Ix Chel is a powerful Mayan goddess with numerous facets, abilities, attributes, and more. Some of the details surrounding who she is are debated amongst scholars, but overall, she is known to be the goddess of the moon, pregnancy, harvest, and textile arts. She is temperamental and can switch from being a sweet, nurturing deity to one that is quick to anger and seek vengeance. Her many abilities are highly important to humankind, and even today she is celebrated for her powers and guidance.
Ix Chel is the Mayan goddess of the moon, marriage and love, fertility and pregnancy, harvest, weather, medicine, and textile arts. Just as the moon was used to help track the passage of time, it would often help track agricultural periods; therefore, as the goddess of the moon, Ix Chel is also the goddess of harvest. She is also associated with the Mayan rain god Chaac while still maintaining partial control over storms and weather.
She is one of the most important Mayan deities not only because of her many abilities and roles, but also because she is the wife of the sky and sun god Itzamńa. However, scholars note with some discrepancies that perhaps Itzamńa is only the sky god and that instead, a god known as Kinich Ahau is her husband. He too is sometimes called the sun god. As more stories reference Itzamńa as her husband, the remainder of this article will refer to him as her husband. In her marriage, she had many children who are other Mayan gods and goddesses. For that reason, she is the main Mother figure of the Mayan culture and belief system.
Many of the variations of her name can be translated in some way to include rainbow; for example, her name in hieroglyphics translates to Chak Chel, which means “Large Rainbow” or “Big Rainbow.”
Mayan people believe she can be found living in the sky or in cenotes, which are sinkholes filled with water. They also say she can turn into a jaguar and roams the Earth in this feline state.
- Chak Chel AKA “Large Rainbow” or “Big Rainbow”
- Ixchel AKA “Rainbow Woman”
- Sak U’Ixik AKA “White Moon Lady”
- Sinal AKA “Goddess of Childbirth”
- Ix Chebel Yax AKA “Lady of the First Brush”
- “She of the Pale Face”
- The Jaguar Goddess
As the goddess of fertility and pregnancy, Ix Chel could help couples get pregnant and have children. More than that, though, she was tasked with choosing the gender of babies. Because of this, women would pray to Ix Chel to give them sons to be their husbands’ heirs.
She is also the goddess of medicine, so one of her most compelling abilities is that she could heal others. Just as the moon has an effect over the Earth’s tides, Ix Chel can control the water; many times, she has sent storms and bad weather as punishment towards humankind. She can also transform into a jaguar.
Similar to how the moon has different phases and looks differently in them, Ix Chel has different versions and appearances that represent different stages of life. Some stories specify there are two versions, while others specify three.
The first version of Ix Chel is of a young woman, which represents a waxing moon as it “grows” bigger in the sky but is still relatively new. In this version, Ix Chel is depicted as a beautiful young woman, sometimes even a seductress, and in this form, she is representative of marriage, love, pregnancy, and human fertility.
The second version of Ix Chel—and the one that is missing in the stories with only two versions— is of a woman neither young nor old but somewhere in between. In this depiction, she is weaving on a loom, which fits with her connection to textile arts. In one of the common stories about how Ix Chel meets her husband, she is in this form.
The third version of Ix Chel is that of an old woman, wrinkled and withered, who represents that of a waning moon that is shrinking. Typically, this form of Ix Chel is pouring water—almost as if she is tending to her crops and harvest—or weaving. The older and younger versions of Ix Chel act as a ying and yang to one another; though both depictions have wildly different physical appearances, both are Ix Chel. The moon goddess ages through her different stages just as a moon changes over the course of a month; legends say that after her days as an old woman, she restarts anew as a young woman again.
Other details are included in depictions of Ix Chel. For instance, a rabbit is often pictured near her, typically but not exclusively when she is in the form of a young woman. She often is pictured with a snake resting on her headdress or draped around her neck. Bones are found, sometimes in cross formations, on her skirts, and in depictions where she is angry and vengeful, she might have claws for feet.
Ix Chel truly represented the duality not just of womanhood but of humanity; for each good and positive aspect and trait, she had a corresponding negative one. For example, just as she gives life and heals the wounded, she will take life away and harm ones who need to be punished. Just as she controls water to help with agriculture and the harvest, she will send deadly floods and vicious storms in punishment. Ix Chel can be both nurturing and cold, sweet and quick to anger.
Typically, her mood and temperament reflect the stage of life she is in and the version of herself she is presenting. In other words, the young maiden version of Ix Chel is typically the softer, kinder side of her. The older woman version of Ix Chel is much harsher; some tales use words such as evil or cruel when describing this side; this is the form that has been known to be the villain in some Mayan stories.
Ix Chel and her various names are often translated into phrases including the word rainbow, which is symbolic of the goddess.
The four colors red, yellow, black, and white are big symbols not just for Ahua, the Mayan heavens, but also for Ix Chel herself. Each of the colors are for a different direction (red for the east, yellow for the south, black for the west, and white for the north).
Items such as water vessels and weaving looms are often associated with Ix Chel. Bones, especially criss-crossed ones as seen on visuals of the goddess, are other symbols.
