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

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    We are in for a treat this week as we are joined once again by Norland Téllez, Ph.D., to discuss “Returning to the Void: The Sacred Dawn of Mythic History” (click on title to read), his latest contribution to JCF’s MythBlast essay series, which takes a passage in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as a launchpad for a deep dive into the Maya Popul Vuh.

    I’ll open the discussion, but please know this is not an interview. Feel free to engage Dr. Téllez  with your own thoughts, observations, comments, and questions about his essay.

    This is probably a good place to mention that Norland was the recipient of a Joseph Campbell Research Grant in 2006 that allowed unfettered access to Campbell’s archives; this was followed by his doctoral dissertation in 2009 on the Popul Vuh. We have a rare opportunity to interact directly with a scholar who has devoted such time and attention to this remarkable document.


    You conclude your essay with this question:

    We can see clearly the strange similarity and the difference between the trinitarian conception of the One in Christianity and that of the Popol Vuh. What other similarities and differences can you sense based on our brief excursion into the Popol Vuh?”

    What an intriguing parallel – one of many Mesoamerican beliefs that boggled the mind of Catholic priests accompanying expeditions of conquest to the “New World” (new to Europeans, that is) – and yet there is no question of diffusion,  considering elements of the Popul Vuh appear on stucco panels dated to three centuries before the birth of Christ.”

    One similarity I find between the Popul Vuh and Judeo-Christian mythology is the account of a flood that destroys an antediluvian race. Does this Flood motif serve the same purpose in both these traditions, widely distant from one another in time and space? That can be debated – but, despite differences, one similarity Campbell finds between flood myths of different cultures is the aftermath: “There was a new world, and life could get started again.”

    That’s a fun tangent worth exploring at some point – but a similarity more immediately relevant to your essay relates to the Void, which, as you point out, precedes creation . . . and not just in Mayan mythology. From Genesis 1:2 – “And the world was without form, and void” (King James Version), which is immediately followed by the act of creation (“Let there be light . . . and God divided the light from the darkness.” Genesis 1:3- 4).

    Turning again to Joseph Campbell, seems all roads lead back to the Void:

    How teach again, however, what has been taught correctly and incorrectly learned a thousand times, throughout the millennia of mankind’s prudent folly? . . . How render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? How represent on a two-dimensional surface a three-dimensional form, or in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning? How translate into terms of “yes” and “no” revelations that shatter into meaninglessness every attempt to define the pairs of opposites? How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void?” (Hero with a Thousand Faces, 188)

    A few paragraphs earlier, at the beginning of this section, Joe offers this intriguing observation:

    The two worlds, the divine and the human, can be pictured only as distinct from each other — different as life and death, as day and night. . . . Nevertheless — and here is a great key to the understanding of myth and symbol — the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. ” (188)

    Thomas Mann, considered by Campbell one of the most consequential novelists of all time (on par with Joyce), penned a prelude to Joseph and His Brothers titled “Descent into Hell.” The opening line, which sets the tone for the entire tetralogy, reads, “Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?”

    “The deeper we sound,” wrote Thomas Mann, “the further down into the lower world of the past we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its history and culture, reveal themselves unfathomable.” (cited in Joseph Campbell, “The Historical Development of Mythology,” The Mythic Dimension, 18)

    (Incidentally, I have the Alfred A Knopf Everyman’s Library edition of Mann’s masterpiece, translated by John E. Woods, from which I excerpted the opening line – but I much prefer the poetry of Campbell’s own translation quoted here.)

    Considering your MythBlast’s title, is it synchronicity that Campbell draws attention to this in the section of his essay collection called “Myth and History” – or that the reference is to a retelling of one of the foundational myths of the Judeo-Christian tradition?

    I can’t help wondering, however, if the call to “return to the origins”  points as well to something more than just the distant past. Is not the Void in one sense with us still, underlying the creation of the One, the Two, the Three (and, indeed, “the Ten Thousand Things” that comprise the universe in Taoist and Buddhist thought)?


      Thank you so much Stephen! As usual, a great pleasure to riff with you, to improvise together, on the wake of our latest BLAST into the mythic dimension! And yes, it is true, after 25 years of study and artistic development, the Popol Vuh continues to be the hot topic of my mytho-historic studies. Like you, I was raised a catholic and the similarities one finds between the Popol Vuh and the Bible are indeed mind boggling.

