Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

"You Make Them Live Again by Speaking Their Words": The Popol Vuh and Respect for Ancient Scripture

I have begun looking at Dr. Allen J. Christenson's recent translation of the ancient Popol Vuh, a sacred text from the Mayan people. The translation was published in 2003 and electronically in 2007. It is entitled POPOL VUH: Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People (Mesoweb Publications, 2007), available at "http://www.personal.psu.edu/abl128/PopolVu/PopolVuh.pdf" and also at "http://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Christenson/PopolVuh.pdf." Dr. Christenson is LDS. Some of his comments in his preface might be especially interesting to LDS audiences, though they should be interesting to all readers.

The preface and introduction is beautifully written. I especially enjoyed his personal account of how the elderly Quiché people he encountered one night showed deep respect for sacred written words of their ancestors (p. 6):
Before the others left for the night, I asked if they would like to hear the words of their fathers. This was greeted with indulgent smiles of disbelief, since few of their parents were alive and they were sure that I couldn’t have known them. But I told them that it wasn’t their fathers’ words that I carried with me, but rather those of their fathers’ fathers’ (repeated many times) fathers, dating back nearly five hundred years. I happened to have with me a copy of the Popol Vuh manuscript, a book that was compiled in the mid-sixteenth century at a town that still exists less than thirty miles from where we sat. I began to read from the first page of the book:
THIS IS THE ACCOUNT of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm.

Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.

THESE, then, are the first words, the first speech. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest. All alone the sky exists. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of all the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs. All is languid, at rest in the sky. There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night. All alone are the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons. Luminous they are in the water, wrapped in quetzal feathers and cotinga feathers. (Popol Vuh, pp. 67-69)
After I had read a page or two from the account of the creation of the earth, I stopped and waited for their reaction. No one spoke for some time. Finally, the elderly man with the sick boy asked if he might hold the unbound pages of the manuscript copy for a moment. He gently took it from my hands and with great care turned its pages.

“These are the words of my ancient fathers?” he asked.


“Do you know what you have done for them?” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, so I didn’t answer at first. “You make them live again by speaking their words.”
I love that. I read it before I realized that the translator was an LDS scholar, but sensed through his respect for the ancients and in sharing this story that he "got it." Ancient scripture is a treasure to be cherished. It turns the hearts of the children to the fathers.

The Popol Vuh has often been of interest to LDS people if only for the fact that it reminds us that some ancient Native Americans prized the written word and kept texts that described the Creation and other important events.  It also reminds us that traditions not just of writing but of sacred scripture and prophecy were had in Mesoamerica.

In considering where in the Americas the Book of Mormon might have taken place, one of the many factors pointing to Mesoamerica is the existence of ancient writing there. Established traditions of advanced writing systems flourished anciently in that region. Christensen (p. 23) observes that the Mayans had an advanced writing system combining phonetic and logographic elements capable of writing any word that could be spoken (p. 23):
Las Casas was particularly impressed by the fact that the Maya could write “everything they desired.” The Maya were, in fact, the only people in the New World who had a writing system at the time of the Spanish conquest which had this capability.
The Mayans apparently had thousands of texts when the Spaniards came. One of the greatest tragedies of history was the wanton destruction of Mayan records by the Spanish, wiping out almost all their writings, including sacred texts (p. 23):
Only four lowland Maya codices are known to have escaped these purges. We can only add our own laments to those of the Maya over the irretrievable loss of a people’s literary heritage. Of the many hieroglyphic books that once existed in the highlands, including the Precolumbian version of the Popol Vuh, not a single one is known to have survived.
A Scared Book from Across the Sea?
A few things of special interest to LDS readers crop up in the Popol Vuh. On page 23, Christenson writes:
In the preamble to the Popol Vuh, its Quiché authors wrote that the contents were based on an ancient book from across the sea (p. 64). In a later passage, the source of these writings is identified as Tulan, which they located across the sea to the east (p. 259), apparently a reference to the Maya lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. The Quiché lords held these “writings of Tulan” in great reverence and consulted them often (p. 287).
I cannot help but wonder if that land across the sea to the east, the source of the sacred book that the ancients used to consult often, might have been a little further east than Yucatan. Say, perhaps, Jerusalem? Well, that's just hopeful speculation for now, so I'll have to settle for the Yucatan. 

