Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women

By: Ambar Past / Xalik Guzmàn Bakbolom / Xpetra Ernandes

A book of poems and stark, vivid illustrations rooted in the female soul of indigenous Mexico.



A book of poems and stark, vivid illustrations rooted in the female soul of indigenous Mexico.

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. Ámbar Past, who collected the poems and drawings, includes a moving essay about their poetics, beliefs, and history.

In the 1970s, living among the Maya, 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 LeÐateros. The New York Times, recognizing the importance of Incantations as a work of language and as a work of art, published an extensive piece on the original Incantations and Ámbar. Read The New York Times article on Incantations here.

At the age of twenty-three, Ámbar Past left the United States for Mexico. She lived among the Mayan people, teaching the techniques of native dyes and learning to speak Tzotzil. She is the creator of the graphic arts collective Taller Leñateros in Chiapas and was a founding member of Sna Jolobil, a weaving cooperative for Mayan artisans.

An excerpt from Incantations:
Sacred Mother,
Holy Woman in Flower:
Wildwood, Sacred Pine, Holy Oak:
I'm going to build my house.
I must chop you down
and raise you up as my house post
so I'll have a place to sleep.
I'm going to daub my walls with your body.
Don't scold me, don't be angry,
don't fly off the handle, get hot under the collar.
Let us be of one heart when you give yourself to me.
Sacred Mother, Holy Coffer Where the Secrets are Kept:
I'm going to stand on your face.
I'm going to walk on you, Holy Mother Breast.
I am so poor.
I need to plaster my house with your mud, your earth.
Give me your body to make my walls
to keep the rain out, the mist, the frost, Holy Mother.
Otherwise Mother Pukuj will eat me,
Woman of the Woods will frighten me,
Monster With its Feet on Backwards will come to visit,
along with Boogey Man With a Hat Like a Griddle,
Charcoal Cruncher, Meat Stripper,
and snake, jaguar,
coyote, fox,
owl, night humming bird, bat.
Holy Mother, Sacred Wildwood, I need your tree, your oak,
so I'll have a place to live where I'm not afraid.

—Xpetra Ernándes

4 reviews for Incantations

  1. Jerome Rothenberg, poet, author of Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin
    “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.”

  2. Los Angeles Times
    “It’s a witchy book. Be careful.”—Susan Salter Reynolds

  3. Eileen Myles, author of The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art
    “Incantations as a document reveals a culture that holds at its core a strange faith: Though downtrodden in daily society, not even considered worthy of education, women are the healers, and they write the necessary poems. The narrative entwined around the poems in this book tells a remarkable tale. Both women and men historically in Chiapas trust in the indomitable power contained by women’s bodies, to the extent that many times in history, a chanting army of warriors approached their enemies in battle fronted not by horns or flags or banners but by naked and painted women, some held aloft on pallets and others bearing weapons and marching alongside the men, everyone believing that such beauty and vulnerability could stop the conquistadors.

    The importance of these incantations is that they magically preserve both the violence and the moment just before it. These poems arrive like a book you read in a dream, and this is the central belief about naming and writing in Tzotzil, a poetry both preserved and disseminated orally. Despite the destruction of the Mayan codices five centuries ago, and all the violence that has occurred since then, Incantations performs for us how a culture lives.”

  4. The New York Times
    “The Mayan women of the Chiapas highlands in southern Mexico are extremely poor, and many, especially the older women, are illiterate. The poorest own only a few blankets, articles of clothing and utensils. But what they do have is poetry”—Dinitia Smith

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