatemala traducido de la lengua K’iche’ en la Castellana para más comodidad de los ministros de el santo evangelio” (Thus begin the creation stories of the Indians of this province of Guatemala translated from K’iche’ into Spanish for the convenience of the ministers of the Holy Gospel) (Figure 5). This section presents a new numbering of folios, running from 1 to 56 recto, and is followed by a set of “escolios” (Figure 6), or Friar Ximénez’s commentaries on the K’iche’ stories.20

Figure 5. First page of third treatise or Popol Wuj.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

Figure 6. MS 1515: First page of escolios.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

The prologues that Friar Ximénez carefully appended to each of these sections are equally important to the structure of his manuscript. As was common practice in colonial writing, these prologues were appended upon completion of the work, and only after the author had a holistic idea of the text. It is important to keep in mind that while the prologues and annotations might give the impression they are mere decorations, these appended sections helped to define what scholar William Hanks refers to as deictic centering of the text, or the context in which, and from which, the discourse emerged.21 In the case of Ximénez’s manuscript these appended sections are crucial for two reasons: First, they represent instances where Friar Ximénez’s own voice can be heard, providing his view of the indigenous peoples and about the Dominican conversion project. Second, they provided the most reliable evidence yet to support the unifying structure and interconnection of each section in the manuscript, which historically has been called into question given the coexistence of three distinct genres within the same manuscript. The fact that Friar Ximénez includes a linguistic study, two ecclesiastic texts, and a pseudo-ethnographic narrative or Popol Wuj, each with a different pagination, makes it hard to imagine how all these parts could be related, particularly since the larger portion of the manuscript is devoted to an Arte, or grammatical study, of Maya languages. This structure becomes clear once it is understood within the context of the Dominican evangelization campaign in the Guatemala Highlands. Ximénez’s first treatise provides indigenous language training for missionary friars, who could then rehearse using the catechism and confessionary. The K’iche’ stories, on the other hand, provided a detailed description of the indigenous people’s spiritual world so as to enable inexperienced friars to recognize and refute any religious unorthodoxy as prescribed in the last section or escolios.

Further research in colonial ecclesiastic manuscripts can be used to support the structure of Friar Ximénez’s manuscript, particularly his decision to include an Arte in the opening section. In his study on Maya Yucatan, for instance, William Hanks traces the connection between written language and the “reduction” system by which Spanish colonial authority aimed to bring indigenous populations into “Christian civility” (policía Cristiana), or “ordered towns” (pueblos reducidos).22 According to Hanks, this “Maya reducido” was a Latinized Maya language created by “Lenguas” or missionary friars proficient in Maya languages, such as Ximénez, and was pivotal for the success of the reduction system. This is because once a language was “reducida,” reorganized, or colonized, it produced a plethora of grammatical studies, “artes,” manuals, and dictionaries. This in turn paved the way for native-language ecclesiastic works, including doctrines, catechisms, manuals, prayers, and sermons, among others. This ecclesiastic literature was exclusively used in convents to train new missionaries before entering the mission field. Hanks demonstrates that it was through language that “reduction” expanded to the various spheres of colonial life, including the spiritual domain, as colonial subjects were expected to embody a Christ-like lifestyle.23

In the same manner, Ximénez himself offers unique information to connect the catechism and the confessionary to the rest of the treatises, particularly to the Popol Wuj narrative. In the prologue to the second treatise he states:

This is the aim of this second treatise that contains a confessionary and a catechism, as well as a treatise that I am adding in the Quiché language and have translated into our Castilian, where one can see the various errors with which Satan, the ancient enemy of the human race, strives to wage war on these miserable Indians. Like the confessionary and catechism, this treatise deals with such errors so that friars become aware of them and like vigilant sentinels will watch over the flock of Christ and will not allow those entrusted to us to be lost.24

Here, Friar Ximénez clearly reveals his zealous conviction that the stories contained in the Popol Wuj, as an expression of the K’iche’ religion, were “erratic” and inspired by Satan to keep the indigenous lost in their own way of life. It is also clear that he imagined a world of spiritual warfare, in which he and his Dominican missionary brothers were called to watch over the indigenous’ spiritual well-being. For Friar Ximénez, the process was rather simple. The act of recording the K’iche’ creation stories would reveal their “errors” so that missionary friars would recognize idolatrous practices, and systematically extirpate them from the indigenous spiritual life. It is at this point the last section or escolios comes into play as it provides the final stage of Friar Ximénez’s objective for the entire manuscript.

