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  • Ma(r)king Popol Vuh
  • John M. Woodruff

In their introduction to Ma(r)king the Text: The presentation of meaning on the literary page, Joe Bray, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry point out that “to mark a text is also to make it; [and] features such as punctuation, footnotes, epigraphs, white space and marginalia, marks that traditionally have been ignored in literary criticism, can be examined for their contribution to a text’s meaning” (xvii). The Newberry Library recently disbound and digitized the oldest surviving text of Popol Vuh.1 In its disbound state, one may plainly observe a number of paratextual markers that have not been addressed in print editions, but that call into question the popular perspective that Popol Vuh is Indian auto-ethnography. This paper seeks to raise awareness of these marks and their meaning for traditional assumptions of Popol Vuh’s survival and its narrative/textual boundaries.

To give a brief background, Popol Vuh is a mythistory of the Quiché Maya of central highland Guatemala.2 Once subjugated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524, the task of pacification largely fell to the Catholic monastic orders who, in their zeal, often destroyed or suppressed much of the culture. Traditional evangelical approaches proved less effective among the Maya where native culture and religion were seemingly indivisible from language itself. But the Dominican Order was arguably suited for this challenge because it had embraced target-language competency as a core tenet since the thirteenth century, and, given the interrelatedness [End Page 97] of culture and language, some missionaries seized upon learning the native (hi)stories for this purpose. Nevertheless, such practices carried some risk as evidenced by the Inquisition’s scrutiny of Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún concerning his Florentine Codex. Today, writings from the colonial period that deal with Indian culture are mainly seen either as missionary apologetics or as Indian subversion.3

The position most commonly taken on Popol Vuh is that a missionary-educated Indian used his knowledge of European alphabetic writing to capture and preserve the oral recitation of an elder sometime in the 1550s. Roughly a century and a half later, Dominican missionary Father Francisco Ximénez is thought to have obtained this phonetic redaction from a parishioner, which he then transcribed and translated in parallel columns of Quiché and Spanish. What is not generally understood is that Ximénez incorporated the mythistory within a broader ecclesiastical treatise written expressly for priests. This treatise, titled Tratado segvndo de todo lo qve deve saber vn ministro, superintends “Popol Vuh” and an appended scholium. In turn, Tratado segvndo is bound with and preceded by a Quichean grammar, Arte de las tres lengvas.4

The modern editorial presentation of Popol Vuh can be traced to French cleric Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg whose 1861 French edition first coined the title and divided the content into parts and chapters. But more importantly, Brasseur published Popol Vuh apart from Ximénez’s adjoining material that, together with the exuberant Americanism of the nineteenth century, emphasized Popol Vuh as an [End Page 98] Indian auto-ethnography rather than as a missionary exposition. The construction and presentation of Ximénez’s manuscript went unrecognized for the following eight decades. Even after Ximénez’s manuscript resurfaced in the 1940s, Popol Vuh’s narrative and textual boundaries seem to be defined by its nineteenth-century parameters, which were the co-incidence or co-presence of the parallel Quiché and Spanish.

Imposing rigid textual and narrative boundaries on the manuscript is problematic because Ximénez is always present by way of his translation and the contextual permeation of his leading and trailing discourse. Assuming that the Quiché transcription controls the narrative boundaries dismisses Ximénez’s involvement and disinherits his paratextual contributions. The left margin of the first folio recto, for example, contains several important markings: a cross-reference to his scholium at the end of the volume, a Biblical cross-reference, and three sequential Arabic numerals. These are post-composition annotations and as such indicate that there is something greater at work beyond the mere signification of the narrative text on the page. In many cases, David Scott...