Anthropogenesis in the Popol Vuh

By David Reigle on January 14, 2024 at 3:55 am

The Popol Vuh (or Popol Wuj) is the sacred book of the Maya. It gives their creation story, the stories of their gods and heroes, and a history of Maya kings. It includes the creation of human beings. This took three attempts, the first two of which ended in failure. Max Müller, in his 1862 review article on the Popol Vuh, misunderstood the book as describing four creations of humanity. These four were then cited in H. P. Blavatsky’s 1888 book, The Secret Doctrine, associating them with the four root-races taught there from the “Book of Dzyan.” These associations, made on an erroneous basis, are therefore also erroneous.

The first attempt at the creation of a human being is described only briefly in the Popul Vuh. This human being was made of earth and mud. It did not hold together well. It could not turn its head to look around. It spoke, but without sense. It would quickly dissolve in water. It could not walk. It could not multiply. So the disappointed creator gods destroyed it. (Sources for the first attempt: Recinos 1950, p. 86; Edmonson 1971, p. 19; Tedlock 1985, pp. 79-80; Tedlock 1996, pp. 68-69; Christenson 2003, pp. 78-79; Christenson 2004, pp. 26-27.) Tedlock notes that “the only creature made of mud is also the only one made in the singular” (1985, p. 257; 1996, p. 231).

The second attempt at the creation of human beings, and their subsequent destruction, is described at length in the Popol Vuh. They were made of carved wood, and were referred to as “poy,” variously translated as figures (Recinos), dolls (Edmonson), manikins (Tedlock), effigies (Christenson). They looked like people and they talked like people. They existed and they multiplied. They became numerous, the first to people the earth. But they had nothing in their hearts and they had no minds. They did not remember with thanks the gods who had created them. So they were destroyed, first by a flood sent by the great god “Heart of Heaven” (Recinos, Edmonson), or “Heart of Sky” (Tedlock, Christenson), their father.

It is here that Max Müller went astray, thinking that this closed the second attempt at creation. The text here adds that the body of man was made of tzité and the body of woman was made of reed or its marrow, before continuing with a lengthy description of other ways in which the figure/doll/manikin/effigy people made of carved wood were destroyed. Müller referred to tzité as a tree, but not as wood. So he erroneously took this as the third attempt at the creation of people (p. 335). The text continues, and at the end of its detailed descriptions of other ways in which these people were destroyed, it makes clear that these are the figure/doll/manikin/effigy people made of wood.

The text, when describing the planning of the second attempt at creation by the gods, refers to the people about to be created as “the formed people, the shaped people, the doll people, the made up people” (Edmonson, p. 21), and says that they are to be made of wood (Edmonson, p. 23). Then after all the descriptions of all the ways in which they were destroyed, we read “And thus was the destruction of the formed people, the shaped people” (Edmonson, p. 30). At the very end of this account, a few lines later, we read: “And it is said that the remainder are the monkeys that are in the forests today. That must be the remainder because their bodies were only fixed of wood by Former and Shaper. So the fact that the monkeys look like people is a sign of one generation of formed people, of shaped people, only puppets [poy, previously translated by him as dolls], and just carved of wood.” (Edmonson, pp. 30-31). This leaves no doubt that the end of the second attempt at creation is here being described, not the end of an erroneously postulated third attempt.

(Sources for the second attempt: Recinos 1950, pp. 89-93; Edmonson 1971, pp. 24-31; Tedlock 1985, pp. 83-86; Tedlock 1996, pp. 70-73; Christenson 2003, pp. 83-90; Christenson 2004, pp. 32-37.)

