Review of Esotericism of the Popol Vuh - Raphael Girard Ancient American Theosophy by Blair A. Moffett Toward the end of the 17th century, in a little-known region of highland Guatemala called Chichicastenango, a rare event occurred. An unknown religious elder of the Quiche-Mayas who had learned to read and write Spanish delivered into the hands of a Dominican friar a remarkable document which ever since the Spanish Conquest the Indians had jealously guarded and hid from European eyes. This manuscript, known as the Popol Vuh, contains the cosmogonical concepts and oldest traditions of the native Quiche-Mayas, an aboriginal American people, as well as the history of their origin and chronology of their rulers down to the year 1550. Friar Francisco Ximenez was a kind and virtuous man who had learned the Indian languages and took a fatherly interest in his parishioners, being able to speak to them in their own tongue. But just why the Quiche elder confided in Ximenez has never been learned, nor do we know his identity. His document, written in Quiche but using Roman letters, has not been found to date, and was probably returned to the elder by Friar Ximenez, who transcribed it in the Quiche and then translated it into Spanish. In his notes Ximenez said the lack of information about the ancient history of the Indians was because they hid their books in which it was written; and, even when some of these records had turned up, it was impossible for Europeans to read or to understand them. Father Ximenez' notes and transcriptions of the Popol Vuh lay unnoticed and forgotten for 150 years, until the 1850s when several European investigators unearthed them in the public archives of Guatemala City. One of them, Abbe Brasseur de Bourbourg, translated the Quiche epic into French and had it published in Paris in 1861, where it caused a sensation among scholars and attracted wide attention. It was soon apparent that this was a major scriptural document, hitherto completely unknown and comparable in importance to the Bible, the Ramayana, the Babylonian account of genesis, and similar records of humanity's past. The spotlight of interest became focused on America's prehistoric high cultures; scholars and learned institutions in Europe organized archaeological expeditions to Central America to uncover the magnificent isolated temple ruins there, and a number of theories were advanced during that period to account for these surprising phenomena. The Popol Vuh itself was translated into a number of modern Western languages, accompanied by a wealth of scholarly commentary. But, as occurred with all the efforts to explain the Mayans through archaeological digs and to decipher their classical hieroglyphic writing, work on the Popol Vuh remained unsatisfying. As Lewis Spence said, "The scholarship of the nineteenth century was unequal to the adequate translation of the Popol Vuh; the twentieth century has as yet shown no signs of being able to accomplish the task." This was written in 1908. Today the best English version of the Quiche classic is perhaps that of Delia Goetz and S. G. Morley, published by the University of Oklahoma Press (1950). Now we turn to a young Swiss ethnologist who came to Honduras in 1919 as the director of a small scientific mission to study forest Indian peoples there and in neighboring Guatemala. This man, Raphael Girard, had received training from the famous Swiss anthropologist, Eugene Pittard, and from Paul Rivet, the well-known French investigator associated with the Musee de l'Homme in Paris who sponsored the scientific mission. Girard became fascinated with the extensive Mayan prehistory of the area and in particular with the central importance of the Quiche epic given to Friar Ximenez centuries earlier. He wrote: My first experiences disclosed that the Popol Vuh constitutes a key document for understanding the spirituality, culture, and history of the Quiche-Maya. But no exegesis had been made of that celebrated document owing to the disregard of its esoteric meaning, and so it had never been employed as a research tool. Much the same held true for Quiche Maya religion and its symbols which, it was claimed, were completely inaccessible to our mode of thought. The young Swiss scientist felt such a strong urge to unravel the tangle of mystery about these peoples that several years later he returned on his own to Central America in order to renew his investigations. He learned several Mayan languages and went to live and work among elders of the Quiche tribe in Guatemala and the neighboring Chord Mayan people of Honduras. He decided that he had first to cross the portal into the mental and spiritual world of the Maya themselves by studying their religious philosophy. But he very quickly encountered barriers of deep reserve on the part of the Indians, who systematically hide their sacred values from the outsider. This situation only heightened Girard's resolve to fulfill their conditions for acquiring the hidden information. For, as a scientist, he was determined that this must be collected in an objective way and incorporated into Western learning, along with other information about native American cultures, before the process of Westernization should have destroyed it. In 1948, after more than twenty years of arduous and intimate association with and tutorage by the native Mayan elders, whom Girard began respectfully to call the "native gnostics," he was able to produce his book, Esoterismo del Popol Vuh, published that year in Mexico City. This book is a fascinating scientific