Back In Print After 500 Years

Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women,

by Ámbar Past

El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2009, 230 pp., $26.95, paperback

Reviewed by Martha Gies


“Song is a book that will not burn.”

Ámbar Past, Incantations

Although seventeen years have passed since the summer I spent in Chiapas, the images are vivid: the overflowing church in Bachajón where a Jesuit priest said the mass in Tzeltal and six Native women elders processed to the altar with blazing incense pots held aloft; the blue and yellow Cesna 180 coming in low over the Usumacinta River and onto the landing strip at Yaxchilan; the sound, like a high-pitched table saw, of thousands of insects in the green sprawl of the Lacandón jungle; dangling red hibiscus blossoms and clusters of draped bats; the 290 steps leading to the church of San Cristóbal, its pavilion festooned with white pinwheels for the annual feast day; the local hootch of cane and corn called pox (pronounced “posh”); Mayan women trudging alongside the road, with loads of firewood held by tumplines to their foreheads; an afternoon in the archbishop’s garden, listening to the khaki-clad Don Samuel tell his worrying stories about the outright theft of Indian lands; the ferocity of the tropical rainstorms that arrived every afternoon in August and turned the streets of San Cristóbal into swift brown rivers; the startling contrast between the lush green of Zinacantán, the chapel’s white scalloped façade, and the hot pink of the villagers’ dress.

Equally vivid to me now is what I couldn’t see back then: the slowly fermenting Zapatista revolt. Traveling north in a rented VW bug on the 64-mile stretch of road between Ocosingo and Palenque, even when I was stopped by a group of indigenous men who had stretched a rope across the road, I couldn’t understand the purpose for which they were raising money. Nor would I see it until, on January 1, 1994, timed to correspond with the implementation of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), a new group calling itself the Zapatistas declared to Mexico that, weary of the lack of housing, land, jobs, healthcare, food, and education, they’d had enough. They were declaring war, aimed at terminating 500 years of exploitation. It came as a surprise to the rest of the world, although the declaration had been preceded by a decade of careful political work in the jungle.

Nor did I meet Ámbar Past, an American woman who had already dedicated her life to a monumental task of cultural retrieval. She had been working among rural Mayan women since the early seventies, helping them to recover their traditional, natural dyes and to form a weaving cooperative. She learned Tzotzil, a Mayan language of the region, and went from home to home and village to village, taping stories. In San Cristóbal in 1975, Past founded an artists’ workshop for creating handmade paper and books, Taller Leñateros. Three years later, she published a book of autobiographies of Tzotzil women.

One hundred and fifty Mayan women working for 34 years got us to this new edition of Incantations. In fact, this is its third incarnation.

The first time around, the text was bilingual, in Tzotzil and Spanish, and called Conjuros y ebiedadades (Conjuring Spells and Drinking Songs). Past points out that the end product was “the first book Mayan people have created, written, illustrated, printed, and bound—in paper of their own making—in nearly five hundred years.” She doesn’t need to state the rest: earlier Mayan books, to the great regret of Maya and scholars alike, were ceremonially burned by the Franciscan bishop, Diego de Landa, in 1562.

Past describes the festive launch of that first volume, which was

formally presented in the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City with the participation of eighteen Mayan authors, two drummers, and a flautist from Huixtán. We took the twenty-hour bus ride to Mexico City, lugging nets of pine needles to spread on the stage and in the aisles, and broke all the fire department’s rules, filling the darkened auditorium with glowing candles and Mayan incense.

The press coverage was enthusiastic, and the delegation celebrated by climbing the pyramids at Teotihuacán and visiting the Basílica, where they took a spin around Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe on the electric sidewalk.

Actually our group was quite a sight in itself as we walked around downtown. The musicians brought along their drums, which had been carved out of tree trunks. The drummers wore what they call pants, but what look to me like raggedy handwoven diapers, barely covering their very muscular thighs. Brightly colored ribbons streamed down from their flat pizza-pan straw hats. Decked out in their best huipils, the seers were dressed to kill. Xpetra has hair down to her knees and she had braided it very coquettishly with red yarn pompons. Maruch’s little girl was wearing her woolly black skirt, crimson sash, and turquoise blue blouse. Everyone was laughing, it was a beautiful day.

The positve reception of the 1998 edition inspired an English translation and more entries—Incantations is always a work in progress.

