Who’s Who in the Popol Vuh



The Bowers Museum is hosting Popol Vuh: Watercolors of Diego Rivera, an exhibition that continues through May 29  and showcases — for the first time in the United States — the famous Mexican muralist’s watercolor illustrations of the Quiché-Maya tale of origin. The narrative of the Popol Vuh itself is wonderful; it is as colorful and intricate as any creation story. However, the complexity of the story can make it somewhat difficult to approach, especially for someone who has never come in contact with the subject matter before. To make matters worse, many of the versions of the Popol Vuh that people are most familiar with are English translations of a Spanish translation of a Quiché transcription of an oral history which may have varied greatly from telling to telling. Some translations leave character names untranslated in the original Quiché, so unless you know in advance that Gucumatz and Sovereign Plumed Serpent are the same god you might think it was just a coincidence that they were both flying, feathered, snake-like wind deities responsible for the creation of the universe. Dennis Tedlock’s Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Maya (1985) was intended to be an end-all for translating the story, it’s often considered to be the best written-translation, and it’s what we at the Bowers have used throughout the interpretation process. Objectively it was the first English translation to go back and look at the original Quiché version, cutting out the well-meaning but often misleading Spanish-language middleman from the game of telephone that the translations had become. In short, this Who’s Who was written to make the story and especially the characters of the Popol Vuh accessible. So now, in the order of their appearance in Diego Rivera’s watercolors, the gods and men of the Maya book of council:
Sovereign Plumed Serpent 
They are there, they are enclosed in quetzal feathers, in blue-green. Thus the name, "Plumed Serpent." They are great knowers, great thinkers in their very being (73). 
Sovereign Plumed Serpent is a feathered serpent god very similar to Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs. In the Quiché language his name is Tepeu Gucumatz and it’s actually the first place we come to a translation issue, as often in previous translations Tepeu and Gucumatz were translated as two separate gods.  Tedlockmakes it clear that Tepeu (or Sovereign) is an honorific title. He is part of a group called Heart of the Lake, Heart of the Sea, alternatively called Maker, Modeler or Bearer and Begetter. At the beginning of the Popol Vuh, Sovereign Plumed Serpent is in a vast and still ocean, and after a lengthy discussion as to the way that things should be, he watches as Hurricane and his group brings forth the earth from the sea by repeating its name. He is also part of the group that, in three separate stages, creates men out of three different materials: mud, which dissolves into nothingness; wood, which fails to respect the gods and is destroyed for it; and lastly, maize, which succeeds in creating the people we know today.  
Hurricane (Thunderbolt Hurricane) 
Then it was clear, then they reached accord in the light, and then humanity was clear, when they conceived the growth, the generation of trees, of bushes, and the growth of life, of humankind, in the blackness, in the early dawn, all because of the Heart of Sky, named Hurricane (73). 
Hurricane is the leader of the three thunder gods that together are Heart of Sky (sometimes called Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth). At the start of the Popol Vuh the three float in the empty sky above the waters. After their discussion with Sovereign Plumed Serpent, the three gods Thunderbolt Hurricane, Newborn Thunderbolt and, Raw Thunderbolt draw the land from the ocean, and form mountains and rivers. Hurricane also leads Heart of Sky in the first attempts to create man in an effort to bring to life a being that can thank its creator. They first try by making the animals to guard their new earth, and are frustrated when they don’t give them praise. This frustration only increases over time through the creation and disintegration of mud men, so when wooden men too fail to give praise he personally summons a great flood to destroy them and calls animals to fall upon the survivors and maim them and disfigure them until their descendants become monkeys. The god is often called One-Legged because in most depictions he has one human leg and a serpent’s tail. In Diego Rivera’s illustrations, though, he is depicted with two legs which are half human and half serpent: in a way, it still adds up to being one-legged. 
Xpiyacoc and Xmucane(Grandfather and Grandmother) 
Midwife, matchmaker, our grandmother, our grandfather, Xpiyacoc, Xmucane, let there be planting, let there be the dawning of our invocation, our sustenance, our recognition by the human work, the human design, the human figure, the human mass. So be it, fulfill your names (80). 