The third attempt at the creation of human beings comes much later in the Popul Vuh. Four men were created from ground yellow corn and white corn. They had no mother or father. They were not even begotten by the creator gods, but merely by a miracle (Recinos), power (Edmonson), sacrifice (Tedlock), miraculous power (Christenson), by means of incantation (Recinos), magic (Edmonson), genius (Tedlock), spirit essence (Christenson). They could talk, and they could walk. At first their sight was unlimited. They could see hidden things, and they could see at any distance. Aware of the unlimited knowledge that their unlimited sight gave them, they gave thanks to the creator gods. But then the gods wondered if it was right that the sight and knowledge of these four men equaled the sight and knowledge of the gods. So the great god Heart of Heaven/Heart of Sky limited their sight to things that were close, and with this their unlimited knowledge was also lost. They were then given wives, and these four pairs became the ancestors of the Maya people.

(Sources for the third attempt: Recinos 1950, pp. 165-170; Edmonson 1971, pp. 145-154; Tedlock 1985, pp. 163-167; Tedlock 1996, pp. 145-149; Christenson 2003, pp. 192-202; Christenson 2004, pp. 152-162.)

Christenson notes at the beginning of this account of the third attempt at the creation of human beings, the first successful one (2003, p. 192, fn. 452): “The Aztecs of Precolumbian Central Mexico believed that the earth had passed through five separate creations, each with the intent of forming beings capable of human expression. Only the fifth and final attempt was successful. . . . The Popol Vuh is consistent with this tradition in describing five separate creation attempts—the mountains and rivers, the animals and birds, the mud person, the wooden effigies, and now humankind.”

There are also other ways to count or correlate these creation attempts. Ralph Girard, in the 1979 English translation of his 1948 Spanish book, Esotericism of the Popul Vuh, classifies them into four ages of the world (p. 20): “The classification in the Popol Vuh embraces four cultural horizons, three prehistoric and one historic. They correspond to the four Ages or Suns of Toltec mythology, . . .” These from the Popul Vuh are, using Christenson’s terms for ease of comparison: the First Age is that of the creation of the animals and birds; the Second Age is that of the mud person; the Third Age is that of the wooden effigies; the Fourth Age is that of humankind.

. . . . . . .

References to the Popol Vuh in The Secret Doctrine,
compared with Max Müller’s review article on the Popol Vuh

S.D. vol. 1, p. 345: “In the Mexican Popol-Vuh, man is created out of mud or clay (terre glaise), taken from under the water.”

Max Müller, p. 334: “Then follows the creation of man. His flesh was made of earth (terre glaise). . . . He was soon consumed again in the water.”

This reference, both in Max Müller’s review article and in The Secret Doctrine, is misleading. It was not the creation of man, but only the first attempt, a failure; and the man made of earth and mud was then destroyed by the creator gods. Moreover, as noted by Tedlock, this description is in the singular in the Popol Vuh. So it seems that only one person was created. In the successful creation of people, later, they were made of ground corn.

S.D. vol. 2, p. 160: “The primitive ancestor, in Brasseur de Bourbourg’s “Popul-Vuh,” who — in the Mexican legends — could act and live with equal ease under ground and water as upon the Earth, answers only to the Second and early Third Races in our texts.”

This apparently refers to the first attempt at the creation of a human being in the Popol Vuh. The Popol Vuh says only that he was made of earth and mud. Neither Müller nor the Popol Vuh say anything about him being able to “act and live with equal ease under ground and water as upon the Earth.” On the contrary, the Popol Vuh says that this person would quickly dissolve in water.

S.D. vol. 2, p. 55 footnote.: “Remember . . . the Popol-Vuh accounts of the first human race, which could walk, fly and see objects, however distant.”

S.D. vol. 2, p. 96: “Again, in the ancient Quiché Manuscript, the Popol Vuh — published by the late Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg — the first men are described as a race “whose sight was unlimited, and who knew all things at once” : thus showing the divine knowledge of Gods, not mortals.”

S.D. vol. 2, p. 221: “. . . and others who . . . were born with a sight, which embraced all living things, and was independent of both distance and material obstacle. In short, they were the Fourth Race of men mentioned in the Popol-Vuh, whose sight was unlimited, and who knew all things at once.”

Max Müller, writing about what he describes as the fourth attempt at the creation of man, p. 337: “They could reason and speak, their sight was unlimited, and they knew all things at once.”

