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Home > Timeline > 1519 - 1818 > Popol Vuh

In the highlands of Guatemala is the ancient town of Quiché, the home of the Quiché Mayans. The Popol Voh is superficially their history, starting from before the dawn of life with the ‘divine matchmaker’, Xpiyacoc, and his wife, the ‘divine midwife’, Xmucane who are the oldest of the gods. The saga continues from myth tthrough history to conclude in the middle 1550’s, at the time of its writing. It is, however, much more than just folklore and the Quiché Mayans believed that within it lay the answers to all of life. It was consulted at the meetings of their council and is thus known as the Councvil Book. The ages of the stories are unknown but must date to the beginnings of the Mayan empire.

The book was written, anonymously in alphabetical Mayan, rather than in hieroglyphics, by high-ranking Mayans who, ironically, had been taught the alphabet by missionaries so that they could read the scriptures. At the very beginning of the 18th century Fransisco Xinénez, a priest, say the manuscript and copied it, dividing each page in two down the centre so that he could add a Spanish translation opposite the Mayan text. After many travels this manuscript eventually came to rest in Chicago in the year 1911.

The significance of the book to the history of natural rubber is the prominence given within it to the ancient rubber ball game of the Mesoamericans. Xpiyacoc and Xmucane had twin sons, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu and, bearing in mind that the characters are all gods, these jointly fathered with Blood Moon, another set of twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These five characters are the heroes and their adventures take place before the gods have managed to create humans.

Both sets of twins play the ball game and the book follows an interwoven pattern of stories centred round the game and the battles they have with other gods. The individual episodes do not follow in chronological order but are broadly divided into their adventures above ground and in the underworld. There are more complications in that whilst the characters are generally treated as being on a terrestrial plane the tales can also be interpreted at the celestial/astronomical/asrtological levels, with various characters being (or becoming) stars, and places having both terrestrial and celestial significance. The episodes tell therefore of the creation of the Sun, the Moon and the stars in human terms whilst the tales provide an astrological ‘clock’ or calendar on which the Quiché Mayans based their life.

The stories are much too involved to tell here but the battle of Hunahpu and Xbalanque with the gods ends in their death, which is interpreted as their victory since they are re-born as the Moon and Sun. The tests to which Blood Moon are put have celestial significance as they define the phases of the Moon.

The Popol Vuh clearly shows that the ball game was a central part of the Mayan culture and provides firm documentary evidence of its religious significance. In referring to rubber as the ‘blood of sacrifice’ it provides evidence that at least some ball games were played as re-enactments of the sagas told in the book and that the vanquished players were sacrificed whilst the word the Quiché us today for a graveyard is ‘jom’, the word used in the book for the ball court.