commentary elucidating central aspects of the esoteric tradition hidden within the famous Quiche scripture, but which also forms the core of the religious philosophy of all the various Mayan peoples still living in the area of southern Mexico and northern Central America. As such, his contribution has no precedent in Americanist investigations. Because he employs Mayan linguistics and mythology as well as archaeology, and received his interpretations directly from the elders who have preserved them for thousands of years, his findings are not accessible to archaeology alone. That he received authentic interpretations in rich measure from these elders tells volumes about his qualities, not only as a gifted and resolute scientist but also as a human being. It is unfortunate that for many years Esoterismo and other related books by Girard were obtainable only in the Spanish language. However, some years ago Esoterismo appeared in French, and more recently in Italian. Finally, in August 1979, the first English language edition, Esotericism of the Popol Vuh, was brought out by Theosophical University Press, making this valuable study available to a new and wider audience. It has been the genuine privilege of this reviewer to have made the English translation of Professor Girard's informed exposition of Mayan spiritual teachings. Esotericism of the Popol Vuh shows beyond question that the heart and soul of Mayan religion and custom is a sophisticated theosophy which has direct correspondences with ancient Mexican and Andean cosmogony and creation mythology, and which can be related to the spiritual mythoi of the classical as well as contemporary traditional cultures of other parts of the world. Of equal importance for the researcher, his work demonstrates the cultural unity of all native American peoples. Besides making known the mythology, cosmogony, theology, astronomy, calendar, and symbols which still prevail among Mayan peoples, his book reveals that to this day the mythology of the Popol Vuh is systematically dramatized in their ritual cycle, from the creation of the world to the apotheosis of the solar god, without leaving out a single detail. Therefore those myths, which describe four complete Ages or long time-cycles, are perfectly intelligible through ethnographic inference. In addition, analysis of the Popol Vuh shows that the four Ages or great periods correspond at another level of meaning to the four successive phases of Mayan cultural history from the Paleolithic to the Conquest, making this document a source of history of America's ancient civilizations from their remotest origins. The Fourth or final Age of the Popol Vuh heralds the beginnings of classical Mayan culture. As the author notes for us, even the most scholarly among Western archaeologists had failed to learn the nature and meaning of the monumental Mayan temple sites with their glyphic inscriptions. This was because their specialized approach had left out of account altogether the metaphysics and spiritual mentality of the Indian, and overlooked his cosmic philosophy upon which his life is patterned in every detail of daily custom and ritual. Professor Girard's findings, moreover, help lift from the peaceful, spiritually-minded Mayas the stigma of ritual human slaughter practiced by the later Aztec and some other non-Mayan tribes of pre-Conquest Mexico. He shows that the hero-twins of the Popol Vuh, Hunahpu and Ixbalamque, are not "two boys" as this is frequently mistranslated, but represent the bipolar character of the Mayan savior-deity which, like its counterparts elsewhere in the world, including the Christian tradition, incarnates in a human body to bring divine truth to mankind for the latter's redemption. The apotheosis of the Mayan solar deity inaugurates the Fourth Age of the Quiche epic: the era of fully civilized or awakened humanity, conscious of its divine progenitors. The Mayan avatar outlaws human sacrifice thenceforward. But of course this message is not heard or assimilated by all. Those peoples who are insufficiently evolved to understand continue practices pertaining to the former Third Age — practices which should long since have been abandoned. These peoples were and still are regarded by the Mayas as barbarians and savages. Girard observes that no indications of human sacrifice have been found in the ceremonial centers of classical Mayan culture before alien influences from Mexico intruded and prevailed. He cites the Spanish Bishop Landa who states that the post-Classic Mayas of that time who lived in Yucatan had not known the practice of human sacrifice until invading Mexican tribes imported it as a feature of their conquest. This and much more which clarifies the true character of native American culture is discussed in the pages of Esotericism of the Popol Vuh. The failure of the West to understand the spiritual heritage of the native American has led to gross misinterpretations of his art, customs, symbolism, architecture, and history. Of even greater importance is that in this process of false evaluation the actual worth to us of his lifeview has been vastly diminished. For with each passing day it is becoming clearer that native American cultures, such as the Mayan, preserve a legacy of matured human experience whose lessons can be applied positively, and often profoundly, to crises faced by our own culture in its lifeways, its ecology, and its own world view. Sunrise Magazine, October 1979 www.theosociety.org/pasadena/ts/popolv-r.htm Link to read “Esotericism of the Popol Vuh” online