A Retelling from the Popol Vuh by ILAN STAVANS
The archetypal creation story of Latin America, the Popol Vuh began as a Maya oral tradition millennia ago. In the mid-sixteenth century, as indigenous cultures across the continent were being threatened with destruction by European conquest and Christianity, it was written down in verse by members of the K’iche’ nobility in what is today Guatemala. In 1701, that text was translated into Spanish by a Dominican friar and ethnographer before vanishing mysteriously.
Xibalba is the site of fear, a magisterial city, with palaces and a torture-dome, gardens, and an oracular window where time comes to a standstill. Those unfortunate eyes who have been fated to see it describe the oracular window as irradiating unbearable darkness.
The underworld is made of countless roads leading everywhere and nowhere. The entrance is a cave in Coban, Guatemala, although there are other cave systems in nearby Belize and Chiapas. The map of Xibalba is ciphered in the milky way.
Nobody enters Xibalba, for there are innumerable obstacles and traps, including a river of scorpions. There is also a crossroads where visitors must choose among four paths, all of which lead to a parallel world where up is down, light is darkness, cold is warm, and good is evil. There are effigies near them, awaiting those who have not yet lost their minds. A special chamber is reserved for the white, bearded men.
Among the wonders of Xibalba is its eternal mutability. Every time a traveler describes it, the place changes. To some, it is reminiscent of their own cities of origin; to others, it’s like no place in the natural world.
Upon hearing about it, several white, bearded men who preached Christendom tried to enter it without success. The only one to emerge lost his mind. In his last written testimony, he said the darkness of Xibalba is of such depth, it’s like entreating the Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth.
In Xibalba, death is life.
This is the story of Princess Ixkik’, who found herself in Xibalba and, upon hearing the story of the calabash tree in Pukbal where Jun Junajpu’s severed head had been hung, visited the tree and wanted to touch it.
She was soon on her way to Pukbal alone. Pukbal is named for “the dust that becomes visible during an intense ball game.” Jun Junajpu had been killed by the lords of the underworld after failing a test. “Isn’t it beautiful how the tree is covered with fruit?” the princess asked. “Will I die if I touch the fruits? Surely they must be delicious.” A calavera hiding behind the tree popped up: “These fruits are actually calaveras. Do you want them?”
“Yes, I do,” she replied.
“Let me have your right hand,” the skull said.
Ixkik’ extended her right hand. At that moment, the calavera spit on it. While she watched, the spit vanished.
“My spit has given you my offspring. Go back up to Earth. You shall not die, trust me,” the calavera said. “The head is beautiful while alive. But after death people become frightened of it. Beauty vanishes and only bones remain. In a similar way, a child is like saliva: the parent’s essence is in it. The face of his parents is in the child’s, although at times one must look hard to find it. Death is final but survival takes place through progeny. That progeny is already in our body, in ourselves.”
The princess returned home pregnant. That is how Junajpu and Ixb’alanke were conceived.
After six months, her condition was seen by her father, called Kuchumakik.
The lords of Xibalba were Jun Kame and Ququb’ Kame; they, along with Kuchumakik, gathered together to reflect on the situation.
“My daughter is with child,” her father said. “She has been dishonored.”
“Force her to speak the truth. If she refuses to speak, sacrifice her by tearing her heart from her chest.”
Kuchumakik questioned his daughter: “Whose child are you carrying?”
She answered: “I’m not carrying a child. I have known no man.”
“Take her to be sacrificed,” he told the four owls, who are the most important messengers of Xibalba. “Bring me back her heart in this bowl.”
The four messengers took the bowl. They flew away carrying Princess Ixkik’ in their wings. They also took with them the stone knife for the sacrifice.
Ixkik’ told the owls: “Don’t kill me. It is no dishonor what I carry in my womb. It was conceived as I admired the tree in Xibalba where the severed head of Jun Junajpu became calabash fruit.” Jun Junajpu was now the princess’s husband. He and his twin Wuqub’ Junajpu died as martyrs at the mercy of the lords of Xibalba. Soon the princess and Jun Junajpu will be the parents of the hero twins, Junajpu and Ixb’alanke.
“What shall we tell your father?” the owls wondered. “And what shall we substitute your heart with? We don’t want to die.”
“Do not worry. You will no longer lure people to death, nor will your home be in Xibalba. The cycle of life is inescapable. Death is connected with birth and vice versa. For maize to grow, a seed must die and be buried in the soil. Take the sap from this chik’te’ tree,” said the young woman.
The red sap emerging from that tree fell into the bowl, oozing into a substitute for the heart of Ixkik’. The K’iche’ use the hearts of large animals—jaguars, pumas, crocodiles—for offerings, throwing them into the fire to burn. If those animals are not available, they make hearts out of incense. The chik’te’ tree was called the Sacrificial Red Tree. She named the coagulation blood. The tree is still called blood croton.