Its next appearance, in 2005, was as a limited edition, handmade and handbound by the Taller Leñateros, with three-dimensional masks as covers. In San Francisco, the book was featured in the annual Art of the Book show at the Donna Seager Gallery, and in New York it was reviewed by Dinitia Smith in the New York Times.

Incantations has five sections of distinctly different material: it is an anthology of poems, preceded by two introductions and followed by extensive, loving, and wacky notes on the collaborators and by a unique bibliography.

Past’s short introduction to the English edition, from which I’ve quoted above, tells the story of the development of the text. She follows this with a sixty-page introduction to Mayan culture, into which she incorporates many verses that didn’t make it into the poetry anthology. Her account of Mayan culture is more lively—and graphic—than many we’ve read:

Everything on earth has a mother. The Mother of Blood is the heart; the Mother of Water is thunder; the Mother of 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…

Mother of Night can’t sleep because the little red worms that live in her vagina keep her awake, and the only way to cure the itch is by making love with twelve or fifteen men.

The central section of the book is the incantations, Past’s chosen word for the “ritual poetry” she began hearing 35 years ago in the Mayan highlands of Chiapas.

Here is an incantation by Xunka’ Utz’utz’ Ni’, called “The Mother of Treasure”:

The Mother of Treasure appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

You can see her among the morning stars as a long blue snake.

Her light falls from the sky drawn by the magnet of buried gold.

We don’t know where she comes from,

if she comes out of the hills or from the Sun,

But close up she looks like an atole* pot that glows blue.

She is also a serpent and if she smells the pulse of your fear,

she will bite you when you touch her gold.

There are people who find Treasure and buy a truck.

I myself have seen her blue light fall nearby.

There’s a piece of cornfield where nothing will grow, next to my son’s


You’ll ask me why I don’t go out at night to look for gold there.

But I am afraid of demons, and if you are afraid,

you won’t find anything, even if you dig three meters down.

There’s nothing left to do but hire a seer

to talk to our Sun so he’ll make me rich.

In order to pray, however, you have to fast for three days,

and since I’m starving to death anyway, I could never take that.

I work hard, and work makes me hunger, you see.

It’s because of my poverty that I’ll never be rich.

My lack of everything scares the Mother of Treasure away.

[*Atole is a thin corn-porridge, drunk warm.]

In her notes on the creators, Past explains that this poem’s author, Xunka’, produces fireworks in Chamula, a municipio near San Cristóbal. “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 leftover canes, Xunka’ weaves baskets.”

Past, herself a poet, begins the fourth section of the book with an overview of the 150 collaborators:

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.”

Likewise, the incantations range over many subjects: healing, eating, barriers to getting rich, drinking, drinking too much, not wanting to have to migrate north, casting spells (“Let a giant termite grow in his navel”), the hope of selling the Pepsis in the cooler before their bottle caps rust, and so forth.

Corn, of course, figures large. Even if you have only a slight acquaintance with Mayan culture, you may have heard the creation story from the Popul Vuh, in which the Forefathers first made people from mud, only to find they could not stand. A second version in wood produced people who had no souls: they walked aimlessly and could not remember their creator. Between each attempt the Forefathers consulted with the Grandmothers and performed divinations. Finally, they hit upon maize, and their third attempt, using cornmeal dough, produced human beings who grasped things and gave thanks. 

Here’s “To the Soul of Corn,” by Xpetra Ernándes. Describing the author, Past says, “Xpetra collaborated in the translations of the spells into Spanish and English and also contributed several of her own. Over the course of the years, Xpetra sought out and encouraged many painters and seers, made masks, and dyed the endpapers black.”

Come back from where the raccoon took you,

from where the grackle ate you,

from the mole’s tunnel,

the weevil’s mouth,

the gopher hole,

the worm’s house, the rat’s den,

where the water washed you out,

where you drowned inside the earth.

You never saw daylight.

You didn’t grow like the other corn.

Come back from where you are lost,

gather together all your souls of corn.

We are making your fiesta.

We give you food and song.

We serve you

worm-eaten corn and beans.

Sing and be happy,

with guitar and rattle.

Past keeps coming back to the word “alchemy.” “The German tongue is considered appropriate for training horses,” she writes, “Italian for courting women, French for diplomats. Spanish is said to be for addressing God. Without a doubt, Tzotzil Maya is a language suited to magic.” The supernatural figures that appear in the poems don’t always need explaining, as in Munda Tostón’s poem, “The Xpakinté.”

