Aug. 3, 2015
I’ve been living on Isla Mujeres for a month now and I’m feeling the presence of the Mayan goddess, Ixchel. Well, maybe that’s just wishful thinking. People love to think that God or the gods are a constant presence, but here on the island, it’s not hard to imagine. And while #Goddess may be now banned on Instagram, she is alive and well here on the Island of Women.
When the Spaniards first arrived on this little island in the 1500s they noticed an abundance of images of women in the carvings and paintings. Being good Catholics, it never crossed their minds that they might be images of goddesses. They probably thought it was just Mayan porn. But, in reality, most of those images were of Ixchel, the Mayan jaguar goddess of fertility. She was also known as the goddess of medicine and midwifery.
That makes sense on a couple of levels. Islands often have feminine deities because they symbolize emergence from the sea, just like a baby emerging from her watery womb. There is a pantheon of goddesses across the seas that represent creation, from Huamea in Hawaii to Agemen in the Philippines, Rangda in Bali and Erzulie in Haiti.
We come from the water so it all makes sense in contrast to those land-locked nomads who butchered each other in the name of their male warrior gods. My favorite book to assign to my students is Riane Eisler’s The Chalice & the Blade: Our History, Our Future (1988). It’s a rereading of the history of the construction of God and how evidence shows that thousands of years of goddess worship was re-written by the image of God as male. At the peak of the Reagan Cold War she asked readers, what if the dominate icon of God was of a woman giving birth instead of a man being murdered on a cross.
To be fair, the Mayans were pretty patriarchal. Their kingdoms were ruled by patrilineal kings who often engaged in violent bloodsport, including human sacrifice, like heart extraction. (Ouch!) It’s believed that much of this was learned from their psychotic Azetec neighbors to the north, but once the idea of chopping people’s heads off to appease the gods becomes a fad, it’s gonna be hard to top that trend. Watch Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalpypto for a fairly decent (if debated) portrayal of these fun times.
But I don’t think anybody was sacrificed for Ixchel, even though she was viewed as a warrior goddess. On the south end of the island, Punta Sur, there was a Mayan temple dating back over 500 years. Unfortunately, in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert knocked it off it’s foundation and there is only the base left. But the area is still known as Ixchel’s hangout. It’s the eastern most point of Mexico, so pagans and sun worshiper’s go there at dawn to watch the first rays of sunshine touch the nation. But those aren’t the only people who go there.
Because Ixchel is the Goddess of Fertility, Punta Sur is a popular place to conceive children. Legend has it that if even the most infertile of couples takes a stroll on that end of the island, they will be blessed with a baby. The best place to go is the “womb of Ixchel,” a little cave at the end of the point. And yes, I took Andrea there. But more aggressive baby-wanters don’t take any chances and just strait up do the mambo right there by her statue. There are plenty of stories of lovers caught buns-up, paying tribute to the goddess. That seems a bit risky as the iguanas, giant flying frigates and Israeli tourists might be a bit distracting. But some people are just committed. And when someone gets pregnant on the island, the common refrain is, “Blame Ixchel.”
I love uncovering the hidden goddess cultures of the human race. There is a direct connection between Ixchel, the Aztec goddess Toci, and the worship of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. According to Mary Daly’s groundbreaking 1973 book, Beyond God the Father, when the Conquistadors came to Mexico pushing Catholicism, the locals asked “Where is your goddess?” Their replay was, “We don’t have a goddess but we have the Mother of God.” And that’s why you see more images of the Virgin in Mexico than you do of Jesus. There is an undying devotion to Nana Guadalupe, the holy mother.
On our last bus trip from Morelia to Mexico City, we saw hundreds of cyclists on the highway. It wasn’t a fitness ride. They were all following icons of the Virgin. At the basilica, you will see people who have crawled hundreds of miles on their knees on a pilgrimage to see the cloak of Juan Diego, emblazoned with the famous image of the Virgin Mary. I’ve seen it and as a committed agnostic, it’s humbling. It’s a moving reminder of the resonance of the goddess in the psyche of Latin America. It’s not the vengeful god of the Apocalypse, waving a Confederate flag, it’s a pregnant woman and author of kindness, forgiveness, and new life.
There is such a fear of the sacred feminine in our male dominated world. I’ve written about the conspiracy of silence around breast feeding that is now cracking. The latest assault is by Instagram, where #Goddess has been banned because women were posting pictures of themselves nursing their children (#slut and #tits are still approved.) There’s plenty of porn on Instagram (Um, #Thotsbelike), but women nurturing their children is somehow offensive. But women are no longer silent to this stupid shit. #BringbacktheGoddess already had 5000 mentions on Instagram. (#Stopcensoringmotherhood has 6000 hashtags.) Instagram deserves to be publicly shamed for trying to shame women for being women instead of “hos.”
I don’t know if there is a downside to all this fertility worship. It is not uncommon to see 12-year-old girls who are pregnant here. While this is pretty common everywhere, it may have a link to the early adulthood of islanders that Margaret Mead wrote about in Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928. Artist Paul Gauguin had three teenage brides while in Tahiti and Martinique in the 1890s who became the subjects of his most famous paintings. On Isla Mujeres, only grade school is paid for by the state. Most 13-year-olds are already working on fishing boats and planning their own entry into parenthood. So there is this great clash of cultures between competing ideas of motherhood and when it should happen.
One of my students this summer is studying local conceptions of fertility and the role that Ixchel plays in people’s lives. She’s finding that younger girls have lost the connection to Ixchel and are focussed on having C-section births which are now the norm in nearby Cancun. She’s also finding that the goddess has become more of a marketing tool to attract tourists instead of a deity. But she did mention asking a 14-year-old girl at a teen pregnancy meeting about Ixchel and the girl said, “Who is Ixchel?” To which another pregnant teen piped in, “Don’t you know why you’re pregnant?”
Motherhood is a sacred thing. On one hand it seems completely bizarre that things like birth and breastfeeding are met with such revulsion and censorship. Ask a teenage boy to pick up some tampons at the store and see how visceral the opposition will be. But when you look at the long campaign to vilify the sacred feminine as original sinners (“That bitch Eve was a ho!”), you can see the long history of the banishment of the Goddess. Hebrew texts banished Lilith from the Garden of Eden and Instagram has banished “goddess” from its hashtags. It’s all part of the same thing. Why do you need the sacred feminine when you have Caesarean Sections? But Ixchel is also the Goddess of Storms, so maybe she’ll have something to say about it.
Isla Mujeres Field School Class of 2015!