The princess said to the owls: “On Earth, you’ll be precious.”
“We shall rise to serve you,” the messengers replied. “Follow your own road while we bring the sap before the lords.”
When the owls arrived, everyone was waiting for them, Kuchumakik’ most attentively.
“Have your duties been fulfilled?” Jun Kame asked.
“Everything was done according to your commands. The heart is in the bowl.”
“Let us see,” Jun Kame exclaimed. The heart appeared red and full of blood, although it was only sap.
“Make a fire and place it over the embers,” Jun Kame ordered.
The owls immediately tossed the heart into the fire, as is custom among the K’iche’. The odor that emerged was the smell of Xibalba.
As the lords cherished the sight, the owls opened their wings and rose from the abyss toward the Earth, where they are beloved.
The older sons of Jun Junajpu, Jun B’atz’ and Jun Ch’owem, were visiting with their grandmother when Princess Ixkik’ arrived. She had Jun Junajpu’s younger sons in her womb, seeded in her by the calabash tree; it wouldn’t be long before Junajpu and Ixb’alanke were born.
When Ixkik’ came before the grandmother, the princess announced: “I’m your daughter-in-law.”
She did what new K’iche’ brides still do, which is moving into the home of their mother-in-law to ensure they learn the necessary skills to carry on the family tradition. But Ixkik’ was no conventional bride. She was a poet. Every word that came from her mouth was infused with beauty.
At night, she had pleasing dreams. When she woke, she would sing to the twins. These are some of her verses:
We rise from sleep
and in dreams we give birth.
We dream of home
and in life we build that house.
“Where are you coming from?” asked the grandmother. “Where are my grandchildren? Are they dead in Xibalba? You will never be my daughter-in-law.”
“It’s true that I am your daughter-in-law. I’m carrying twins. They are the sons of the wise Jun Junajpu. I carry them inside me. Jun Junajpu and his twin Wuqub’ Junajpu are not dead. They shall reveal themselves again. You’ll soon see your oldest son’s image in what I carry inside me.”
Jun B’atz’ and Jun Ch’owem were musicians. They entertained themselves with playing the flute and singing, painting, and sculpting. All day long rhey comforted their grandmother.
The grandmother said to the princess: “You’re an impostor.”
“They are truly his. I am part of your family,” Ixkik’ replied.
Finally, the grandmother said: “If you are indeed my daughter-in-law, go fetch food for those who need to be fed. Plant a net full of maize and come right back, since you’re my daughter-in-law.”
It is common in K’iche’ society for a new bride to be handed heavy tasks by her in-laws to prove her abilities. Princess Ixkik’ set out to the field to do so.
Ixkik’ slept deeply that night. In a dream, she saw the inside of her womb. In the morning, she immediately left for the maize field she had planted the day before, belonging to Jun B’atz’ and Jun Ch’owem. The road had been cleared for her. There was only a single ear of maize in the field, though. She became anxious.
“Ah, I feel disgraced. Where shall I go to find the net full of maize that was asked of me?”
She invoked Kah’al and the guardians of food to arrive: Ixta’, Ixkanil, and Iskak’au.
“You who cook the maize. And you, Kah’al, guardian of the food for Jun B’atz’ and Jun Ch’owem.” She took hold of the corn silk, pulling it upward. As she placed it in the maize net, it suddenly became full with earns of corn.
As Ixkik’ came back, she sang a poem.
Children of maize
our past is your future.
Children of maize
your strength is our faith.
The animals of the field carried the maize net. They placed it in a corner of the house as if the daughter-in-law had carried the net herself.
When the grandmother realized the quantity of ears of corn before her, she said:
“Where have you found that maize? Did you destroy our family maize field? I will go check right away.”
The only plant of maize was still in its place.
The grandmother came back: “You sing poems of truth. You have shown you are truly my daughter-in-law. I shall now watch over you, and those you carry in your womb, who are also wise.”
The twins were born, and their efforts to be better known by their grandmother and mother began almost right away. The first thing they did was work in the corn field, or at least they pretended to. Their magical powers took care of most of it.
As soon as Junajpu and Ixb’alanke applied picks to the soil, the picks would start digging on their own. The same with their axes, which would chop down trees without them making any effort. It was impossible to count the number of trees that were cut that way.
Excited, the twins asked the dove Ixmukur to keep an eye out. Their command was clear: as soon as their grandmother showed up, the dove should coo.
With their blowguns, Junajpu and Ixb’alanke left to hunt. Soon Ixmukur started to coo, and they ran back. One of the twins immediately covered his hands and face in mud to appear like a laborer. The other one threw slivers of wood on his head so it looked like he had been cutting trees.
