The wondrous Isle of Women and its mysterious rainbow goddess

Much mystery still surrounds the fertility goddess we know as Ixchel

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Overlooking a great cliff 70 feet above the Caribbean Sea on the southernmost tip of Isla Mujeres sits a single temple dedicated to the cult of the great Maya goddess Ixchel. 

Isla Mujeres, or the Isle of Women, owes its name to the discovery of multiple artifacts referring to the goddess Ixchel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

During antiquity, the temple of Ixchel would have likely been one of many dedicated to the goddess on the island. But over the millennia, all others succumbed to the arrival of Europeans, rampant overdevelopment, as well as over a thousand years of tropical storms.

The cliffs on Punta Sur, in Isla Mujeres, are a sight to behold. It is easy to understand why the Maya of antiquity chose to convert it into an imposing ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

After Chichén Itzá, Isla Mujeres is thought to have been the second-most important pilgrimage site in all of the Yucatán Peninsula.

A contemporary Mural in Isla Mujeres depicts a woman, wishing for a baby, pleading her case to the mighty Ixchel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though Ixchel is one of the most recognizable deities in the Maya pantheon, much mystery and confusion surround her role.

Temple to Ixchel in Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres photographed in the late 19th century. Photo: INAH

In both ancient and contemporary art, Ixchel is usually depicted bare-chested, wearing a snake or lunar headdress. 

A 20th-century representation of the goddess Ixchel, sitting on a crested moon. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

However, despite her fame, much mystery surrounds Ixchel, beginning with her name. The name by which we currently know this goddess seems to only date back to the 16th century. Her original name has likely been lost to time. 

Ixchel is depicted in the Dresden Codex where she appears with engorged breasts and a T-shaped headdress. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The first documented use of the name Ixchel comes from Fray Diego de Landa who refers to her as “the goddess of making children.” 

A side view of the Temple of Ixchel in Isla Mujeres, shows just how incomplete it really is, with large sections likely sitting eroded in the cliffs below. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Assuming the name derives from Yucatec-Maya, Chel is likely to mean rainbow, while the translation for Ix remains up for debate. Within codexes, the name is now generally referred to as Chak Chel. 

Despite what some misinformed guides may tell you, the “Mayan arch” near Punta Sur is not ancient. It was built as part of a private residence in the 20th century. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Ixchel is also credited with being a goddess of medicine and divination. She is even depicted performing surgery, though on these occasions she is usually depicted as an old woman, sometimes referred to as Goddess O.

A statue of Ixchel is shown as an old woman facing the Caribbean Sea. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The wide variety of powers attributed to Ixchel, as well as her varied depictions has led to the theory that the goddess we today know as Ixchel, maybe an amalgam of several different goddesses that during the time of conquest were all folded into one. 

For example, though Ixchel is often associated with the moon, there is strong evidence that this moon goddess is indeed a separate deity.

The nameless moon goddess, who predates the name Ixchel has a shared association with human fertility, menstruation, and the phases of the moon are often shown to be in the company of a rabbit. Photo: Courtesy Boston Museum of Art. 

This mysterious moon goddess may actually have her origin in Central Mexico, as several Nahua-speaking people closely associate the moon with rabbits. This is likely because when viewed from Mesoamerica, the craters of the moon create a shape reminiscent of a rabbit. 

An Aztec image of a rabbit trapped within a crescent moon. Photo: Courtesy INAH

In a Nahua myth, two deities stood on the side of a cliff to sacrifice themselves and become the sun. As the senior of the two hesitated out of fear, the second god jumped and became the sun. Enraged at having been outdone, the second jumped as well into the abyss creating a fainter, but still bright second sun. Understanding that there could not be two suns, the elder gods decided to suppress the second by throwing a rabbit at it and thus giving the moon its faint glow. 

Though the moon was spawned from a lesser god than the sun, this does not mean Mesoamerican people did not revere it, as evidenced by the massive Temple of the Moon in Teotihuacan. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The over-the-top powers and purview of Ixchel further support the idea that several Mesoamerican female deities, over time, became folded into the persona of Ixchel.

For example, Ixchel in addition to being the goddess of human fertility, she is commonly claimed to be a goddess of war, the earth, rain, and suicide. 

The Maya war goddess depicted as wearing a crossed bone skirt and possessing claws instead of human hands and feet bears a close resemblance to the female deity Tlaltecuhtli of central Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Getting to Isla Mujeres from Cancún is very easy by ferry with several companies going round trip for roughly 500 pesos.

A map shows the location of Isla Mujeres just off the coast of Cancun in Northern Quintana Roo. Image: Google Maps

Though taxis in Isla Mujeres are plentiful, they are sometimes hard to get and can be a bit expensive. If you are planning to spend a full day exploring the island, you may be better off renting a golf cart to get around. 

An iguana, or toloc, as they are known in Yucatec-Mayan, basks on the hot stones of Punta Sur’s cliffs. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Entrance to Punta Sur costs 30 pesos and officially opens at 6 a.m., though actual hours seem to be somewhat irregular.

The ticket booth at Punta Sur is not run by INAH, which is technically illegal. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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