from The Popol Vuh

Anonymous (Mayan)

Figures of Wood

And they said:

"How then will we truly frame
one that will grow to name our names
and walk the earth and honor us?"

And then they considered.

"Let us simply call upon
          Xpiyacoc and Xmucane,
          Hunahpu Possum and Hunahpu Coyote
          to read the days, divine the time,"
                              they said to themselves.

          And so they called,
                    "Grandmother of Day,
                    Grandmother of Light!"

                    For this is how they called the seers,
                    Xpiyacoc and Xmucane,
                    to gaze into the days beyond.

˚˚˚

Hurricane then spoke
with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent

and they called upon
the ones who keep the days, the ones who see beyond,

"Let it be uncovered.  Let it be found
          how we will frame true people,
          how we will shape the ones
          who will sustain and nurture us.

Let our names be named and remembered,
          for it is through words that we are fed.

          Midwife, Patriarch,
          Grandmother, Grandfather,
          Xpiyacoc, Xmucane—

so let it be called!  Let it be sown.  Let it dawn

          that we are known,
          that we are sustained,
          that we are invoked

by model people, by human figures, the human form.

Reveal your names:     Hunahpu Possum and Hunahpu Coyote,
                              She who has borne children and He who has planted them,
                              Great Peccary and Great Coati,
                              Precious Stone Worker and Jeweler,
                              Woodcarver and Carpenter,
                              Maker of Green Earth and Shaper of Blue Sky,
                              Incense Maker and Master of Craft,
                              Grandmother of Day and Grandmother of Light.

                              These names are called
                              for our human work, for what we frame and shape.

Cast out your grains of yellow maize,
Cast out your true-red tz'ite seeds.

Let them tumble into the light,
let them tell how things will turn
when we gouge and carve a face in wood,"
                    so they said, to those who keep the days.

And so began the casting and the telling,
                    the counting and revealing,
                    the hand moving over the grains,
                    the seeds, the lots, the days.

Then they spoke, the one Grandmother, the one Grandfather—

           for this is Grandfather, the tz'ite master, called Xpiyacoc,

           and this is Grandmother,
                     who sits at the foot and shapes the days, called Xmucane—

           they said, as they cast the days:

           "Let it be uncovered.
           Let it be found.  Say it.
           Our open ears wait listening.

           Let the tree be found
           that will be crafted and carved
           by the Framer and Shaper.

           If this will be the one
           who nurtures and sustains,
           then let it be sown.
           Then let the dawn come.

           You grains of maize,
           you tz'ite seeds,
           you hold the days,

           so you are called.
           We summon you."

So it was spoken to the yellow maize.
So it was spoken to the true-red seeds.

          "Finish it off, Heart of Sky.
          No more hard lessons
          for Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent.
          Don't grind their faces in it."

          Then they spoke it straight:

          "Let these figures carved from wood
          come out well.  Let these wooden
          figures talk and speak on the face of the earth."

          "So be it," they said.

And sudden as they spoke these thoughts
the figures carved from wood were there.

Human in form, speaking human tongues,
they made daughters and sons
and peopled the whole face of the earth.

But their hearts were blank, their minds empty.
They held no memory of who had made them.
They crawled and ambled aimlessly.
They could not remember Heart of Sky.

And so another attempt fell away,
a mere stab at making humankind:

They talked at first, with shriveled faces.
Their legs and arms were withered sticks.

No river of blood flowed through
their limbs.  They had no sweat, no oil.

Their cheeks were dry, their faces masks.
Their bodies stiff, they did not yield,

and so they showed no understanding
before the Framer and the Shaper
who gave them birth and gave them heart.

They were the first people
to crowd the face of the earth.





The Flood

So they were crushed,
the figures of wood.

They were splintered
and demolished.

Heart of Sky devised a flood
to thunder down upon their heads.

Man had been carved of tz'ite wood,
     by the Framer and Shaper,
and Woman woven of reeds,

but their eyes held no light
and their tongues did not speak
before the ones who had made them
and so they were finished by flood:

Rain came down, thick as resin,

bringing face-gougers
who gashed out their eyes,

bringing death-blades
who severed their skulls,

bringing Crunching Jaguar
who tore at their flesh,

bringing Striking Jaguar
who slit them clean open.

