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Reply To: Returning to the Void,” with mythologist Norland Telléz, Ph.D.”

#74597

Thank you, my dear Veronica, it has certainly been a treat to work on a project which shows the endurance of the Popol Vuh and its cosmovision to this very day. As you said, it’s everywhere incarnate in their culture, preserving a vision of creation, which somehow remains the same across variations. This makes me recall the words of Francisco Ximénez, the Dominican who discovered the Popol Vuh manuscript in Chichicastenango:

There is no doubt that the great lack of news [is due to] having hidden themselves and themselves hidden their books […] in this way I determined to transcribe verbo adverbum all their histories as I translated them into our Castillian Language from the Quiché tongue in which I found them written […] inquiring into this matter, being parish priest of Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, I found that it was The Doctrine that they first sucked with their mother’s milk and that all of them knew it almost by heart and I discovered that of these books they had many among them […] I have determined to translate all their histories, just as they have written them.

Although it is exactly what I expected to find, I too was struck by the dialectical play between the universal and the particular on the horizon of mytho-historic consciousness. This curious dialectic brought us up, again and again, against the issue of translation. As a consequence, in the back of our heads, there always ran a basic insight of interpretation, which we take from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics, summed up in the introduction to that book:

“Actually, both factors, identity and variability, belong inseparably together and are linked to one another in the process of interpretation, whose very nature is to say the same thing in a different way and, precisely by saying it in a different way, to say the same thing. If, by way of pure repetition, we were to say today the same thing that was said 2000 years ago, we would only be imagining that we were saying the same thing, while actually we would be saying something quite different.” — Gerhard Ebelin (xxvi -xxvii)

This meant that, as Veronica herself put it to me once: “In order to capture the essence of something we must recreate it for today.”

As to the myths of the flood, although portrayed as acts of the wrath of Gods, they could also stand for a possible universal natural disaster that wiped out populations at some determinate time in the ancient past. There are such lines of interpretations which would like to trace the archetypal persistence of flood myths on the basis of their possible reference to a literal natural disaster. This line of approach is not without merit or a certain amount of validity. But this sort of reduction tends to miss the point of the flood within its own mythological or narrative context. There is a level of truth in it that is not registered by its empirical reduction, for the myth of the flood points to an archetypal insight into the human condition and the meaning of organized human life.

The same thing goes for the myth of the primordial blinding of humankind, which in Greek mythology is presented in the guise of the Promethean deed of stealing the fire of the Gods. This fundamental blinding of humanity, a kind of symbolic castration, is also known as the motif of the “jealousy of the Gods,” a theme we also know very well from Biblical tradition as the Prohibition that Adam and Eve should gain access to the Tree of Life.

In the context of the Popol Vuh, scholars like Margaret McClear, in her Popol Vuh: Structure and Meaning, talks specifically about this motif as an instrument of class domination, a way to keep the tributary tribes ignorant and obedient to the Quiché Lords. And she makes a very compelling argument, which was hard for me to accept at first before it became an almost inevitable conclusion. So she writes:

“By blinding the first four men, the gods made sure they would «check their desires, lest perchance they should wish to be the equals of their Makers». The narrator concludes chapter 2 by saying, «in this way the wisdom and knowledge of the four men, the origin and the beginning (of the Quiché race), were destroyed.»  This act on the part of the gods takes on serious consequences when it becomes apparent that their creations were to be Lords of the Earth, noble men, and civilized vassals. It is this blindness which leads to catastrophes described in the subsequent chapters of Popol Vuh. This act also shows that from the beginning the end was already a possibility.” (58)

“The Heart of Heaven wants adorers, those who will speak the language of God, those who will remember the Creator and Maker, those who will be obedient, and who will nourish and sustain the divinity. Moreover, there must be many such creatures. This is insisted upon time and time again: «Increase and multiply.» But, man must be structured with limited vision, with a narrow range of desire, and with a humility which will not make him a divine competitor and a multiplier of divinities. In the Kingdom of the Heart of Heaven there is no room for multiplicity. The subdivinities, the Creator-Former couple, and all the rest, were obedient as was Xmucane when called upon to make her divination concerning what man should be. Gucumatz received Heaven’s word and obediently went into action. Apparently, the Heart of Heaven was not satisfied with modalities of itself. Why not? Because they could not multiply. Heaven must have been a silent place, a static place. Had it not been so, the Heart of Heaven would not have been so eager to break the silence, fill the emptiness, set motionlessness into motion, as so impressively described in the opening pre-creation scene of Popol Vuh.

