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.