Toward a poetry and poetics of the Americas (11): from the Popol Vuh (Mayan)

Translation from the Mayan by Dennis Tedlock


this is the beginning of the ancient word,

here in this place called k’iche’


Here we shall inscribe,

               we shall implant the Ancient Word,

the source for everything done in the citadel of K’iche’,

                                                         in the nation of K’iche’ people.

And this shall be our theme:

the demonstration,


and account

of how things were put in shadow

brought to light by the Maker,



                                          Begetter, names of Hunahpu Possum,

                                                                             Hunahpu Coyote,

                                                                             Great White Peccary,


                                                                            Resplendent 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,



Xmucane, names of the Defender,


                                            twice a Midwife,

                                            twice a Matchmaker, as is said in the words of K’iche’.

They accounted for everything

         and did it, too, with a clear state of mind

                                              in clear words.

We shall write about this now amid the preaching of God,

                                                in Christendom now.

We shall reveal it out because there is no longer a way to see the Council Book,

                                                                                       a way to see the light from beside the sea

                                                                                                                    the story of our shadows,

                                                                                       a way to see the dawn of life, as it is called.

There is the original book

and ancient writing,

but he hidden in the face of the reader,


it takes a long performance

             and account to complete the lightning of all the sky-earth,

the fourfold siding,

fourfold cornering,


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,



Father of life,

           of humankind,

Giver of Breath,

Giver of Heart,

who give birth,

who give heart to the nations of lasting light,

                            to those born in the light,

                            begotten in the light;


knowers of everything there is in the sky-earth,




Now it still ripples,

now it still murmurs,


now it still sighs, and

        it is empty under the sky.


Here follow the first words,

                    the first eloquence:

There is not yet one person,

                one animal,










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 still at rest;

not a single thing stirs.

It is kept back,

still kept at rest under the sky.

Whatever exists is simply not there:

only the pooled water,

only the calm sea,

only it alone is pooled.

Whatever might be is simply not there:

only murmurs,

        ripples, in the dark,

                     in the night.


All alone, the Maker,


                         Resplendent Plumed Serpent,


                         Begetters are in the water.

Light glitters in the place where they stay,

                          covered in quetzal feathers,

                                                 in blue-green.

Thus the name, Plumed Serpent.

They are great sages,

they are 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 his word came here,

he came to Resplendent Plumed Serpent, here in the blackness,

                                                                                  in the early dawn.

He spoke with the Resplendent 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,

then 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 Sky, named Hurricane.


Translation from Mayan by Dennis Tedlock, with Andres Xiloj




SOURCE. Dennis Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, University of California Press, 2010.


You cannot erase time. — Andres Xiloj


(1) The Popol Vuh, literally “the book of the community” (or “commonhouse” or “council”), was preserved by Indians in Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, Guatemala, and in the eighteenth century given to Father Francisco Ximénez who transcribed it in roman letters and put it into Spanish; vanished again and rediscovered in the 1850s by Carl Scherzer and Abbé Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg. It existed in picture-writing before the Conquest, and the version used by Father Ximénez (and since lost) may have been the work, circa 1550, of one Diego Reynoso. The book “contains the cosmogonical concepts and ancient traditions of [the Quiché nation], the history of their origin, and the chronicles of their kings down to the year 1550.” 

      In addition, as Dennis Tedlock notes for his translation, much of the prima materia for this foundational poem — a masterwork of the poetry of the Americas — has been carried into contemporary Quiché Maya lore and practice, from which he draws in consultation with Andres Xiloj and other Mayan diviners (“day-keepers”), whose “business [was] to bring what is dark into ‘white clarity.’ Just as the gods of the Popol Vuh first brought the world itself to light.”  This continuity between past and present is crucial here to the process of translation.

      An alternative translation by Tedlock can be found in his full version of Popol Vuh: The Quiché Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1996.


(2) an academic proposal

For a period of twenty-five years, say, or as long as it takes a new generation to discover where it lives, take the great Greek epics out of the undergraduate curricula, & replace them with the great American epics. Study the Popol Vuh where you now study Homer, & study Homer where you now study the Popol Vuh — as exotic anthropology, etc. If you have a place in your mind for the Greek Anthology (God knows you may not), let it be filled by Tedlock’s 2000 Years of Mayan Literature or the present editor’s Shaking the Pumpkin or this very volume you are reading. Teach courses in religion that begin: “This is the account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless, still, and the expanse of the sky was empty” — and use this as a norm with which to compare all other religious books, whether Greek or Hebrew. Encourage other poets to translate the Native American classics (a new version for each new generation), but first teach them how to sing.  Let young Indian poets (who still can sing or tell-a-story) teach young white poets to do so. Establish chairs in American literature and theology, etc. to be filled by men trained in the oral transmission.  Remember, too, that the old singers and narrators are still alive (or that their sons and grandsons are) and that to despise them or leave them in poverty is an outrage against the spirit-of-the land.  Call this outrage the sin-against-Homer.

   Teach courses with a rattle and a drum.

                           (J.R., as originally published in Shaking the Pumpkin)


(3) “It is dawn in Jerusalem while midnight hovers above the Pillars of Hercules. All ages are contemporaneous in the mind.” — Ezra Pound