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Invitation to World Literature

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Experts' View: The Creation of Humans

An excerpt from Popol Vuh
The opening of the story in which the gods create humans

"And they [the gods] said, speak therefore our names. Worship us, for we are your mother and your father. Call upon us. Worship us, the animals were told. But they did not succeed.

They did not speak like people. They only squawked and chattered and roared. Their speech was unrecognizable. The gods said, 'We shall now make one who will give us honor. Your calling will merely be to have your flesh eaten.'

Their bones were ground up, they were broken into pieces. Their faces were ground up because they proved to be incapable of understanding before the face of their mother, and the face of their father."

Matthew Ritchie:

"In the very beginning of the story they talk about how there isn't even anything to make a story out of, and then you get the first words: 'Only the maker, modeler, alone: Sovereign Plume Serpent. The bearers, begetters, are in the water, and the sky and also the Heart of Sky.'"

Michael Coe:

"You have the origin of the universe and then the gods want to be praised. They want somebody who can praise them and pray to them with speech and knowledge. The first beings they create to do this are animals."

Diana Taylor:

"The humans who were made out of wood looked a little bit better— but they did not have feelings and they did not remember their creators."

Carlos Rivera:

"The wooden men don't pray back to their gods. And because they're not praying back to the gods, the gods get a little bit upset and they figure, this is not going to work, let's just end it."

Matthew Ritchie:

"Right at the start you have this idea of the flawed creator. It's not like the Judeo-Christian God who makes it and it was good. They're like oh, we made it, and it sucks. Let's get rid of it and start again."

David Damrosch Sums It Up:

One of the great questions taken up by the world's creation myths is how and why people came to be. Granting (as many traditions have done) that the world was created by all-powerful gods and goddesses, just what did they need people for? The Babylonians and the ancient Greeks agreed that we were put on Earth to serve the gods, offering them pleasing sacrifices. In the Bible, Adam and Eve are assigned the task of gardeners, tending God's creation. Popol Vuh's account of the creation of humans is comparable to these other stories, but with a distinctive emphasis on speech and memory. The gods don't appear to want food offerings or any practical kind of service: they want to be praised, and they are disappointed by the wooden people because the wooden people lack feelings and can't remember them. The story of creation is thus infused with the book's pervasive concern with the fragility of memory. It highlights the quintessential human capacity to preserve memory through language, so that people can honor their creators—both the divine creators of the universe and also the human ancestors and the native culture whose memory Popol Vuh seeks to preserve "amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now."


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