Five centuries after the first contact between local Mayans and Spanish settlers, the Popol Vuh Museum in Guatemala City is home to the richest collection of pre hispanic Mayan artifacts. Stone sculptures, everyday utensils (censers, plates and vases embellished with images of rituals), funerary urns, and ceramic figurines of gods and rulers are just part of the 8-room compilation of Guatemalan history displayed at the Popol Vuh Museum.
This small, yet very complete museum, is housed on the campus of Universidad Francisco Marroquín, located in zone 10 of Guatemala City. Depending on how much time you have, you can complete a quick tour in just around 20 minutes, or you can stay for a couple of hours if you truly want to experience part of the Mayan civilization for yourself. And if you still have more time, you can kill two birds with one stone and visit the Ixchel Museum of Textiles and Indigenous Clothings, which is right next door.
The museum takes its name from the sacred book of the Maya Quiché, the Popol Vuh, which provides a very detailed account of the creation of the world. In the beginning, the text reads, the gods first created men made of clay. But their attempt was a complete failure since the men-made-of-clay disintegrated when it rained. Their second attempt was to carve men from wood, but again, their endeavour failed: their newly creations did not show obeisance for their creators. In the end, they created a new version of men made from a mix of corn and blood, the gods’ own blood. Their last attempt was a success. According to the myth, the gods used tons of corn and millions of liters of blood to create the first men who were able to pray and measure time. These men began multiplying and soon they settled in a vast area that includes the territories of today’s south of Mexico, Guatemala and west Honduras. When the Spaniards arrived at the beginning of the 16th Century, the different Maya peoples were settled in what used to be a complex network of city states.
As visitors come into the museum, the greatest protagonist of the first room is the translated version of the Popol Vuh manuscript. Although this is in fact a copy of the original, it represents the oldest version of the Quiché-to-Spanish translation written by friar Francisco Ximénez in the 18th Century.
The subsequent rooms exhibit an impressive collection of delicate looking ceramic figurines, that seem to defy the stillness of the showcases since they appear to actually have a life of their own and move when the visitor is not paying attention.
Many of these figurines represent different forms of deity: the god of corn, the god of cacao, animal deities or even demigods in their human forms.
The museum is home to an extraordinary selection of funerary urns used to bury the bodies of rulers embellished with jaguar heads (the underworld head feline). These extraordinary pieces of clay display hand-painted images that, according to the Maya mythology, illustrate the transformation of a deified ruler into a lord of the underworld.
In the same room, inarguably one of the most impressive the museum has to offer, there is a replica of the Dresden Codex. This manuscript recounts the forecasts of the gods and the dates of the Maya calendar, making it one of the most important books that describe rituals and astronomical information.
Before finishing the tour, there is a display of a small sample of colonial artifacts, which include silver pieces, sacred imagery, and altarpieces and paintings, all of which embody the Catholic religion and the conquest of the Americas.
Both the Popol Vuh Museum and the Ixchell Museum are open from Monday to Friday (9 am – 5 pm) and Saturday (9 am – 1 pm). General admission is Q45 ($5 approx) for adults, Q25 ($3 approx.) for students and Q15 ($2 approx) for children.