Projectguggenheim in Guatemala

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The Popol Vuh, in Maya  Quiche language  " the Council Book" or "the Dawn of Life " , combines the story of creation with the history of the Maya people.  Its origins go back to the Classical Maya , but what has come down to us was dictated to a scribe  by a group of Quiche nobles  in 1563  who wrote it down Latin script  in the town of Quiche. Recording their  ancient religious  beliefs must have been a  difficult and delicate task, and they stressed that the work was done : " amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now. "   The  manuscript seems to have been  forgotten in the church archives until it was discovered in 1701 by   Francisco the church of  Chui La, or the" town above the nettles",  known today as Chichicastenango. The manuscript is now in the Newberry Library of Chicago University.

Although not many of the Maya of Chichicastenango have read it, the existence of the  manuscript is a source of great  pride to them. The Academia de Arte y Cultura Maya  has  therefore  made the Popol Vuh a focus for its teaching of art and culture to both children and adults.  In   March of 2002  we had the joyful experience of working with the children and teachers to enact scenes from the Popol Vuh in some of the sacred Maya sites . The process itself  was the message: young Maya children and their families created imaginative costumes, kites, masks, and drawings of ancient as well as newly made Maya objects to express their feelings . The performances themselves extended over several days and actors and audience were often the same people.

The beginning of Popol Vuh describes the world in the process of creation, a world of total darkness before man had been formed.   The first part describes the creation of animals and explains the origin of certain animals and their characteristics. This was acted out by the children wearing masks and dancing to the sounds of  traditional Maya music at a  mountain site called Pascual Abaj amid blazing sacrificial fires and candles. It then recounts the fall of  a prideful being  Seven Macaw,  a kind of super bird which thought itself to be sun and moon until brought low by  two young hero twins Hunahpu and  Xbalanque  At the Academia the construction of the bird became a challenge for the entire Cortez family, including the  twin brother artists Juan and Miguel Leon who are the teachers. They were ably assisted by a  Gini Wade, a children's book illustrator and  volunteer from Wales.  The Cortez family also  built  two 3meter wide kites which became the killer bat and the owl, servants of the Lord of Death.

After descending to Xibalbaj the watery underworld of the Maya, the hero twins seek to revenged the death of their father who had been defeated by the lords of Xibalbaj and whose head had been suspended on a tree where it turned into a fruit. That fruit seduced the young daughter of the Lord of Death who was acted beautifully by one of the Cortez sisters. The Popol Vuh  reports  the final defeat of the Lords of Death in Xibalbaj  by  Hunahpuh and Xbalanque  two young  Gods, in a marvelous line that provides an insight into some of the  values of Maya Culture:" The boys accomplished it only through wonders, only through self-transformation.


The Popol Vuh stresses the importance of cleverness over brute force, of art and transformation over nature and death.. The  lords of Death have the boys sacrificed in a fire, The very effort made by the gods of Death to totally  annihilate the  very last memory of the Hero Twins as they  grind  their bones into powder heightens the  drama and the miracle of their resurrection as the young gods resurrect themselves through their art and reappear first as fish. The children watching broke out in laughter and loud applause. This resurrection was an easy feat for the artists to accomplish, because they believe that art triumphs over death.. Then the lords of Death made them sacrifice a dog. This too was easily accomplished. The joyfulness of this event, the sheer pleasure of being alive is best expressed by the touch of warm humanity in the story, when in the words of the Popol Vuh :


They sacrificed the dog
he came back to life
And that dog was really happy
when he came back to life
and  wagged  its tail in delight.

When one brother is asked by the lords of Death  to sacrifice his twin, they oblige, and the twin is quickly brought back to life again. Only when the Lord of Death is foolish enough to ask them to sacrifice  him, do they leave him dead.


POPOL VUH FILM              

We captured the children , their art and activities on video together with teachers and the old men of the community trying to convey the message of their culture, and with their attempt to maintain their oral and artistic  traditions.

We hope to share this video with others children in other cultures to inspire them to work with their own heritage