Ix Chel

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 Maya Goddess Of Medicine, Weaving And Childbirth

On one of our very first forays into the jungle searching for medicinal plants, Don Elijio said that “walking in the mountains with a woman was very good luck,” we trudged further up the mountainside toward the rising sun. “Ix Chel shows her medicine more readily when a healer walks with a woman.” Out of breath trundling along behind him, I asked, “Who is Ix Chel?” . Patiently, as if speaking to a child, he answered, “She is the Goddess of healing. Women pray to her for fertility and she brings dream visions to healers and weavers. She is my very best friend. “

I was fascinated by this Goddess of the Americas. I began a personal research project to learn more about her that continues to this day. Eventually, she became the patroness and spiritual guide of our Maya Abdominal Therapy profession and association. Cozumel Island, the site of her temple was known to the ancient Maya as Cuzamil or Place of the Swifts. Like Most Maya sties, it was abandoned sometime during the 10th century. Maya women of all ages went to Cuzamil to be trained in women’s mysteries, astrology, healing with herbs, prayers and massage as well as divination. Every Maya woman was obliged to make two pilgrimages in a lifetime to visit the sacred island, one at menarche and the second at menopause. The early Spanish chronicles relate that women came from as far away as Tenochitlan (present day Mexico City) and as far south as Nicaragua and Panama.

At Pole, the sight of present-day Playa del Carmen, Cuzamil pilgrims were given free housing and meals until a canoe and paddlers were arranged to carry them across the seas – a twelve hour dangerous journey. Only very few men, members of a hereditary lineage, knew of the secret currents to the island. Those who tried to paddle to Cuzamil without knowledge of the these powerful currents would invariably be swept back to the mainland again and again. Today in Yucatan, this crossings, La Travesia, is re-enacted each May from Tulum to Cozumel.

As the home of the Goddess of love, women brought offerings to Cuzamil to request a well-matched, prosperous married life. After marriage, they made pilgrimages to request fertility.I imagine that childless women, often ostracized , would have been welcomed at Cuzamil and given productive work to do in their own district, where they raised bees for honey and tended to orphaned children brought to the island by relatives who feared they would be sacrificed. Elder women came to give thanks for the children they bore and brought their daughters of marriageable age to complete their first pilgrimage.

In the 15th century, Bishop Landa referred to Cozumel Island as “That infamous place of idolatry where many women go for partition”. To be born on the Goddess’ island bestowed honor and prestige. The high priestess, leader of the island and direct representative of Ix Chel , prophesized for Her in a trance from inside of a seven foot clay image of the Goddess. Other women gave agricultural prophesies based on the flight of the swifts that came annually to roost in towers on the island. Spanish chronicles relate that the women of Cozumel Island were expert astronomers with their own observatory and planetary charts.

Lucrative trade routes from all over ancient Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and countries to the south made Cuzamil incredibly wealthy. Every trader gave 20% share of profits to the island’s administration. All pilgrims who worshiped on the island brought tribute in the form of cacao beans, jade stones, amber, turquoise, feathers and embroidered mantles, currency of the times.

There is a legend that between 600-800 AD only women and children could live on the island. Here, I imagine  were sheltered orphans (a common choice for sacrifice), widows, barren women, lesbians and all who needed or chose to live on the island.

The Island of Women, my first novel is about Cuzamil during that two hundred year era of women’s rule.

The Maya words Ix Chel have many interpretations. Ix means woman, Goddess, divine feminine; Chel means rainbow or translucent light. Her name is Lady Rainbow or Goddess of Divine Translucent Light. Ix Chel was always associated with bodies of water like lakes, rivers, creeks, streams and oceans where it is more likely to see rainbows and her beautiful sparkling light. Even in modern times, women sleep at watersides and pray to her for guidance in a dream – myself included. Just as in ancient days, many Maya women still relate that their weaving patterns were divined in dreams.

Like many other Goddesses of the world, Ix Chel depicts the three stages of a woman’s life – Maiden, Mother and Grandmother. The first image is of young Ix Chel the maiden, Goddess of weaving. She wears a snake on her forehead to signify that she is the Goddess of medicine and to symbolize intuitive knowledge as well as great control over earthly forces. Maya midwives placed her wooden image under the birthing bed.

The second image is Ix Chel, the Mother Goddess of fertility, the moon and motherhood. As Mother Creator of all Maya people and consort of the Creator God, Itzamna, she decided the face and sex of every person in utero. She and Itzamna (Lizard House or House of Sastuns) lived at the crown of the ceiba tree where they invented sexual intercourse to create the world and its people. She sits elegantly poised on a crescent moon to signify the moon’s effect on menstrual changes in women. She holds a rabbit in her arms, another fertility symbol. The Maya saw the shadows in the moon as the outline of a rabbit. The Maya discovered that one moon cycle and one menstrual cycle are 29.5 days. The calendar priests determined their famous 260 day Tzolkin calendar based on women’s menstrual cycles and the duration of pregnancy.

The third image is the Grandmother Earth Goddess of the moon, rain, medicine and death. She receives the bodies of her deceased children into her physical body, the earth. Revered for her wisdom and knowledge, her glyph demonstrated the vital importance of elders. Again, we see Ix Chel with the snake on her head, signifying medicine, healing and intuitive wisdom. Only the maiden and grandmother have a snake (to symbolize medicine) on the forehead because (as Maya women have told me) the Mother Goddess is too busy raising and caring for her own brood. Grandmother Ix Chel’s clay pot, shaped like a uterus, pours down rain to fertilize the earth. Often glyphs show a rainbow pouring out of her clay pot. Ix Chel was also consort and wife to the rain god, Chac and one of the Nine Benevolent Spirits that guide the Maya people to this day. Interestingly, this Goddess had at least three husband – Itzamna, Chac and Ah Puuc. Below is an ancient myth of Ix Chel as a young woman.