Ixchel or Ix Chel (pronounced: iʃˈtʃel) is the 16th-century name of the aged jaguar goddess of midwifery and medicine in the ancient Maya culture. She corresponds, more or less, to Toci Yoalticitl ‘Our Grandmother the Nocturnal Physician’, an Aztec earth goddess inhabiting the sweatbath, and also appears to be related to another Aztec goddess invoked at birth, viz. Cihuacoatl. In Taube's revised Schellhas-Zimmermann classification of codical deities, Ixchel corresponds to the goddess O.
Referring to the early 16th-century Mayas, Landa calls Ixchel “the goddess of making children”, and also mentions her as the goddess of medicine.In the month of Zip, the feast Ihcil Ixchel was celebrated by the physicians and shamans (hechiceros), and medicine bundles containing little idols of "the goddess of medicine whom they called Ixchel" and also divination stones were brought forward. In the Ritual of the Bacabs, Ixchel is once called 'grandmother'. The goddess’s two principal qualities (birthing and healing) suggest, in their combination, an analogy with the aged Aztec goddess of midwifery, Tocî Yoalticitl.
Ixchel was already known to the Classical Mayas. As Taube has demonstrated, she corresponds to goddess O of the Dresden Codex, an aged woman with jaguar ears. A crucial piece of evidence in his argument is the so-called ‘Birth Vase’ (Kerr 5113), a Classic Maya container showing a childbirth presided over by various old women with weaving implements in their headdress, and headed by an old jaguar goddess, the codical goddess O. On another Classic Maya vase, goddess O is shown acting as a physician, further confirming her identity as Ixchel. The combination of Ixchel with several aged midwives on the Birth Vase recalls the Tz'utujil assembly of midwife goddesses called the ‘female lords’, the most powerful of whom is described as being particularly fearsome.
Meaning of the name
The name Ixchel was in use in 16th-century Yucatán and in the Baja Verapaz. Its meaning is not certain. Assuming that the name originated in Yucatán, chel could mean ‘rainbow’. Her glyphic names in the (Post-Classic) codices have two basic forms, one a prefix with the primary meaning of ‘red’ followed by a pictogram, the other one logosyllabic. Ix Chel's Classic name glyph remains to be identified. It is quite possible that several names were in use to refer to the goddess, and these need not necessarily have included her late Yucatec and Pokom name. Her codical name is now generally rendered as 'Chak Chel'. The designation 'Red Goddess' seems to have a complement in the designation of the young goddess I as 'White Goddess'.
Ixchel and the moon
In the past, Ix Chel was sometimes assumed to be identical to the Classic Maya moon goddess because of the Moon's association with fertility and procreation. However, iconographically, such an equation is questioned, since what is considered the Classic Maya moon goddess, identifiable through her crescent, is always represented as a fertile young woman. On the other hand, the waning moon is often called ‘Our Grandmother’, and not inconceivably, Ixchel may have represented this particular lunar phase associated with the diminishing fertility and eventual dryness of old age. Her codical attribute of an inverted jar could then refer to the jar of waning moon being emptied. However this may be, the moon cycle, taken alone, is of obvious importance to the work of the midwife. The maid, mother and grandmother equation of the three basic phases of the moon, representations of lunar forces seem to be quite common among cultures around the world.
Ixchel as an Earth and a war goddess
An entwined serpent serves as Ixchel's headdress, crossed bones may adorn her skirt, and instead of human hands and feet, she sometimes has claws. Very similar features are found with Aztec earth goddesses, of whom Tlaltecuhtli, Tocî, and Cihuacoatl were invoked by the midwives. More in particular, the jaguar goddess Ixchel could be conceived as a female warrior, with a gaping mouth suggestive of cannibalism, thus showing her affinity with Cihuacoatl Yaocihuatl 'War Woman'. This manifestation of Cihuacoatl was always hungry for new victims, just as her midwife manifestation helped to produce new babies viewed as captives.
Ixchel as a rain goddess
In the Dresden Codex, goddess O occurs in almanacs dedicated to the rain deities or Chaacs and is stereotypically inverting a water jar. On the famous page 74 originally preceding the New Year pages, her emptying of the water jar replicates the vomiting of water by a celestial dragon. Although this scene is usually understood as the Flood bringing about the world’s and the year's end, it might also represent the dramatic onset of the rainy season. The image of the jar filled with rain water may derive from the sac holding the amniotic liquid; turning the jar would then be equivalent to birthgiving.
Ixchel figures in a Verapaz myth related by Las Casas, according to which she, together with her spouse, Itzamna, had thirteen sons, two of whom (probably corresponding to the Howler Monkey Gods) created heaven and earth and all that belongs to it. No other myth figuring Ixchel has been preserved. However, her mythology may once have focused on the sweatbath, the place where Maya mothers were wont to go before and after birthgiving. As stated above, the Aztec counterpart to Ixchel as a patron of midwifery, Tocî, was also the goddess of the sweatbath. In myths from Oaxaca, the aged adoptive mother of the Sun and Moon siblings is finally imprisoned in a sweatbath to become its patron deity. Several Maya myths have aged goddesses end up in the same place, in particular the Cakchiquel and Tz'utujil grandmother of Sun and Moon, called B’atzb’al ‘Weaving Implement' in Tz'utujil. On the other hand, in Q'eqchi' Sun and Moon myth, an aged Maya goddess (Xkitza) who would otherwise appear to correspond closely to the Oaxacan Old Adoptive Mother, is not connected to the sweatbath.
Cult of Ixchel
In the early 16th century, Maya women seeking to ensure a fruitful marriage would travel to the sanctuary of Ix Chel on the island of Cozumel, the most important place of pilgrimage after Chichen Itza, off the east coast of the Yucatán peninsula. There, a priest hidden in a large statue would give oracles (Cogolludo). To the north of Cozumel is a much smaller island baptized by its Spanish discoverer, Hernández de Córdoba, the 'Island of Women' (Isla Mujeres) "because of the idols he found there, of the goddesses of the country, Ixchel, Ixchebeliax, Ixhunie, Ixhunieta, only vestured from the girdle down, and having the breast covered after the manner of the Indians" (Landa). On the other side of the peninsula, the head town of the Chontal province of Acalan (Itzamkanac) venerated Ixchel as one its main deities. One of Acalan's coastal settlements was called Tixchel 'At the place of Ixchel'. The Spanish conqueror, Cortés, tells us about another place in Acalan where unmarried young women were sacrificed to a "goddess in whom they put great trust and hope", possibly again Ix Chel.
Bibliography and references
- Kevin P. Groark, To Warm the Blood, To Warm the Flesh: The Role of the Steambath in Highland Maya (Tzotzil-Tzeltal) Ethnomedicine. Journal of Latin American Lore 20-1 (1997): 3-96.
- Casas, Bartolomé de las,
- Nathaniel Tarn and Martin Prechtel, Constant Inconstancy. The Feminine Principle in Atiteco Mythology. In Gary Gossen ed., Symbol and Meaning beyond the Closed Community. Essays in Mesoamerican Ideas. New York: State University of New York at Albany 1986.
- Karl Taube, The Birth Vase: Natal Imagery in Ancient Maya Myth and Ritual. In Justin Kerr, ed., The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, Volume 4. New York: Kerr Associates 1994.
- Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Thames and Hudson 1997.
- J.E.S. Thompson, Maya History and Religion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 1970.
- Alfred Tozzer, Landa's Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, a Translation. 1941.
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