The first of these three quotations from The Secret Doctrine erroneously adds that “the first human race” could fly. Neither Müller’s review article nor the Popol Vuh itself say this. The second quotation similarly refers to them as “the first men.” In the Popol Vuh the first successful creation of people, resulting from the third attempt, had unlimited sight and knowledge only at first before it was taken away. The third quotation from The Secret Doctrine refers to them not as “the first human race” but as “the Fourth Race of men mentioned in the Popol-Vuh.” This quotation is immediately followed by “In other words, they were the Lemuro-Atlanteans.” This shows that Blavatsky in fact regarded them as early fourth root-race men rather than first root-race men. In The Secret Doctrine, the Lemurians are held to be third root-race, and the Atlanteans are held to be fourth root-race. The erroneous idea that the Popol Vuh teaches a fourth race of men comes from a misunderstanding by Müller, then erroneously equated with the fourth root-race by Blavatsky.

S.D. vol. 2, p. 97: “The Norse Ask, the Hesiodic Ash-tree, whence issued the men of the generation of bronze, the Third Root-Race, and the Tzite tree of the Popol-Vuh, out of which the Mexican third race of men was created, are all one.*

* See Max Müller’s review of the Popol-Vuh.

Max Müller, p. 335: “Then follows a third creation, man being made of a tree called tzité, woman of the marrow of a reed called sibac.”

Müller misunderstood the Popol Vuh to teach a third creation in which man is made of a tzité tree, when in fact it was still describing the second attempt at creation, of people made of carved wood. Blavatsky then erroneously took this and equated it with the third root-race. Müller, in regarding this as a third creation, missed the fact that the Popol Vuh was describing people-like figures made of wood. So he referred to “a tree called tzité” rather than wood of the tzité tree. This led Blavatsky to erroneously equate the tzité tree with “the Norse Ask, the Hesiodic Ash-tree,” and to erroneously equate this tzité tree with the source “whence issued the men of the generation of bronze, the Third Root-Race.”

S.D. vol. 2, p. 181 footnote.: “In “Hesiod,” Zeus creates his third race of men out of ash-trees. In the “Popol Vuh” the Third Race of men is created out of the tree Tzita and the marrow of the reed called Sibac. . . .

Max Müller, p. 335: “Then follows a third creation, man being made of a tree called tzité, woman of the marrow of a reed called sibac.”

Müller’s erroneous postulation of a third creation in which man is made of a tzité tree has already been noted, as has Blavatsky’s taking this and equating it with the third root-race, and Blavatsky’s equating the tzité tree with the ash-tree as the source of the third race of men. Now to Müller’s phrase, “woman of the marrow of a reed called sibac.” Brasseur de Bourbourg spells the word as zibak (pp. 26-27). Why it was changed to sibac in Müller’s review article is unknown. Brasseur de Bourbourg, who leaves it untranslated, has a footnote about it (p. 26): “Zibak, c’est la moelle d’un petit jonc dont les indigènes font leurs nattes, dit un vocabulaire manuscrit; un autre ajoute que c’est le sassafras.” Malpas translated this as: “Zibak: the pith of a little rush or reed of which the natives make their mats, says a MS. vocabulary. Others say it is sassafras” (The Theosophical Path, vol. 37.3, 1930, p. 211). There is a question of whether this word refers to the reed itself or to its pith. This has some significance for Blavatsky’s statement given in the rest of her footnote, quoted below, about this word referring to an egg. For as noted by Guthrie regarding “the pith of one kind of reeds” (The Word, vol. 2, 1905, p. 80): “Now it is evident that the root-signification is here the same as that of an egg, the inside being the most valuable part.”

The word zibak is taken as the reed itself by Recinos, Edmonson, and Christenson; and is taken as its pith by Tedlock, and by the manuscript vocabulary referred to by Brasseur de Bourbourg. The various translators have notes about this word. They are given below, preceded by the sentence to which they refer.