Xpiyacoc and Xmucane referred to as a pair almost always in epithet are the two oldest gods of the Quiché-Maya pantheon. In the Popol Vuh the pair is first called upon during the second attempt at making man, and with their help wooden men are created. This doesn’t end up being as successful as any of the gods would like, so the pair also helps create the final version of man, maize men. Xmucane even grinds the maize from which the first men are made. They are also the parents of One and Seven Hunahpu, which makes them grandparents of Hunahpu and Xbalanque; the latter pair being the hero twin protagonists of the Popol Vuh. We see though that The Grandmother has a much greater role in the story of the twins than does the grandfather. After One and Seven Hunahpu are defeated by the Lords of Xibalba (the underworld) it is the Grandmother that raises One Hunahpu’s children One Monkey and One Artisan. She also takes in Blood Woman after she is convinced the maiden is pregnant with her grandchildren and helps raise them when they are born. Xpiyacoc and Xmucane heal Hunahpu when his arm is torn off by Seven Macaw, and help the hero twins defeat the villainous god that had brought harm to their grandson. Also worth noting is that throughout the Popol Vuh each god goes by at least five names apiece: Xpiyacoc  goes by Grandmother of Day [despite Xpiyacoc being male], Maker of the Blue-Green Plate, Great White Peccary, and Bearer Twice Over; and Xmucane goes by Grandmother of Light, Maker of the Blue-Green Bowl, Great White Tapir, and Begetter Twice Over. 
The Iterations of Man 
Mud Men 
So then comes the building and working with earth and mud. They made a body, but it didn't look good to them. It was just separating, just crumbling, just loosening, just softening, just disintegrating, and just dissolving. Its head wouldn't turn, either (79). 
The mud men were the Bearer, Begetter’s first attempt at making man. They were drawn from mud, which sadly did not hold shape. The creatures seemed to dissolve at their inception, and though they had the ability to speak they said only nonsense. Their forms were also lopsided, as they did not set and could not reproduce. So in disappointment, the gods left the mud men to dwindle until they were nothing. 
Wooden Men  
They came into being, they multiplied, they had daughters, they had sons, these manikins, woodcarvings. But there was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds, no memory of their mason and builder. They just went and walked wherever they wanted(83). 
After the failure of the mud men, Heart of Sky and Bearer, Begetter decide that it would be prudent to get assistance in their creation of man, so they enlist the help of Xpiyacoc and Xmucane. The result is wooden men or mannequins, people carved out of wood that moved and spoke and multiplied. However, they had no minds and no hearts, nor did they have blood. They did not give the thanks that their creators desired so Hurricane destroyed them in a flood. The survivors were attacked by the creatures they had once eaten for food and were horribly disfigured. The few that got away became monkeys and still live in the forests today.  

Maize Men 
The yellow corn and white corn were ground… It was staples alone that made up their flesh… And when they came to fruition, they came out human (163-165). 
The first men from which we all descend were made from maize and water by Heart of Sky; Bearer, Begetter; Xpiyacoc and Xmucane. The maker gods searched for a long time to find the ingredient from which man was to be made when finally it was brought to them by the animals they had made: maize. A fox, coyote, parrot, and crow brought news of yellow and white corn. When the gods arrived at the source Xmucane ground it up and the gods formed the first men. At first the gods gave maize men the ability of unlimited sight, so that they could see and understand everything in the universe. But the gods themselves feared what they had created and so they dullened their vision, allowing them to only see what was in front of them. The first men did everything we do; they talked, looked, and listened, thought, moved, and worked. Most importantly they gave thanks to the gods.
Hunahpu and Xbalanque  
Here we are: we are Hunahpu and Xbalanque by name. And these are our fathers, the ones you killed: One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu by name. And we are here to clear the road of the torments and troubles of our fathers. And so we have suffered all the troubles you've caused us. And so we are putting an end to all of you (155-57). 
