Mayan Women and the Coiled Snake Headdress
The coiled snake headdress is a significant artifact connected with Mayan women, both ancient and modern. Images of ancient Mayan women wearing this distinctive headdress have been found carved on stone monuments, painted on ceramics and murals, and drawn in screen-fold bark paper books called codices. Similar headdresses are worn today by Mayan women who practice healing and midwifery in the tradition of the goddess Ix Chel. Every village has its curendera, a medicine woman who uses plant-based remedies for a wide variety of conditions, ranging from respiratory and intestinal ailments to spiritually-caused illnesses such as mal ojo or evil eye. For all these practitioners of Ix Chel medicine, the coiled serpent holds special significance.
Figure 1. The coiled snake headdress
Snakes are a powerful symbol among the Maya. In their primal form, snakes represent the surge of life force that brings all things on earth into manifestation. One who has mastered snake energy controls forces of creation and destruction, and understands the secrets of existence. Snakes are connected with water and the rainy season, a time of returning fertility as soils become ready for planting. The coiled snake headdress is worn by Ix Chel in her moon goddess aspect, associated with women's menstrual cycles and resultant fertility. Among a group of contemporary Mayas living near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, the womb is visualized as a coiled snake. The moon goddess frequently pours water from a jar, symbolic of women's fecundity and the watery nature of pregnancy and childbirth.
Ix Chel appears as a healer wearing the coiled snake headdress in both young and old goddess forms. Images of these goddesses appear in both the Madrid and Dresden Codices, screen-fold books full of hieroglyphs and illustrations painted by the Postclassic Maya, probably in the 15th-17th centuries. Of the thousands of hieroglyphic manuscripts painted by the ancient Mayas, only four are known to have survived: The Madrid, Dresden and Paris Codices, named after the cities where they are currently housed, and the Grolier Codex discovered in a cave in Chiapas in the 1960s. The codices are concerned with astronomical phenomena, such as lunar and solar eclipses, calculating Venus and other planetary cycles, and the 260-day sacred calendar or tzolk'in, which interacts with the 365-day solar calendar or haab, to create repeating 52-year cycles. These almanacs relate the timing of various ritual and secular activities to different calendrical cycles, and portray women in various everyday roles in the idealized guise of goddesses.
Other connections between Ix Chel and the tzolk'in calendar include the duration of pregnancy and the timing for planting maize (corn). The Mam Mayas of highland Guatemala link the earth, the moon, and maize in a sacred trinity which they call "Our Mother." Among the Quiché of Guatemala, the moon governs both women's menstrual cycles and planting the maize crop. The 260-day calendar is used to plan conception and maize planting; both childbirth and harvesting are expected to occur 260 days after conception or sowing.
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Figure 2. Ix Chel as healer with coiled snake headdress, carved slate from San Ignacio, Belize (2003). Photo by author, 2015
Ix Chel as Maiden
While Ix Chel is a triple goddess with three forms - maiden, mother and crone - she wears the coiled snake headdress in only two of these. As the maiden, she is called Goddess I in the codices, the young moon goddess. She wears the coiled snake headdress to signify her powers of healing and intuitive knowledge, her skills at medicine and midwifery, and her ability to control earthly forces. She often has the glyph sak, Mayan word for white, in her headdress to indicate visible phases of the moon. Women prayed to her for fertility and successful pregnancy, believed she was responsible for the development of the fetus and determination of its sex. They placed carved images under their bed to sustain pregnancy and provide safe childbirth. Ix Chel's name means "Lady Rainbow" where Ix signifies divine feminine, goddess and woman and Chel means rainbow or translucent light. She is closely associated with water, including lakes, rivers and oceans where it is common to see rainbows. Continuing into modern times, women sleep beside waters and pray for her guidance in dreams.
Figure 3. Maiden Ix Chel , Young Moon Goddess. Dresden Codex, Forstemann version, with permission of FAMSI.
Ix Chel as Mother and Moon/Earth Goddess
In the form of mother, Ix Chel takes on blended qualities of both moon and earth goddess. She is still called Goddess I in the codices, but given the additional name Ixik Kab , which translates as "Lady Earth." Her headdress contains a cotton coil and spindles, both associated with weaving and the dry season. Her headdress may have the sak glyph, linking her to the moon in its waxing aspects and the whiteness of cotton. It is said that her headdress does not contain the coiled serpent because she is too busy as wife and mother to attend to healing needs. She is associated with sexual desire, fertility, motherhood, weaving, the earth and crops. Images in the codices portray her in amorous scenes, some picturing explicit sexual union. She is also depicted with an enlarged pregnant belly, carrying children on her back, and offering burdens that include maize and fish. At times she has a bird perched on her shoulders, which might represent disease or could prognosticate a coming astrological sign. Ethnographic accounts have reported Maya beliefs that the waxing moon brings illnesses such as infections, tumors or pustules.
