She of Great Writing, She of the Glyphs

These incantations were dreamed by Maya women in the Highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico. The Tzotzil authors of this anthology claim their spells and songs were given to them by the ancestors, the First Fathermothers, who keep the Great Book in which all words are written down. Pasakwala Kómes, an unlettered seer from Santiago El Pinar, learned her conjurations by dreaming the Book. Loxa Jimenés Lópes of Epal Ch’en, Chamula, tells of an Anjel, daughter of the Lord of the Caves, who began whispering in her ear and then, in dreams, showed her the Book with all the magic words to be learned.

Show me your three books,
your three letters,
the ink of the letters

prays María Tzu to ask for the secret of black dye, directing her verses to the Ancient Earth in Flower, the Coffer Where the Secrets are Kept.

Manwela Kokoroch, from Laguna Petej, Chamula, sings to the Elder Brothers of Writing and Painting, who hold the Book where the names of all the people in the world are written down, along with the dates of their deaths. Here she pleads for a long life:

Let my animal spirit live
many more years
in the pages of the Book,
in its letters,
its paintings,
on the whole surface of the Earth.

Even though few of the authors of this anthology can read, even though the Tzotzil Maya have no libraries nor bookstores near their houses, a wise person is said to have «books in the heart,» according to Robert M. Laughlin’s translation of a sixteenth-century Spanish-Tzotzil dictionary.

The Mayan word for book, jun or vun, also means paper, and the making of paper is an important Mesoamerican tradition. During rituals ancient Mayan women pierced their tongues and dripped the blood on paper which was then burnt. Even today in the amate papermaking town of San Pablito Pahuatlán in Puebla, paper is still burnt as an offering to the gods.

In Tzotzil, to write and to paint are the same verb (tz’ib), just as the color yox serves for what English speakers perceive as both blue and green. Antonia Moshán Culej of Huixtán asks: «How is it that María Tzu can paint if she can’t write?» Weaving is today considered to be a form of script and Tzotzil women can read the verses on their looms.

The ancient Mayan god Itzamná is credited with the invention of writing. His wife is said to have created the universe by painting everything into existence. The Fathermothers gave birth to one of the few civilizations in the world that conceived a way to write down its language. The ancestors of Loxa Jiménes, María Tzu, and Manwela Kokoroch created the Maya codices, magnificent books written when only Native People inhabited these lands. On stuccoed bark paper pages they painted forecasts of the movements of the heavenly bodies, prophesies, divinations, and spells. In his chronicle The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz de Castillo, a soldier who accompanied Cortes in the invasion of Mexico, wrote:

We found temples and places of sacrifice, and blood splashed about, and the incense they burnt, and other properties of their idols, also the stones on which they made their sacrifices, and parrots’ feathers, and many of their books, which are folded as cloth is in Spain.

The Maya seem to hold ancient memories of their libraries. Even today, the oral poetry of ritual speech is referred to as tz’ib­ «that which is painted or written down.» Poetry is called nichimal k’op, «the word in flower.» We know of only four precolombian Mayan books that survived the ravages of time and war; many were destroyed by Friar Diego de Landa in the sixteenth century, as documented in his Relación de las cosas de Yucatan:

[The Maya] wrote their books on a long sheet of paper doubled in pleats, the whole thing enclosed between two boards that made them very attractive....
There were many beautiful books, but as they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the Devil, we burnt them all, and this affected
[the Maya] deeply, causing them great sorrow and grief.

Song is a book that will not burn. In the early colonial period a number of ancient texts in verse were dictated to European friars who transcribed the Mayan words in Latin characters and translated them into Spanish. The best known of these is the Popol Vuh - the sacred book of the K’iché. The Yucatec Maya conserved their magical writings in the Books of Chilam Balam, the Codex of Calkiní and-perhaps the most exquisite poetry left us by the ancient Maya -- a volume of incantations entitled the Ritual de los Bacabes.

It is clear the First Fathermothers were writers, and it is rumored that some of their books - that no one can read anymore - lie hidden in old chests in Chamula. Each year they are taken out with great reverence, perfumed with incense and wrapped up again in embroidered cloths. Some say the books inside the chests have begun to talk. Women who learn the words are said to have writing in their hearts.

Incantations by Mayan Women is the first book Mayan people have created, written, illustrated, printed and bound - in paper of their own making - in nearly five hundred years.

. . . . . . .

In the womb of my mother
I learned the spells.

In the womb of my mother
I heard them.

I took the basket,
I received the bottle,
I was given incense,
I was shown the Book.

From the womb of my mother
I dreamed the incantations.

-- Pasakwala Kómes
translated from Tzotzil

A NOTE TO THE PRECEDING

[From the Cincos Puntos Press English language edition, just published, of Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women, assembled, edited and translated from Tzotzil and Spanish by Ambar Past.] The press’s announcement carries a sense of the book well worth noting: “This book of poems and stark, vivid illustrations is rooted in the female soul of indigenous Mexico. The Tzotzil women of the Chiapas Highlands are the poets and the artists. ... In the 1970s, living among the Maya, Amber Past watched the people endure as an epidemic swept through a village. No help came. Many children died. One mother offered her dead child a last sip of Coca-Cola and uttered a prayer: Take this sweet dew from the earth, take this honey. It will help you on your way. It will give you strength on your path.

”Incantations like this — poems about birth, love, hate, sex, despair, and death — coupled with black and white dream images, paintings which remind us of ancient rock paintings, provide a compelling insight into the psychology of these Mayan women poets. The Cinco Puntos edition of Incantations is a facsimile of the original handmade edition produced by the Taller Leñateros ... [a collective workshop of Mayan women, of which Ambar Past, long a resident in Chiapas, has been an active co-founder and member.] “

Concerning Incantations, I have written elsewhere: “There has to my mind never been a project quite like this: a collective body of poetry – and women’s poetry at that – coming directly out of an indigenous culture and gathered as a deliberate work of poetry and art by the women themselves. The poems, created and spoken in Mayan Tzotzil by individual poets, then translated by Ambar Past into faithful and readable Spanish and English versions, show how deeply rooted language traditions can transform into vehicles of personal as well as collective expression. Incantations represents a major contribution to poetry in general and to ethnopoetics in particular.” (J.R.)

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