The Oldest Book in America

By Michael Bazzett

Upper School English teacher and poet Mike Bazzett traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, on a Hersey Summer Sabbatical in 2011. His travels prepared him for a monumental undertaking: to translate into English a text that originated from a centuries old Mayan oral narrative. Bazzett's translation of The Popol Vuh was published this fall by Milkweed Editions.

In the spring of 2009, an archaeology student was peeling roots and earth from a stone structure in the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador, in northern Guatemala, when he uncovered two stone panels. He was part of a team investigating the water collection systems of El Mirador, and the discovery of the beautifully carved frieze was utterly unexpected. As team leader Richard Hanson put it, "It was like finding the Mona Lisa in the sewage system."

The frieze illustrates a moment from the Mayan epic, The Popol Vuh. In the scene, Hunahpu, one of the mythic hero twins in the story, has discovered the severed head of his father, who battled the lords of death and paid the ultimate price. Hunahpu is accompanied by his brother, Xbalanque, and they are swimming in a river of the underworld. The panel lines a channel designed to guide rainwater into cisterns. It seems fitting to me that this story would compose the veins of a city, sustaining it through the dry seasons.

That same spring, I was researching a new senior elective, called Myth & Memory, and The Popol Vuh was on my long list of possible texts. Part creation myth, part heroic epic, part history, The Popol Vuh is arguably the most important book ever composed in this hemisphere. The oldest known text dates to the early 1500s, when the oral narrative was distilled into written form. Needless to say, I was intrigued at the prospect of reading it alongside Genesis and The Odyssey — yet the only translations I could find were scholarly prose with monolithic footnotes. Not what I would hope to place beside the poetry of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. There wasn't a verse version in English that truly sang.

So, not knowing what I was getting into, I started fiddling with translating my own, with the end goal of a lucid yet faithful poem that a lay reader could enjoy with minimal framing. The original text is written in K'iché, a Mayan language still spoken in the Guatemalan highlands and Chiapas, and it was transcribed in solid columns of prose with little punctuation and no paragraph breaks, so unearthing its poetic structure demands scholarly detective work and more than a little guessing. It was a foolhardy undertaking that for some reason I could not abandon. So I read. A lot. And in the summer of 2011, I flew to Chiapas to tune my ear to the cadences and music of various Mayan dialects, as well as visit the lush cloud forest evoked in the epic's opening pages.

That section, excerpted here, tells of humanity's origins, beginning with the creation of the earth, a world that spring into being from divine discussion. The gods ponder and wonder and then, much as in the first book of Genesis, creation is literally spoken into existence:

When it was time to make the earth:
it only took a word.
To make earth they said, "Earth"

and there it was: sudden
as a cloud or a mist unfolds
from the face of a mountain,
so earth was there.

Yet this green world is still incomplete: what has been spoken into existence must return the favor. The gods crave their names to be named — they, too, are fed by words. This is The Popol Vuh's test for whether people are truly people: the ability to speak words that make sense and thus function as an intelligent mirror of one's origins.

Unlike Genesis, however, this world is not the product of a single stentorian voice but a conversation, and true humans have yet to be formed and the sun has yet to rise when this creation story is paused, and something like a heroic poem begins. In this twilight world of pre-sunrise, a pretender has set himself up as a false sun, and order must be restored before creation can proceed. The supernaturally gifted hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, spring fully formed onto the page to set things right. Their adventures take them, quite literally, to hell and back, where — like their mythic compatriots Odysseus and Gilgamesh — they visit eternity before returning to earth, as the sun and the moon so that the first day might dawn.

The frieze at El Mirador dates to 200 B.C.E., yet part of my fascination with The Popol Vuh is how contemporary it can feel to 21st century readers. The narrative loops in and out of time in a way that one is tempted to call post-modern. The definition of the divine order is fluid, at times seeming to shift from plural to singular, male to female. The creation of the earth is told in present tense, in the eternal now of story, lending vivid immediacy. But perhaps my favorite moment in the entire epic stems from how it stares mortality in the face — or skull, as it were — something that truly marks the story as eternal.

After outsmarting the lords of the underworld in the climactic triumph that will finally allow the world to be born, Hunahpu and Xbalanque go to where the decapitated head of their father hangs in a calabash tree. It is a compelling image: strange fruit, both dead and alive. In an attempt to revive him, the twins ask his head to name itself: its mouth, its nose, its eye. This faith in the power of language is touching, as is the image of two boys, who in spite of triumphing over death itself still look to their father to set things right.

The skull opens its mouth as if to speak, but "little more was said." There is a suspended moment where we sense the boys waiting, just as we waited in the hush before the gods speak the world into existence. But the skull does not speak of its vacant nose, its hollow stare. It cannot. Mortal vision does not reach beyond death's horizon. It is a breathtaking moment, offering a note of quiet emptiness in the midst of exultation. In a world where death is often viewed as an enemy and the individual voice reigns supreme, clearly The Popol Vuh still has much to tell us about ourselves.