      With respect to the Christian Trinity, the parallel with the Triple Lightning Heart of Sky is obvious enough but the difference between them is more subtle and quite interesting. Although we cannot really go too deeply into this, suffice it to say that the acceptance of the Two as the One, which is expressed in the image of the Sovereign Plumed Quetzal Serpent, means that the Three are part of a wider constellation of creative powers. When the Three are in concert with the Two, they become God-5 which plays a special role in the creation of speech and thus of humanity in particular. The raw power of cosmic creation, on the other hand, is relegated to God-4, the result of the First Two doubling themselves.When intervention into human history is the task, however, then God 9 is required to ignite transformation. All in all, about 11 to 13 Gods are involved in the entire process of popol-vuhan creation, but their configuration and number changes according to the specific task or aspect of creation.

      So you can get a glimpse here of how immensely fascinating the differences are, and that it is precisely in the play differences, not in the generic sameness, that the living incandescent matter of myth resides. From a mytho-historic perspective, what constitutes the identity of sameness—in this case, the presence of a Trinitarian archetype in both traditions—vanishes as relatively uninteresting in the dialectical play of differences that animates the Popol Vuh from within.

      Another interesting example that you bring up is the myth of the flood, which punctuates both Maya and Christian traditions, among others, including the famous accounts from ancient Babylonia. In each of these traditions, the archetypal meaning of the Flood is to be found in its mythic details and historic contexts. Even the general similarity that  Campbell finds between flood myths of different cultures in the aftermath, when, after a massacre of genocidal proportions,“There was a new world, and life could get started again,” would not exactly fit into the narrative frame of the Popol Vuh. For after the wooden people were wiped out by fire and water, what follows is a curious regression into the mana state of individualism, a state of self-deification, that at all times characterizes an inflation of consciousness. This state is symbolized by Principal Macaw and Sons, the great postdiluvian giants who arrogated to themselves the status of Gods. Life does not start a new after the flood but has a tendency to go back along the riverbed of reactionary channels.

      One fundamental difference between the floods of the Bible and the Popol Vuh, lies in the kind of people that were wiped out in most ruthless fashion. In the Maya account, the people that were wiped out were not exactly human. They were self-animated little puppets made out of wood; they were mythic creatures leading to the existence of spider monkeys, who likewise merely resemble the human design, lacking all the characteristics of the human soul. According to the Popol Vuh, the wooden people were a failed attempt at the creation of humanity, not to be confused with humanity itself. The Flood was part of an experimental method of creation and destruction and not yet a sacrificial bloodbath of fully constituted human beings “of flesh and blood.”

      The difference between these two meanings could not be more grave and constant. In both versions, a certain mythic description of mass genocide is given justification. In the Biblical version, non-believers are wiped out in an effort to purify the human race. In the Maya version, the beings that had to be wiped out were not yet human, but a fantastic race of wooden men and women. On a certain level of mytho-history, when literal human sacrifice was a core component of Maya religion, the sacrificial victims were dehumanized to the status of wooden puppets for a mythic performance and simultaneously exalted in this performance to the archetypal status of a God or Hero.

      Looking at these parallels and differences, I always like to be clear about the fundamental difference between two kinds of universality in myth. Why do I say that the true archetypal significance of an event lies in its details rather than its generic form? With this, I don’t mean to downplay the importance of form or formal structure, but to put forward a way of presenting a form which is filled with content. So content matters just as much as form—hence my predilection for a mytho-historic approach. So there are two kinds of universality at play when we talk of similarities and differences. One is the universality of an abstract or generic form, of pure formal structure, and the other is what I like to call, following Hegel, a form of concrete universality, a mytho-historic form that has existential weight. So, in a way, you could say that mytho-history is the science of concrete universalities in the temporality of human existence on earth.


      This is fascinating Norland!
      I’ve only heard and read about the Popul Vuh in passing references and this is wonderful to learn more about it!

      Thank you!

      The aspect of lightning brings a shocking clarity to this Creation Myth(Popul Vuh.)

      Okay could not resist. But it is highly intriguing, especially when one considers the other “let there be light…beginnings…”

      Now some of those beginnings seem passive in comparison.