Scripture and Sacred Stones as Instruments of Vision
Another interesting little gem, so to speak, comes from pages 24-25:
The fact that the contents of the original Popol Vuh predated the Spanish conquest gave them an aura of mystery and power. Its authors referred to the ancient book upon which the Popol Vuh was based as an ilb'al, meaning “instrument of sight or vision” (p. 64; lines 51-52).

The word is used today to refer to the clear quartz crystals that Quiché priests use in divinatory ceremonies. It may also be used to refer to magnifying glasses or spectacles, by which things may be seen more clearly. Thus the rulers of the Quichés consulted the Popol Vuh in times of national distress as a means of seeing the future:
They knew if there would be war. It was clear before their faces. They saw if there would be death, if there would be hunger. They surely knew if there would be strife. There was an instrument of sight. There was a book. Popol Vuh was their name for it. (p. 287)
LDS readers might recall the discourse in Alma 37 (and elsewhere in LDS scripture) that links the special interpreters, the stone, with the revelatory gift of seeing or prophecy and with translation of scripture. Also related is the topic of the Urim and Thummim or also the seerstone, tools used to help a seer see. Interesting, in my opinion.  

Beware: The Redundant and Repetitive Text Is, Uh, Repetitive and Redundant
One of the most common complaints against the Book of Mormon can also be fairly lodged against the Popol Vuh. Christenson explains the "problem" with the Popol Vuh on page 34:
Yet the beauty of Quiché poetry may sound awkward and repetitive when translated into European languages. Some translators in the past have ignored or failed to recognize the poetic nature of the Popol Vuh, particularly its use of parallelism, and have tried to improve its seemingly purposeless redundancy by eliminating words, phrases, and even whole sections of text which they deemed unnecessary. While this unquestionably helps to make the story flow more smoothly, in keeping with our modern taste for linear plot structure, it detracts from the character of Quiché high literature. Welch points out that “in many ancient contexts, repetition and even redundancy appear to represent the rule rather than the exception” (Welch 1981, 12).
Yes, he's quoting John Welch of chiasmus fame. And yes, chiasmus is one of the forms of parallellism found in the Popol Vuh (see pp. 37-39 of the Introduction), as in the Book of Mormon, and in ancient Hebraic Poetry. Cool.

Finally, a few other random thoughts:
  • The Quiché capital of Cumarcah, mentioned on page 22, has an intriguing name, a little like Cumorah. Any possibility that its roots are ancient enough to relate to Book of Mormon names? Almost certainly just coincidence, I recognize. I also recognize that we know the ancient names for very few Mesoamerican sites today. One of the very few exceptions is the ancient city in Belize known as Lamanai. Most likely a coincidence, but a fun one. 
  • Christenson (p. 22) reminds us that perhaps 85% of the population in Guatemala was wiped out by the effects of the Spanish invasion due to disease and other factors. I've read even higher estimates of losses for other parts of the Americas. The ability of disease and war to wipe out entire family lines and tribes should be a reminder that genetic traces left by Nephi's line in the Americas, whatever his DNA may have looked like in 600 B.C. (there's no reliable definition of "Jewish" DNA now or then, though many modern Jews share a limited number of haplotypes), may have been made all the more difficult to detect by those monumental losses. 
Anyway, I am grateful for the beautiful translation and respectful introductory comments that Professor Christenson has offered, and thank him for his service to the Quiché people. By helping to preserve and share the words of the ancients, he has helped them to live again for their descendants and for us.  I hope you'll read at least some of the Popol Vuh and be grateful for the miracle of its preservation. I hope you'll be even more grateful for the miracle of the preserved text of the Book of Mormon, a sacred text from ancient writers who saw our day and speak to us now as a voice from the dust.


