Unraveling Ixchel

It’s pretty easy to do basic research on Greco-Roman mythology, for which we have many ancient sources, and some of the basics are more or less ingrained into modern culture. This gets a little trickier when you get into cultures where we pretty much only know about their gods through archaeology and sources written by people who followed opposing religions. It’s kind of a shame, as there are so many gods of whom we’ve seen pictures, but can mostly only guess at what their stories were. I bring this up with regards to the Mayan goddess Ixchel, as one of the first things I found when doing a Google search was this article suggesting that modern popular culture has gotten her totally wrong. While Wikipedia’s nature often leads to misinformation being reported there, I’ve found that it often does have a fairly good overview of what we actually know about mythical figures from ancient sources as opposed to how they’re portrayed in modern media. With Ixchel, there are a lot of different businesses and organizations that have used her as a name or a mascot. We do have pretty good evidence that she was the goddess of childbirth and medicine, and that the island of Cozumel was sacred to her. Ixchel might also have been associated with weaving. Her name might mean “rainbow goddess,” suggesting another function, but it’s difficult to tell for sure.

She has also been identified as the wife or lover of the sky-dwelling creator god Itzamna, with whom she had several children. Four of them (or possibly one who later split into four individuals, which sounds painful) were the Bacabs, representing the cardinal directions.

There’s a picture of Ixchel in the Dresden Codex, in which she’s known as Goddess O because people gave the pictured gods letters before finding out their names, or something like that. She’s depicted as an old lady with a face similar to that of the Ugly Duchess from Wonderland, ears like a jaguar, a snake on her head, and an overturned jar in her curly-fingered hands. She’s also sometimes associated with the younger-looking Goddess I, also known as Ixik Kab.

My brief online research gives me the impression that Ixik Kab was originally a separate goddess, but the popular idea of the Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother, and Crone, because apparently whoever made it up didn’t acknowledge birth control) led to the notion that they were two aspects of a single entity associated with the phases of the Moon.

Picture by Thalia Took
I guess I feel that it’s cool to find similarities in mythology, but when you go too far you can miss the cultural differences that make many of these gods so interesting.

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