www.theosociety.org/pasadena/popolvuh/pv-hp.htm Foreword This book was first published in the Spanish language in Mexico City in 1948. It has since gone through three editions in French, one Italian, and four Spanish editions. The present translation, from the 1972 Mexico City edition, is the first to appear in English. Esotericism of the Popol Vuh is published by Theosophical University Press as a service to all English-speaking students of the ancient wisdom of humanity. A Swiss-born ethnologist, Raphael Girard came to the New World in 1919 as the director of a six-man French scientific mission to study the native forest peoples of Honduras. He returned in 1924 to live in Guatemala and begin an archaeological and ethnological survey of the country, which resulted in a lifetime of association with and research in Amerindian cultures ranging from Patagonia to Canada. From the eminent anthropologists, Dr. Eugéne Pittard of the University of Geneva, and Dr. Paul Rivet, then director of the Musée de l'homme in Paris, Girard learned the interdisciplinary method of analysis — employing mythology, ethnography, archaeology, and linguistics — which has characterized and enriched his many published works. In his early career the author was active in forming and participating in professional bodies in Switzerland, Honduras, and Guatemala to further the study of native American cultures. Over the years he has represented the Government of Guatemala at a number of international Americanist congresses, on four occasions serving as honorary vice-president of the congress. A distinguished Americanist whose work is well known throughout Europe and the Americas, Professor Girard has received fifteen honors and decorations. The latest of these is the Diploma of Merit awarded him for his more than 50 years of research and publication by the Organization of American States in October, 1978, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. In 1977 he was nominated for the Nobel prize in Literature for his pioneering methods of study of native American cultures and his monumental writings clarifying their prehistory and history. With regard to his analysis of the meaning of the Popol Vuh, the Mayan "Book of the Community," Professor Girard's comments from a recent letter to me are revealing: My first experiences disclosed that the Popol Vuh constitutes a key document for understanding the spirituality, culture, and history of the Quiché-Maya. But no exegesis had been made of that celebrated document owing to the disregard of its esoteric meaning, and so it was never employed as a research tool. Much the same held true for Quiché-Maya religion and its symbols which, it was claimed, were completely inaccessible to our mode of thought. . . . It was vital and necessary to study their sacred way of life. Only this method, in my view, would allow us entry into the mental universe of the Mayas and bring comprehension of their mythology and thus of their culture. To accomplish this, the author went to the tribal elders of the Chortí and Quiché-Maya tribes, where he quickly encountered the barriers of impenetrable reserve which those spiritual leaders — guardians of their sacred traditions — erect to defend these precious values from the unworthy and the potential despoiler. Only after more than twenty years of direct association with the elders was Girard able to obtain the fundamental aspects of their secret doctrines which he reports upon in this work. Esotericism of the Popol Vuh demonstrates beyond question that at the heart of Maya religion and custom there is a sophisticated spiritual philosophy with clear correspondences not only to ancient Mexican as well as Andean cosmogony and creation mythology, but also to the mythoi and cultures of other parts of the world. The author fully credits the "native gnostics," as he respectfully calls the Mayan elders, with enabling him to distill and elucidate the hidden sense of the Popol Vuh. But I believe he would be the last person to claim any ultimate finality for his work. His findings, nevertheless, comprise a genuinely authoritative approach to the solution of many of the so-called enigmas surrounding our knowledge of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, and are unprecedented in American ethnography. In his exposition, the author takes us behind the elliptical wording of the text into the spiritual heights and depths of conception that form the archetypes on which Amerindian metaphysics is modeled. We begin to realize that we are looking at a magnificent expression — unchanged in essentials during thousands of years — of that archaic wisdom-religion which in one or another measure can be found at the core of all the world's religions. The Popol Vuh, properly understood, sheds light on the whole reach of native American spiritual thought. A true Mystery-document, it has strong and definite links with every other Mystery-tradition, and belongs in the highest class of scriptural literature. At present there are German, French, Spanish, and English language editions of the Popol Vuh, all of which are, as Professor Girard notes, acceptable literal translations of the original codex. The best English rendition is perhaps that of Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley, from the Spanish translation made by Adrián Recinos, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in its series titled The Civilization of the American Indian. For the Maya the universe is a multilevel, multiplane production or emanation of primeval sevenfold creative