      When I think of lightning, energy comes to mind. Intense energy.
      And it is poetic too:

      master lightning, (Caculha Huracan)

      lightning splendor (love that one) chipi calcuhla

      trace of lightning. (raxa caculha)

      There is almost a Hiawatha rhythm in the translation.

      The heart of heaven (huracan) evokes another image with the sound of that word: “hurricane.”
      Of course thanks to your proper translation and knowledge of the Popul Vuh, the definition is made clear.
      But it’s funny that the word evokes the sound of another kind of storm.
      Storms and lightning seem to go together. Sometimes.

      When you speak of the Void and the words of creation can feel how the “word/words” are emphasized.

      Yet I have also wondered about creation tales, which invoke “song?”

      The word of creation as “the song of creation?”

      It is interesting in this passage you quote how the Void ripples and murmurs and hums, before the One, Two, Three are born and play their part in creation.

      This is the account; here it is: Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums, and it is empty under the sky. (Tedlock)

      But song or word, it is still vibration.

      And lightning energy.

      So the Mayan concept of Creation is multilayered more than might meet the eye in a casual glance.

      Then this passage brings other thoughts:

      Then while they meditated, it became clear to them that when dawn would break, man must appear. Then they planned the creation, and the growth of the trees and the thickets and the birth of life and the creation of man. Thus it was arranged in the darkness and in the night by the Heart of Heaven who is called Huracán.


      Tepeu and Gucamatz seem to be meditating and it “becomes clear to them, when dawn breaks man must appear.” And then they start planning.
      This kind of conjures an image of creating not just based on decisions, but insight. Meditation? Clarity? Then action. They (think or meditate) even before they plan and act. And then their plan sounds like a blue print.
      And Huracan puts that blue print into action in the night. It shows there is an “inspiration,” to be found first and an awareness of that inspiration comes next (what it is-Creation and when Man must arrive: dawn)

      Then they make plans as the vehicle for realization of that inspiration.

      And as night arrives, so comes the Heart Of Heaven in three bolts of lightning to bring the vision to life?

      Not sure, but isn’t there some modern metaphor about inspiration coming like a “bolt of lightning?”

      Yes, the “light bulb” over the head drawing might be more common for “ideas.”

      But then that might depend if one is an Edison or a Tesla fan!

      All that aside, this was a very enjoyable and fascinating read!

      Thank you!







        Thank you so much, our dear sunbug,

        I’m so glad that the lightning of the Popol Vuh fired your imagination and soul!

        You are right to pick up, once again, on the metaphor of lightning and light. “Let there be light” and “let there be lightning” have great similarity and difference.

        There is definitely a more shocking and electrifying aspect that is borne out by the lightning metaphor when compared with the simple light bulb that turns on with “let there be light!” It is both shocking and electrifying to meet the awesome power of creation in the form of a lightning bolt or a thunder strike, probably in no small measure due to the fact of the tremendous sound that accompanies the light of lightning in nature. This is also related to the primordial song, analogous to the Om, that brings forth the order of creation—but in a much more shattering way.

        Let me share with you and the rest of the forum my own unpublished translation/interpretation of the passages leading up to the manifestation of the Creative Word, and let the Popol Vuh speak for itself on the matter of this return to the Void, what seems to be a requisite to understanding the First Dawn of Creation and the peculiar concept of Light involved in the Popol Vuh as “the light that shines out of its own darkness!”

        This is the first account, when all was in suspense, all in repose, when all was quiet, all motionless, all peaceful, all hushed—where everything still ripples, everything still murmurs, everything still sighs—in the great emptiness of the Womb of Sky.


        There was only limitless water, only a calm sea —alone and without limit; nothing had come to be. Only immobility, only silence, existed in the Darkness, in the Night.

        Only Tz’aqol, B’itol—the Creators, the Formers— with Tepew and Q’ukumatz—the Sovereign Majesty and her Plumed Serpents—were there with Alom and K’aholom—the Mothers and Fathers of all life— hovering over the waters and scattering their light; they were sparkling bright, wrapped in the blue and green feathers of the Majestic Quetzal.

        Behold the signs of the Sovereign Plumed Quetzal Serpents—the power that hides and reveals itself in the light of its darkness—the light that shines out of its own darkness!