The Dominican “Ut prius evellant de inde plantent” in the Highlands

The escolios in the last part of Friar Ximénez’s manuscript are seldom read, primarily because they have never been included in any modern translation or transcription of the K’iche’ stories, except for Scherzer’s 1856 Spanish translation. Regardless of its location in the last part of the text, this section is a vital component of Friar Ximénez’s manuscript as the escolios embody his main objective in recording, but also extirpating, the Popol Wuj stories. It is not surprising that Ximénez introduced this section by stating:

I attempt to form these annotations, pointing out what is ancient history, and citing from the stories included above and noting what is pertinent to our Holy Catholic faith, for the convenience of those who wish to take advantage of my work . . . warning them here and being certain that they [the indigenous] still live in these errors and foolishness even today.25

This statement makes it clear that these last sections (the K’iche’ stories and annotations) were to be read jointly, and that Friar Ximénez was simply continuing the evangelization project that his Dominican predecessors had introduced in the Guatemalan Highlands more than a century prior, namely, “Ut prius evellant de inde plantent” or “to uproot beforehand, thereafter to plant.” Historically, this project was developed in the middle of the 16th century to energize the slow progress made in converting the indigenous population. According to Friar Antonio de Remesal, the official chronicler of the Order, Dominican friars were first instructed to create a book containing the names and drawings of the idols, as well as the number of people worshipping them.26 Such mandate was further enhanced with a similar demand that friars inquire about indigenous ancient gods, so to recognize “falsehood” in rituals and other cultural expressions performed by the indigenous communities.27

Under “Ut prius evellant de inde plantent,” the indigenous people were considered “fertile soil” in which “trees of virtue” were to be planted. A fruitful outcome essentially depended on successfully uprooting of “the weed of superstition . . .” from indigenous hearts.28 For the Dominican missionaries, indigenous stories, both oral and written, represented this superstition that must be weeded out. Simply stated, the act of recording the native stories would uncover their latent, “erratic nature,” very much the same process as digging up roots from a tilled plot. More specifically, Friar Ximénez’s extirpation process first involved setting apart the fundamental differences between Maya K’iche’ religious beliefs and Christian tenets (God, the Holy Trinity, and the creation of humanity), followed by the presentation of empirical evidence to demonstrate that native religious concepts in no way should be interpreted as Christian truths.

One example of this extirpation process can be found in the first segment of the escolios, “Del ser de Dios” (Of the nature of God), where Ximénez struck at the center of the indigenous religion, attempting to uproot the idea that the Maya K’iche’ supreme creator Tz’aqol-B’itol could be equated with the Judeo-Christian concept of God. Friar Domingo de Vico is perhaps remembered as the pioneer of this rather controversial syncretic theological approach. De Vico arrived in Chiapas in 1545 and his most important contribution was his catechism known as the Theologia Indorum (1553), written in several highland Guatemalan Maya languages including K’iche’, Kaqchikel, and Tz’utujil. De Vico believed that Christianity could be taught to the natives using the supposed “similarities” or parallelisms between indigenous stories and biblical accounts. His “syncretic” idea was not unanimously embraced by the 16th-century religious community, who believed that the use of indigenous stories to explain Christian dogma would further encourage idolatry. The opposition argued that the indigenous neophytes were unable to distinguish between the two systems and thus De Vicos’ Theologia would, instead, encourage embracing both religions indiscriminately.29

Friar Ximénez sharply rejected such comparisons between religious systems, stating that the name, “Tzacol-bitol, meaning he who makes or fabricates something, . . . utilized to explain our God . . .” was a name given by Satan to minimize God as the absolute creator. Friar Ximénez further explains; “These names of Tzacol-bitol should be explained to the Indians and the intelligence that Satan bestows to this god must be detested.”30 Refutations of this kind appeared repeatedly throughout the escolios, and included a range of themes such as the K’iche’ kingdom and religious practices and customs. At the end of the escolios, Ximénez fulfilled the “Ut prius evellant de inde plantent” by removing the spiritual significance of this Maya K’iche’ myth and simultaneously implanting Judeo-Christian beliefs as the absolute authority.

