Reading Popol Wuj
A Decolonial Guide
Popol Wujis considered one of the oldest books in the Americas. Various elements of Popol Wuj have appeared in different written forms over the last two millennia and several parts of Popol Wuj likely coalesced in hieroglyphic book form a few centuries before contact with Europeans. Popol Wuj offers a unique interpretation of the Maya world and ways of being from a Maya perspective. However, that perspective is often occluded since the extant Popol Wuj is likely a copy of a copy of a precontact Indigenous text that has been translated many times since the fifteenth century.
Reading Popol Wujoffers readers a path to look beyond Western constructions of literature to engage with this text through the philosophical foundation of Maya thought and culture. This guide deconstructs various translations to ask readers to break out of the colonial mold in approaching this seminal Maya text.
Popol Wuj, or Popol Vuh, in its modern form, can be divided thematically into three parts: cosmogony (the formation of the world), tales of the beings who inhabited the Earth before the coming of people, and chronicles of different ethnic Maya groups in the Guatemala area. Examining thirteen translations of the K’iche’ text, Henne offers a decolonial framework to read between what translations offer via specific practice exercises for reading, studying, and teaching. Each chapter provides a close reading and analysis of a different critical scene based on a comparison of several translations (English and Spanish) of a key K’iche’ word or phrase in order to uncover important philosophical elements of Maya worldviews that resist precise expression in Indo-European languages.
Charts and passages are frontloaded in each chapter so the reader engages in the comparative process before reading any leading arguments. This approach challenges traditional Western reading practices and enables scholars and students to read Popol Wuj—and other Indigenous texts—from within the worldview that created them.
“Examining sections from thirteen translations of the Maya text Popol Wuj, Nathan C. Henne’s book provides a new and much-needed interdisciplinary guide to critically reading and teaching this foundational text.”—Alicia Ivonne Estrada, co-editor of U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles and Communities of Resistance
“A major achievement in Maya studies scholarship. Henne provides a convincing, compelling case regarding how translation shapes non-Maya engagement with Popol Wuj. Henne outlines ample evidence for not just how but also why we must read Popol Wuj within its particular linguistic and cultural context. A profound challenge to scholars and readers that will resonate for years to come.”—Paul M. Worley, co-author of Unwriting Maya Literature: Ts’íib as Recorded Knowledge
“The Popol Wuj is one of the most important and widely studied Maya books, but our knowledge of it is far from full. Nathan C. Henne addresses that gap with a creative new approach…I can imagine it generating rich discussion in classes on translation, spiritual conquest and literary history.” – Allison Bigelow, University of Virginia, Bulletin of Spanish Studies