The Xibalba Codex

The Xibalba Codex

 

A year ago yesterday (30th January 2021) I read for the first time a new  translation of the Quiche Maya Popol vuh by a talented poet Jemshed Khan. The manuscript appeared unexpectedly in my email inbox one morning, as I am a devoted admirer of this great creation myth  (of which  I’ve read multiple translations) I was eager to see how it compared- I confess I hadn’t high hopes.  I soon found this manuscript to be a sensitive translation, that it  would arrive so magically, so mysteriously, to me, I found enchanting – the old gods seemed at play.  

From the first reading it was obvious to me that Khan shared my passion for this great work, weaving his own poetic voice within the tapestry of ancient ancestors.

 Gratitude to old gods.

 

The Popol vuh is clearly a Mesoamerican treasure, steeped in the rich traditions and archetypes of a particular region; however equally true, I find within its twisting liminal wordplay, universal themes that I believe many can (and do) identify with: betrayal, wonder, fear, bravery, parental concern, tragic loss, sorrow, redemption, ultimately rebirth…and concerning the impish daemons of Xibalba, prankish, school-boy  humor.

Though this epic work found its expression in the pre-Conquest consciousness of the Maya people, the shape shifting artistry of this great culture  undeniably awakened in the Quiche-fluent Spanish friar Francisco Ximenez (the original Popol vuh translator) familiar associations (much within the text  resonates with Christian archetypes: virgin births, ritual sacrifice, resurrection and redemption) . As the Mesoamerican scholars Mary Miller and Karl Taub attest in their indispensable An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya :

In the Classic Maya area, the complexity of the hieroglyphic inscriptions is entirely matched by the attendant iconography, the texts and the pictorial images conveying different qualities of information. Unlike the specificity of writing , the power of Mesoamerican iconography lies in its subtle ambiguity and ability to express different levels of meaning. In a single scene , a richly costumed king can be regarded as a diety impersonator , an actual god, or both. In terms of metaphoric expression , the iconography comes alive. Lightening can appear as a burning serpent, blood as writhing snakes or gouts sprouting sweet flowers, and a mature maize ear as a human head awaiting decapitation from the stalk. (pg.32)

My desire, once I committed to a collaboration, in designing the following plates,  was to convey this “subtle ambiguity”, desiring as well that my iconography equally “comes alive” with curious meaning .

In approaching a work so rooted in the Maya people’s culture and identity I naturally tread cautiously and hopefully I convey the respect I have for this masterpiece. I did not resort to Mesomaerican archetypes ,  such indigenous  iconography, while clearly inspirational, didn’t feel appropriate for my use.  As one of mixed European  heritage I felt haven’t the natural right to directly appropriate such rich material;I  instead  wanted to express my desire to create a mythical, timeless space of my own imaginings  (as much of this epic is set in the underworld kingdom of Xibalba, this was done with relative ease). 

This self imposed stylistic restraint is not an original concept , that titan of Mexican mural painting, the great José Clemente Orozco placed upon his own work similar restrictions (though I would argue he had more liberty to “loot” than I do). In Neil Baldwin’s Legends of the Plumed Serpent: Biography of a Mexican God” Orozco is quoted as expressing similar intentions:

Deliberately, unlike Diego Rivera at the Palacio Nacional three years early, Orozco will not draw so directly upon “aboriginal traditions”. It is time , rather for a “new cycle”, he says, and to forego “looting indigenous remains…however picturesque and interesting they may be”.

My desire in addition to creating a dream space is to explore perception, the images that float before our mind’s eye when told an unfamiliar story. I turn immediately, instinctively to Durer’s rhinoceros, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dürer%27s_Rhinoceros

a fascinating example of perception misaligned with reality; Dürer,  an artistic genius able to convey with great sensitivity and seeming ease  the world about him, however clearly had never stumbled upon an actual rhino. He instead seems to cobble together a bull with an armored tank, sketching I imagine what had been described to him. It is this disconnect of perception with “reality”  that I had hoped to convey, my stratagem was in pretending that I had no knowledge of the Maya people and their incredible artistic accomplishments, instead, listening as if for the first time to this grand epic we call the Popol vuh. Populating this fascinating narrative with ambiguous, mythical, vaguely familiar  figures; my conceit was imagining a 16th century European court sitting entranced by this exotic tale from a far-off land  and in their imagination the Hero Twins possess  the brawn of Herakles, the Xibalban princess is sister to a tower bound damsel and the Maize God so obviously the brother to Christ (or at least the Baptist).

That is the intention of this collection of illuminations , an outward expression of my appreciation for the Popol vuh, for we hear in these unfamiliar stories, from unfamiliar lands, the familiar. The Popol vuh, like the creation stories of the Classical world and of our Northern kin, speak of universal truths, naturally  touching the hearts of all who stumble upon them, providing inspiration to so many.

The fruit of that inspiration follows.