This cross-reading of Friar Ximénez’s multisectioned manuscript demonstrates that it is within this religious framework, and particularly within his extirpation objectives, that the structure of his manuscript becomes evident. The first treatise provides indigenous language training to the missionary friars, who could then use the languages to implement the catechism and confessionary. Furthermore, the K’iche’ stories provided a detailed description of the indigenous people’s spiritual world, so to enable friars to recognize and refute it as prescribed by the escolios. Structurally, there is little doubt that Ximénez intended his manuscript to be a coherent unit to be used to expedite an effective conversion of the people the Dominican Order believed were spiritually entrusted to them. This historical frame provides the background for the following analysis of the digitization project of MS 1515 completed at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

The Popol Wuj and the New Digital Era

Never before has a historical description of the Popol Wuj within its early 18th-century colonial context been more pertinent than today. This is due to the rapid, ever-changing era of digital technology which Friar Ximénez’s manuscript has entered, necessitating the creation of a historical record of the original structure he intended for this manuscript. The fascination with the ancient past has swayed readers to minimize the historical context that frames the K’iche’ narrative, so that Ximénez’s transcription and Spanish translation has been perceived to be an independent book with a linear account, divided into parts, and titled Popol Vuh.

As stated, such a conception originated when Austrian Karl Scherzer and French Abbé Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg rediscovered Friar Ximénez in the middle of the 19th century. Both scholars changed the way this narrative was perceived and interpreted by future generations. Yet throughout its conflicting history and geographical travels from the Guatemala Highlands to Guatemala City, to France, and finally to the United States, Friar Ximénez’s manuscript retained its original structure of three treatises bound in a single volume. This can be credited in part to the plethora of Popol Wuj narrative translations and editions published in the 20th century, generated in part by Scherzer’s and Brasseur de Bourbourg’s editions. All these publications focused on the Maya mythological world and diverted attention away from the obscure MS 1515, leaving the manuscript intact and quasi-forgotten. In addition, the Newberry Library initially catalogued Friar Ximénez’s manuscript as “Arte de las tres lenguas,” causing confusion for researchers searching for a manuscript titled “Popol Vuh.”

In 2011, the Newberry Library embarked on a digitization and restoration project of MS 1515, arguing the need to mend structural stress on the paper created by its tight binding. This process was also seen as an opportunity to film digital images of complete folios. However, the new digital version of the Popol Wuj narrative, unlike the 1970 microfilm version of the entire MS 1515, focused on the third section of Ximénez’s manuscript.31 The Newberry Library Conservation Treatment Report on MS 1515 confirms that a decision had to be made about whether to keep the manuscript intact or to bind the K’iche’ narrative into a separate section following an intricate unbinding and mending of the folios. At the end of the 150-hour process, the Popol Wuj was bound separately, making it safe to assume that at some point during the process of digitization the decision was made that the new online reader should only have access to this particular section of the manuscript.32 This is evidenced in a partnership between Ohio State University and the Newberry Library, whereby the new, digital Popol Wuj, containing only the indigenous stories and Ximénez’s escolios (Figure 7), is available on the university’s open access website and the Newberry Library’s portal.

