Ix Chel - Mayan Goddess(es) of the Moon, Fertility and Death

Ka'na Nah or High House at San Gervasio, Cozumel
Possible Location of the Ixchel Oracle at San Gervasio. Teresa Alexander-Arab

Ix Chel (sometimes spelled Ixchel) is, according to longstanding archaeological tradition, the Mayan moon goddess, one of the most important and ancient of Maya deities, connected to fertility and procreation. Her name Ix Chel has been translated as “Lady Rainbow” or as “She of the Pale Face,” an allusion to the moon's surface.

Fast Facts: Ix Chel

  • Known For: Goddess of the Moon, fertility, physical love, weaving.
  • Religion: Classic and Late Post Classic period Maya. 
  • Also Known As: Lady Rainbow, She of the Pale Face, Goddess I, and Goddess O. 
  • Appearance: Two aspects: a young, sensual woman and an old crone. 
  • Shrines: Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
  • Appearances: Madrid and Dresden codexes.

According to Spanish colonial records, the Maya thought the moon goddess wandered the sky, and when she wasn't in the sky she was said to live in the cenotes (natural sinkholes filled with water). When the waning moon appeared again in the east, people made pilgrimages to the Ix Chel shrine on Cozumel.

In the traditional pantheon of Maya gods and goddesses, Ix Chel has two aspects, that of a young sensual woman and an aged crone. However, that pantheon was built by archaeologists and historians based on a wide variety of sources, including iconography, oral history, and historical records. Over the decades of research, Mayanists have often debated whether they have incorrectly combined two female deities (Goddess I and Goddess O) into one Moon Goddess.

Goddess I

The primary aspect of Goddess I is as a youthful wife, beautiful and downright sexy, and she is occasionally associated with references to the lunar crescent and rabbits, a pan-Mesoamerican reference to the moon. (In fact, many cultures see a rabbit in the moon's face, but that's another story). She often appears with a beak-like appendage protruding from her upper lip.

Goddess I is known as Ixik Kab ("Lady Earth") or Ixik Uh ("Lady Moon") in the Maya books known as the Madrid and Dresden codices, and in the Madrid codex she appears as both a young and aged version. Goddess I presides over marriage, human fertility and physical love. Her other names include Ix Kanab ("Child of Lady of the Seas") and Ix Tan Dz'onot ("Child of She in the Middle of the Cenote").

Ixik Kab is associated with weaving in the post-classic period, and the aged form of Ixik Kab is often shown weaving and/or wearing a pair of horn-like elements on her head which likely represent spindles.

Goddess O

Goddess O, on the other hand, is a powerful aged woman identified not just with birth and creation but with death and world destruction. If these are different goddesses and not aspects of the same goddess, Goddess O is most likely to be the Ix Chel of the ethnographic reports. Goddess O is married to Itzamna and thus is one of the two "creator gods" of Maya origin myths.

Goddess O has a raft of phonetic names including Chac Chel ("Red Rainbow" or "Great End"). Goddess O is depicted with a red body, and sometimes with feline aspects such as jaguar claws and fangs; sometimes she wears a skirt marked with crossed bones and other death symbols. She is closely identified with the Mayan rain god Chaac (God B) and often seen illustrated with pouring water or flood images.

The fact that Goddess O's name means both rainbows and destruction may come as a surprise, but unlike in our Western society rainbows are not good omens for the Maya but are bad ones, the "flatulence of the demons" which arise from dry wells. Chac Chel is associated with weaving, cloth production, and spiders; with water, curing, divination, and destruction; and with making children and childbirth.

Four Goddesses?

The Moon Goddess of the Maya mythology may actually have many more aspects. The earliest Spanish travelers in the early 16th century recognized that there was a flourishing religious practice among the Maya dedicated to 'aixchel' or 'yschel'. The local men denied knowing the meaning of the goddess; but she was a deity of the Chontal, Manche Chol, Yucatec, and Pocomchi groups in the early colonial period.

Ix Chel was one of four related goddesses worshiped on the islands of Cozumel and Isla de Mujeres: Ix Chel, Ix Chebal Yax, Ix Hunie, and Ix Hunieta. Mayan women made pilgrimages to their temples on the island of Cozumel and placed her idols underneath their beds, asking for help.

The Oracle of Ix Chel

According to several historical records, during the Spanish colonial period, there was a life-sized ceramic statue known as the Oracle of Ix Chel located on Cozumel Island. The oracle at Cozumel is said to have been consulted during the foundation of new settlements and in times of warfare.

Pilgrims were said to have followed sacbe (the prepared Maya causeways) from as far away as Tabasco, Xicalango, Champoton, and Campeche to venerate the goddess. The Mayan pilgrimage route crossed the Yucatan from west to east, mirroring the pathway of the moon through the sky. Colonial dictionaries report that the pilgrims were known as hula and the priests were Aj K'in. The Aj K'in posed the pilgrims' questions to the statue and, in exchange for offerings of copal incense, fruit, and bird and dog sacrifices, reported the answers in the voice of the oracle.

Francisco de Lopez de Gomara (Hernan Cortes' chaplain) described the shrine on Cozumel island as a square tower, wide at the base and stepped all around. The upper half was erect and at the top was a niche with a thatched roof and four openings or windows. Inside this space was a large, hollow, kiln-fired clay image fastened to the wall with lime plaster: this was the image of the moon goddess Ix Chel.

Finding the Oracle

There are several temples located near the cenotes at the Maya sites of San Gervasio, Miramar, and El Caracol on Cozumel Island. One which has been identified as a plausible location for the oracle-shrine is the Ka'na Nah or High House at San Gervasio.

San Gervasio was an administrative and ceremonial center on Cozumel, and it had three complexes of five groups of buildings all connected by sacbe. Ka'na Nah (Structure C22-41) was part of one of those complexes, consisting of a small pyramid, five meters (16 feet) in height with a square plan of four stepped tiers and a main stairway bordered by a railing.

Mexican archaeologist Jesus Galindo Trejo argues that the Ka'na Nah pyramid appears to be aligned with the major lunar standstill when the moon sets at its extreme point on the horizon. The connection of C22-41 as a contender for the Ixchel Oracle was first put forward by American archaeologists David Freidel and Jeremy Sabloff in 1984.

So, Who Was Ix Chel?

American archaeologist Traci Ardren (2015) has argued that the identification of Ix Chel as a single moon goddess combining female sexuality and traditional gender roles of fertility comes straight from the minds of the earliest scholars studying her. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says Ardren, male western scholars brought their own biases about women and their roles in society into their theories about Maya myths.

These days, Ix Chel's reputed fertility and beauty have been appropriated by several non-specialists, commercial properties, and new age religions, but as Ardren quotes Stephanie Moser, it is dangerous for archaeologists to assume we are the only people who can create meaning out of the past.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Ix Chel - Mayan Goddess(es) of the Moon, Fertility and Death." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/ix-chel-mayan-goddess-moon-fertility-death-171592. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 27). Ix Chel - Mayan Goddess(es) of the Moon, Fertility and Death. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ix-chel-mayan-goddess-moon-fertility-death-171592 Hirst, K. Kris. "Ix Chel - Mayan Goddess(es) of the Moon, Fertility and Death." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ix-chel-mayan-goddess-moon-fertility-death-171592 (accessed March 29, 2023).