Friday, March 13, 2015

Goddesses of Above and Below

Today we go off to the jungles of Mexico, where are waiting some fabulous and highly underrated ladies! Today's question is Can you tell us anything about some Mayan goddesses? Awilix, Ix Chel...? and baby, can I!

Maya goddesses are the absolute bomb. They usually appear as representatives of important cosmic forces - not only the elements and celestial bodies of the universe, but also its underlying concepts, such as death, life, destruction, or chaos. Like most Maya deities, they are serious freaking business, too; there are no Maya goddesses that aren't metal as hell.

For those who haven't hung out with the Maya gods too much, there are in fact a wide spectrum of different forms of them; the Maya didn't have the same kind of unified territory as, say, the later Mexica, and were instead split into various different kingdoms in different locations, from as many different places as modern-day Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. They were also around for a very long time and went through several phases of different civilization and organizational kingdoms as well, so in addition to regional variations, there are also variations between the classical Maya kingdoms of Mexico, for example, and the later jungle Maya kingdoms that reigned farther south.

The oldest and probably most cosmically powerful of the Maya deities is Ix Chel, known as the codical Goddess O (for those who aren't sure what all this "codical god" stuff is whenever we talk about Maya deities, it's essentially a letter classification that scholars came up with to describe deities in classical Mayan art that couldn't be positively identified before we started being able to translate some glyphs and compare to other Maya cultures' figures. It's scholar code for "I have no idea who these people are but I need to be able to talk about them so everyone gets a letter"). She is usually represented as an aged old woman, bent and gnarly but nevertheless authoritative and somewhat terrifying, which sums up her general approach to deityhood pretty well. She often has jaguar features (particularly claws, teeth, ears, or the square jaguar eye), which are common in ancient art of Maya deities and represent fearsomeness and spiritual power, and occasionally also spider attributes, connecting her to traditionally feminine pursuits such as weaving.

Ix Chel is a goddess of feminine things; she's the patron deity of women and was especially believed to ease in their ailments, most notably childbirth and menstruation. Her power over the body wasn't considered to be restricted only to women, however, and she was generally believed to have and wield the power of disease somewhat capriciously over mankind (which might also have to do with the fact that she wielded the power of flood, a pretty terrifying natural disaster for the ancient Maya and one that invariably brought with it waterborn diseases and health issues). She is also the goddess of the rainbow (Ix Chel's name might mean "Lady Rainbow" in some Maya dialects, although it's hard to say whether her name or the word came first), signifying the end of the storm... although since some Maya groups believed the rainbow was a malevolent sign of illness to come, this is sort of a mixed blessing.

Like most Maya deities, Ix Chel doesn't have very many myths about her exploits preserved from the classical period in central Mexico; we mostly have artwork and ceremonial objects left over from that time period, meaning that any myths have to be guessed based on what figures are doing in paintings or on objects (and y'all know what scholars' track record with that is... I mean, they try, but there's just not much to go on). However, we do have living mythology preserved from later Maya people; the K'iche Maya of Guatemala are especially famous for their preservation of the epic Popol Vuh, and the character of Xmucane, ancient grandmother goddess to the Hero Twins who form the story's focus, shares many features in common with Ix Chel and may be a K'iche evolution of the old Goddess O.

Ix Chel's flip side - possibly literally - is Awilix (codical Goddess I), the young and beautiful moon goddess, who is likewise a healer but also represents femininity and sexuality in a way that Ix Chel does not. It's not surprising that she would also be strongly associated with the moon; since moon phases and menstrual cycles tend to go in similar cycles, many ancient peoples equated the moon with femininity, and the Maya were no different. Awilix maintains a sacred well in the heavens (possibly the moon itself) from which she can pour out healing rain, and her major area of control is over the fertility of humankind, who have babies only when she allows it. She also often appears with a rabbit, an animal traditionally associated with the moon, and although we have few surviving myths about Awilix, we know the rabbit tends to be with her and involved when she is, making it something of a companion for her.

I say she's Ix Chel's flip side because there's a rather heated, decades-spanning debate among scholars over whether or not Ix Chel and Awilix are actually the same person. Many scholars are fans of a combinatory approach to Maya mythology: all deities are probably just different aspects of other deities, even to the point where some like to theorize that the ancient Maya were actually monotheistic, and all their deities are just aspects of one central god (of course, some modern Maya communities are monotheistic in the modern day - many have converted to Christianity in the wake of the Spanish conquest, or incorporated Christian elements into their traditional beliefs). Other scholars point out that this may be influenced by a desire to push ancient cultures into a monotheism box because so many of our modern cultures live there, and different figures in art and myth may be exactly that - different figures.

Fans of the Ix Chel = Awilix argument point out that both are heavily associated with women and childbirth/fertility, have ties to water, and could be argued to be moon-aligned (Ix Chel's a little sketchy here but it's possible). Detractors usually say so what, lots of gods do similar things and they still manage to be different people. Only time and extensive archaeological or textual discoveries will tell.

