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THE manuscript which Father Francisco Ximénez found in his parish at Chichicastenango ranks highest among the documents composed by the American Indians after they had learned to write their own languages by means of the Latin letters which the Spanish missionaries had taught them. Its author was undoubtedly one of the first students who learned from the friars the marvelous art of phonetic writing. The Quiché chronicler knew that in olden times there was a book which contained the traditions and accounts of his people, and, knowing them perfectly, he had the happy inspiration of recording them.
The author of the Manuscript says that he writes it because now the Popol Vuh, or the original "Book of the People," as Ximénez calls it, is no longer to be seen. We have no facts by which to identify this original book other than those which its unknown author gives. Nevertheless, from the knowledge that we have of the American Indians' system of writing before the Conquest, it seems doubtful that the ancient Quiché book could have been a document of set form and permanent literary composition. Rather one must suppose that it might have been a book of paintings with hieroglyphs which the priests interpreted to the people in order to keep alive in them the knowledge of the origin of their race and the mysteries of their religion.
The Manuscript of Chichicastenango has no title. It begins directly with these words:
"This is the beginning of the old traditions of this place called Quiché. Here we shall write and we shall begin the old tales., the beginning and the origin of all that was done in the town of the Quiché, by the tribes of the Quiché nation."
And two paragraphs farther on the same narrator says:
"This we shall write now within the Law of God and Christianity; we shall bring it to light because now the Popol Vuh as it is called cannot be seen any more, in which was clearly seen the coming from the other side of the sea, and the narration of our obscurity, and our life was dearly seen. The original book written long ago existed; but its sight is hidden from the searcher and the thinker."
"The truth is," says Ximénez, "that such a book never appeared nor has been seen, and thus it is not known if this way of writing was by paintings, as those of Mexico, or by knotting strings, as the Peruvians: you may believe that it was by painting on woven white cloths." This was the graphic system in use in Mexico and Guatemala, and Father Sahagún, writing in the sixteenth century, says that he was informed of the ancient things of New Spain directly by the Indians, and adds that "all the information that I obtained, they made known to me by means of their paintings."
The influence of the Bible is evident in the description of the creation, although this does not succeed in taking away the indigenous flavor of the Quiché book. Commenting on the edition of the Popol Vuh by Brasseur de Bourbourg, Adolf Bandelier observed in 1881 that the first sentences appear to be transcriptions of the Book of Genesis and are not aboriginally American. He argues that in the epoch in which the Popol Vuh was written the Indians of Guatemala were already under the influence of the paintings, books, and chants which the Spanish missionaries used to instruct them in Christianity. The native author expressly declares, in the Preamble of this work, that he is writing under Christianity. The editor of the Spanish translation of the French text of Brasseur de Bourbourg has carefully noted the concordance of its first chapter with the Book of Genesis. Max Müller had previously (1878) referred to certain similarities between the Popol Vuh and the Old Testament, but although admitting that there was Biblical influence in this book, he believes that it must be recognized that its content was a true product of the intellectual soil of America.
The Popol Vuh was also the book of prophecies and the oracle of the kings and lords, according to a reference which the author of the Manuscript makes In another passage, where he states that the kings
[paragraph continues] "knew if there would be war and everything was clear before their eyes; they saw if there would be death and hunger, if there would be strife. They well knew that there was a place where it could be seen, that there was a book which they called Popol Vuh." And in the final paragraph, the Quiché chronicler adds with a melancholic accent that what he has said in his work is all that has been preserved of the ancient Quiché, "because no longer can be seen [the book of the Popol Vuh] which the kings had in olden times, for it has disappeared."
Concerning the time in which the Manuscript was composed, there are two important facts in the document itself which make it possible to determine its date approximately. The first is the visit that the Bishop of Guatemala made to the city of Utatlán, or Gumarcaah, which place, as one reads in the Manuscript itself was blessed by Bishop Francisco Marroquín. Ximénez says that Bishop Marroquín gave Utatlán the name of Santa Cruz del Quiché "when in the year 1539 he was at that Court and, blessing the place he fixed and raised the standard of the Faith."
The second important fact mentioned above is found in the final chapter of the Manuscript, which contains the succession of the kings and lords of the Quiché. In it, Tecún and Tepepul, the sons of the kings burned by Alvarado in 1524, are named as the thirteenth generation of kings, and Don Juan Rojas and Don Juan Cortés, the sons of Tecún and Tepepul, are named as the last successors to the dignity, and as of the fourteenth generation of kings. The latter Quiché lords were still living in the middle of the sixteenth century. The Oidor Zorita, previously mentioned, lived in Guatemala from 1553 to 1557, as a member of the Royal Audience, and he says that he traveled through the province several times as inspector and that he met "those, who were at one time Lords of Utatlán, [are] as poor and miserable as the poorest Indian of the village, and their wives made the tortillas for their meal . . . and they carried water and wood for their houses. . . ."As this change in the situation of the last Quiché kings is not recorded in the Popol Vuh, there is ground for believing that the composition of the Manuscript of Chichicastenango had been finished before November 22, 1558.
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