Figure 7. MS 1515 Volume 2: First page of manuscript.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

In addition, the Newberry Library’s online catalogue confirms this new format, indicating that MS 1515 is now conserved in two volumes. While Volume 1 contains Ximénez’s first two treatises, namely, the linguistic study and ecclesiastic material, Volume 2 includes the K’iche’ stories and the escolios.33 This decision to divide Friar Ximénez’s manuscript could have ultimately resulted from a common belief that there is no significant relationship between the sections comprising MS 1515 other than the fact that Friar Ximénez authored all of them. Additionally, the manuscript gives the impression that it is a collection of multiple genres of colonial texts, namely, linguistic, ecclesiastic, and anthropological. David Spadafora, president and librarian at the Newberry Library, explains the decision to divide MS 1515 as follows:

But there was still the difficult question as to whether or not the Popol Vuh should be rebound separately from Ximénez’s other manuscripts. To more responsibly facilitate handling by both researchers and devotional users, conservators decided to bind the Popol Vuh and Ximénez’s manuscripts separately.34

As expected, the latest digital stage in the trajectory of the Popol Wuj narrative opened new possibilities for the study of this manuscript. Based on early responses to the new digital MS 1515, there is no doubt that the process achieved the dissemination of a Popol Wuj to a broader global readership, as it can now be accessed with the click of a link at any time and from anywhere in the world. Although it is too soon to predict with certainty the outcomes of this online era of digital images, it is obvious that Friar Ximénez’s manuscript has once again been transformed with the purpose of disseminating knowledge about precolonial ancient history, which may also prolong the tendency to extract this narrative from its original colonial religious framing as first conceived and assembled by Ximénez.

The decision to separate Friar Ximénez’s manuscript raises several concerns for the future of Popol Wuj studies. In addition to furthering the misconception that the Popol Wuj narrative is, in fact, a stand-alone sacred book, theoretically the text is now less suitable for studying the cultural dialogue intrinsic of colonial manuscripts. Instead, void of its ecclesiastic components, it now appears to be a one-dimensional indigenous product that should be studied solely as an ethnographic source. The new two-volume digital format makes it virtually impossible to contextualize Friar Ximénez’s narrative within his extirpation project.

In addition to breaking off the fundamental inner connection of all the sections, the newly digitized Popol Wuj effectively censors Friar Francisco Ximénez’s presence out of his own work. In other words, Ximénez’s voice, so eloquently captured in the appended sections to his manuscript, might be forever erased for modern readers of the digitized MS 1515 Volume 2. While scholars and readers will continue to be drawn to the Newberry Library in search of the ancient Popol Vuh, modern online readers will have quick, direct digital access. Yet in both cases the reading experience will be partial, detached from Friar Ximénez as the copyist and translator, and from the history that drove him to preserve the very same matter he zealously spent most of his life fighting to destroy.

Finally, it is only proper to finish this historical overview by stressing that there should be no doubt that the Popol Wuj narrative is the only surviving account to date that provides a breadth and depth of detail concerning precolonial Maya religion, cosmology, and society. The narrative is irrefutable proof of the complexities and sophistication of indigenous thought before European contact. In the same manner, this mytho-historical narrative also entails a history of its own at a given time, space, and set of historical circumstances from which the narrative emerged. The Popol Wuj narrative is a product of a colonial encounter and religious conflict which occurred as the Dominican Order attempted to carry out a spiritual conquest in the Guatemala Highlands that the K’iche’ people resisted with great resilience so as to ensure their cultural and religious survival.

Discussion of the Literature

The Popol Wuj has been the subject of extensive and intensive scholarship. Since its resurgence as an independent, self-contained narrative in the middle of the 18th century, it has represented an authentic voice from precolonial times, and the only way to penetrate the Maya mythological world. Consequently, scholarship on this subject has generally been dominated by the determination to create the most exact and reliable translation of Friar Ximénez’s own K’iche’ transcription. Most of these works were driven by ideological agendas, influencing the way the Popol Wuj narrative has been perceived and interpreted. Much of the early 19th-century scholarship on indigenous texts, including the first European translations of the Popol Wuj by Karl Scherzer and Brasseur de Bourbourg were driven by the scientific spirit that sought to inquire into the origins of this exotic and mysterious civilization.35 However, the focus of such scholarship radically shifted in the 20th century as the Popol Wuj narrative gained popularity and became the focus of new interdisciplinary studies. Guatemalan author and winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Literature, Miguel Angel Asturias, should be credited as one of the first writers to incorporate Maya myth in his literary productions. His novels contributed to the universalization of the Popol Wuj, as he ventured into the Maya mythological world as early as 1923.36 Asturias’ fascination with Maya myth came as he collaborated in the Spanish translation of the Popol Wuj narrative, under the supervision of anthropologist Georges Raynaud.37 Two additional influential translations were produced around this same time period: one by the Guatemalan scholar Adrián Recinos and an English translation by Recinos, Goetz, and Morley.38

