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[BKARTS] Incantations by Mayan Women
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. Thirty years in the making, Incantations by
Mayan Women is hot off the press!
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.
OVER A HUNDRED-AND-FIFTY PEOPLE COLLABORATED to write, illustrate, and
create this book, among them singers, seers, witchwives, washer women, sugar
beer brewers, conjurers, native bearers, prayer makers, soothsayers,
sorceresses, dyers, diviners, hired mourners, spinners, shepherdesses,
babysitters, millers, maids, bookbinders, spellbinders, cornharvesters,
great-grandmothers, sharecroppers, necromancers, exorcists, coffee pickers,
potters, crazy women, midwives, planters, woodlanders, bonesetters,
troublemakers, spiritualists, mothers-in-law, peddlers, gravediggers,
fireworks makers, drinkers, hags, beggars, bakers, basket weavers,
shamanesses, liars, computers, comagres, sculptresses, muses, and even men.
We have made this book «as we make our children,» in the words of Petú
Xantis, «with the strength of our flesh and the birds of our heart.»
INCANTATIONS By Mayan Women is the collective work of Taller Leñateros, the
«Woodlanders' Workshop,» a cultural society and school of book arts for
Mayan women and men who produce something in between a performance piece and
an act of witchcraft. Over wood fires in the patio boil huge kettles of corn
husks, gladiola stems, heart of maguey, palm leaves, recycled women's cotton
huipil blouses, banana trunks, rattan, lichen, banana leaves, bridal veil
fern, mahagua, beanpods, maguey tongues, reeds, coconut shells, grass,
papyrus, cattails, pampas grass and bamboo, along with recycled paper and
who knows what other raw material for papermaking. There are baskets full of
papyrus, liana vines, lichen, and moss; the stuff of dreams is nearly always
something «useless.» We beat the fibers in a mill which spins by bicycle
power. We spread the paper in the Sun, and while it dries we print poems on
oak leaves and pansy petals. Conjure-women sing at the foot of the avocado
tree. Loxa Jiménes Lópes, Xunka' Utz' Utz' Ni, and María Tzu paint amid the
odor of the honeysuckle. Our silkscreen alchemists work from Sun to Sun,
from Moon to Moon, transforming natural light into bougainvillea-color
images. We cut, fold, sew, glue, bind, and wrap. The workshop produces a
literary magazine, a rustic codex known as La jícara, «The Gourd,» which
includes translations from Native languages, testimonies, foreigners'
journals, block prints, petroglyphs, and odd stuff.
Starting in 1996, painter Roselia Montoya from Huixtán directed the making
of the 4444 masks for the cover of the book, using old cardboard boxes, corn
silk, rabbit skin glue, tar, camphor leaves, and instant coffee. She was
assisted by Xpetra Ernándes, Juan Nabor Ernándes-grandson of Loxa Jiménes
Lópes, Adolfo Moshán, Julio Álvarez, María Tzu, Lucio Jiménez, Romeo
Rodríguez, Cristóbal Vázquez Moshán, Pedro Álvarez, and me. When the rains
came and the papers wouldn't dry, my comadre Roselia found Sun in hot
country, loaded up a ten-ton truck to relocate the papermaking department in
Motozintla six hours south of San Cristóbal. There she worked with José Luis
Hernández, Nicolás de Paz, Simona Orozco, Gema Tamayo and the compadres
Eusebio Chin Tot, Cristobalina Morales, Alex Camposeco, Juana Montejo,
Elvira Tul, Rosauro Díaz Zunún, Celia Bartolón, and Andrés Andrés Andrés
(his daddy's last name and his mama's last name are the same as his first
name). They made 6666 endpapers for the book and then trucked the whole
shebang back up to San Cristóbal again. Xpetra Ernándes dyed the endpapers
black with mud and campeachy wood and then she pressed each one smooth with
her charcoal iron.
The Tzotzil-English version of our book, originally titled in Spanish
Conjuros y ebriedades, cantos de mujeres mayas is finally (after 30 years of
work by 150 people) printed!!!!
We have been interviewing the Mayan women whose magic spells and drawings
are here collected, asking such questions as: Where do your poems come from?
