Early in the fifteenth century, riding on a wave of successful conquest, the K’iche’ king Gucumatz (Feathered Serpent) founded a new capital, K’umarkaaj. A hundred years later the Spanish arrived, renamed the city Utatlán, and then destroyed it, leaving the ruins that can be visited today.
K’umarkaaj is nowhere near as grand as the large ruins of Petén, but its dramatic setting, surrounded by deep ravines and pine forests, is impressive, and its historical significance intriguing. Little restoration has taken place and once-grand temples and palaces are today just grassy mounds. The small museum has a scale model of what the original city may once have looked like.
The splendour of the city, once containing 23 palaces, signified the strength of the K’iche’ empire, which at its height boasted a population of around a million.
By the time of the Conquest, however, the K’iche’ empire was fractured. Their first encounter with the Spanish was a heavy defeat near Quetzaltenango, resulting in the loss of their leader Tecún Umán. The K’iche’ then invited the Spanish to their capital, but on seeing the fortified city, the conquistador feared a trap and captured K’iche’ leaders Oxib-Queh and Beleheb-Tzy. His next step was characteristically straightforward: “As I knew them to have such a bad disposition to service of his Majesty, and to ensure the good and peace of this land, I burnt them, and sent [soldiers] to burn the town and destroy it.”
The Popol Vuh
The Popol Vuh
Written in K’umarkaaj shortly after the arrival of the Spanish, the more than nine thousand lines of the Popol Vuh detail the cosmology, mythology and traditional history of the K’iche’. The first of the two parts of this sacred poem is an account of the K’iche’s creation by their god, who is known as Heart of Sky. According to the Popol Vuh, at first there was only water and sky; the creator then formed earth and mountains, plants and trees. Heart of Sky turned his attention to animals, and created creatures of the forest including deer, birds and jaguars. Unsatisfied with these animals, the creator fashioned humans from corn paste after twice failing to make man from mud and wood. The Popol Vuh then recounts the adventures of the ancestors of mankind, the hero twins (or wizard twins) Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, which culminate in an epic struggle with the death lords of Xibalbá, the Maya underworld. The twins ultimately triumph, and the cycle of creation is born.
The Popol Vuh’s second half describes the wanderings of the K’iche’ ancestors as they migrate south from the Toltec area of Mexico and settle in the highlands of Guatemala. Evidence gathered by archeologists and epigraphers strongly supports the accuracy of this part of the epic. The book concludes with a history of K’iche’ royalty, and suggests a shared lineage with these kings and their gods. Dennis Tedlock’s translation of the Popol Vuh (see Wildlife and the environment) is regarded as the definitive text.