Their grandmother saw through the pretense, though. Although at noon they ate what she had cooked for them, she knew they really hadn’t done much of the labor themselves. In her eyes, they did not deserve the food.
Junajpu and Ixb’alanke were undeterred. When they came home that night, they said as they stretched their legs and arms, “We are truly tired.”
To the twins’ surprise, the next day, when they returned to the corn field, they discovered that all the trees that had been cut the day before were all standing once again in their original places.
“Who is playing tricks on us?” they asked. Animals small and large had done this to them: the puma, the jaguar, the deer, the rabbit, the bobcat, the coyote, the wild hog, the peccary and the coati. In a single night, they together brought the corn field to its original state.
When they returned home, they told their grandmother: “What do you think? The corn field we had labored has once again been covered with grass and a thick forest. It isn’t fair.”
At sunset, after pondering, they went back. Then they decided to hide in order to catch their adversaries. “We may be able to surprise those who come to do harm,” they said. They camouflaged themselves, hiding in a special place under the shade.
It was midnight when Junajpu and Ixb’alanke saw all the animals coming together, one of each species, saying in unison: “Arise, trees. Come back, bushes.”
The twins were amazed. They tried catching the puma and the jaguar but these just ran off. They came close to the deer and the rabbit, able to grab their tails before they fled. For that reason, the rabbit and deer have short tails to this day.
The bobcat, the coyote, the wild hog, the peccary, and the coati did not give up either. These animals paraded in front of Junajpu and Ixb’alanke, whose hearts were troubled because they couldn’t catch them.
Finally, the rat came down, scurrying. They caught it and wrapped it in a net. They squeezed the rat behind the head, trying to strangle it. They burned its tail over a fire. This is why the rat doesn’t have a hairy tail.
The rat said: “I shall not die in your hands. Your trade isn’t that of maize farmers.”
“What are you saying?” the twins wanted to know.
“First let me go,” the rat said. “I have something I want to say to you. I will say it after you give me something to eat.”
“Speak first. You’ll get your food later,” they said.
“It’s about the goods that your father and uncle, Jun Junajpu and Wuqub’ Junajpu, who died in Xibalba, left hanging under the roof of the house,” the rat said. “Their yokes, their gloves, and their rubber ball. Your grandmother doesn’t want to show these items to you because your father and uncle died at the mercy of the lords of Xibalba, who wanted this gear.”
“Is it true?” the twins asked. Their hearts rejoiced when they heard about the rubber ball. Since the rat had already spoken, they presented it with some food: grains of maize, squash seeds, chili pepper, beans, pataxte, and cacao. “All this belongs to you. If there is something that is stored or forgotten, it will be yours forever. Eat it!”
“Wonderful,” the rat said. “What shall I tell your grandmother if she sees me?”
“Don’t worry because we are here. We know what to say to her. Let’s get to that corner of the house to fetch the items our father and uncle left for us.”
The twins spent the night reflecting and discussing. It was noon when they returned home with the rat. One of the twins entered the house discreetly and the other hid outside. They made the rat climb up.
Junajpu and Ixb’alanke then asked their grandmother for food: “We want chili sauce.” She cooked their food. They each got a bowl.
This was done to fool their grandmother and mother. They drained the water jug into a pot so that their grandmother had to go down to the river to fetch more water. On the surface of the chili sauce and on the pan containing the drained water, the twins saw the reflection of the rat going in the direction of the rubber ball hanging from the roof.
They asked a mosquito called Xan to go to the river and perforate the jug their grandmother was carrying. When she raised the jug, water leaked from it. She couldn’t see the perforation.
“What’s happening to our grandmother? Our mouths are dry from so much thirst,” the twins said to their mother. They sent her down to the river as well.
The rat soon severed the string from which the rubber ball was hanging. Down came the yokes, the gloves, the leather, and the rubber ball. Junajpu and Ixb’alanke took them and ran to hide them on the road that led to the ball field.
After this, the twins went to the river to reunite with their grandmother and mother, who were busy trying to stop the water in the jug from spilling. “What are you doing? We got tired of waiting.”
“Look at the hole in the jug. We can’t cover it,” the women said.
The twins repaired it and together they returned home, first Junajpu and Ixb’alanke, with their grandmother and mother behind them. The K’iche’ people venerate an elderly female god named Ixchel who is depicted with a jug from which she pours out water in the form of rain. She is the patroness of childbirth.
Popol Vuh: A Retelling is out this fall from Restless Books.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American, and Latino Cultures at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books. His latest books include The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pitt) and What Remains (SUNY). This fragment is from his retelling of the Popol Vuh, to be published this fall.
Illustrations by Gabriela Larios.