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What is the Popol Vuh?

The Popul Vuh, which has been translated as Book of the Council, Book of the Community, Book of the People, and The Sacred Book, is the creation account of the Quiché Mayan people. “Popol” is also defined as “woven mat,” and “Vuh” (Vuj) as “book.” The text weaves together Mayan stories concerning cosmologies, origins, traditions, and spiritual histories. It is considered by many Mayans as their equivalent to the Christian Bible and is held in deep reverence by them.

The Newberry’s manuscript of the Popol Vuh is one of the most widely known and possibly the earliest surviving copy. It was transcribed between 1700 and 1715 in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, by the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez (1666 - 1729). 

A linguist, Ximénez was interested in the native Quiché (Kʼiche') language. Some scholars believe that Ximénez’s copy was derived from an earlier version, probably prepared in the sixteenth century by a native speaker who had been taught Latin characters. The earlier forms of the text were codices or screenfolds with glyphs as aides-memoires. Ximénez’s transcription uses Latin script to present the Quiché original and gives a side-by-side translation into Spanish. The text, which almost appears to be free verse, was clearly designed to be presented orally. Ximénez’s transcription of the Quiché is studded with corrections. It is possible that the text was recited, possibly by as many as three people, which would account for some of the repetition and strike-outs.

The Newberry’s copy left Guatemala sometime after 1853. The French priest Charles-Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg stated that he purchased the manuscript from Indigenous leader Ignacio Coloche in Rabinal, Guatemala in 1855 (though this is a matter of some dispute) and brought it with him to France. After his death in 1874, Brasseur de Bourbourg’s collection (including this manuscript) was acquired by the French scholar and collector Alphonse Pinart. Pinart sold Brasseur de Bourbourg’s collection in 1883. The Ximénez manuscript was sold to a bookseller in Paris, Charles Leclerc. Edward E. Ayer purchased the Ximénez manuscript from Leclerc in 1887 and brought it to Chicago. It has been in the Newberry since 1912, soon after Ayer began donating items from his collection to the library. 

Popol Vuh

Is the Popol Vuh available digitally?

Yes. A digital version of the Popol Vuh is available in the World Digital Library, as well as a digital version of the other manuscripts written by Ximénez which accompany the Popol Vuh manuscript, including the Arte de las Tres Lenguas Kakchiquel, Quiché y Tzutuhiland Tratado Segundo de Todo lo que Debe Saber un Ministro para la Buena Administracion de Estos Naturaleshas.

An earlier digital version of the Popol Vuh manuscript has also been made available on the Ohio State University website.

How was the Popol Vuh conserved following the digitization project?

Conservation preparation and treatment were major components of the Popol Vuh digital projects mentioned above. With increased handling of the delicate manuscript during the filming and scanning process, it was absolutely critical to stabilize the paper and inks. A multi-disciplinary group of curators, librarians, conservators, and other experts reviewed the Popol Vuh’s condition and created the following procedure to provide appropriate conservation of the document.

There was no documentation concerning the condition or appearance of the binding or text when it arrived at the Newberry, and the existing binding covers were not original, but rather added by Newberry binders in the 1930s or ’40s. This binding restricted movement of the pages, putting undue stress on the paper, and obstructed areas of marginalia. Conservators discovered that the handmade, laid paper, dating to the eighteenth century, was in good condition. Its flexibility made it a good candidate for rebinding. The group decided that the binding would be removed.

Removal of the binding included: separation of the covers from the text, cleaning the glue and paper linings from the spine, cutting the sewing threads, and separating the pages. Nothing original was removed during these steps. After this treatment, the manuscript pages were able to lie flat safely for filming. Conservators checked the ink under a microscope and stabilized it. Then the imaging took place.

After filming, each page was mended. Mending rejoined tears and strengthened any weak areas of the page, such as loss from pests, moisture damage, or wear from use. As the last step in the conservation process, a new binding style was chosen, and a custom fitted enclosure was created to house the Popol Vuh.

The new electronic versions of the Popol Vuh make the manuscript more accessible to a larger number of readers, so the physical handling of the actual sacred text can now be reduced for its long-term preservation.

Can anyone see the Popol Vuh manuscript? How do I make arrangements to do so?

The Popol Vuh manuscript came to the Newberry along with several other contemporary manuscripts by Francisco Ximénez, all of which are cataloged together as Ayer MS 1515. 

Anyone 14 years or older may see the manuscript; however, for preservation reasons and to limit the light exposure to the manuscript, readers are allocated a maximum of 30 minutes with the original manuscript in our reading room. To request a longer time for in-depth research with the original manuscript, please contact Will Hansen, Director of Reader Services, at (312) 255-3527 or via email.

When you arrive at the Newberry you will need to obtain a Newberry reader’s card by filling out a registration form and presenting a valid photo ID and proof of current address.

The Special Collections Reading Room staff will give readers of the Popol Vuh specific instructions about the special care to take when viewing the manuscript. Readers who intend to use the manuscript for an extended period of time are encouraged to use the facsimile copy available on the open shelf in the 3rd-floor Reference Center (Call Number: Ref F 1465 .P817 1700a, Newberry checklist area). The Popul Vuh manuscript is also available on microfilm (Microfilm Ayer MS 1515).

The Newberry can also accommodate groups of up to 15 people, including visitors younger than 14 years old, who wish to see the Popol Vuh. We request that groups schedule their visit a minimum of one month in advance. Groups who are interested should contact our reference librarians for more information.

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