Popol Vuh

Title page, Popol Vuh. 1701-03. Vault Ayer MS 1515.
Title page, Popol Vuh. 1701-03. Vault Ayer MS 1515.

What is the Popol Vuh?

The Popul Vuh, which has been translated as Book of the Council, Book of the Community, Book of the People, and The Sacred Book, is the creation account of the Quiché Mayan people. “Popol” is also defined as “woven mat,” and “Vuh” (Vuj) as “book.” The text weaves together Mayan stories concerning cosmologies, origins, traditions, and spiritual histories. It is considered by many Mayans as their equivalent to the Christian Bible and is held in deep reverence by them.

The Newberry’s manuscript of the Popol Vuh is one of the most widely known and possibly the earliest surviving copy. It was transcribed between 1700 and 1715 in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, by the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez (1666–1729). A linguist, Ximénez was interested in the native Quiche (K’echi’) language. Some scholars believe that Ximénez’s copy was derived from an earlier version, probably prepared in the sixteenth century by a native speaker who had been taught Latin characters. The earlier forms of the text were codices or screenfolds with glyphs as aides-memoires. Ximénez’s transcription uses Latin script to present the Quiché original and gives a side-by-side translation into Spanish. The text, which almost appears to be free verse, was clearly designed to be presented orally. Ximénez’s transcription of the Quiche is studded with corrections. It is possible that the text was recited, possibly by as many as three people, which would account for some of the repetition and strike-outs.

The Newberry’s copy left Guatemala sometime after 1853, and ended up in France. It was acquired by Abbot Charles-Étienne Brasier de Bourbourg (1814–1874), who used it to produce an edition of the Popol Vuh. At the sale of Bourbourg’s collection in 1871, the manuscript was purchased by Alphonse Pinart (1852–1911). Portions of Pinart’s distinguished collection, which was sold in 1883, found their way to a number of distinguished libraries in the United States, including that of Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley. At the sale, Edward E. Ayer acquired this copy of the Ximénez manuscript and brought it to Chicago. It has been in the Newberry since 1912, soon after Ayer began donating items from his collection to the library.

For more information about the Popul Vuh, please consult the Newberry’s online catalog record.

Is the Popol Vuh available digitally?

Yes. A digital version of the Popol Vuh has been made available on the Ohio State University website

How was the Popol Vuh conserved following the digitization project?

Conservation preparation and treatment were major components of the Popol Vuh digital projects mentioned above. With increased handling of the delicate manuscript during the filming and scanning process, it was absolutely critical to stabilize the paper and inks. A multi-disciplinary group of curators, librarians, conservators, and other experts reviewed the Popol Vuh’s condition and created the following procedure to provide appropriate conservation of the document.

There was no documentation concerning the condition or appearance of the binding or text when it arrived at the Newberry, and the existing binding covers were not original, but rather added by Newberry binders in the 1930s or ’40s. This binding restricted movement of the pages, putting undue stress on the paper, and obstructed areas of marginalia. Conservators discovered that the handmade, laid paper, dating to the eighteenth century, was in good condition. Its flexibility made it a good candidate for rebinding. The group decided that the binding would be removed.

Removal of the binding included: separation of the covers from the text, cleaning the glue and paper linings from the spine, cutting the sewing threads, and separating the pages. Nothing original was removed during these steps. After this treatment, the manuscript pages were able to lie flat safely for filming. Conservators checked the ink under a microscope and stabilized it. Then the imaging took place.

After filming, each page was mended. Mending rejoined tears and strengthened any weak areas of the page, such as loss from pests, moisture damage, or wear from use. As the last step in the conservation process, a new binding style was chosen, and a custom fitted enclosure was created to house the Popol Vuh.

The new electronic versions of the Popol Vuh make the manuscript more accessible to a larger number of readers, so the physical handling of the actual sacred text can now be reduced for its long-term preservation.

Can anyone see the Popol Vuh manuscript? How do I make arrangements to do so?

The Popol Vuh manuscript is cataloged as Vault Ayer MS 1515. Anyone 16 years or older may see the manuscript; however, readers who would like to view the Popol Vuh in the reading room require an appointment in advance. To make an appointment, please contact William Hansen, Director of Reader Services, at (312) 255-3527 or at hansenw@newberry.org.

When you arrive at the Newberry on the day of your appointment, you will need to obtain a Newberry reader’s card by filling out a registration form and presenting a valid photo ID and proof of current address. The library also requires that all manuscript readers complete an “Application for the Use of Manuscript Collections.”

The Special Collections Reading Room staff will give readers of the Popol Vuh specific instructions about the special care to take when viewing the manuscript. Readers who intend to use the manuscript for an extended period of time are encouraged to use the facsimile copy available on the open shelf in the 3rd-floor Reference Center (Call Number: Ref F 1465 .P817 1700a, Newberry checklist area). The Popul Vuh manuscript is also available on microfilm (Microfilm Ayer MS 1515).

The Newberry can also accommodate groups of up to 14 people (aged 16 years or older) who wish to see the Popol Vuh. Groups are required to schedule their visit a minimum of one month in advance. Only one group per month may make an appointment to see the Popol Vuh. Groups who are interested should contact reference@newberry.org for more information.