At the same time, the second half of the 20th century was dominated by a determination to ascertain without a doubt the “authenticity” of the Popol Wuj narrative, as reflected in the works of the Guatemalan scholar Daniel Contreras, who argued that the text could not be taken as authentic, due to the influence of missionary teachings.39 Mexican ethnographer René Acuña followed the same line of thought, publishing two important studies further suggesting that the Popol Wuj was an “apocryphal” text most likely written by a Dominican missionary such as Friar Domingo de Vico or Ximénez himself.40 In the Guatemalan context, these approaches deny indigenous intellectual capacity to create such a text, and perpetuate the cultural bias and prejudice of the Ladino elite toward the indigenous population.

In reaction to these biased conclusions, the Popol Wuj scholarship changed radically, primarily led by North American anthropologists for whom the Popol Wuj became the indigenous text par excellence and the best way to reinstate native pride and self-respect in Guatemalan society. The cornerstone of their argument was the fundamental belief in the existence of a version of this text in hieroglyphic form. Munro Edmonson’s English translation of the native stories mirrored this theory, particularly given his belief that the only way to understand the Popol Wuj narrative was in poetic form, just as the myth was ritually performed orally in precolonial times.41 Two more recent translations have followed Edmonson’s approach: those of Luis Enrique Sam Colop and of Allen J. Christenson.42 Dennis Tedlock and Michael Coe are among other Maya scholars who have produced influential works to support this native emphasis. Breaking with Edmonson’s emphasis on a poetic structure, Tedlock, a cultural anthropologist, produced his seminal English translation, which included extensive explanatory notes suitable to attract a wide range readership. In this translation, Tedlock claimed to have deciphered the hermetic divinatory episodes of the Popol Wuj with the assistance of a K’iche’ Daykeeper Andrés Xiloj. Tedlock’s powerful North American publishing house, Simon & Schuster, assured the wide availability of his translation, which became a required text in many US university courses.43 Two other works by Tedlock included a hermeneutical approach to the creation myth and his analysis of a Popol Wuj narrative as a hieroglyphic book.44 Such an emphasis on the K’iche’ precolonial mythical events also received support from the archeological findings of Michael Coe, who proposed that the accounts narrated in the Popol Wuj were also found in Classic Maya iconography and epigraphy. His study on the “Hero Twins” in the Popol Wuj is of special interest.45 Finally, the work of Robert Carmack and Francisco Morales, Nuevas perspectivas sobre el Popol Vuh (1983), offers a collection of essays on the Popol Wuj from various disciplines, including history, linguistics, archeology, ethnography, among others. Most of the essays emerged from conferences given at the first congress dedicated to the Popol Wuj in Santa Cruz del Quiché, organized by Robert Carmack and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History in June 1979.46

All of these contributions have been instrumental in furthering the field of Popol Wuj studies, as these translations have generated numerous articles and books exploring the Maya mythological world, and providing a better appreciation of the culture, religion, and contemporary awareness of the reality of the Maya peoples in Guatemalan society. Although most of these translations are preluded with information regarding the history of the text and details about Friar Ximénez’s life, their main focus is on its indigenous precolonial facets. Significantly less attention has been given to the colonial context that framed Friar Ximénez’s transcription and translation, or on the Popol Wuj as a product of a colonial encounter between the K’iche’ and the Dominican Order. Such inquiries have always been sensitive given the risk of being labeled as a researcher who does not recognize the potential of, and the contributions of, indigenous populations.

