This Easter Sunday I find myself gathering reference material for a newly commissioned project, illustrating a new imagining of the Maya Popol vuh. The author , who I will refer to as J Khan, is a poet of great sensitivity, and while I have read a good half dozen translations of this epic creation myth, his retelling is quite evocative and compelling . The rich, visually dense language inspires me a great deal, calling to mind my own layering of esoteric ambiguity. We both, artist and poet ,share a great love for William Blake, and though Blake’s imaginative, frequently Christian, Romanticism may seem worlds away from this Mesoamerican pre-Christian narrative , the liminal, otherworldly qualities they both share make the association seem obvious to us both.
With that spirit in mind, I’ve begun the process of illuminating each verse, chapter header, not sure what the correct poetic term is , but the heading after each break will receive an associated spot ornament .
The above is for passage A-J, concerning the grandmother of the Hero Twins and her hut :
Maiden’s Journey to Grandmother’s Hut
Heavy with twins,
I walk two days
to her hut.
I place her hands
on my belly
but no smiles
I love how the author conveys this chilly unwelcome yet at the same time there is compassion for this bitter matriarch who has endured ,for those familiar with the story, her own grave loss.
Spot illustration for U : Funerary Advice evokes the terror of the underworld, yet also evokes the buffoonery of the Lords of Xibalba (the Underworld).
The Lords pulled our smoking corpses
from the fire pit and laid us on the ground.
Xibalbans whistled and shouted,
danced around us as we lay dead.
The buffoonery of these nitwit demons is both horrifying and hilarious.
Of feathered serpents, “roaring blood and stacking skulls”; of awe and wonder that one finds in visiting these ancient sites.
Of brujas (witches) and uncertain wanderings.
I am wary of stepping,
of slipping on this unkiltered hill
pricked with burrows and bones,
glinting obsidian and reeking death.
Lastly, my latest, plate K-X.
Gifts at the House of Darkness
By firelight they lead us
to the House of Darkness.
The messenger of One Death
offers us a torch and two cigars
against the black night inside.
“These gifts from my Lord,” he says,
“must be returned at dawn unconsumed.”
My brother sets a scarlet feather atop
the torch, pins bright fireflies to the cigars.
The night watchman surely sees:
in the house a torch burns, two embers glow.
The Lords of Xibalba chortle at this news
thinking that by dawn their gifts will be ash.
In the morning we step
from the house, hand One Death
his two fresh cigars and unlit torch.
That rattles the Lords. Red-faced,
they decide amongst themselves
that we must be finished off.
“Boys,” they say, “bring your belongings,
we will settle this score
in a game of Ball.”
I’ve explored the Popol vuh previously , I am pretty well acquainted with the Hero Twins, the sacrificed Maize gods, the foolish lords of the Xibalba (a few examples follow below) but working with a dedicated collaborator, one who treasures these stories as deeply as I do is a real treat. I can’t begin to explain what a pleasure it is to need not explain each and every detail of what are for many unfamiliar (if not dreadful) tales. Instead J Khan and I find inspiration in just how universal these narratives are. While integral to the rich traditions of Maya culture, we outside that culture can sense an element of the universal in these very human tales of bravery, fortitude, honor and redemption; the Popol vuh
possesses all the wisdom and inspiration one finds in the more familiar mythologies of the Classical world.
This project is only in its most nascent state but I am really looking forward to seeing how it developed. For now, some work from the past.
With that, happy Easter!