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!
5 thoughts on “Resurrection Sunday: Maize Gods, Hero Twins and the Popol vuh”
That does sound right down Greco Alley! I suppose the poem is in the preamble and four book structure… I rambled around to see the organization, and evidently there were none in Father Ximénez’s record of a Quiché version, though the preamble plus four is generally used.
Printers called those spot decorations–some sort of borderless embellishment to the text–“vignettes.” And they could also be called a “headpiece” or “tailpiece,” depending on where they were in the text–and plain old vignette on the title page, or anywhere. I thought a name for that device was what you meant, but on reread I see you are talking about a term for divisions in the poem, so it must be divided in further stanzaic groups, and not just in five parts.
I thought I had replied but it seems I hadn’t hit send .
Thank you for the encouragement and the clarification. I haven’t fully read Ximénez’s text , I have a copy , will check it. Thanks also for how to identify my task at hand. I’ve been calling what I am doing as spot illustrations but like vignettes quite a bit. Will switch back and forth for some will actually be “spot” ornaments . I’ve a headpiece and a tailpiece mulling about in the old noggin, will post. Again, thank you, always great to hear from you. LG
Leonard, I am so glad to both see and read that your collaboration with your mystery poet is providing much inspiration to you both. I will admit to knowing very little about the creation myth of the Maya Popol vuh, so I am looking forward to experiencing it for the first time through this meeting of painter and poet. You may have already guessed that any myth featuring Hero Twins is going to pique the imagination of me and my companion spirit!
I was interested to read that your shared love of William Blake is one of the things that has brought you together. Religion was profoundly important to Blake, in a questing and questioning way that is thought-provoking even for readers and viewers who are not religious at all. Blake himself is only known to have attended a religious service three times in his life, as to Blake orthodox Christianity was, essentially, Devil Worship. William Blake’s true God was the Human Imagination. He did not need to be saved by Christ.
Given the wide-ranging influences that inform your own artistic practice, as well as the nature of the collaboration you talk about in this post, I thought it may be interesting to mention here that one of Blake’s first experiments in relief etching was a little pamphlet entitled ‘All Religions Are One’, which asserts that however much religions may differ in detail, they have a common origin, which is the poetic genius. The function of religion, in Blake’s view, is to ask ultimate questions about existence, and the Christian Bible is a set of symbols that are embedded in the Western imagination, inspiring Blake as it inspired Michelangelo and Raphael before him. Given the other sources of inspiration we both share, such as Carl Jung, don’t you find it fascinating to see how much of a visionary Blake truly was, as he was exploring ideas, such as the collective unconscious and arcchetypes, which others only began to expand upon a hundred years or more later?
As you embark on what appears from the evidence you post here to truly be a meeting of creative spirits, I thought you may enjoy reading about an encounter that Blake had in 1877, at the age of 20, with the Reverend John Trusler – an author of successful books on religion. The Reverend, who had grown wealthy on his own writings, commissioned the artist to illustrate some of his texts. After receiving the images he had commissioned, the Reverend wrote a letter to Blake criticizing the work and calling it weird and of an exaggerated extravagance. Blake wrote one of his most beautiful letters in response, where he assured his client that, despite having tried to follow the directions regarding the illustrations, his style was unique and unlike any other. The images he had commanded had been dictated by “my Genius or Angel,” one which he followed blindly. Blake’s final explanation is irrevocable: “I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!”
In his letter, Blake also lays out one of his core beliefs that both beauty and ugliness dwell exclusively in the eye that sees and qualifies them. He claims that the art of life is to train the eye to notice what is truly beautiful and noble, an undertaking that would well change the way we live in today’s world, “I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser, a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these, I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. […] You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me, this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination…”
As an artist who is often troubled about not being properly ‘seen’, I am hoping that the equally complex Blake will provide you with some encouragement to keep on marching to the beat of your own drum wherever it may lead you, Perhaps you have a Hero Twin who guards and guides you, like Blake’s angel, and when in doubt just remember Blake’s words when challenged by the Reverend Trusler that he dwelt too much in the world of the spirit, “I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!”
Dear Sarah, what a response, thank you .
I have such a kinship with Blake, I imagine many “outsiders” do. It is the shared oddness, his being at odds, his singularity that first drew me to him, he seemed at once, from my boyhood to be an ancestor.
“I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!”
That rings so true, and must be emblazoned on a banner for Blake , and for myself. Personally I’ve struggled, as you know, with legitimacy , with acceptance, with being untrained and frequently feeling dismissed and ultimately unworthy. That my work frequently looks peculiar and is at odds with contemporary expectation, has at times sent me into darkness. But Blake, with his fierce outsiderness, has been and will be an encouraging uncle. I’ve only read the briefest of biographies, and I’ve read of his struggles, but also, most especially, his tenacity; in the end it seems the tenacity satisfied with the high regard he was held by , I think I have this right, the Ancients. Sometimes, if the gods are generous, kinship is found amongst strangers ; friendships such as we share, an example. LG
It was the American poet, Jeffery Beam, who is responsible for leading me to read more about William Blake, when I was writing an essay for ‘Spectral Pegasus/Dark Movements’, the book about his collaboration with the Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Jeffery and his husband Stanley live in a house named after William Blake’s city of the imagination, Golgonooza and it wasn’t until I talked to Jeffery that I realised how much Blake had entered the psyche of the American counterculture in the 1960s. Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith were amongst Blake’s earliest advocates, and Smith still returns to him as one of her most abiding influences, even editing a book of her favourite poems by a man she calls her “spiritual ancestor”.
Smith wrote of William Blake recently, which very much echoes your own response to him, “I’m aware that at this time in my life, some of my work might not be relevant to the aesthetic shift in terms of melding creative and political ideas with our current technology. I often feel like William Blake in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. But, like Blake, I just do my thing. I don’t care if the work that I do might have obsolete edges, I do it anyway because it may eventually be needed. Maybe as a stepping stone to help people find their way to where they are.”