May 10, 2010

Isla Mujeres - The Goddesses and the Virgin

Isla Mujeres translates as 'The Island of Women'. It was named as such by the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who discovered idols of several Mayan goddesses there. He described the idols as showing women dressed only from the waist down, with their breasts uncovered. The population also appeared to be almost exclusively female. These were fishing communities and the men were all out to sea, but he wasn't to know that.

To the Mayan, the island had been called Ekab. Ix Chel, her daughter Ix Chebeliax, and daughters-in-law Ix Hunie and Ix Hunieta were the four goddesses in residence on the island. Of the several stone buildings there, one impressive structure in the south of the island was a temple dedicated to these goddesses. The torches lit there could be seen well out to sea and so the temple doubled as a lighthouse. (The ruins of this temple were unfortunately destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.) The area contained many gold artifacts, which were taken away by Hernández in 1517. This sparked the belief, amongst the Spanish, that Mexico was full of gold, thus paving the way for the Spanish Conquest.

Ix Chel

In pre-Christian times, Isla Mujeres was sacred to the Goddess Ix Chel, who governed over childbirth, midwifery and medicine. Shrines and pottery depictions of this jaguar eared deity have been found all over the island. In a rite of passage into womanhood, the Mayans would fashion clay idols of Ix Chel, travel alone to Isla Mujeres and smash the idol onto the floor of the temple. It was these shattered images that Hernández discovered. Pregnant women would have entered Her sweatbaths before giving birth, then again afterwards. Women struggling to conceive would have visited Her sanctuary. She is referred to, in Mayan literature, as 'grandmother' and She is sometimes represented by a waning moon. This crone goddess is often shown with claws in place of hands, crossed bones upon Her skirt and a serpent on Her head. In this way, Ix Chel is also linked with war, with a fearsome aspect, hungry for victims. She is part of the cycle of life. She takes the dead and She protects those being born.

It is worth remembering that, to the Mayan, death was viewed differently than it is in modern Western culture. Those who died in battle, childbirth, as sacrifices or by suicide, all of which Ix Chel oversaw, could be assured of direct passage to their paradisical otherworld. For others, there would be a journey and a possibility of rebirth, or being cast into Xilbalba, where they would suffer eternally. In short, if you had to die at all, then dying under the juristriction of Ix Chel was preferable to any other way.

The Mayan people may have seen the hand of Ix Chel in the fate of the 1517 Spanish expedition. After Francisco Hernández de Córdoba's men had desecrated Isla Mujeres, taking the golden artifacts of Ix Chel and the three goddesses, their ships continued on to Champotón further down the coast. It is here where they met fierce Mayan resistance and the majority of the Spanish were killed. Hernández himself was badly injured and barely escaped with his life.

"(Chief Moch-Covoh) so inspired his people that they forced the Spaniards to retire, killing twenty, wounding fifty, and taking alive two whom they afterwards sacrificed. Francisco Hernández came off with thirty-three wounds, and thus returned downcast to Cuba, where he reported that the land was good and rich, because of the gold he found on the Isla de las Mugeres."
'Yucatan Before and After the Conquest' by Diego de Landa, 1566

In Mayan mythology, Ix Chel can also be seen as a Mother Goddess. Her consort was Itzamna, the creator god, with whom She had thirteen sons. Itzamna created mankind and writing. He governs over agriculture and hunting. Two of their children created the Earth, its waters and the skies. She is grandmother to the Bacab, the four aged men who hold up the world.

A sanctuary to Ix Chel has been discovered on the Island of Cozumel, while Tixchel, in Acalan on the Yucatán coast, was certainly named after Her. A Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, reported another place, also in Acalan, where unmarried, young women were sacrified to Ix Chel.

Mary, Mother of Christ

In more recent times, Isla Mujeres has become a place of pilgrimage for the Mother of Christ, Mary, who acts as the island's patron. In 1890, three statuettes of the Virgin were discovered on the tip of Quintana Roo by three fishermen. The Virgins were carved of wood with porcelain hands and faces. Each of the three fisherman took one of the statuettes back to their own homes. One of them, Christiano Avila Celis, brought his to Isla Mujeres, where it was enshrined in a small palm chapel. Many years later, a decision was taken to move Her to the church, but that did not prove easy. It took the combined efforts of several men to lift Her, as She had suddenly become so heavy. Nevertheless they succeeded, but, as She was carried out, the whole chapel burst into flame to the shock of all watching.

The statuette was placed in the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, yet still didn't rest easily. There were sightings of the Virgin walking on the sea, during the night, around the coast of Isla Mujeres. Then, one dawn, so many islanders witnessed Her doing so that the Church could not ignore the stories. When the statuette was taken out and examined, it was shown to be covered in sand.

On December 8th, every year, there is a great fiesta held all over Isla Mujeres, in honour of Mother Mary. The event attracts thousands of Catholic pilgrims from all over the world. Festivities begin around November 8th, with the climax being the bajada, descent of the Virgin, on December 8th. There is a lesser feast commemorating the discovery of the statuettes at Isla Mujeres (and at Izamal, Yucatán and Kantunilkin, Quintana Roo, where the other two statuettes are), from August 6th -15th too. Please note, when visiting the island, that the residents tend to be devoutly Catholic and that it is standing room only at Sunday mass in either of the main Catholic churches.

Many people feel that the island is protected by its divine mother. For example, when Hurricane Wilma whipped through the Yucatán, in October 2005, the beaches of Cancun were destroyed. It cost the Mexican government $25 million to dredge sand from the ocean bed to repair them. Conversely, on the other side of the same waters, the same hurricane delivered white sand to Isla Mujeres.

Hail Mary in Spanish:

Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia,
el Señor es contigo.
Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres,
y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús.
Santa María, Madre de Dios,
ruega por nosotros, pecadores,
ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.

Endless Tours does provide trips to Isla Mujeres. A variety of them, to suit your pocket and your needs, can be found here.

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