Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women by Ambar Past

Essay by Ambar Past. Contributions by Mikaela Días Días, Xpetra Ernándes, Sluz Hernández, Manwela Kokoroch, Rosa López Kómes, Loxa Jiménes Lópes, Roselia Montoya, Xunka’ Utz’utz Ni’, Antel Péres Ok’il, Munda Tostón, María Tzu, and María Xila.

BOMB 100 Summer 2007
100 Summer 2007

The following five pages (and page 89) feature work from Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women, forthcoming in October from Cinco Puntos Press. The book is a trade edition of Incantations by Mayan Women, a limited-edition book handmade in 2005 by the women of the Taller Leñateros in Chiapas, Mexico. The Toilers’ handmade edition is the first book Mayan people have independently created—from writing, to artwork, to printing and binding—in nearly five hundred years.

Incantations 01

Sluz Hernandez, Woman Making Tortillas, Late 20th Century, silkscreen print from a drawing, 10 × 10 inches.

Women Dreaming the Book

These Incantations were dreamed by Maya women in the Highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico. The Tzotzil authors 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 Lopes 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. 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.

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 16th-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 Maria 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 ltzamná 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 Lopes, 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.

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 pre-Colombian Mayan books that survived the ravages of time and war; many were destroyed by Friar Diego de Landa in the 16th-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.
Incantations 02

Rosa Lopez Komes, Xpakinté, late 20th Century, silkscreen print from a drawing, 10 × 10 inches.

The Animal Companions of our Dreams

In addition to her soul, each person has an animal companion called a wayhel_, a word grown from the root (_way) of the verbs to sleep and to dream, and associated with shamanism, the portals to the Underworld, communication with the gods and the dead. The wayhelaccompanies its alter ego from the moment it is born and may be a jaguar, a hawk, a hummingbird, a butterfly, a weasel, a caterpillar, or a water snake. Instead of a head, it may have an ax, a machete, a pair of scissors, or even a cast-iron skillet stuck on the end of its neck. Witches may possess several wayhel; whirlwinds, rainbows, lightning bolts, and shooting stars. One of the most powerful forms of wayhel is the Writer, the Scribanó. This kind of wayhel is immortal because even after death she can recreate herself through marks on a piece of paper, or, as Pedro Pitaren explains: “… they invent themselves, writing themselves into existence.”

The soul companions live with the Fathermothers in the heart of the mountain, sitting on the 13 levels of bleachers inside the Earth. There the wayhel have radios, jukeboxes, even computers and email.

In dreams, the wayhel souls escape like naughty children and run around loose out in the woods. If anything happens to her wayhel, a person will become ill. In these times when men are blasting new roads with dynamite, the earth trembles and the wayhel are afraid and can even die. A bad person may capture a wayhel and sell it to the Lord of the Cave, as happened to poor Maruch Vet. The soul is held captive in the way prisoners of war were held in ancient Mayan times, chained or tied with ropes awaiting sacrifice. The wayhel loses its appetite and becomes ill; its owner also gets sick. The seer offers a black hen to the cave so it will give back the stolen wayhel before her patient dies.

Mother of the Night,
Father of the Night,
Great Star of Venus,
Mother Month, Mother Moon:
Get up! Put on your best clothes.
Let Maruch Vet’s body
out of where she’s scared to death,
sold to a cave, sold to a mountain.
 —Antel Peres Ok’il
Incantations 03

Roselia Montoya, Mother of the Book, late 20th Century, silkscreen print from a drawing, 10 × 10 inches.

Everything on earth has a mother

Everything on earth has a mother. The Mother of Blood is the heart; the Mother of Water is thunder; the Mother of the Hand is the thumb. Mother of Lightning sends the rain; Mother of the Light is a hydroelectric dam.