Recinos 1950, p. 90: “Of tzité, the flesh of man was made, but when woman was fashioned by the Creator and Maker, her flesh was made of rushes.”

footnote 1, p. 90: “The Quiché name zibaque is commonly used in Guatemala to designate this plant of the Typhaceae family, which is much used in making the mats called petates tules in that country. Basseta says it is the part of a reed with which mats are made.”

Edmonson 1971, p. 26:

“Of tz’ite was the body of the man
When he was carved
By Former
And Shaper.
Woman reed was the body of the woman
Who was carved
By Former
And Shaper.”

footnote 681, p. 26: “Zibak is the cattail or bulrush (Typha angustifolia) used for matting. Real men were later made of white and yellow corn; see line 4815 ff.”

Tedlock 1985, p. 84: “The man’s body was carved from the wood of the coral tree by the Maker, Modeler. And as for the woman, the Maker, Modeler needed the pith of reeds for the woman’s body.”

backnote, p. 260: “the pith of reeds: This is zibac; B. [Domingo de Basseta] gives ziba3 as “the pith or insides of a small reed.””

Tedlock 1996, p. 71: “The man’s body was carved from the wood of the coral tree by the Maker, Modeler. And as for the woman, the Maker, Modeler needed the hearts of bulrushes for the woman’s body.”

backnote, p. 235: “hearts of bulrushes: This is sib’aq [zibac], referring to the “heart” (FV, FX) or “pith or insides” (DB) of rushes of the kinds whose leaves are woven into mats (FV). This would be the white and fleshy (as opposed to green and fibrous) parts of rushes (including cattails), which can be found inside the lower parts of stalks.”

Christenson 2003, p. 85: “The body of man had been carved of tz’ite wood by the Framer and the Shaper. The body of woman consisted of reeds according to the desire of the Framer and the Shaper.”

footnote 125, p. 86: “This is the type of reed commonly used for weaving mats in Guatemala (Typha angustifolia).”

Christenson 2004, p. 33:

Tz’ite his body the man
When he was carved
By Framer,
Reeds therefore
Her body
Desired to enter by Framer

S.D. vol. 2, p. 181 footnote, continued: “In the “Popol Vuh” the Third Race of men is created out of the tree Tzita and the marrow of the reed called Sibac. But Sibac means “egg” in the mystery language of the Artufas (or Initiation caves). In a report sent in 1812 to the Cortes by Don Baptista Pino it is said : “All the Pueblos have their Artufas — so the natives call subterranean rooms with only a single door where they (secretly) assemble. . . . . These are impenetrable temples . . . . and the doors are always closed to the Spaniards. . . . . They adore the Sun and Moon . . . . fire and the great SNAKE (the creative power), whose eggs are called Sibac.””

This footnote goes with this sentence: “In the Secret Doctrine, the first Nagas — beings wiser than Serpents — are the “Sons of Will and Yoga,” born before the complete separation of the sexes, “matured in the man-bearing eggs† produced by the power (Kriyasakti) of the holy sages” of the early Third Race.” The Secret Doctrine refers to the third root-race as being “egg-born.” This is the significance of taking the word sibac to mean “egg.” Leaving aside the fact that the Popol Vuh is not here referring to a third creation of human beings, but only to the second, there is yet another difficulty. The phrase from the last sentence of the quotation from Don Baptista Pino, “whose eggs are called Sibac,” cannot be found in his report.

Blavatsky first quoted this material from Don Baptista Pino in Isis Unveiled, vol. 1, p. 557. The phrase in question is not found in the quotation as given there. Her source is there given as “Catholic World, N.Y., January, 1877: Article Nagualism, Voodooism, etc.” This article actually opens the April 1877 issue (vol. 25), and her quotation is from p. 7. The phrase in question is not found there. But, we may wonder, could it have been in a part that was not quoted in The Catholic World article?

Their quotation is referenced to “Noticias, pp. 15, 16.” This is a book written in Spanish, whose full title is: Noticias Historicas y Estadisticas de la Antigua Provincia del Nuevo-México, presentadas por su dipu