The Popol Vuh: An Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Copy

Posted in anniversaries, books by Editor on December 20, 2012

With the December 21st solstice marking the end of a 5,125-year cycle of the Mayan ‘Long Count’ calendar, a posting on the oldest copy of the Mayan sacred text, the Popol Vuh, seems appropriate. The manuscript was produced in 1701-03 and is now part of the collection of the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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From The Newberry:

Popol Vuh

Title page, Popol Vuh. 1701-03 (Chicago: The Newberry Library, Vault Ayer MS 1515)

The Popol 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. It contains stories of the cosmologies, origins, traditions, and spiritual history of the Mayan people. It is considered by many Mayans as their equivalent to the Christian Bible and is held in deep reverence by them. In an effort to make it more widely available and reduce non-essential handling of the text, an important digitization project is underway and almost complete. It includes the complete conservation of the manuscript.

The Newberry’s manuscript of the Popol Vuh is one of the most widely known and possibly the earliest surviving copy. Quiché nobility probably wrote the original manuscript of the Popol Vuh in the mid-sixteenth century, in the Quiché language, using Latin orthography. The Newberry’s Popol Vuh was most likely copied from this original manuscript (now lost) in 1701-03, in the Guatemalan town of Chichicastenango, by Dominican Father Francisco Ximenez. His copy includes the Quiché text and a Spanish translation in side-by-side columns. In addition to the Popol Vuh, the manuscript also contains a Cakchikel-Quiché-Tzutuhil grammar, Christian devotional instructions, and answers to doctrinal questions and other material by Ximenez.

Conservation preparation and treatment are major components of the Popol Vuh digital project. With increased handling of the delicate manuscript during the filming and scanning process, it is 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.

The group decided that the binding, which was not original, should be removed and the ink checked under a microscope and stabilized. 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. By removing the old binding, the pages laid flat for filming. After the text was digitized, the manuscript was mended, page-by-page. Mending rejoins tears and strengthens any weak areas of the page, such as loss from insects, moisture damage, or wear from use. After additional consultation, a new binding style was chosen that was sympathetic to the Popol Vuh’s history, and a custom fitted enclosure 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. In order to preserve the item for future generations of researchers, access to the actual sacred text of the Popol Vuh is available by appointment only. To make an appointment, please contact John Brady, Director of Reader Services, at bradyj@newberry.org.

Visitors to the Newberry may access the new electronic versions of the Popol Vuh in the Reference Center on the third floor. Ohio State University has recently released a digital version of the Popol Vuh. In addition, Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Texts (formerly the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts) produced a DVD-ROM of the Popol-Vuh. This DVD is available for use in the 3rd floor reference area and is also for sale in the Newberry Bookstore. A facsimile of the work is also available in the Reference Center.

More information is available here»

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