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.

Tostón, Past explains, is a professional “prayer sayer” (rezandera) and sells ski masks to the Zapatistas from a little market stand.

While marauding soldiers show up in the poems, the Zapatistas make their principal appearance in the introduction, where Past reprints the speech that Comandanta Esther gave in 2001, when she and her caravan arrived in Nurio, Michoacán, for the National Indian Congress. Of course any recent book about Chiapas that does not have the Zapatistas front and center is unusual, but that omission may be the least conspicuous surprise of this one.

One of the more astonishing aspects of the whole project is that an outsider was able to enter so deeply into the belly of the culture, and that outsider an American. (Past did take Mexican citizenship, but not until 1985.) “It wasn’t easy to be accepted by Tzotzil people,” she writes.

Only after months of living together, when I came down with acute appendicitis, did my hosts begin to consider me a human being. They said they were afraid if I died the army would come, so they cured me with herbs and prayers. After that, people seemed to realize I was a mortal.

Another anecdote shows how she has met the Maya on their own grounds: she had the good fortune of meeting a highly regarded shaman, Pasakwala, who agreed to let her bring her equipment and tape record the story of how she had learned to cure. When Past went to replay it, however, the sound had not registered.

Pasakwala laughed at me. Nevertheless, she was willing to tell her story a second time.

I put new batteries into the apparatus and Pasakwala began again. The second telling was even better. She provided details of how, as a little girl, she had played at curing her dolls, building tiny altars in the back yard out of wild orchids and pine needles. I was ecstatic until I rewound the tape and realized that again I hadn’t recorded anything. Pasakwala was very patient with me. Wasting time seemed to amuse her. She generously agreed to repeat her story a third time.

I changed the batteries again, cleaned the heads with alcohol and put in a new cassette. Pasakwala spoke at length about Mayan witchcraft; most of what she said I couldn’t understand because I was just learning Tzotzil, but I remember hearing the word wayhel a lot, which the dictionary said meant animal soul companion, dream, shamanism. She spoke for ninety minutes about her cargo [community service] as the Alperes’ wife [The Alperes is the villager responsible for buying and preparing the fireworks needed for feast days. The wives of the men selected each year to fulfill this cargo also have a designated role], reciting obscure couplets I have never heard again. But the tape was bewitched and it didn’t register anything at all. Pasakwala found my frustration hilarious. The recorder, once out of Pasakwala’s house, never failed me again.

The bibliography mostly pertains to books about ritual, medicine, magic, women, and weaving among the Maya, the majority of the titles in Spanish..

The book is heavily illustrated with ink drawings, strong and haunting, many made by the same women who contributed their verses. A visitor to my office, seeing the book on a table, asked if the Roselia Montoya drawing on the cover were a Picasso. The story of how Montoya managed the creation of the bookcover explains a certain alchemy that Past recognizes—and no doubt encourages—in her workshop:

Starting in 1996, painter Roselia Montoya from Huixtán directed the making of the 3,333 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 [ten people]...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 [twelve people]...They made 6,666 endpapers for the book and then trucked the whole shebang back up to San Cristóbal again. Xpetra Ernádes dyed the endpapers black with mud and campeachy wood and then she pressed each one smoother with her charcoal iron.

Antún Ton (Tesh Tontik) came from the other side of the sea to cut the masks one by one and open the eyes of the face of the book with a wrought-iron tool Alonso Méndez dreamed up at Moises Morales’ place in the Pan Chan of Palenque. Lucio Jiménez from up on Huitepec Mountain opened a lot of eyes too.

So now we finally have a popular paperback edition of this unique book. But where does it belong on the bookshelf? We’d probably put it somewhere between Frazer’s The Golden Bough, with its long, persuasive discourse on magic and the more than one hundred, sexually explicit blues songs composed and performed by the assertive black band leader, Ma Rainey.

Though staring at this trio of volumes a day later, we might suddenly decide to stash alongside it, just to be on the safe side, Betty Fussell’s Story of Corn (1992), the speeches of Xapatista Comandante Marcos, and some yet-unwritten handbook, by one of the sky-dwelling Grandmothers, on the use and misuse of dreams.


For thirty years, Martha Gies has been publishing stories, essays, reviews, and journalism from her home in Portland, Oregon. Her Traveler’s Mind writing workshop meets annually in Veracruz, Mexico. 

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