They smashed bones,
They shredded tendons.

They pulverized them into shards.
They ground their faces into strips

because there was no gleam
of understanding in their eyes

before their mother and father,
Heart of Sky, named Hurricane.

So the face of the earth went black:

a black rain fell all day, all night,
and animals both large and small
began to slink into their homes

—their faces were crushed
by trees and stones—

and everything began to speak,
tortilla slabs and water jars,
their plates and cooking pots,
their dogs and grinding stones—
          everything tore into them.

Their dogs and turkeys said:

          "Pain was all
          you offered us.
          You ate our flesh.
          Now it's our turn."

Then the grinding stones said:

          "You wore us down.
          Every day at dusk and dawn
          with a r-r-rasping shred
          and a shr-r-redding rasp
          you ground it in our face.

          This is what we gave
          when you were first people,
          but today you'll feel our power.

          We'll grind your flesh into a paste.
          We'll pound you down like meal."

Then the dogs said this to them:

          "Why did you never
          feed us our food?
          All we did was look at you

          and you flung us out,
          you chased us away.
          You held a stick

          whenever you ate,
          to bring it thudding
          on our backs.

          That was how
          you spoke with us.

          We could not talk
          and so got nothing.

          How could you not know
          we skulked behind you,

          wasting away?
          In truth you did know –

          so on this day now
          you have the chance

          to try our teeth,
          in our mouths.

          We will eat you."

And so they tore into them and ravaged their faces.

Then the cooking slabs and the pots spoke:

          "Pain was all
          you gave to us:

          Soot in our mouths,
          soot in our faces.

          You threw us into
          blistering fire.

          We are insensible
          to scorching pain,

          so why not try it
          for yourselves?

          We will burn you."

And so they had their faces crushed—

the hearthstones
and the cooking slabs
leapt from the fire,

they shot from flames
and flattened them—
smashing their skulls:

pain was all they gave.

So the first people fled.
They ran like hell.

They tried climbing onto their houses
but the houses collapsed and bucked them off.

They tried climbing into the treetops
but the heaving limbs just sagged and bent.

They tried to enter into caves
but the hillsides closed their mouths.

So the first people were undone.
They were demolished, overthrown.

They were ruined and crushed:
their mouths, their faces, all of them.

˚˚˚

It is said that their descendants
now live in the forest as monkeys,

because their flesh was merely wood
when they were framed and shaped.

And so the monkeys look like us,
a remnant of that earlier work,
a wooden echo of our kind.

translated from the Kiché by Michael Bazzett



Read the original in Kiché

Read translator’s note

Anonymous (Mayan)

Michael Bazzett has had his poetry appear in West Branch, Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2008, The Collagist, DIAGRAM, and Guernica, among others, and his work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Another excerpt from 'The Popol Vuh' is forthcoming in the Southern Humanities Review.  He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two children.


In the Popol Vuh, (the sacred book of the Maya), the world comes to be through contemplation and conversation among the gods.  They ponder, and they wonder. Then creation stems directly from the spoken word:

When it was time to make the earth:
it only took a word.
To make earth they said, "Earth"

and there it was: sudden
as a cloud or a mist unfolds
from the face of a mountain,
so earth was there.


Yet this green world, for all its lushness, is incomplete: what has been spoken into existence needs to return the favor.  The gods crave their names to be named — they are fed by words. This is the Popol Vuh's test for whether people are truly people: the ability to speak words that make sense, and thus function as an intelligent mirror of one's origins.

In the featured excerpt, we are embarking upon another "draft," another attempt at making creatures that can speak.  First came animals, who merely squawked and chittered and roared.  Then came people molded from mud, who softened and crumbled.  Their gaze was fixed, and when they spoke, "they made no sense."

These figures of wood are the third attempt.  Hurricane, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent call upon the Grandmother and Grandfather of Light for help, Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, and in the litany of names they invoke, they offer a model of how their creation might call upon them in return.

˚˚˚

This translation from the K'iché owes a profound debt to the writings of Dr. Allen Christenson, particularly his work on recapturing the poetic structure of the text from the solid columns of Ximenez's transcription, which has served as inspiration to this attempt to create a verse version in English.


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