Mother of Corn is a double ear of corn; you only find one or two in each cornfield. It looks like the body of a woman with long hair. When a Mother of Corn is discovered in the milpa, incense is burnt and ancient Mayan stories are remembered:

Mother of Corn is the daughter of Lightning. Long long ago a man found a snake which had been hurt. The snake asked him to please take her home and he did. She lived with her father in a cave full of snakes. Her father was so grateful that he offered the man whatever he wanted as a reward for saving his daughter. About this time the snakes turned into women and the man was dazzled by their looks. “No, I don’t need anything,” he said politely.

“Do you have a wife?,” asked Lightning. “I could give you one of my daughters.”
“That would be good,” said the man, and he picked out the prettiest one, who just happened to be the snake he had saved out on the path. He took her for his wife. She was the Mother of Corn and if she harvested just one ear of corn from each corner of the field, it would multiply and her net would be filled with corn. She and her husband would have big fights because he thought she was picking all his corn. But she was just magic. One time when her husband hit her, Mother of Corn wiped the blood from her nose with an ear of corn. This is how the red corn came to be. Where Mother of Corn peed, the first squash vines grew, when she peed again, a chayóte came up.
—Maria Xila


The preceding text is excerpted from an essay by Ambar Past.


—Antel Peres Ok’il is a Chamula potter who creates enormous urns used for serving fermented gruel on the Day of the Dead.

—Maria Xila’s husband was a sage. Because her old man often flirted with Ambar Past, Maria Xila laughingly referred to her as “my replacement,” but her old man died before she did.

—Rosa López Kómes (artist) from Oxchuc picks coffee beans and is learning to read and write at Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya. Rosa went to the Woodlanders’ Workshop to paint, carrying her newborn child in her arms and her big girl, who is two, hanging onto her skirt.

—Roselia Montoya (artist) from Huixtán directed the making of the 3333 masks for the cover of the original book, using old cardboard boxes, corn silk, rabbit skin glue, tar, camphor leaves, and instant coffee.

—Sluz Hernández (artist, p. 89), the Virgin Weaver for the Moon of Tenajapa, used to work in a Cantonese restaurant in San Cristóbal; now she teaches back strap weaving.

Incantations 04

Mikaela Días, The Moon is Dancing, Late 20th Century, silkscreen print from a drawing, 10 × 10 inches.

To the Bearer of Time

Elder Brother of Writing:
Elder Brother of Painting:
I’ve come with roses, with lilies,
carnations and chamomile.
Lend me your ten masks
so my years within the corral
will grow longer.
My wayhel is suffering in the mountain.
My animal soul has fallen off the hill.
She’s at the end of her rope,
at the last link in the chain.
Lend me your ten toes,
your ten fingers
to guide my wayhel back into her tiger cave,
Back into the green cave where my spirit lives.
Lift her up with a cloth that smells of roses.
With a rose, lift me up.
Lay me down in the shade of a vine.
Elder Brother Who Feeds the Souls:
Guardian of the Corral:
Bearer of Time:
Spin around in a circle, turn in a square.
Don’t let the tiger out, the jaguar out,
the wolf,
the coyote, the fox, the weasel.
Herd them together, don’t let them go,
I’ve brought you turkey eggs.
I’ve brought pigeon stones
for the hand and the foot
of She Who Sees from Far Away Through Dreams.
Keep my animal alive for many years
with pine pitch,
tree sap,
rose water,
fir cone, laurel knot,
thirteen essences-of tilil.
Make my days longer with the sweat of your legs,
your hands that glow green as precious jade,
your green, green blood.
Carry me, embrace me
and my tiger, and my jaguar.
This is all I will bother you with
in the name of the flowers.
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.


—Manwela Kokoroch



—Manwela Kokoroch was an h-iol and midwife from Laguna Petej, Chamula. Her prayer To the Bearer of Time is considered to be the most beautiful text in this collection. She lived to be one hundred years old.


—Mikaela Días Días (artist), a weaver from San Andres (Sacam Ch’en de los Pobres), keeps shop at the House of Weaving, San Jolobil, a cooperative in San Cristóbal.