Regardless of this fact, scholarly contributions worth mentioning include the work of historian Ruud van Akkeren, whose archival research provides grounding historical information.47 Other works crucial to contextualize Friar Ximénez’s work within a Dominican evangelization project include that by Néstor Quiroa, whose works advocate for a holistic analysis of Ximénez’s 17th-century manuscript.48 Two other works that provide details of the complexities of tracing the history of Friar Ximénez’s manuscript include those of Jack Himelblau and Carlos M. López. Himelblau offers a historical overview of the different scholarly positions regarding the Popol Wuj text, as well as its authorship and timeframe of composition, particularly in relationship to the existence of Ximénez’s multiple manuscripts posed by Munro Edmonson and Adrián Recinos.49 Carlos M. López focuses on using holographs and watermarks from Friar Ximénez’s different works to demonstrate the “authenticity” of MS 1515. The value of López’s work resides in the fact that it summarizes in Spanish most of the findings of the previously mentioned scholars.50

The works of Louise Burkhart and William F. Hanks can also be consulted as they provide theoretical bases to place Friar Ximénez within the colonial context.51 Works that provide information on colonial literacy, and particularly on Mesoamerican writing, include those of Elizabeth Hill Boone, Walter Mignolo, and Martin Lienhard.52 Other influential authors on this topic, particularly on the relation between writing and colonial power, include Matthew Restall, William F. Hanks, and Walter Mignolo.53 Finally, given the current digital access to this colonial manuscript both in special collections and in webpage-based formats, it is hoped that scholarship on the Popol Wuj within the complexities of colonial Mesoamerica will increase in future studies of this fascinating narrative.

Primary Sources

Given the interest in indigenous cultures in the Americas, particularly the fascination with Mesoamerican indigenous populations during the 19th and 20th centuries, European and North American explorer-researchers and book collectors obtained and transported vast numbers of native manuscripts for their personal collections. Over time, these appropriations eventually ended up in distinguished library collections throughout the United States and France, preserving them for future generations. The following are perhaps the best-known and accessible collections with extensive holdings on Mesoamerican indigenous cultures.

The Edward E. Ayer Collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago offers an extensive body of literature pertinent to the encounter between Europeans and indigenous groups of the Americas. This collection includes a vast number of manuscripts about and from the Guatemala Highlands, including Indian language grammars, dictionaries, and religious literature. An excellent secondary source to this collection is Ruth Lapham Butler’s article, “A Check List of Manuscripts in the Edward E. Ayer Collection” (1939), which includes a brief description of manuscripts included before 1937.54 The Ayer Collection is possibly most relevant for the study of the Popol Wuj, as it houses Friar Ximénez’s 18th-century translation-transcription of the K’iche’ narratives. See American Indian and Indigenous Studies Collection and other Popol Wuj content at the Newberry Library.

The Garrett-Gates Mesoamerican Manuscript Collection at Princeton University Library provides another extensive holding of colonial manuscripts in Maya languages. This collection includes manuscripts in the languages of: Yucatec, K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Tz’utuhil, Tzeltal, Pokomam, Chorti, Cholti, and K’eq’chi. It also includes Spanish translations of Christian doctrinal works, dictionaries of native languages, histories, letters, land documents, maps, and other historical records. Of special interest are manuscripts of the ritual books of Chilam Balam. See the Garrett-Gates Mesoamerican Manuscripts Collection; the Princeton Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts (C0744) at Garrett-Gates Collection (C0744); and the Princeton Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts (C0940) at Princeton Mesoamerican Manuscripts Collection (C0940).

One of the most comprehensive collections on Colonial Mesoamerica is housed at the Tozzer Library at Harvard University. This collection holds material on the indigenous peoples of the Americas that can be useful to various disciplines including cultural and social anthropology, archeology, and linguistics.

The Bancroft Library Collection on Latin America at the University of Berkeley is also a prominent resource for scholars on colonial Guatemala given its large collection of manuscript materials and rare imprints. The core of this collection is comprised of the library’s early acquisitions of private collections including that of Ephraim George Squier, Brasseur de Bourbourg, and Alphonse Pinart. This collection can be accessed at the Bancroft Library’s Latin Americana Collection.