Hunahpu (One Blowgun Hunter) and Xbalanque (Young Hidden Sun) are the hero twins of the Popol Vuh. Both brothers were intelligent, brave, handsome, and had magical powers; all necessary traits for their role as the heroic protagonists for the Popol Vuh. The brothers, though especially good with blowguns, are not fierce warriors; they always rely on using intricate tricks to best their enemies. It is important too that they are both gods themselves, and have the magical power of bringing themselves back from death. We first see the two in a flash forward after the creation of wooden men and before their destruction. Hurricane discovers that Seven Macaw is posing as the sun and moon. Instantly filled with rage, he tasks the brothers with defeating Seven Macaw and his children, Zipacna and Earthquake. The brothers of course accomplish this through subterfuge, tricking each of the three demon-gods in a different way. Later on in the Popol Vuh we learn of the hero twins’ origins.  Thebrothers eventually become the sun and moon respectively. They are the sons of Blood Woman (daughter of a lord of the underworld) and the already deceased One Hunahpu. Early on in their lives, their half-brothers attempt to kill them out of jealousy, and Hunahpu and Xbalanque trap One Artisan and One Monkey in a tree and turn them into monkeys. A little later on they discover that their father and uncle were murdered by the lords of Xibalba and seek revenge.  Uponarriving in Xibalba, the brothers decide to play along with the trials of the lords, the six houses of Xibalba (Dark House, Razor House, Cold House, Jaguar House, Fire House, and Bat House), each of which they successfully pass through except for the final one in which the head of Hunahpu is bitten off by a large bat. Of course the brothers can use magic and so Xbalanque saves Hunahpu by reattaching his head. The main lords of Xibalba, One and Seven Death, are interested in how the brothers return from death and eventually ask to be sacrificed and then brought back to life.  The brothers kill the willing One and Seven Death, but never bring them back. The remaining lords of Xibalba are all terrified and are chased into a canyon which the brothers fill with ants, defeating their foes for all time. Ultimately the brothers defeat all their foes and rise into the heavens with Hunahpu becoming the sun and Xbalanque becoming the moon. 
Seven Macaw 
It is not true that he is the sun, this Seven Macaw, yet he magnifies himself, his wings, his metal. But the scope of his face lies right around his own perch; his face does not reach everywhere beneath the sky. The faces of the sun, moon, and stars are not yet visible, it has not yet dawned (86). 
Seven Macaw Is a highly prideful god who is often compared to Lucifer by scholars of the Popol Vuh. The brightly colored Macaw demon-god is also the father of both Zipacna and Earthquake, who both share his arrogance. He incurs the wrath of Heart of Sky by declaring himself to be both the sun and the moon to the wooden men. This causes Hurricane to tell Hunahpu and Xbalanque to destroy Seven Macaw. The brothers determine that the best way to carry this out begins by breaking his jaw with a blowgun. In a more immediate sense this leads to Hunahpu having his arm torn off by Seven Macaw. Fortunately Xpiyacoc and Xmucane decide to help. First they reattach Hunahpu’s arm, and then they pretend to be healers, and offer their assistance to Seven Macaw who is nursing a broken jaw and a number of missing teeth. They replace his teeth with white corn, which causes his greatness to diminish until he is nothing and is defeated. 
Zipacna 
And this is Zipacna, this is the one to build up the great mountains: Fire Mouth, Hunahpu, Cave by the Water, Xcanul, Macamob, Huliznab, as the names of the mountains that were there at the dawn are spoken. They were brought forth by Zipacna in a single night (89). 
One of the demonic sons of Seven Macaw, Zipacna was known as the crust of the earth. He had the power to create mountains overnight. Like his father though he is too prideful and similar to his father.  As his father claims to be the sun and the moon, he claims to be the creator of the earth. Though tasked with killing Zipacna by Hurricane, Hunahpu and Xbalanque have a second reason for wanting to kill the demon-god.  Zipacna kills, albeit only after they have tried to kill him, a group of four hundred boys. The boys had needed help building a giant hut, but after Zipacna moved the central beam into place for them the boys came to the consensus that nothing should have that strength, so they attempted to kill Zipacna by crushing him with a giant pole. Sadly Zipacna saw through this and dug his way out, crushing the boys by bringing their hut down on them as they slept. Hunahpu and Xbalanque defeat Zipacna by waiting until he has not eaten for many days and then informing him of a giant crab they have found. As Zipacna gets underneath the crab to eat it, the brothers reveal that the crab had been a mountain they relied on both camouflage and gullibility to disguise. The hero twins bring the mountain crashing down on Zipacna, killing him. 
Earthquake 
And now this is the Earthquake. The mountains are moved by him; the mountains, small and great, are softened by him. The sons of Seven Macaw did this just as a means of self-magnification (89). 
Earthquake is the other demonic son of Seven Macaw. As his name suggests he is the god of earthquakes, causing mountains to move with the tap of his foot. Like his brother and father, he is prideful and ends up getting his just desserts from Hunahpu and Xbalanque at the behest of Hurricane. The hero twins come across him while he is toppling mountains, and tell him that they have found a mountain that is too large for even for him to destroy. On the journey there they cook delicious birds and make one especially for Earthquake coated in gypsum. When he eats the bird he immediately begins to lose his strength and by the time the three of them reach the great mountain he is barely strong enough to move. The hero twins tie him up and bury him underground where he remains, continuing to cause earthquakes by shifting under the ground. 