Then we have Xquic, the Lady of Blood, who is a rare and interesting deity. She's a death goddess - or rather, a goddess of the realms of death, Xibalba, where she lived with her father Cuchumaquic (literally Blood Gatherer, most likely a deity of bleeding or hemorrhaging) until the Hero Twins - both sets of them - caused their rather spectacular splash. The Hero Twins you most often hear about, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, were actually the second generation; their father was also one of a set of twins who went down to Xibalba to challenge the Lords of Death to a ballgame, although sadly a way less successful one, since both of them were killed in fairly short order. The severed head of one of the two brothers, Hun Hunahpu, grew into a calabash tree, and although she was warned to stay away from it (death gods are traditionally not fans of weird life growing in their territory), she still went to investigate it. One of the fruits had grown into an eerily skull-like shape and begged her to take it, and when she reached out to do so, it spat into her hand, instantly impregnating her.

Of course, she had no idea this had happened (because why would you, seriously, it was a tree), but her father knew what her growing belly meant, and confronted her very angrily about who she'd been with. She answered truthfully that she hadn't been with anyone, of course, and of course he didn't believe her, and she was officially declared a criminal, her unborn children bastards, and she was sentenced to be sacrificed. Being a quick-thinking lady who had no illusions about whether or not they would actually kill her (because yes, they totally would), she convinced the deathly owl messengers of the underworld who took her out to be sacrificed to instead create a fake heart out of blood-colored tree sap, which was returned to the Lords of Xibalba, allowing her to escape without their knowledge that she was still alive.

Of course, at this point she was several months pregnant from a stealth tree assault and stuck in the normal world, where she'd never been before, so she did what many ladies in this situation might do: she went looking for the father's family to see if they would do anything about this situation. The brothers were of course still dead, weird skull-tree notwithstanding, but their mother, old Xmucane, was not, and Xquic introduced herself and asked if she could be taken care of as part of the family, which would be her right at the time (and the right of the incoming children). Unfortunately, Xmucane was not any more inclined to believe that her dead sons were impregnating people than Xquic's father had been to believe she was having a virgin pregnancy, so Xquic had to undergo a number of other trials to win her mother-in-law's trust, including filling an entire sack of corn from a single cornstalk, but she succeeded through magical badassery and Xmucane eventually welcomed her into her home, where she gave birth the the Hero Twins and the rest is history.

Xquic is known to us only through the Popol Vuh; she very well could be included in classical Maya artwork, but if she is, we still don't know which one she is yet.

Finally, since I know this post got out of control lengthwise, I'll closeout with a fourth lady: Ixtab (meaning Lady of the Rope), commonly called the Goddess of Suicide, although that's a fairly misleading representation of how she was probably viewed by the ancient Maya themselves. She is always represented in codices as being in the midst of hanging herself; hanging or strangulation were considered honorable deaths, usually reserved for Maya nobility who needed to take their lives to wash away a stain on the family's reputation or avoid disgrace, so despite her morbid connotations, Ixtab was a goddess of honor and the upper class. It's likely that she played a little bit of the role we would recognize in Europe as the psychopomp, guiding or at least easing the passage of those who employed her noose into the next world, and ensuring that they arrived at a peaceful and pleasant destination after death.

Ixtab is in a weird place because we know so little about her that there are theories and reimaginings of her happening all over the place. Some scholars think that even though Ixtab does seem to have existed as a deity, the depictions of women hanging in the codices might not be her, but instead refer to dangers to mortal women associated with the lunar eclipse (there's that moon = women thing again). The description of her role mostly comes from Diego de Landa Calderón, a Spanish friar who recorded a lot of Maya mythology but was also brutally anti-indigenous-religion and responsible for massive parts of its destruction, so other scholars note that he's not the most reliable source in the world and may have exaggerated her morbid associations or even entirely made her up for his own agenda. And, of course, the tantalizing uniqueness of her supposed role - you don't see "goddess of suicide" very many places - has gotten her a weird pop culture niche, with versions of her appearing as characters in both the Final Fantasy and Megami Tensei video game series, a Russian metal band named after her, and even a weird little browser game where she appears as the player's inscrutable boss and sends you out to shoot zombies.

Obviously, this post is too long to get into too much more (which is a shame, because there is more!), but it's someplace to start. Maya goddesses often appear as female counterparts or balances to male gods in the same pantheon - in the list above, Ix Chel is often prominently placed as the feminine counterpart to the ancient creator god Itzamna - but they are also extremely powerful and intricate deities in their own right. Be kind to the jungle; its goddesses won't necessarily be kind to you in return, but it cuts down on your chances of destruction, right?


  1. Is it just me or is this post not on the blog front page? I could only get here through the main site front page.

    1. Weird, I see what you mean! Why on earth...

      Let me see if I can fix it.

  2. Had the same problem. Weird. Also; consider this a request for a part 2 of this article, with Even More Rockin' Goddesses. :-)

  3. Hello, I know it's been a while since you posted this, but I would like to learn more about Itznama and Ixchel