A few animals are pretty symbolic for Ix Chel and her abilities. First, in the Mayan culture, the snake—which is often pictured draped on her head—is connected with the sky, magic, and Ix Chel. Also, because snakes shed their skin, they are symbolic of growth, rejuvenation, and healing, which are very fitting for Ix Chel. The jaguar is another big symbol for Ix Chel, who is sometimes called the Jaguar Goddess and who sometimes is depicted with claws on her feet. A rabbit is also usually associated with the Mayan goddess of the moon.
Festivals and rituals
Many of the ritual celebrations and festivals held in Ix Chel’s honor specifically acknowledged her for her role as the goddess of medicine and of fertility.
Though the Mayan month of “Zip,” which runs from August 21st to September 13th, is dedicated to Ix Chel, May 26 specifically is the sacred day for Mayans to celebrate the goddess. On this date centuries ago, Mayan mothers and their daughters would canoe across the Caribbean Sea to reach her island Cuzamil, which is now called Cozumel. In total, Mayan women would complete this pilgrimage to Cuzamil only twice in their whole lives: once with their own mothers as adolescents, and once again with their own daughters as mothers themselves. Others would make the journey to Cuzamil to seek Ix Chel’s favor and assistance in having male heirs for their husbands. Even today, people make the journey to the Cozumel to honor Ix Chel. With them, they bring food, flowers, and figurines.
In addition to these pilgrimages, people would honor the goddess of medicine and fertility by placing images of her beside the labor bed when women were giving birth. This action was intended to bring luck and Ix Chel’s good will to the birth.
Legends Associated with Ix Chel
Ix Chel and her husband Itzamńa live in Ahua, or the Mayan heavens, which is made up of nine separate levels supported by the Bacabs, or the four deities charged with upholding the structure of the heavens.
Legend goes that before she was a goddess, Ix Chel and her husband Itzamńa met and fell in love as humans. However, a rival prince was traveling through and met her; when he did, he fell in love, and at the encouragement of Ix Chel’s sister—who was unaware how strongly Ix Chel loved Itzamńa—he challenged Itzamńa for Ix Chel’s affection.
Ultimately, the rival prince won by fatally wounding Itzamńa, whose soul rose to the heavens. Ix Chel was heartbroken at her beloved’s death, and unable to live without him, she took her own life, and her soul also rose to the heavens. There, Ix Chel and Itzamńa became the goddess of the Moon and god of the Sun, respectively (Cultura Colectiva).
Ix Chel and Itzamńa
Other stories say that Ix Chel and Itzamńa were already godly figures when they met. Itzamńa found Ix Chel weaving on a loom, and in one version, the two fell in love before having their 13 godly children (Cultura Colectiva). In a few other versions, the couple only have four children who become the Bacabs.
Ix Chel, death, and dragonflies
In one story, Ix Chel’s grandfather is unhappy about her relationship with Itzamńa, so he shot her with a strike of lightning, and she died. After her death, dragonflies are drawn to her, and while flying above her body for 183 days, the insects sing. At the end of these 183 days, Ix Chel is brought back to life.
Ix Chel and her jealous husband
Many legends state that Ix Chel’s husband grew to be inexorably jealous, even without cause.
After being brought back to life from the previous legend, Ix Chel begins searching for her husband Itzamńa; along the way, however, she meets Itzamńa’s brother. Though some stories denote that actually Ix Chel flirted with her brother-in-law, others say that is incorrect and that Itzamńa only believes she flirted because of his wildly out of control jealousy. When Itzamńa discovers the betrayal, he is filled with rage, and Ix Chel hides in the Temple of the Night. From there, she continues to help humanity by watching over pregnant women.
When her husband convinces her to return to their home in the heavens, she does, but the jealous cycle continues: Itzamńa is filled with jealousy and drives his wife away before begging her to return. Finally, when she realizes the cycle will not end, Ix Chel turns into a jaguar to avoid her angry husband.
Influences of Other Religions and Cultures
Many regions that were conquered and colonized by European countries had to adapt their own religions to Christianity because the colonizing people would not allow them to follow their own—typically polytheistic—religions. In the case of the Mayans, however, Ix Chel did not seem to be forced to take on a role from Christianity.
One theory is that the Mayan people believed their faith, and Ix Chel in particular, were too important to revamp as a Christian figure.
Ix Chel is still widely celebrated amongst many people. One theme park called Pueblo del Maiz has held an annual festival since 2018 in the moon goddess’s honor. Other people still visit her island; in fact, a tradition called the Walk to Ixchel is held every June on the night of the full moon. This celebration consists of a 7 km walk across Cozumel as well as a celebratory gathering in which attendants sing, dance, and make offerings in her honor.
Ix Chel is a polarizing deity that truly shows the positive and negative attributes of humanity. She represents hope for many people, women especially, with how she decides to leave a toxic relationship when she knows she deserves better. She brings joy to couples by providing them with healthy children, and she is patron of arts and agriculture. However, she has a dark side too, and can display a vicious temper, harsh punishments, and overall cruel behavior. As she moves through her different stages of life, her motivations and mannerisms tend to change too, and she mirrors humanity in how people are ever changing and ever growing.