One and Seven Hunahpu  
These are the names: One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu, as they are called… In the blackness, in the night, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu were born to Xpiyacoc and Xmucane… They are great thinkers and great is their knowledge. They are the midmost seers, here on the face of the earth. There is only good in their being and their birthright (105). 
One and Seven Hunahpu are the children of the two oldest gods in the Maya pantheon, the Grandfather and the Grandmother. Though it might seem strange to have characters named One and Seven Hunahpu, the distinction has to do with Maya astronomy and their calendrical system. One would be the beginning of a cycle and seven would be the end of it. There is even some discussion amongst scholars as to whether or not the figures of the Popol Vuh with names prefixed by One and Seven are separate individuals or aspects of the same entity.  Whatscholars agree on is that One Hunahpu is the father of One Monkey and One Artisan by his wife Xbaquiyalo (who died shortly after childbirth).  One Hunahpu, Seven Hunahpu, One Monkey, and One Artisan passed their days by playing pokatok (the Maya ball game). Unfortunately for One and Seven Hunahpu their ball court was right on the road to Xibalba and the sound of the games bothered the lords of Xibalba. One and Seven Death ordered their Owl Messengers to invite One and Seven Hunahpu to their court for a ballgame to which the twins happily obliged. Upon arrival One and Seven Hunahpu were forced into facing the trials of Xibalba and were defeated. To show everyone that they were not to be trifled with One and Seven Death removed One Hunahpu’s head and placed it in a calabash tree. Rather than being the end of one Hunahpu though, this caused the tree to bear fruit for the first time, drawing the interest of Blood Woman. After getting to know her a little first One Hunahpu spits into the hand of Blood Woman, making her pregnant with Hunahpu and Xbalanque and continuing the heroic legacy. 
One Monkey and One Artisan  
[One and Seven Hunahpu] taught skills to One Monkey and One Artisan, the sons of One Hunahpu. One Monkey and One Artisan became flautists, singers, and writers; carvers, jewelers, metalworkers as well (105). 
One Monkey and One Artisan are the sons of One Hunahpu and Xbaquiyalo. Before One and Seven Hunahpu left for Xibalba to eventually be defeated, the two brothers trained One Monkey and One Artisan to be great artisans. With time they became accomplished flautists, singers, writers, carvers, jewelers, and metalworkers; even becoming quite wise. Unfortunately they were tortured souls, extremely jealous of Hunahpu and Xbalanque as their younger half-brothers were better than them at most everything. Finally One Monkey and One Artisan try to murder the hero twins but are instead are tricked into a tree and transformed into monkeys. Hunahpu and Xbalanque feeling sorry for what they’ve done, try to lead their new monkey-half-siblings back to the home they share with their grandmother Xmucane. Sadly to do so they play the flute, and the song makes One Monkey and One Artisan dance a ridiculous dance. When Xmucane sees them she can’t help but to laugh at their misfortune, which scares One Monkey and One Artisan off forever. The story doesn’t end as tragically as it might seem, though; as monkeys One Monkey and One Artisan become the symbolic representation for artists in Maya art. 
Lords of Xibalba 
And these are the lords over everything, each lord with a commission and a domain assigned by One and Seven Death (106). 
The lords of Xibalba are the court that rules Xibalba, the underworld. The group as a whole is far from a charming lot, and tends to ultimately sacrifice all who come before them, either personally or by means of their six houses, each of which serves as trial. In order of highest to lowest rank the lords of Xibalba are: One and Seven Death, who are the ruler and second in charge of Xibalba; House Corner and Blood Gatherer, who draw blood from people; Pus Master and Jaundice Master, responsible for dispensing their respective namesakes; Bone Scepter and Skull Scepter, who cause people to become emaciated until they’re nothing but bones; Trash Master and Stab Master, who punish those with untidy doorways and patios by stabbing them; and Wing and Packstrap, who cause people to spontaneously die on roads. It is One and Seven Death who, angered by the sounds of the ball game played by One and Seven Hunahpu on the road to Xibalba, summon the twins to Xibalba to sacrifice them. Thanks to the efforts of Blood Woman, though, the lords of Xibalba are blinded during her escape, and her children Hunahpu and Xbalanque end up defeating lords of Xibalba by fooling them into asking to be sacrificed.
The Owl Messengers 
And these messengers of theirs are owls: Shooting Owl, One-legged Owl, Macaw Owl, Skull Owl, as the messengers of Xibalba are called. There is Shooting Owl, like a point, just piercing. And there is One-legged Owl, with just one leg; he has wings. And there is Macaw Owl, with a red back; he has wings. And there is also Skull Owl, with only a head alone; he has no legs, but he does have wings (109). 
