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

Is the Mayan Moon Goddess Ix Chel Really Two Goddesses?

Mayan Ruins Associated with Ix Chel Cult at San Gervasio on Cozumel Island
Mayan Ruins Associated with Ix Chel Cult at San Gervasio on Cozumel Island. Dave G. Houser / Getty Images

Ix Chel (sometimes spelled Ixchel) is, according to longstanding archaeological tradition, the Mayan moon goddess, one of the most important 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.

In the traditional pantheon of Maya gods and goddesses, Ix Chel is considered to have 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 (or "Lady Earth") 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 Kaknab ("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.

She 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 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 but are ominous, 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 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.

Cozumel

There's not a lot of archaeological evidence for the cult of Ix Chel on Cozumel. There are about 30 identified archaeological sites, including several isolated shrines located along the eastern coast of the island; but they have yielded little artifactual data supporting a religious function specific to Ix Chel.

The largest site on Cozumel is San Gervasio, a commercial hub of the Postclassic trade network, and within its boundaries is the romantically-named C22-41-a, a complex structure with a prominent central altar thought to be a shrine dedicated to Ix Chel. There's no direct archaeological evidence that any of these shrines are related to Ix Chel, but the historical record suggests it.

So, Who Was Ix Chel?

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.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Maya, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.