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popol vuh a retelling restless books ilan stavrans gabriela larios

Book Review: ‘Popol Vuh: A Retelling’ by Ilan Stavans, Illustrations by Gabriela Larios

The Popol Vuh, an account of the Mayan creation myth, is rooted in an oral tradition. It was likely written down in pre-Columbian times in Mayan hieroglyphics; today’s it’s preserved only in a Dominican friar’s early-18th-century transcription of a lost 16th-century manuscript. In his forward to Ilan Stavans’ new English-language Popul Vuh: A Retelling, the Mexican poet, environmentalist, and diplomat Homero Aridjis describes the Popul Vuh as a “tripartite narrative of the creation of the world and its first inhabitants, the exploits of gods and heroes, and the history of the highland Maya” and “the earliest and most comprehensive document of myths and noble lineages in a language native to the Americas.”

Thank goodness there were a few among the “white, bearded men” from across the ocean who found value in the cultures and languages of those their military compadres were brutally conquering.

The last time the ancient Maya made an appearance in worldwide popular culture was in 2012, when a Mayan calendar was purported to predict the end of the world. Perhaps that wasn’t myth but just a little early. Either way, we’re still here and able to enjoy and appreciate Stavans’ new volume, out now from Restless Books, of which he is the publisher. Stavans was inspired by his house’s recent Ramayana: An Illustrated Retelling by Arshia Sattar, which I reviewed in 2018.

The new Popul Vuh is a half-size hardcover gorgeously illustrated by Gabriela Larios. Aridjis’s forward gives a brief history of the Maya and of the narrative itself. It laments the conquistadors’ decimation of the local cultures and goes on some tangents about modern-day environmental destruction. Jaguars and maize were among the many living things symbolically important to the Maya; Aridjis drifts into lamentations for the animals’ habitat loss and the introduction of GMO seeds into Guatemala.

I don’t know how far Stavans’ text strays from the “original” (such as it was), but it’s gripping and redolent from start to finish, even if somewhat mystifying at times. Some details have interesting parallels with Judeo-Christian myths. Tepew and Q’uq-umatz, the Creator and Maker, realize they must create humankind because “[t]here shall be no glory in our creation until humans are made. They will be the ones to remember.” Animals, for their part, will “grace nature” and “grant it style.” The Jews are known as the People of the Book, but this narrative reminds us of the Mayans’ awareness of the power of words: The Creator and Maker conceive the world while “[d]isplaying astonishing verbal acuity…Time goes by, and with it come verb conjugations.”

As in the Bible, a flood destroys an earlier iteration of humanity. As in most mythologies, there’s a vividly imagined underworld, here called Xibalba (where, incidentally, a “special chamber is reserved for the bearded, white men”).

Actually, language trips us – and Stavans – up once in a while. An owl messenger from Xibalba had a “skull with no legs.” Does that confusing image arise directly from the “original” text? And does that text explain that obsidian stone is “a dark volcanic glass with a razor-sharp edge,” or is this an unnecessary editorial addition?

When the hero twins Ixb’alanke and Junajpu accept a challenge to travel to Xibalba and pit their skills against those of the lords of the underworld in a ball game, “[t]he twins marched forward, each with their [sic] blowgun.” When the lords cut off Junajpu’s head, the joke’s on them: Ixb’alanke makes a replacement out of a squash brought by a helpful turtle.

A Messenger from Xibalba Speaks to the Tribes. Illustration by Gabriela Larios from ‘Popol Vuh: A Retelling’ by Ilan Stavans

The text gets meta at the end. It speaks of itself as it mourns the loss of the beautiful world its deities had given to humanity in olden times. Even speech was muted: “Living in fear often means talking in secret, keeping our thoughts from being heard…The world created by Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth is dying. The birds, the serpents, the rattlesnakes, the bumblebees are all furious. They realize their homes are vanishing…Xibalba is now everywhere.”

As shown by these quotes, Stavans’ style is both colloquial and subtly elevated. The same is true of Larios’ splendid illustrations, which would be worth the purchase price on their own. Colorful two-page spreads illuminate numerous episodes, opening an additional window on the ancient Mayan worldview.

We must remember that while the Maya were conquered centuries ago, their descendants are very much still with us. Stavans and Larios have together done a service to them, and to the English-speaking world, by re-fashioning this rich and fascinating myth into an accessible and beautiful English-language volume to treasure. Popul Vuh: A Retelling is out Nov. 10 and available for pre-order now at Restless Books.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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