forces or "gods," which continue to inspirit their production. Thus, there are a number of other "worlds" or "planes" "above" as well as "below" our physical world of the five senses, and closely linked with it. There is always a multiplicity within and behind the unity of our material world, which can be compared to one octave in a complete piano keyboard representing the total manifested universe. To retain this perspective is absolutely necessary for an understanding of the Indian's metaphysics. The various combinations of the creative forces and their worlds are allegorized in the god-Seven, god-Five, god-Thirteen, and god-Nine, etc., described by the author from Mayan sources. Each allegory thus has a range of meanings, standing for the complex workings of these forces and the relations among the "worlds," fully known only to the adept of the tradition who is accustomed to raise each basic idea in the allegory to progressively higher orders of conceptual magnitude. Employing the same method with the textual contents of the Popol Vuh, we can understand that the four "Ages" with their respective humanities which it discusses, refer not alone to the ancestors of the Quiché-Maya but more correctly to the whole of mankind in existence on earth in each of those periods of time. For example, the Popol Vuh calls the latest, or Fourth-Age mankind, Quiché Mayas: that is, those who had achieved conscious spiritual linkage with their creative progenitors through the mediation of the man-god Hunahpú. Here we have an Amerindian expression of the better known Promethean allegory of classical Greek myth which explains the origins of man's self-consciousness, distinguishing him from an animal. The Christian biblical statement of this momentous experience is the allegory of the casting out of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as a result of their having tasted of the knowledge of good and evil. In Hindu scriptural record, the same event is hinted at in the descent of the mânasaputras or "sons of mind," spoken of in theosophy as having come from higher worlds to awaken in man his mental potential. Some sort of allusion to this destiny-laden happening in early human history can be found in almost every spiritual tradition. Readers acquainted with authentic presentations of modern theosophy, as in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, principal founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875, will recognize much in this book that is familiar, albeit having its own form and language. The Popol Vuh clearly teaches, for example, that the simians sprang from an early humanity's racial experience, and not the reverse as asserted by the Darwinism of our day. Moreover, on page 227 Professor Girard explains the esoteric Mayan doctrine that the individual cannot realize the perfected state of True Man, or Hunahpú, except when the whole community shall also have attained that divine perfection. This is an unmistakable reference to the doctrine of compassion, its path, and the hierarchy which sustains it. The concept of advanced men, or man-gods, beings of the evolutionary grade or rank of what Oriental tradition terms the bodhisattva or buddha of compassion, is not foreign to native American spiritual tradition. As seen, it is present in the Popol Vuh in the figure of Hunahpú as the paradigm of the spiritually perfected, illumined human being who sacrifices himself for the community, a word that here stands for the race or for humanity as a whole. We have only to examine the iconography of the magnificent carved stone figure of the young Maize god which once adorned the facade of a temple at Copán, to find it. Above the serene countenance of that personage can be seen a pointed crown of maize leaves. This is a form of the protuberance of the Oriental ushnîsha, Sanskrit for "crown," a sign of the spiritually perfected one who is buddha, "awakened," such as is found in numerous buddha and bodhisattva figures in the Far East. The hands of the Mayan young Maize god are, moreover, extended palms outward, one raised and one lowered, in a classical teaching gesture or mudrâ characteristic of the bodhisattva and buddha as seen in Oriental iconography. Professor Girard emphasizes the spiritual nature of Mayan ethics and the Indian's recognition of their importance in his aspiration to achieve human perfection. In fact, he regards the Mayan ethical system as one of the most beautiful in the world. But the author has done more than just elucidate the esotericism that is in the Popol Vuh. The illuminating objective vision of the Amerindic cultures that the reader obtains from his presentation is not accessible through the unilateral approach of archaeology. This work takes a great deal of the mystery out of our view of Mayan and, by extension, Amerindian culture in general, correcting some of the false assumptions still prevailing. A gifted ethnologist as well as a man who gained the respect and confidence of the Indian elders, Raphael Girard shows us the vital connections between the millennial mytho-history of the Quiché-Maya epic and the monumental structures, codices, glyphs, symbols, and customs of classical Mayan civilization, and therefore of present-day Mayan life and religion, its descendant. BLAIR A. MOFFETT Pasadena California, January 1979 www.theosociety.org/pasadena/popolvuh/pv-hp.htm#foreword Link to read “Esotericism of the Popol Vuh” online www.theosociety.org/pasadena/popolvuh/pv-hp.htm Fair Use Notice § 107. 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