In my literary tour of the ancient world, I’ve visited Iceland, Europe, the Middle East, India, and the Mediterranean, and I have plans to visit China (that will be next week’s review, sort of). The perhaps obvious gaping holes in this journey are Africa and the Americas, which simply do not have the same ancient literary traditions as the other locations I’ve mentioned. I could be reading ancient Greek literature for the rest of the year at least, but even finding a single title authentic to the Americas (as opposed to a history of the region) was a challenge. Eventually, I stumbled across something called the Popol Vuh.
It’s usually pitched as a “Mayan Bible,” though that is a somewhat misleading description. For one thing, it’s not really a religious text in the sense that we think of them today. The modern existence of the text is actually a rough translation of pictograms from the region, which suffer even more from translation than simply converting from one more common language to another. While most words in, say, ancient Sanskrit have a near-parallel in modern English, pictograms represent ideas instead of words, so that the actually text reads more like a summary of a story than like a story itself. For another thing, it’s not Mayan, or at least not deriving from the Mayan civilization. Instead, the Popol Vuh hails from a cultural group known as the Kiche-Maya, which while related to the Mayan civilization that you probably think of upon hearing the name, was not contemporaneous, nor directly descendent.
Like many of these ancient texts, the Popol Vuh blurs the line between religion, what we would call myths, and history. It starts out with a creation story, and as it progresses becomes more and more historical, telling stories of rulers and and kings, until by the end it devolves into a straight genealogy of kings. Perhaps most interesting to me are the similarities between the creation story in the Popol Vuh, and creation stories found in other cultures from the “Old World,” which despite being isolated by two oceans and having likely arisen well after the separation between the two hemispheres, share both similar themes and some details and events (like, for instance, a great flood). Nearly as intriguing, the stories of the Popol Vuh give insight into the movement of the peoples south from crossing over the land-bridge from Asia.
Unfortunately, because of the pictographic limitations we discussed earlier, reading this text left me unsatisfied. Even if it might be arguably less authentic, I think it would be of value to see the pictograms translated by a storyteller into a more narrative text, something more akin to the ancient works of the East. At least, I would be interested in reading something of that nature. As is, this was more like reading a summary with some half-hearted interpretations added to pad out the book a bit, since by itself the story, in this summarized format, is quite brief. Its sources, which sometimes let me find more complete or more authentic versions, were largely unhelpful. Complicating the matter is that most of the books that come up when looking for the Popol Vuh are in Spanish, which I read at about a second grade level.
While I would love to read a different, more complete/thorough version of the Popol Vuh, for the present that seems unlikely. Nor am I likely to find anything else to read from the ancient Americas, although I do have a couple of leads to that end, which may or may not eventually bear fruit. For now, I am obliged to consider this as having satisfied my visit to this corner of the ancient world, but it was like taking a four day weekend to try to see all of Europe; you get the impression that you missed out on a lot of interest and insight. So if you happen to know of any other texts from the ancient Americas, or of better translations of the Popol Vuh, please let me know in the comments below.