        These are the Great Sages, the Great Thinkers of Nature. Such is the sky, such are also the Spirits of the Heart of Sky—Uk’u’x Kaj—as we call the name of the Supreme God.



        Thank you so much for sharing this!

        Lovely! I am sure many here will enjoy seeing this “blueprint” (blue print only because it’s currently unpublished) of your work!
        I certainly have!
        More poetry for certain and color!
        The idea and vision of Plumed serpents has always been fascinating.

        Though originally, I only had knowledge of Quetzalcoatl.
        And (he) seemed such a literally “color-full” character.
        Or maybe having a beautiful little South American buddy, a bright green Quaker parrot named Jeremy (born stateside)

        Also marked the bird part of the image in my mind. 🙂
        Jeremy lived to be 24, a few months shy of his 25th birthday. (2018)
        And he was the most adaptable little guy. It was amazing! Even in previous years, when he went traveling with me.
        Cheerful too.  Felt like i could  learn a lot from that bird! He also had quite the vocabulary!

        The primordial waters of the void leave this wonderful paradoxical mystery in the mind: how they simultaneously “exist,” yet are empty.
        Have sound? (But are silent?)

        Give birth but are Void?

        And “where all is in suspense,”

        somehow physics comes to mind too…

        The top of the pendulum (potential energy-contained-waiting)

        And then the kinetic realization or act of Creation/s, which follow. Watched over by colorful plumed beings.

        with the “womb of sky,” it’s hard not to imagine a metaphor of a primordial “goddess,” or “sleeping goddess,” (since this story begins in the mysterious “realm of the void.” A realm, which appears to contain “the opposites within it?” (Simultaneously being and “not being.”) But maybe because the void represents a “potential,” of/for creation and potential “energy,” that it “stands alone,” or remains “beyond?” the characterization of the Creators (male and female?)

        That the womb is a symbolic metaphor? In the same way “ideas” can have “birth?”
        More akin to Athena born from the head?
        But different by being a place of “potential energy,” which both is and is not?
        And that place waits for The Creators and Formers to make the vision real.

        It is funny because just occurred that potential energy is (both still and yet still contains energy) similar to the void.

        Well thank you again!




        Tutto chiaro, tutto bello! Grazie, alla Campbell Foundation, di questa conversazione così rara e preziosa! A questo punto, come contributo a una più ampia mito-transculturazione, credo sia giusto accostare al testo dei Popol Vuh il celebre Nāsadīya sukta, inno cosmogonico detto della ‘Creazione’ – 129, mandala del ṚgVeda:

        Non esisteva, al principio, né l’Essere/ né il Non-essere, né l’Aria o il Cielo eccelso;/ Chi si mosse ? E dove o chi lo mosse ?/ Dov’era l’Acqua profonda, abissale ? / Morte non v’era, né immortalità;/ nessun divario fra la Notte e il Giorno;/ Uno solo spirava per la sua Forza/altro non esisteva oltre a quell’Uno./ Tenebra avvolta da Tenebra v’era,/ un oceano incosciente; quel Principio/ cosmico ch’era serrato nei Molti/quale Uno, se stesso generò/ mediante la potenza del suo Tapas./L’Uno sortì dapprima come Kāma,/ il primevo Germoglio della mente;/i bardi meditanti, in cuore trovarono/ nel Non-essere ciò che fonda l’Essere./Trasversale si estese il loro Raggio;/ qualcosa sopra e pur qualcosa sotto:/ Fecondatori e generanti Forze/Energia sotto, impulso sopra./ Chi sa davvero, chi potrebbe dire/ donde si originò questa creazione ?/ Al di qua di questo sono gli dei/ Chi dunque sa da dove è venuta in essere ?/ Donde sorse il creato ? Lo produsse/ colui che è il reggitore celestiale ?/ Egli certo lo sa, seppur l’ignori.” [traduzione, con lieve ritocco, di Tommaso Iorco, La Calama Ed. 1997]

        Assieme a molte analogie col testo del Popol Vuh, qui si è invece lontani dal testo biblico, in particolare per due aspetti: l’Autogenerazione dell’Uno mediante ardore (Tapas ), e il suo immediato manifestarsi come Kāma, Desiderio; e per altre due circostanze: i ṛsi , i saggi che trovano l’essere a partire dal non-essere sono più vicini ai taoisti, e l’impotente o meravigliosa autoironia, con cui si dubita che il Demiurgo ‘sappia’ della creazione.


