Welcome to Multepal, our thematic research collection of the Popol Wuj!
A Classic period vessel painting with characters also found in the Popol Wuj, including, from left to right, Chak, a dog, Itzamná, and an image of Junajpu that is not included in the alphabetic version of the text. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (Justin Kerr File No. 555).
From the colonial period to the present day, the Popol Wuj, sometimes called the K'iche' Maya book of creation, has been translated, edited, paraphrased, and glossed in more than 25 languages. WorldCat suggests that there are over 1,200 known editions of the work, variously published in verse (Colop 2008, Christenson 2004), scholarly editions (Tedlock 1996, Christenson 2007), and illustrated volumes (Montejo and Garay 2012). Each translation offers a different interpretation of the K’iche’ source text. The opening line of Adrián Recinos’s Spanish-language translation is, “Este es el principio de las antiguas historias de este lugar llamado Quiché” (This is the beginning of the ancient histories of this place called K'iche') while Ermilo Abreu Gómez renders it as, “Entonces no había ni gente, ni animales, ni árboles, ni piedras, ni nada” (And so there were neither people, nor animals, nor trees, nor stones, or anything).
In many ways, this range of editions and editorial choices is inevitable. There is no extant original source for the book that we call the Popol Wuj. Instead, we are left with an early eighteenth-century copy of an edition that was recorded in lettered form in the mid-sixteenth century. The text lists family lines and leaders from the beginning of the K'iche' community through the arrival of Pedro de Alvarado in 1524; in the final pages, we learn that "D. Pedro de robles ahau ꜫalel / Don Po. de Robles. es el q’Reyn agora" (56r). Because Don Pedro de Robles began his rule after 1554, we know that the Popol Wuj was written down around that time. Most scholars believe that the text was written between 1554-1558 (Christenson 2007: 28). When Dominican friar Francisco de Ximénez made a copy of that text, sometime between 1701 and 1703, nearly 150 years had passed. The text that we have today is thus shaped by years of Maya storytelling, histories, and poetics, as well as colonial and early national archival fragmentations, translations, and missionary interventions.
More broadly, such a proliferation of literary forms is both inevitable and welcome. Sacred literatures are deeply personal and of great meaning to their communities; when we think of the long history of Biblical translation, it is perhaps not surprising to find numerous translations of the K'iche' text. But such variations can make it difficult for modern readers to appreciate the larger cosmological and cultural significance of the stories told in the Popol Wuj, and to see how various storytelling traditions, visual cultures (stonework, jade carvings, vases, paintings, textiles), and historical layers converge to create this range of meanings. Readers’ interpretations of the text, and of the K'iche' cultural and spiritual traditions that are conveyed in translation, depend upon the editions they consult.
For these reasons, we wanted to create a digital edition of the text that would allow readers to appreciate the many meanings and histories embedded in the narrative. This thematic research collection unites key primary sources -- namely, Ximénez's K'iche'- and Spanish-language manuscript (1701-3), as it has been preserved at the Newberry Library and disseminated as pdfs by the Ohio State University Library -- and variant translations, especially Sam Colop (2008), Dennis Tedlock and Andrés Xiloj (1996), and Allen Christenson (2004, 2007). We also make use of secondary work from archaeology, anthropology, art history, history, linguistics, and literary studies, as well as insights from In the future, we hope to add an English-language level using Allen J. Christenson's (2004) literal poetic translation. We also plan to update the site with new research as it becomes available and as our readers share their insights with us.
We began this site as a class project in a graduate seminar in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Virginia; we call our project "multepal" after the idea of "joint rule" or "council rulership" -- a collective model of political organization and governance -- that Yukatek communities developed in the postclassic era. We do so in recognition that our efforts to produce a digital edition of the K'iche' book of council, Popol Wuj, are equally collective. We have been honored to collaborate with José Augusto Yac Noj (Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala) and Allen Christenson (Brigham Young University) along the way. We hope to continue to develop the site in the coming years, and to incorporate new ideas and voices into this digital reading and research experience.
Maltyox chawe / Muchas gracias / Thank you,
-- Rafael Alvarado (PI), Allison Bigelow, Catherine Addington, Karina Baptista, Nicole Bonino, María Esparza Rodríguez, Rachel Gardella, Michelet McClean Estrada, Will Norton, Dave Prine, Matthew Richey, Benjamín Romero Salado, Miguel Valladares Llata, José Augusto Yac Noj