Introduction: Justice, Punishment, and the Word

Solapas principales

An ancient text of unexpired validity, the Popol Vuh, most commonly known as the Mayan Book of Creation or the Book of Council, offers the reader myriad lines of inquiry.  Whether it be its linguistic abstraction and frequent untranslatability or its interrelatedness with other Mesoamerican myths of creation, each one of its components works within a wide arrange of stories, times, and spaces to project the cosmovisión of the Quiche people past and present.  Such a layered composition of meaning lends itself to and yet complicates the work of digital humanists in creating a digital edition of this wondrous text.  That said, the accompanying sections are an attempt to approach a set of themes of great import to the creation of the world in the Popol Vuh: justice and punishment.

More specifically these themes deal with the ways and manners in which misdoers of divine laws receive their just deserts.  In fact, almost every ‘adventure’ of the twin brothers, Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué, is linked to a retributive act of sorts: the fall of Vucub-Caquix and his sons, Zipacna and Cabracán; the transformation of Hunbatz and Hunchouén into monkeys; and the defeat of the Lords of Xibalbá [Note: 1].  In keeping with the work of Nahum Megged in Los héroes gemelos del Popol Vuh: Anatomía de un mito indígena (1979), in the accompanying sections, these acts of retribution are referred to as the “three magic war” (45).  Given the role of the twin brothers as agents of justice, it seems more than befitting to investigate the kinds of acts and behaviors that, in the text, are deemed to be a transgression and the means by which punishment is delivered.  The aim is to discover how the concept of retributive justice fits within the general cosmovisión of the Popol Vuh.

Before passing on to these wars, a few general considerations are needed.  During the formation of the world, there is a series of punishments carried out by the Creador y Formador.  In the attempt to create the being that will provide the divine world with its sustento, the gods fashion a series of imperfect beings: those of mud, those of wood, for example; all of whom are eventually destroyed.  With respect to these beings, Megged notes that while they are not in themselves guilty of their imperfections, they are still punished for having been created imperfect (Los héroes gemelos 19).  That is, their punishment derives from the consequences of their imperfection rather than from an inherent responsibility towards this very imperfection.  This, in turn, reveals two principal elements: first that their imperfection is not a punishable element, but rather their failure to over come it; second, and even more imperative, that their failure keeps them from delivering the nourishment the gods require.  Nourishment is constituted by the word, and ultimately, by the ability to praise the gods with heart and mind.  The narrator emphasizes it during the second creation and subsequent destruction: “But they [the men of wood] were not capable of understanding and did not speak before their Framer and their Shaper, their makers and their creators” (Christenson 85).

The punishment brought about by the magic wars is a consequence of the unwillingness of the transgressors to accept the divine order, one whose existence is contingent on the word.  Megged explains it in the following manner: "El amanecer cuyo advenir ya no depende de ellos desde que lo pensaron y lo nombraron, se acerca, y el hombre aún no aparece.  Al haber amanecer sin hombre, desaparecerán los dioses que dependen del ser capaz de creer y de orar.  Los formadores tienen sólo cabida en la oscuridad; mientras a la luz, símbolo de cultura y concientización, podrán existir sólo los seres aceptados por la conciencia del hombre" (Los héroes gemelos 34).  Hence, the ability to believe and to pray is founded on the power of the word, since it is in words that one believes and with words that one prays.  To some extent, the above evokes a philosophical position similar to that of Descartes’ cogito—albeit far from having any direct implications with Western philosophy—in that it places the word at the center of existence, be that of one’s one or of another.  The word creates, or at least dictates the continuing existence of something or someone.

The word is also the battleground of the three magic wars.  All of the figures punished in these wars use the word to deceive, to feed their pride, and, most importantly, to usurp a place that does not belong to them: the divine.  And yet, the word turns out to be the weapon of choice.  Hunanpú and Ixbalanqué utilize the power of the word to deceive their enemies, i.e. the transgressors of the divine order, to redirect praise to those who rightly deserve it.  In other words, each one of the magic wars exemplifies the power of the word to acquire for oneself an undeserved praise, but also the power of the word to bring about justice, both of which are symbolized by the duality of light and darkness that frames the cosmovisión of the Popol Vuh.  According to Megged: "es necesaria la existencia del ser humano, el ser civilizado, capaz de pensar y expresarse, cuando la civilización está simbolizada por la aparición de los astros que fijan la luz y las normas del tiempo.  De otra manera, el Corazón del Cielo desaparecerá.  No así Xibalbá, cuya existencia de tinieblas quedará con o sin el hombre, pues para el inframundo no hay lugar para la luz" (Los héroes gemelos 107).  Megged relates existence specifically to the underworld, but this relationship applies to the other magic wars insofar as they all take place before the break of day and insofar as all the figures involved defy the norms of light and time.  Had the twin heroes not been able to exemplify justice, the Popol Vuh could not have been considered the Book of Council.

Punishment is thus necessary for the world of civilization to exist.  If Hunanpú and Ixbalanqué represent light and the norms of civilization, it is more than fitting that they act as the agents of justice.  They utilize the power of the word to deliver the punishment deserved by those who transgress the norms of what is to become the civilized world.  The world of man cannot exist if the world of the gods is unable to defeat the ills that hinder creation, that prevent the word from materializing existence.

Note 1: The transcription and spelling of the names of all these figures varies from one translation to another.  In the accompanying sections, I will utilize those offered by Adrián Recinos in his translation of the Popol Vuh (1947) for two reasons: first because Recinos’ translation was my very first encounter with the text; second because as a native speaker of Spanish, I feel more comfortable with Recinos’ Hispanicized version.

                                     Fuentes Bibliográficas

Cameron, Douglas M.  “Monsters, Messengers, and Mediators in the Popol Vuh: Tricking and the Maya Discourse of Resistance.”  MACLAS Latin American Essays, vo. 4, 1990,    pp.23-34.

Christenson, Allen J.  Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2007

Megged, Nahum.  El universo del Popol Vuh: Análisis histórico, psicológico y filosófico del mito quiché.  Editorial Diana: 1991.

--.  Los héroes gemelos del Popol Vuh: Anatomía de un mito indígena.  Jose de Pineda Ibarra, 1979.

Girard, Rafael.  El Popol-Vuh, fuente histórica: El Popol-Vuh como fundamento de la historia maya-quiché.  Ministerio de Educación Pública, 1952.

Preuss, Mary H. “Un bosquejo de la violencia en la literatura Maya-Yucateca.” Scripta Ethnologica, vol. 26, 2004, pp. 66-76.

---.  “Un análisis de cuentos orales maya-yucatecos: Un poco del pasado, el presente y un bosquejo del futuro.” Mitológicas, vol. 29, 2011, pp. 9-17.

Recinos, Adrián, translator.  Popol Vuh: Las antiguas historias del Quiché.  Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2000.

Rivera Dorado, Miguel.  La risa de Ixmukané: Una incursión en la mitología maya.  Miraguano, 2014.

Rodriguez, Alfonso.  “El Engaño: Motivo estructurador en el Popol Vuh.”  Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, vol. 226, no. 5, 1979

Tedlock, Dennis.  Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings.  Simon & Schuster, 1996.