          Gracias, Don nicl1a,

          Le contesto en español esperando que pueda entenderlo como yo entiendo su italiano, a pesar de no saber el idioma. Cuando estaba en la universidad (CalArts) tuve una novia italiana, con la cual siempre conversaba así: ella hablándome en italiano y yo en español. En realidad, es extraordinaria la gran similitud que existe entre nuestros dos idiomas.

          Los paralelos del texto de la RgVeda y el Popol Vuh son asombrantes—muchas gracias por traerlos a nuestra atención. El concepto de la creación de la nada es unas de esas ideas arquetípicas que se pueden hallar atravez de las diversas culturas, como usted dice, “mito-transculturazione,” las cuales, al mismo tiempo, ofrecen sus riquezas en los detalles de sus incarnaciones mitohistóricas. Voy a incluir aquí una traducción del himno con su comentario despues:

          Then, neither nonbeing nor being was as yet;
          neither was airy space nor heavens beyond.
          Was it hid? Where? Sheltered by whose enveloping care?
          Was there water, the fathomless abyss?

          Then, death was not; immortal life was not;nor was there any sign of night or day.
          Without aid of breath, by inherent might, the One breathed;of a certainty, beyond that nothing whatever was.

          In the beginning, darkness was by darkness concealed;undifferentiated surge was this whole creation.
          While the boundless force of Being was by unformed Being enclosed, That One, through conscious fervor, brought itself forth to be.

          In the beginning, thereupon rose Self-delight, love and desire,
          which together, was of consciousness, the primeval seed.
          The wise, searching within their hearts,perceived there the bond of Truth in illusion.

          Stretched crosswise was their line, a ray of glory.Was there below? Was there above?
          Progenitors were there; Mighty powers to magnify were there –
          Potency from beneath and from above the force to move, raise and fill.

          Who truly knows, who here could proclaim: whence this creation flows, where is its origin?
          With this great surge the gods made their appearance. Now, therefore, who knows whence it became?

          Whence this detailed Self-radiance came,whether ordered or not; Only He in highest heaven, who is of this the witness – He alone knows, unless…He knows it not.

          Then you write:

          “Along with many similarities with the text of the Popol Vuh, here we are instead far from the biblical text, in particular in two aspects: the self-generation of the One through ardor (Tapas), and its immediate manifestation as Kāma, Desire; and for two other circumstances: the ṛsi, the sages who find being starting from non-being are closer to the Taoists, and the impotent or wonderful self-irony, with which it is doubted that the Demiurge ‘knows’ about creation.”


          Thank you for this work Norland and all the participants in this conversation. What a special little corner of the internet these MythBlasts are! I am so grateful.

          First a little introduction to me as I haven’t commented on the MythBlast form yet! I have worked with Norland on creating a screenplay for a film re-imagining of the Popol Vuh story, as told by contemporary Mayans. So I went to film a Kaqchikel Mayan community in Guatemala, where the Popol Vuh is common cultural knowledge, and almost every part of life seems to reference the text. The birthing rituals often involve corn as Mayans are ‘people of the corn’ created by maize. Tepeu Gucumatz and the creator gods decorate altars and textiles. It was a delight to see the deep importance of the story of creation.

          I also loved your MythBlast discourse about the flood stories (and there are so many flood myths worldwide!) as a justification and meaning-making for large natural disasters like this.

          I also am fascinated by an almost identical progression ‘evolution’ type of narrative structure of these creation stories. ‘Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’ – Genesis 1. Which of course sets the scene exactly the same eternal womb of darkness  as the Popol Vuh, as Norland’s reference above.

          Then there is a sequence of building the land, vegetation, creatures, man – in that exact order – no additional or missing steps – the same order! Which directly mirrors the most popular creation story in the US (I think?) which is evolutionary theory. This makes it very easy to see these as a metaphor for the scientific.