The four owl messengers of Xibalba, called Shooting Owl (“like a point, just piercing”), One-Legged Owl (“with just one leg; he has wings”), Macaw Owl (“with a red back; he has wings”), and Skull Owl (with only a head alone; he has no legs, but he does have wings). They are often referred to as Military Keepers of the Mat, which is their rank in Xibalba. The Owls are ordered by the lords of Xibalba to summon One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu to their defeat at Xibalba. Later on in the Popol Vuh they listen to the Maiden and allow her to escape Xibalba. They are also ordered to summon the hero twins to what will be the downfall of the lords of Xibalba. 
Blood Woman (the Maiden) 
And this is when a maiden heard of it, the daughter of a lord. Blood Gatherer is the name of her father, and Blood Woman is the name of the maiden. And when he heard the account of the fruit of the tree, her father retold it. And she was amazed at the account(114). 
Blood Woman, or simply the Maiden, is the daughter of Blood Gatherer, the fourth lord of Xibalba. After being told by her father about the calabash tree under which One and Seven Hunahpu are buried, she decides to go to the tree to see its fruit. When the Maiden arrives at the tree, though, the decapitated head of One Hunahpu spits into her hand impregnating her with Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Six months into her virgin pregnancy, when the Maiden begins to show signs of her pregnancy the lords of Xibalba determine that she must be sacrificed and order their owl messengers to do so. Fortunately the Military Keepers of the Mat are far more understanding than the lords of Xibalba and she manages to convince them that her unborn twins are not bastards, but are instead the children of One Hunahpu. Furthermore, she has the messengers trick the lords of Xibalba into thinking she is dead by using red tree sap which solidifies into a heart. When the lords of Xibalba try to partake of her heart they are instead blinded. Blood Woman then heads to the house of the Grandmother and convinces her that she is pregnant with the children of One Hunahpu by invoking the Harvest Woman (god of maize, interestingly often associated with One Hunahpu) and multiplying the one ear of corn the Grandmother had into a basketful.  
Tohil  
"Alas! Fire has not yet become ours. We'll die from the cold," they said. And then Tohil spoke: "Do not grieve. You will have your own even when the fire you're talking about has been lost," Tohil told them. "Aren't you a true god! Our sustenance and our support! Our god!" they said when they gave thanks for what Tohil had said. "Very well, in truth, I am your god: so be it. I am your lord: so be it," (172). 
Tohil is the patron god of the Quiché-Maya and the bringer of fire, which he creates by pivoting in his sandal. Tohil first appears by name in the fourth part of the story which outlines the lineage of man up until the writing of the Popol Vuh. Interestingly in Diego Rivera’s watercolors we see Tohil first appear in the creation of the universe. It’s slightly uncertain exactly what his connection to the inception of the earth may have been. Tohil is probably best known for being the first to ask the Quiché to perform sacrifice. But despite being a somewhat demanding god Tohil can also be quite benevolent. He saves the early men from dying from the cold by giving them fire. His mercy ends as soon as he believes he has been slighted, though. A rival tribe, the Cakchiquels, steals fire from the Quichébecause they too are dying from the cold. Tohil demands that the thieves be sacrificed, so as to embarrass their patron god, Calm Snake (who oddly enough has the appearance of a bat). Furthermore Tohil demands that Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Mahucutah, and True Jaguar — the first four men — practice self-sacrifice by bleeding their ears and elbows. 
Text and images under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
Image Details: The Creation of the Universe (La Creación del Universo), Xibalba’s Messengers Send an Invitation to the Ball Players (Los Mensajeros de Xibalba Invitan a los Jugadores de Pelota), The Creation of Man (La Creación del Hombre), The Flood and the Destruction of the Wooden Men (El Diluvio y la Destrucción de los Hombres de Palo), Man’s Adoration of the Gods (La Adoración de los Dioses por los Hombres), Hunahpu Recovers His Arm (Hunahpu Recupera Su Brazo), The Creation of the Mountains (La Creación de los Montes)
All images cby Diego Rivera, 1931
“REPRODUCCIÓN AUTORIZADA POR EL INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE BELLAS ARTES Y LITERATURA 2015” 
D.R. © 2015 Banco de México, Fiduciario en el Fideicomiso relativo a los
Museos Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo. Av. 5 de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del.
Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F

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