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Book of the Week — Incantations by Mayan Women

She of great writing, she of the glyphs

Ámbar Past
Chiapas, Mexico: Taller Leñateros, 2005
2nd edition
PM4466 Z95 E533 2005

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.

This modern Mayan codex contains silkscreen illustrations based on ancient Mayan patterns, painted by contemporary women. The illustrations are painted in black on off-white art paper. The essays are in English. The poems are in Tzotzil and English. A three-dimensional cover, in the form of a mask, cast from recycles cardboard, corn silk, and coffee, represents the Mayan earth goddess Kaxial. Handmade endpapers are blackened by soot and studded with palm fronds.

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.

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

The Mayan word for book, fun 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.

In Tzotzil, to write and to paint are the same verb (tz’ib)…Weaving is today considered to be a form of script and Tzotzil women can read the verses on their looms.

The Fathermothers gave birth to one of the few civilizations in the world that conceived a way to write down its language…on stuccoed bark paper pages they painted forecasts of the movements of the heavenly bodies, prophecies, 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 precolombian Mayan books that survived the ravages of time and war.

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 Yucatec Maya conserved their magical writings in the Books of Chilam Balam, the Codex of Calkini 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 they books inside the chests have begun to talk. Women who learn the words are said to have writing in their hearts.



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