Eric the Half-bee said...

I've always enjoyed the Popol Vuh, I bought the Recinos translation while on my mission in Guatemala, and have the Dennis Tedlock edition on my bookshelf at home as well. But, while there are recognizable themes, it is a Maya text, not an ancient Christian one, though I felt there were some very deep symbols for those who would see them, particularly the connection of Gucumatz (Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecas) with water. A worthwhile companion to it is The Title of the Lords of Totonicapán, quoted from by Elder Ted Brewerton in General Conference (October 1995). A couple points from your last ones:

The Belizean site is Lamanai, not Lamoni, and a great book on the effects of European contact is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. He eloquently illuminates our woefully inadequate understanding of pre-columbian civilizations.

Openminded said...

Chiasmus, coming from a group of people whose religion has no resemblance to anything Biblical?

Does that mean the Hebrew weren't the only ones capable of, you know, stumbling upon and employing a literary technique?

Haley Wilson said...

What an interesting post! As an avid studier of ancient texts and really any thing related to religion or the divine you have given me a great deal to think about and reminded me that there is still much out there to be studied and understood.


Anonymous said...

Guess what, Openminded. Your post about chiasmus is (like this very sentence) a chiasmatic post! Behold:

Chiasmus[a], coming from[b] a group of people whose religion has no resemblance to anything Biblical[c]?

Does that mean the Hebrew[c'] weren't the only ones capable of, you know, stumbling upon[b'] and employing a literary technique[a']?

a.) "Chiasmus" is "a literary technique."

b.) "Coming from" and "stumbling upon" are both metaphors of travel or motion.

c.) "The Hebrews" is an antonym for "a people whose religion has no resemblance to anything Biblical."

Chiasmus is nothing special. It's the easiest thing in the world to find, especially if one is desirous enough of finding it.

-- Eveningsun

CF said...

Does that mean the Hebrew weren't the only ones capable of, you know, stumbling upon and employing a literary technique?

Yes...or it could mean that the writers of the Popol Vuh had the skill handed down from BoM times.


Good job! Now when you or Closeminded produce 531 more pages of it within the next two months you'll have proven you are at least as smart as a 4th grade educated farmer...

Jeff Lindsay said...

Painting and drawing is also the easiest thing in the world, Eveningsun. Every child can do it. That doesn't mean we should ignore the beauty of a Mona Lisa and dismiss it as kid stuff. Have you looked at the detailed case for Alma 36 as a real gem of literature?

Anonymous said...

Painting and drawing is also the easiest thing in the world, Eveningsun. Every child can do it. That doesn't mean we should ignore the beauty of a Mona Lisa and dismiss it as kid stuff.

I agree, Jeff. But the Mona Lisa is great art; the BoM is not great literature.

I'm familiar with the specific claims made for Alma 36. It is not by any stretch of the imagination a "real gem of literature." It's a trite, rather amateurish rehearsal of a very commonplace kind of 19th-century Christian angst, expressed in 19th-century cliches lifted from the Bible. It just isn't very good.

Please think of the fact that there are many, many nonbelievers like me who appreciate the literary beauty and brilliance of the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, the David story, the Book of Isaiah, etc. But the ONLY people who ever argue for the literary greatness of the Book of Mormon are Mormons. Why do you suppose that is?

-- Eveningsun

Openminded said...

Hey there, CF.

Back with more Mormon scholars who disagree with your viewpoint (in this case, that chiasm is unique to the Hebrew):
"I conclude from this survey that most of the essential features of chiastic form and function were available to Mesopotamian authors from the late 3rd millenium through the mid-1st millenium B. C., and that chiastic usage in Ugaritic and Hebrew should not be considered unique–except insofar as local eccentricities are exhibited."

-from Robert F. Smith of the Maxwell Institute

Some meat from the article: "Via Akkadian texts, some of which were from tablets contemporary with the early biblical period, and via Sumerian texts mostly from Nippur of the early 2nd millenium B. C., I have demonstrated herein the existence of chiasm in nearly the full range of genres of Sumerian literature".