Finally, the very fact that the Heart of Heaven needed adorers, sustainers, and nourishers already implies a far greater emptiness of Heart of Heaven than of Earth. And the fear of the Maker for the made is hardly a divine prerogative. The Heavenly establishment was not as firm as it would seem. There were cracks in the foundation; these cracks would eventually develop into earthly chasms. There were dark corners in the Heavenly mansion, for even there, the consultation over man’s creation was frequently made «in the darkness, in the night». (100-101)

Even if McClear’s arguments were true, and not all scholars agree on this hard line of sociological analysis, that would still leave the similarities of this motif across cultural contexts rather intact. This context-transcending element of the archetypal deserves a better answer than political propaganda. Without denying that the Popol Vuh could just as well have served a particular political agenda, there are some deeper connotations you and I might have in mind. The specifically philosophical dimension, as described in the Popol Vuh.

They see everything,” so said
the Heart of Sky, Hurricane,
Newborn Thunderbolt, Raw Thunderbolt,
Sovereign Plumed Serpent,
Bearer, Begetter,
Xpiyacoc, Xmucane,
Maker, Modeler,
as they are called. And when they changed the nature of their works, their designs, it was enough that the eyes be marred by the Heart of Sky. They were blinded as the face of a mirror is breathed upon. Their eyes were weakened. Now it was only when they looked nearby that things were clear.
And such was the loss of the means of understanding, along with the means of knowing everything, by the four humans. The root was implanted.
And such was the making, modeling of our first grandfather, our father, by the Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth.” (Tedlock)

What is the ontological root that was implanted here? I think, an existential one. The mythologem turns around the issue of what Heidegger called “fundamental ontology.” For having a perfect vision of being would curtail humanity’s ethical freedom.

For a God thinking and being are one. Their thoughts are their creations, their actions at one with their thoughts, but humankind must exist in temporal existence and therefore in the gap that separates thought from being and subjectivity from objectivity. As Kierkegaard put it:

God does not think, he creates; God does not exist, he is eternal. Man thinks and exists, and existence separates thought and being, holding them apart from one another in succession. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript 298)

Ethical freedom turns around something that is objectively uncertain: this very depth of subjectivity; if I had objective certainty, in perfect accord with reason, I could not help but to act accordingly. I would turn into a kind of automaton where no critical moment of decision could reach me. To be God-like—and to the extent that humans can be god-like— means to be perfectly objective, to find the essence of truth in pure objectivity. But, as Kierkegaard explains:

When subjectivity is the truth, the conceptual determination of the truth must include an expression for the antithesis to objectivity, a memento of the fork in the road where the way swings off; this expression will at the same time serve as an indication of the tension of the subjective inwardness. Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual. At the point where the way swings off (and where this is cannot be specified objectively, since it is a matter of subjectivity), there objective knowledge is placed in abeyance. Thus the subject merely has, objectively, the uncertainty; but it is this which precisely increases the tension of that infinite passion which constitutes his inwardness. The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite.

The mirror that is fogged by the Gods at the same time opens the space of ethical freedom for humanity in the gap that separates thought from being in the passion of the infinite.

I suppose that the closest example of this mythologem might be the Protestant idea of pre-destination, in which we can believe that God has a plan for us but we’re not allowed to know it, with perfect certainty, so we must continue to strive as if we knew or had some ideas or clues, etc. There too we are structurally blinded from knowing our fate and ultimate destiny.