Finally, another collection with substantial material on colonial Mesoamerica worth mentioning is the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. This collection specializes in indigenous languages and its holdings include indigenous languages grammars, dictionaries, ethnographies, field notes, and more. In addition to offering a collection of audio and video recordings of narratives, chants, oratory conversation, and songs, the Benson Collection includes a digital archive of recordings and texts in various indigenous languages.

Further Reading

  • Acuña, René. “Problemas del Popol Vuh.” Mester Revista de Literatura. Creación-Teoría-Interpretación 5 (1975): 123–132.
  • Acuña, René. “El Popol Vuh, Vico y la Theología Indorum.” In Nuevas perspectivas sobre el Popol Vuh. Edited by Robert Carmack and Francisco Morales, 1–16. Guatemala: Piedra Santa, 1983.
  • Burkhart, Louise. The Slippery Earth: Nahua–Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989.
  • Christenson, Allen J. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.
  • Coe, Michael. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: Grolier Club, 1973.
  • Coe, Michael. “The Hero Twins: Myth and Image.” In The Maya Vase Book. Edited by Justin Kerr and Michael Coe, Vol. 1, 161–184. New York: Kerr Associates, 1989.
  • Contreras, Daniel. “Temas y Motivos Bíblicos en las Crónicas Indígenas de Guatemala.” Antropología e Historia de Guatemala 15 (1963): 46–58.
  • Hanks, William F. Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
  • Hill Boone, Elizabeth, and Walter Mignolo. Writing without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1994.
  • Himelblau, Jack. Quiché Worlds in Creation: The Popol Vuh as a Narrative Work of Art. Culver City, CA: Labyrinthos, 1989.
  • Kerr, Justin. “The Myth of the Popol Vuh as an Instrument of Power.” In New Theories on the Ancient Maya, University Museum Symposium Series 3. Edited by Elin C. Danien and Robert J. Sharer, 109–121. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
  • Lienhard, Martin. La voz y su huella: Escritura y conflicto étnico-social e América Latina 1492–1988. New Hampshire: Ediciones del Norte, 1991.
  • Lovell, W. George “Surviving Conquest: The Maya of Guatemala in Historical Perspective.” Latin American Research Review 23, no. 2 (1988): 25–57.
  • Lovell, W. G. Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Chucumatanes Highlands, 1500–1821. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s, 1992.
  • Montejo, Victor. Maya Intellectual Renaissance: Identity, Representation, and Leadership, Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies, 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.
  • Pratt, Mary Louis. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Quiroa, Néstor I. “The Popol Vuh and the Dominican Religious Extirpation in Highland Guatemala: Prologues and Annotations of Fr. Francisco Ximénez.” The Americas 64, no. 4 (2011): 467–494.
  • Quiroa, Néstor I. “Friar Francisco Ximénez and the Popol Vuh: From Religious Treatise to a Digital Sacred Book.” Ethnohistory 64, no. 2 (2017): 241–270.
  • Recinos, Adrián. Popol Vuh: Las antiguas historias del Quiché. Guatemala: Editorial Piedra Santa, 1995.
  • Restall, Matthew. “Heirs to the Hieroglyphs: Indigenous Writing in Colonial Mesoamerica” The Americas 54, no. 2 (1997): 239–267.
  • Tedlock, Dennis. Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
  • Tedlock, Dennis. “The Popol Vuh as a Hieroglyphic Book.” In New Theories on Ancient Maya. Edited by Elin C. Daniel and Robert Sharer, 229–240. University of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, 1992.
  • Van Akkeren, Ruud. “Authors of the Popol Vuh.” Mesoamerica 14 (2003): 237–256.
  • Van Akkeren, Ruud. La visión indígena de la conquista. Guatemala: Serviprensa, 2007.
  • Van Akkeren, Ruud. “Fray Francisco Ximénez: del Popol Vuh al Quiché-centrismo.” In Cosmovisión Mesoamericana. Primera Edición. Ed. Colección “estudios Mesoamericanos,” 183–221. Guatemala: Publicaciones Mesoamericana, 2011.