The answers have overwhelmed us: the women say that they learn their poems
from books; books that their ancestors show them in dreams. It becomes more
and more clear to us that we are speaking with living poets who feel they
have some kind of communication with writers who have been dead for over one
The language used in these «contemporary» texts is ancient poetic speech,
the Language of Zuyuá, which is not spoken today and is known to us through
surviving Maya books, the Popol Vuh, the Ritual of the Bacab, the Book of
the Books of the Chilam Balam. We are trying to understand the mechanism by
which literature can be transmitted over the centuries through dreams.
Most Maya poets cannot read or write or speak Spanish, they have no books in
their houses, nor are there libraries in their towns, but inevitably they
tell me that their ancestors long ago had many books; that everything that
has ever been known was written in these books; that the Earth herself wrote
them, the Moon wrote books, that the Sun writes every day. The First
Father-mothers were writers, thanks to a divine gift. It is as though
contemporary Maya poets have an ancestral memory of the Maya libraries burnt
centuries ago by the bishop of Yucatán.
[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.
-Fray Diego de Landa, Relación de
las Cosas de Yucatán, 1560.
In dreams these ancient books appear to Maya women; they can read them. They
understand ancient poetic speech, they dream in couplets. In classic Maya
metaphors. These women are called Tz'ib'olontonil, Those who have Writing in
One Tzotzil shaman told me that Those who have Writing in their Hearts can
never die because they constantly rewrite themselves into books. Indeed,
very old poets among the Maya cease to speak ordinary language and utter
only ritual verse.
The Poetic Word is said to be very powerful: long ago, in a time that women
still remember, the Poetic Word did all the work. People had only to
pronounce the Word in verse and stones came of their own force to where they
were needed by the masons, trees walked to where the carpenters worked. Even
today practically nothing can be done without saying a poem.
Poetry, called the Flowering of Word, was invented for communicating with
the gods. Actually, the gods themselves invented poetry and then, desiring
to have it said to them, they created humankind. The Gods are said to have
destroyed the first two worlds because their people could not write good
poetry: The gods created poets to feed them wit incensed words. Today among
the Maya poetry is used on a daily basis as medicine, and as magic for the
taming of souls.
Inspired by the positive reception of the Tzotzil-Spanish version of this
book, the authors have come up with over 50 new poetic texts which we have
included in this anthology, for their poetic richness and the power of their
themes. One is a wailing mourner's lament; a woman who's son is dead. Author
Micaela Alvarez tells us that she had never sung before her son died; this
is her first song, sung at Evodio's wake. Another new text is a tiny sing
song magic spell that a little girl chanted in desperation when her toy loom
became tangled up.
Finally, our book is finished!!! This project which has seemed to be
unending...150 people have worked on it over 30 years!!!!collecting and
recording hundreds of hours of spells and prayers in Tzotzil Maya,
transcribing the recordings, translating them into Spanish and English,
selecting, editing, typesetting, writing the essays that frame the texts,
proofreading, correcting. At the same time, dozens of Mayan artists worked
for years to produce the spirit paintings that accompany the texts.
Of course, the most challenging aspect of this project is what the authors
call the «real work»: the part of it that you can't do sitting down. The art
was printed by hand by a team of 6 Mayan silkscreen artists who worked over
6 years to produce the 100,000 prints that make up the edition. From
1996-2005 a papermaking team consisting of 12 men and women made the mask
covers for our book using old cardboard boxes, banana trunks, corn silk,
they cooked and ground and each face was formed one by one and put to dry in
the sun of our patio. The covers were cut by hand on the guillotine, their
spines printed with a handcarved wooden block print, their eyes opened with
a wrought iron stamp hit with a maul. The papermaking team has also created
the 4444 end papers out of handmade paper which were then dyed black.
Another Mayan team pasted up the texts, made the negatives, cut the paper
for the pages, learned to operate Amada, our offset machine (this took over
a year). We collated, revised and then bound the books.
Everyone involved in this long process has signed his or her name or stamped
her fingerprints, and the royalties from its sale will be distributed among
its creators. Each book will be censed with copal while Petra Fernandez
We are happy, sacred paper,
You've come out in another language
the tongue of the white folks
who have blond hair.
Don't scold us, book,
be of one heart,
sing and dance,
because you are going to travel far away
to another land.
February 16, 2005
San Cristobel de Las Cases, Chiapas, Mexico.
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