Durante said...

This is absolutely fascinating! I had no idea about the Popol Vul, I'm going to have to check it out... it really does open the door to thoughts and studies of the ancients that bring the vivid picture we've already enjoyed into greater light.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Eveningsun,

I think you were a bit too harsh on Alma. Angst (Christian or otherwise) is a recurring theme throughout history. Biblical inspired thought are generally not described as having been "lifted" from the Bible (although I consider the Book of Mormon to be what it claims to be). I am willing to give a pass to Alma on not being a literary genius. If some talks from General Conference can put me to sleep, there would be a good bet that the Book of Mormon prophets would be just as soothing.


Anonymous said...

Remember that EveningSun has already explained that his job is to tear down Mormonism because of its position on gay marriage. So it's impossible for him to admit to any literary value in the Book of Mormon, no matter how interesting.

Openminded said...

Alma 36 is written just like every other chapter. The only reason Jeff thinks it has literary "beauty" is because it contains chiasmus, therefore it must've originated from the Hebrews--with their uncited monopoly on chiasmus that no one could possibly figure out on their own.

Anonymous said...

Quite so, Openminded. The "literary quality" argument is just a bad argument. The use of literary techniques such as chiasmus is in itself no guarantee of literary quality, no more than the use of rhyme guarantees a good poem. Yet LDS apologists routinely make an illogical leap from one to the other, saying, in essence, "Look! Chiasmus! The BoM's high literary quality is beyond the ability of a mere farmboy!" But the fact is, and on this point all non-LDS critics agree, the book's literary quality is actually pretty low. It could easily have been written by someone with Joseph Smith's modest formal education.

@ Anonymous: You are correct: One of my aims here is to undercut the political influence of the LDS Church, which influence I see as a bigoted and un-American assault on the basic Constitutional guarantees of equality. My hope is that if members can see their Church's theological claims as bogus, then they're less likely to to toe the line politically. It's nothing personal; it's just politics. And no one forced the Church to enter the political arena. Many religions have made the choice to stay out of politics (e.g., the Jehovah's Witnesses); the LDS Church chose to step in, and having made that choice it cannot very well complain about politically-motivated criticism like mine. If you're gonna play the game you've gotta take the knocks.

And of course the mere fact that I have an agenda (just like everyone else here) does not disprove my arguments. Those arguments still have to be evaluated on their merits.

FWIW, I don't particularly like the politics of the Christian right, but that doesn't keep me from acknowledging the literary brilliance of the work of Paul or Luke. If the BoM were well-written I'd be happy to acknowledge the fact. But it just isn't.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

You don't know the meaning of "equality".

Paul Senzee said...

I read the Popol Vuh on my mission in Mexico, in Spanish. I've also read it since in both Spanish and English. Several of my companions had told me of the tremendous parallels between the Popol Vuh and the BoM or the old testament. I didn't see them, and I was then (and am now) very much a fan of literature and prone to see such things. At the time that was a disappointment.

The Popol Vuh is beautiful and surreal (very surreal - early people made from wood, drowning in a sea of sap; gods conceived - inseminated by decapitated heads) and feels very, very alien. I've often thought, that were it true, the BoM should feel just as alien as the Popol Vuh, coming from a culture so far removed from our own.

The contrast between the two is stark.

Eveningsun, I've read a number of your posts; I'm fascinated with your study of Mormon scripture as 19th century lit. I don't know if you'd be willing to correspond a bit, but if so, my email is psenzee at gmail.

Paul Senzee said...


I'm intrigued by the appearance of Quetzal Serpentin the text, quetzal being a Nahuatl word (with quetzalcoatl meaning feathered serpent). I assume that Quetzal Serpent is a translation of the Quiché Kulkulcan.

Seems like an interesting (if misleading) translation choice. I'll have to read through it.

Paul Senzee said...

Ah, I read through a bit of it and this is addressed. Quetzal in this case actually refers the the bird species named Quetzal, which explains it.