Prayer So My Man Won’t to Cross the Line

Take into account, Kajval,
that I am speaking to you.
I bring you smoke.
I offer you flowers.
Take into account, Kajval,
What you are going to give me.
The others have horses.
They have sheep.
They have hens.
Take into account, Kajval,
how much you are going to give me.
I don’t want to work on a plantation.
I don’t want to go to someone else’s house.
I don’t want to work far away.
I don’t want to go to Los Angeles.
I don’t want to work in Florida.
—Xunka’ Utz’utz Ni’


Xunka’ Utz’utz Ni’ produces fireworks in Chamula. She grows bamboo to form the structure for the exploding “castles” and “bulls” that are set off in the celebrations; she mixes gunpowder, braids fuses, and with the leftovers, Xunka’ weaves baskets.

Incantations 05

Maria Tzu, Altar, late 20th Century, silkscreen print from a drawing, 10 × 10 inches.

The Xpakinte

The Xpakinté is not really a person,
although she looks like a woman.
She lives in the fog beneath the tall oaks,
under branches hung with lichens and moss.
The Xpakinté appears in the night
when the drunks are stumbling home.
They see the face of their wives
on the Xpakinté.
She wears pretty red pompons in her braids,
just like a wife.
It’s late, says the Xpakinté.
Let’s go home, honey.
She leads the drunk off down a shortcut.
He follows along blindly until he realizes
he’s lost in the thick brush.
The Xpakinté takes off her clothes.
He embraces her.
She turns: into a hollow tree
full of hairy caterpillars that sting like fire.
The Xpakinté is not a person,
but she looks like a woman
when our men are drunk in the woods
near the fog bank
where the oaks grow tall.


—Munda Tostón


—Munda Tostón is a rezandera or “prayer saver.” She has a little stand in the market of San Cristóbal where she sells ski masks to the Zapatistas.


Maria Tzu (artist) is the mother of seven and a recipient of the National Folk Art Prize for her fine spinning and weaving. Even though she claims to have cast aside her ancient Mayan customs to become a Protestant, Maria’s born-again prayers in Tzotzil are nearly identical to those of the Fathermothers.

Incantations 06

Loxa Jimenes Lopes, Mother of Wind has a Red Heart, late 20th century, silkscreen print from a drawing, 10 × 10 inches.

Witchcraft for Attracting a Man

I want him to come with flowers in his heart.
With all his heart,
I want him to talk to my body.
I want his blood to ache for me
when he sees me on the way to the market.
I want his mother to come to my house to ask for me
with her head bowed down
and a jug of booze for my dad.
I want him to come on a new road
so his white clothes won’t get dirty.
I don’t want him to fall in the mud.
Don’t let a bad snake bite him.
Look into his eyes, Kajval.
I’m telling you this to your nose, to your ears:
His name is Xtumin.
I’ve spoken to your head.
I’ve spoken to your bones.
I called you with my mouth.
I want to join myself to him.
I want this man to be my other half.


—Xpetra Ernándes


—Xpetra Ernándes is a member of the council of coordinators of the Leñateros Workshop inSan Cristóbal, where the original edition of Incantations was made. Xpetra collaborated in the translation of the spells into Spanish and English and also contributed several of her own. Over the course of the years, Ernándes sought out and encouraged many painters and seers, made masks, and dyed the endpapers of the book black.

—Loxa Jiménes Lopes (artist), weaver and seer from Epal Ch’en, “Many Caves,” is a singer and painter. Loxa’s 12-year-old granddaughter Laura Pale painted a page to honor the dead.

For 30 years Ambar Past (editor) has worked in the collecting, recording, and translation of Tzotzil ritual poetry, which appear in the bilingual anthologies Conjuros y ebriedades (Taller Leñateros, 1998), Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women (Cinco Puntos Press, 2007), and a music CD-book, Disco de los Conjuros (2007). She is currently preparing a collection of her stories, Men I Never Slept With.

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BOMB 100, Summer 2007

Featuring interviews with Chuck Close, Kara Walker, Mamma Andersson, Howard Norman, Peter Nadas, Bela Tarr, Benedict Mason, and Kate Valk.

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100 Summer 2007