An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 82How absurd it is to credit all or most barbarian theology with an alien origin is seen from the Popol Vuh, already quoted, an aboriginal composition of the Kiche Indians of Guatemala. This work was written by a Christianized native of Guatemala some time in the seventeenth century, and was copied (in the Kiche language, in which it was originally written) by a Dominican friar, Francisco Ximenez, who added a Spanish translation and scholia. The Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, a profound student of American archæology and languages, deplored, in a letter to the Duc de Valmy, the supposed loss of[Pg 188] the Popol Vuh which he was aware had been made use of early in the nineteenth century by a certain Don Felix Cabrera. Dr C. Scherzer, an Austrian scholar, thus made aware of its value, paid a visit to the republic of Guatemala in 1854 or 1855, and was successful in tracing the missing manuscript in the library of the University of San Carlos in the city of Guatemala. It was afterward ascertained that its scholiast, Ximenez, had deposited it in the library of his convent at Chichicastenango, whence it passed to the San Carlos library in 1830. Scherzer made a copy of the Spanish translation of the manuscript, which he published at Vienna in 1856 under the title of Las Historias del origen de los Indios de Guatemala, par el R. P. F. Francisco Ximenez. The Abbé Brasseur also took a copy of the original, which he published at Paris in 1861, with the title Vuh Popol: Le livre sacré des Quiches, et les mythes de l'antiquité americaine. In this work the Kiche original and the Abbé's French translation are set forth side by side. Unfortunately both the Spanish and the French translations leave much to be desired in accuracy, and the notes which accompany them are misleading. The name 'Popol Vuh' signifies 'Record of the Community,' and its literal translation is 'Book of the Mat,' from the Kiche words pop or popol, a mat or rug of woven leaves on which the entire family sat, and vuh or uuh, paper or book, from uoch, to write. The Popol Vuh is an example of a world-wide genre—a type of annals of which the first portion is pure mythology, shading off into pure history, evolving from the hero-myths of saga to the recital of the deeds of authentic personages. It may, in fact, be classed with the Heimskringla of Snorri, the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, the Chinese History in the Five Books, the Japanese Nihongi, and its fourth book somewhat resembles the Pictish Chronicle. The cosmogony of the Popol Vuh exhibits no signs of Christian influence, and even if it did, it would be quite erroneous to infer that such influence was direct—that is, that the original compiler deliberately infused into the narrative what he knew of Hebrew cosmogony. The resemblance between the first few chapters of the Popol Vuh and the creation myth in Genesis is slight and fortuitous. There are[Pg 189] no precise points of contact, and the supposed resemblance has been drawn by writers only superficially acquainted with Kiche myth and wholly ignorant of its spirit and the processes which developed it. It is by no means difficult to prove the genuine American character of the Popol Vuh. A perusal should suffice. Macpherson, in his preface to the first edition of the poems of Ossian, says an "ingenious gentleman" before reading those poems imagined that out of modesty he had ascribed them to an ancient writer, but after reading them said they abounded too much in ideas only belonging to an early state of society to be the work of a modern poet. We need not trouble about the authorship of the poems of Ossian; but the ingenious gentleman could have said the same thing with justice of the Popol Vuh. To anyone who has given it a careful examination it must be abundantly evident that it has passed through several stages of development; that it is of aboriginal origin; and that it has not been influenced by European thought in any manner whatsoever. The fact that it was composed in the Kiche tongue is almost sufficient proof of its genuine American character. 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; and if modern scholarship is unable to translate the work, the eighteenth century was unable to create it. No European of that time was sufficiently versed in Kiche theology and history to compose in faultless Kiche such a work as the Popol Vuh, breathing as it does in every line an intimate and natural acquaintance with the antiquities of Guatemala.
From these considerations it will be clear that the Hebrew cosmogony has neither coloured nor veneered the account of creation in the Popol Vuh, nor have its transcribers destroyed the veritable aboriginal thought which lies beneath. The account of the making of man, for example, is totally different in Genesis and in the Kiche production. "Giants in those days" appear in both, but in the first they are merely alluded to, whereas in the second a very full account is provided[Pg 190] of their destruction. The star and sun myths of the two accounts have no resemblance, and the sole likeness is in the opening scene, where the vast abyss in which the original deity or deities sleep is pictured. Its resemblance to other American cosmogonies has been amply proved; and to credit the whole, as has been done, to Christian influence alone is characteristic of the period in which the criticism was promulgated—a period of superficial learning and cheap generalization like that of certain present-day critics and ultra-popular writers on mythology and folklore, and improperly equipped persons at all times.
We do not desire, as we have already said, to deny the existence of borrowed or sophisticated cosmogonies, but these are of late origin, easily perceived, and as a rule merely veil a primitive or much earlier original. The following instance, alluded to by the late Professor Brinton, well serves to illustrate the point in question. He says:
"Very soon after coming in contact with the whites, the Indians caught the notion of a bad and good spirit, pitted one against the other in eternal warfare, and engrafted it on their ancient traditions. Writers anxious to discover Jewish or Christian analogies forcibly construed myths to suit their pet theories, and for indolent observers it was convenient to catalogue their gods in antithetical classes. In Mexican and Peruvian mythology this is so plainly false that historians no longer insist upon it, but as a popular error it still holds its ground with reference to the more barbarous and less known[Pg 191] tribes. Perhaps no myth has been so often quoted in its confirmation as that of the ancient Iroquois, which narrates the conflict between the first two brothers of our race. It is of undoubted native origin and venerable antiquity. The version given by the Tuscarora chief Cusic in 1825 relates that in the beginning of things there were two brothers, Enigorio and Enigohatgea, names literally meaning the Good Mind and the Bad Mind. (Or more exactly, the Beautiful Spirit, the Ugly Spirit In Onondaga the radicals are onigonra, spirit; hio, beautiful; ahetken, ugly.) The former went about the world furnishing it with gentle streams, fertile plains, and plenteous fruits, while the latter maliciously followed him, creating rapids, thorns, and deserts. At length the Good Mind turned upon his brother in anger, and crushed him into the earth. He sank out of sight in its depths, but not to perish, for in the dark realms of the Underworld he still lives, receiving the souls of the dead, and being the author of all evil. Now when we compare this with the version of the same legend given by Father Brebeuf, missionary to the Hurons in 1636, we find its whole complexion altered; the moral dualism vanishes; the names Good Mind and Bad Mind do not appear; it is the struggle of Ioskeha, the White one, with his brother Tawiscara, the Dark one, and we at once perceive that Christian influence in the course of two centuries had given the tale a meaning foreign to its original intent."
No student of myth of any experience would for a moment accept the first-mentioned tale as solely of aboriginal origin. Its ethical trend would make this at least doubtful. It would not be correct to say that an ethical spirit never enters into the religious tales of savages, but it should certainly be regarded with suspicion until it is proved to be aboriginal. It is not surprising to find it in the tales of Egyptians, Hebrews, Peruvians, and people of considerable culture; but to encounter it in the stories of Africans, American Indians, and savages who have been long in contact with Europeans should at once arouse suspicion. Never let us neglect, however, the matter which lies beneath the cultural veneer. The Uapès Indians[Pg 192] of Brazil include both Jurupari and the Christian hierarchy in their pantheon. We know that the latter are new-comers there; but let us not neglect Jurupari! We know that Roman belief sophisticated Gallic religious practice; but is that to say that it submerged it?