Saturday Art and Archaeology and Pull Up a Chair: Mayan Creation Story, Carlos Merida Lithographs
Much of the story of creation of the Maya, the Popol Vuh, appears in carved representations throughout the temples that are being excavated many places in Mesoamerica.
The Popol Vuh relates the story which formed the basis of many of the Maya legend, and their celebrations. In the myths, after making the animals, the gods created a few versions of those they would give the job on this earth of properly serving them as gods. There were the mud people, who were too fragile and were dissolved in a flood that covered the earth. There were wood people, who didn’t have enough pizzazz, and were turned into monkeys instead. There are many versions of these stories, and not all are the same. Oral traditions continue to vary throughout the American continent while scholars go to a rendition from an early visitor here who wrote as best as he understood, with some slanting toward a Christian viewpoint, often pointed to by those studying Maya tradition and history.
All editions of Popol Vuh come from the records of the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez who lived around the turn of the 18th century. His manuscript, presently housed at The Newberry library, is faded or stained in places, has no organizational divisions, and does not exhibit consistent punctuation or capitalization. For all of these reasons, editing the manuscript has been a challenge and even successful editors are forced to exercise a great deal of judgment in preparing print editions. Recently some editors (Tedlock, Colop, and Christenson) have endeavored to versify Ximénez’s text.
Although Catholicism is generally seen as the dominant religion, some believe that many natives practice a syncretic blend of Christian and indigenous beliefs. Some stories from the Popol Vuh continued to be told by modern Maya as folk legends; some stories recorded by anthropologists in the 20th century may preserve portions of the ancient tales in greater detail than the Ximénez manuscript. On August 22, 2012, the Popol Vuh was declared intangible cultural heritage of Guatemala by the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture.
Finally, flesh and blood formed from maize (corn), and from those early creations a ruling family was elevated. The hero twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, proved most suitable of all and experienced a variety of adventures in rising to the preeminence of the Mayan ancestral house.
Much art that originated in the Mesoamerican communities relates back to the story of Popol Vuh. The mythical adventuress of their ancestral figures were a rich source familiar to the artists from their heritage. After the Mexican Revolution, a movement that embraced surrealism and their own stories, the Indigenismo sprung up, and among its leading members, Carlos Mirada created a series of lithographs that gave impressions from the Popol Vuh narratives.
Among the many displays of nationalism that developed as a result of the revolution was a cultural movement that came to be known as Indigenismo (Indigenism, or Indianism). Artists and writers who participated in this movement explored their national heritage and proudly included in their work aspects of ancient Mesoamerican culture, as shown in Jean Charlot’s painting of a Tarascan idol and in Carlos Mérida’s print series reimagining the myth of the Popol Vuh. It was as if Mexicans had become keenly aware of themselves and their indigenous roots during the decade of the revolution, when many of them had traveled around the nation, leaving their home regions for the first time.
The lithographs are displayed at several art institutes, and I had the great pleasure of visiting them at the Museum of the Americas, which is part of the Organization of American States complex, in Washington, D.C. The relationship with carved ancient monuments from Mayan worship centers such as those the Blue Creek Maya Project is excavating, and now at such temples as Lamanai and Copán, forms an intriguing contrast.