          One of the similarities I also love to explore is that in both the Popol Vuh and the Old Testament, humans are intended to have only limited power. Both the creations culminate with an event in which there is a final adjustment, either physical or geographical, to people based on them knowing or ‘seeing’ too much. It is interesting to note the differences in reactions of God (or the gods) to the power of their creation. In the Old Testament, Adam and Eve are told not to eat the apple of the tree of knowledge – God’s wishes are to not let them have as much knowledge. There is a breach in the contract and humans are thrown out to live in a ‘lesser’ world. (Which also contrasts quite interestingly to the Diné Bahaneʼ – a Navajo emergence myth in which humans crawl up and up to find better and better worlds, landing in our current one). In the Popol Vuh, the corn people can see too far – even through rocks. ‘Perfect was their sight, and perfect was their knowledge of everything beneath the sky. If they gazed about them, looking intently, they beheld that which was in the sky that which was upon the earth. Instantly they were able to behold everything’ (Christensen).  So the gods breathe mist in their eyes, which reduces their powers of sight to what we have today.

          Finding some interesting parallels, I think perhaps one of the most interesting was the intention that humanity should be limited in its knowledge. In the Old Testament, we increased our knowledge to that of god-like (an unfavorable behavior) and in the Popol Vuh we were reduced. But why were the god(s) concerned about this? To stay in power? Could this also be a benefit to the ruling powers of both Mayan and Christian countries for people to hear this story? Perhaps not, but it does seem to place humanity squarely beneath the gods in a specific hierarchy. Creating an order from chaos, and giving a specific place to humanity.

          Thank you Norland for brining this topic to us! The eternal return to creation! Gracias


          Hi Veronicawood!

          Thank you for joining us here in Conversations of a Higher Order (COHO). I love your observations about the similarities and differences between the Popul Vuh and other traditions. (I especially appreciate your point that the order of appearance of the elements of creation stories – land, flora, fauna, humans – mirrors the same sequence in the primary creation story that contemporary culture still seems to subscribe to, in terms of evolutionary theory).

          This observation really struck a chord:

          So I went to film a Kaqchikel Mayan community in Guatemala, where the Popol Vuh is common cultural knowledge, and almost every part of life seems to reference the text. The birthing rituals often involve corn as Mayans are ‘people of the corn’ created by maize. Tepeu Gucumatz and the creator gods decorate altars and textiles. It was a delight to see the deep importance of the story of creation.”

          We tend to think of rites as those accompanying critical transitions — birth, coming of age, marriage, death — sacraments all . . . but seems there was a time when ritual permeated every aspect of life:

          “[T]he archaic world knows nothing of “profane” activities: every act which has a definite meaning — hunting, fishing, agriculture, games, conflict, sexuality — in some way participates in the sacred . . . the only profane activities are those which have no mythical meaning. . . . Thus we may say that every responsible activity in pursuit of a definite end is, for the archaic world, a ritual.

          Every ritual has a divine model, an archetype . . ‘We must do what the gods did in the beginning.’ ”

          (Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, 27–28, 21)

          Eliade illustrates his point by providing examples of construction rituals in early cultures — required, for example, in ancient Mesopotamia, whether laying the foundation of temple, palace, or peasant’s house. These rites replicate “the primordial act” of the creation of the cosmos (traces of such construction rituals echo today in the rites of the Masonic Order). Yet other examples of “the divine model” abound in rituals still observed, from the Judeo-Christian Sabbath (God rested on the seventh day, after six days of creation) to the marriage ceremony (the divine Hierogamy of the union of Heaven and Earth).

          Campbell arrives at a parallel conclusion:

          Well, the value of mythology in the old traditions, one of the values, was that every activity in life had been mythologized. You saw something of its relevance to the Great Mysteries and your own participation in the Great Mysteries in the performance — in agriculture, in hunting, in military life and so forth. All of these were turned into spiritual disciplines. Actually they were. There were rituals associated with them that let you know what spiritual powers were being challenged, evoked, and brought into play through this action.”

          (Joseph Campbell, The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell, New Dimensions Radio Interview with Michael Toms on audiocassette, Tape I, Side 1, emphasis mine)

          These comments about the interplay between myth, ritual, and every day life underscore your observation about the practice of this Mayan community in the present day: ” . . . almost every part of life seems to reference the text.”

          Along with the breakdown of myth in general, that resonance between ritual, myth, and mundane life seems largely missing in modern society, whether for good or ill . . .



            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.

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