Q'ukumatz may be translated as “Quetzal Serpent” or, less accurately, as “Feathered Serpent.” Q'uq'
refers to the quetzal bird, Pharomacrus mocinno, one of the most beautiful birds in the world. It inhabits the cloud forests of southern Mesoamerica between 3,000 and 4,000 feet in elevation. Both male and female have brilliantly colored iridescent blue/green feathers on their wings, tail, and crest, while their breasts are a bright crimson. The shade of blue or green depends on the angle of light striking its feathers.

weston krogstadt said...

Oh yeah, well where are all those Nephite coins! (heh heh, just joking, very good post)

Anonymous said...

You don't know the meaning of "equality."

I think I do. Why do you think I don't?

-- Eveningsun

Jeff Lindsay said...

Details on Alma 36 are in "A Masterpiece: Alma 36" by John Welch. Also see his presentation at the recent FAIRLDS.org conference. For a perspective on the significance of the discovery, see "The Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: Forty Years Later" (PDF).

Openminded said...

So, Jack Welch took a perspective on chiasmus and went with it.

I guess that proves the Hebraic origins of the <a href="http://www.strangite.org/Chiasmus.htm>Strangite Book of the Law of the Lord</a> too, doesn't it.

Are the chapters in that book that chiasmus beautiful, too? Or is it just when it applies to your faith?

Openminded said...

Ha, HTML fail. Here's the link to the Strangite book: Strangite Book of the Law of the Lord

Anonymous said...

To repeat: chiasmus is no big deal. Anyone can produce it, though not everyone can use it to good literary effect. (I note that nowhere in his articles does Welch even try to demonstrate his claim that the loose and baggy chiasmus of Alma 36 is in any literary sense the "masterpiece" that his title implies.)

FWIW, the term chiasmus comes to us from classical rhetoric, the study of which was central to the curriculum in 19th-century American schools. Biblical scholars were well aware of biblical chiasmus in Joseph Smith's day; the device was in fact discussed in at least one book advertised in upstate New York in the 1820s. I doubt that Smith himself would have read this book, but I bet a lot of the local ministers did. Just like theories of the Israelite origins of the Native Americans, biblical chiasmus was part of the religious atmosphere in which Smith lived, moved, and had his being prior to writing his fascinating book.

-- Eveningsun

Jeff Lindsay said...

Yes, we must remember that chiasmus can occur frequently by chance and as Freedman observes (see my next post on chiasmus), it can be found in many writings and cultures. But not all chiasmus is equally compelling. Finding two or three verses in Strang's writings with chiasmus does not necessarily mean that chiasmus was deliberately being used.

As for Bible scholars being well aware of chiasmus in Joseph Smith's day, you can survey the details of what was actually being said about chiasmus in limited corners of the Biblical scholar community in the detailed analysis provided by Welch in "How Much Was Known about Chiasmus in 1829 When the Book of Mormon Was Translated?. Lots of detail to consider there. The bottom line, though, is that it would have been highly unlikely that Joseph could have known anything about it, and much less likely to have been able to do anything about it. The role of chiasmus in Hebraic literature was still unproved, more like a new theory emerging from a couple of remote voices with little influence in the U.S. Why go through the bother to draw upon this unproven feature of Hebraic writing? And then why did neither Joseph nor any of his alleged co-conspirators ever bother to point out the internal "proof" of ancient origins they have labored to build into the text?

It's presence doesn't make sense as the result of a deliberate fabrication drawing upon new and controversial theories of Hebraic poetry, and doesn't make sense as mere accident given its persistent, detailed, and artful implementation, even including its use of a Hebraic name as a key element linked to "Lord" at the center of one chiasm.

Openminded said...

Mm, I'm skeptical that the best evidence for this book's authenticity as a God-given text in the face of numerous historical and geographical flaws is the style of writing.

Nevertheless, the question is probably more along the lines of whether it can at least pass as a genuinely Hebraic document.

I ask my next question about chiasm in your recent post, Jeff, but has the topic of writing styles we would expect to Not see in a Hebraic document ever popped up in the dialogue on writing styles?