Design for endpaper, left side.
a-1, Prologue
a-2, Prologue
a-3, Prologue
” The local bruja warns of the dead about the lapsed pyramid.”
A-D, Maiden Blood
“Lord One Death hangs the head of a slain warrior in the dead tree by the road…”
A-F, Flight from Xibalba
(final version)
“…my hands fly to my belly. Both alive, they kick inside.”
A-F
I decided against this one, but still elements I liked .
A-I, Messenger Owls
A-J, Maiden’s Journey to Grandmother’s Hut
A-J
Spot illustration with text.
A-M, Birthing at the Placed Called Los Sapos.
A-N, Song of Hunaphu
“…of mother’s womb the void glowed redness bathed me for hours…”

 

Plate A-N, Nursing Twins: “screechers of want…”
A-O, My Boys
“…returns with quetzal feathers, muscled shoulders draped with jaguar skins.”
A-P, A Grandmother’s Wish
“…I remember their father did the same…”
Plate B-D Hard Work
Plate B-G, The Rat’s Tale
Plate B-G Ixbalanque, We Twins Scheme for our Father’s Rubber Ball
Plate B-N, Twins Practicing the Ball Game
“Atop a pine the dove observes their arrival”
BX, The Underworld Lords’ Complain
“Have they no shame stomping about up there? said One Death.”
CX, A Summons from Lord One Death
“Lord One Death summons you to play the sacred game against us.”
DX, Screech Owl Leads the Way
“At dusk, I transform from owl into a skull…”
EX,The Brothers’ Canyon Descent
“Milky Way glitters overhead against the dark womb sky.”
FX, Scorpion at the Crossing
“Midair, my stinger whips and spikes the rubber sphere with such fury that ball and striker will not separate.”
GX, Blood River in Earthshine
“Two boys ride the scorpion’s back. Eight insect legs scuttle across my river bed.”
HX, Finding Black Road
“Under Blood Moon Twins ride Scorpion’s back…”
IX, Mosquito’s Tale
“Hunaphu plucked a hair from his leg. He gave me wings, named me mosquito, and told me to guzzle blood.”
JX, Thrones on the Black Road
“Thus they came to where the Xibalbans were.”
KX, Gifts at the House of Darkness
“The messenger of One Death offers us a torch and two cigars.”
LX, Home-court Advantage
“We…drop our rubber ball on the court. But the Lords refuse it, throw down a skull instead. ‘This is not a ball’ we protest.”
L-LX, Winners and Losers
“Just four bowls of flowers, says Seven Death, one bowl yellow petals, one bowl red, one bowl large petals, one bowl black.”
MX, Prisoners in the House of Blades.
“Yours shall be the flesh of animals, they said to the blades”
MX, 1
spot illustration
MX, 2
Spot illustration
NX, Ants Tell of Cutting Petals
“We clamber stalks to nip petals from their stems, march back to the House of Daggers, our fragrant spoils.”
OX, Outside the House of Daggers
“Air thrums with death bats, moths, owls. Ground crawls with coralillio, centipedes and scorpions.”
PX, A Night in the Bat House
“…screeching snatch-bats careen through the dark.”
Poem Q, Severed Head.
“One Death rolls Hunaphu’s head to the court where the Xibalbans rejoice. Ixbalanque turns from grief and calls together all the animals. From a squash, leaves, wood and stones they build for Hunaphu a crude head.”
Poem R, Rabbit’s Ruse
“In the House of Bats Ixbalanque whispered in my long soft ears…”
Poem S, The Songs of Ixbalanque.
“Now the Lords scheme our death by red hot stones and burning coals.”
Poem T, Twins Leaping”.
“Let’s play a game of jumping over fire, said Lord One Death…Coals blazed and the rocks glowed bright red. But before the Lords could push us in, we dove headfirst to our deaths.”
Poem U, Funerary Advice.
“The Lords pulled our smoking corpses from the fire pit and laid us on the ground.”
Poem V, Resurrection.
“After five days we reappeared with faces glistening and shimmying in the water like catfish.”
Poem W, Of Orphans and Armadillos.
“On a side street we dance the Armadillo. A crowd gathers to whistle and shout.”
Poem X, Dancing for Lords.
“One Death cheers when we dance the Deer and laughs at the Centipede.”
Poem Y, Death Wish.
“Kill me, then make me live again…But One Death does not revive and his heart is cast before his throne. Next we take the heart of Seven Death. Two High Lords now lie dead. Ten more shake with dread.”
Z-i, The Heart of One Death.
“I call my heart to my chest. For I am One Death risen from the dead.”
Z-ii, One Death Survives.
“Let them think they’re Gods about to kill an earthly Lord.”
Z-iii, The Song of One Death.
“…loyal Lords dead, owls and moths fleeing light.”
Z-iv, Exile from Xibalba.
“Do not fear for I am serpent and I am sky. I am death.And death survives.”
Epilogue, Aj q ‘ijab.
“…we reach a flat hilltop clearing where an eight-foot stella rises. Carved on the back are glyphs of dynasties and sun nosed bats. 1600-year old traces of cinnabar cling to tooled crevices.”
Finis.
Design for Endpaper, right side.
The Xibalba Codex

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: babylonbaroque

I am a painter and printmaker working towards creating a body of work that reflects my own developing aesthetic. New work ,first link. The second link is an on-line portfolio.

2 thoughts on “The Xibalba Codex”

  1. I was swimming in this. This is so beautifully illustrated and I was unaware of the story that seems to be strongly tied to biblical. I loved all the works. The two stand outs for me (all are exquisite) are A-F Flight from Xibalba (final version), whose hands on the belly so represents my female motherhood fears and joys of our children, also A-M, the red umbilical cords, and FX.
    A true triumph my friend!!
    Jodi

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