Ixik Kab - Ix Chel has a roving eye, depicted in codices paired with many different male figures. These sexual unions represent planetary and stellar conjunctions, and relate to contemporary folktales that describe the Moon - Earth Goddess as a deity with many romantic partners. The moon has many lovers because it moves rapidly through the sky, frequently encountering planets as it circles around. These folktales tell that the young Ix Chel was independent and headstrong, and eloped to marry the Sun God. But she would not obey him, so he got angry and mistreated her until she ran away with the Morning Star God (Venus). Following his celestial movements, she hid much of the time from her angry husband. Soon the Morning Star God became weary of her refusal to obey him and he locked her up, but she escaped and ran away with the Vulture God. The Sun God heard about this and planned to retrieve her by covering himself in a deer skin, pretending to be dead. When the vultures came to eat, the Sun God grabbed one by the wing and was carried to the house of the Vulture God. They fought furiously, but the Sun God won and took Ix Chel back. His jealousy wearied her again, and they quarrelled causing the heavens to thunder and shoot bolts of lightning to earth. In his anger, the Sun God took away Ix Chel's brilliant rainbow colors and left her with only the pale light of the moon.
Ix Chel as moon mother appears in an incised ceramic vessel now in the American Museum of Natural History. On the vessel, a large snake with mirrors on its body loops around many images. One shows a lunar crescent enclosing the Moon Goddess holding a rabbit. She wears a short, latticed bead skirt and her headdress contains maize foliation, merging her with the Maize God and reiterating her fecundity. In Maya folklore, Ix Chel took her pet rabbit (symbol of fertility) and hid herself in the moon to escape the Sun God's fury. She wanders the night sky making herself invisible whenever her husband shows his fiery head. During the dark days of the moon, she rests from her travels. When the moon is full, you can see her sitting in the moon holding her rabbit while she watches over the earth, taking care of women and children and guiding healers.
Ix Chel as Crone
In her crone aspect, Ix Chel is often called aged Goddess O, explicitly named in codices as Chak Chel . She wears the coiled serpent headdress in both her life-giving and destructive forms as a Grandmother Earth Goddess of the moon, rain, medicine and death. The serpent headdress signifies her abilities in medicine, healing, intuitive wisdom and spiritual powers. She often functions as the aged female curer (curendera), diviner and midwife who also eases people in their dying process, absorbing bodies of the deceased into her physical body, the earth. This is a role still frequently undertaken by old women in Mesoamerica. Chak Chel - Ix Chel has many attributes, portrayed in codices as a beneficent water goddess frequently paired with the rain god Chaak, as the female member of the creator couple paired with Itzamna, and as a world destroyer shown with bestial characteristics and death symbols.
Figure 4. Old Moon Goddess, Beneficent Chak Chel. Dresden Codex, Forstemann version, with permission of FAMSI
Chak can mean either red or great, evoking Chortí images of the full moon with a red glow as a sign of heavy rains. Chel means rainbow or arch of heaven, so the Chak Chel name could be the "red rainbow moon," another image of the rainy-season moon. Depictions in codices show Goddess O wearing a coiled serpent headdress and holding an overturned water jar pouring water. This symbolizes the connections between rain and serpents; when the serpent rainbow surrounds the moon, it signifies there will be rain.
In her beneficent aspects, Chak Chel pours water from a clay pot shaped like a womb onto the earth to prepare soils for planting and restore the waters of lakes and streams. This symbolizes her pouring of blessings and healing onto the world. In two scenes from the Madrid Codex, Chak Chel emits water from her pelvic region and armpits, variously interpreted as depicting the rush of amniotic fluid before childbirth or the symbolic power of menstrual blood and body fluids to bring fertility. This aspect of the crone goddess is associated with the waning moon.
Figure 5. Old Moon Goddess Destructive, Chak Chel. Dresden Codex, Forstemann version, with permission of FAMSI.
In her destructive aspects, Chak Chel has monstrous appearance with sharp claws and a skirt full of crossed bones. Her clawed hands and feet seem to be those of a jaguar, and sometimes she has a jaguar-spotted eye. When pouring water in this aspect, she sends forth storms, floods and hurricanes. One depiction in the codices shows her pouring huge amounts of water in collaboration with a serpent, thought to represent the deluge that destroyed the second Maya creation of mud people. Another dangerous aspect pictured in the Dresden Codex shows Goddess O as the new moon threatening to eclipse the sun. She pours rainwater marked with glyphs referring to an 1,820-day cycle, the cycle associated with solar eclipse images in the Paris Codex. There is increased incidence of solar eclipses during the new moon, and the Mayas feared that eclipses might bring destruction to the world.
Ix Chel in her aspects as healer wearing the coiled snake headdress continues to wield strong influence in Mesoamerica, with recent branching to North America and Europe. Traditional Maya medicine is still widely practiced in villages throughout these regions
Figure 6. Shrine of Ix Chel on Isla Mujeres, sacred pilgrimage island near Cozumel. Photo by author, 2009.
Top image: Left: Old Moon Goddess Destructive, Chak Chel. Dresden Codex, Forstemann version, with permission of FAMSI. Right: Old Moon Goddess, Beneficent Chak Chel. Dresden Codex, Forstemann version, with permission of FAMSI
Leonide Martin is a retired California State University professor, and currently an author and Maya researcher. Her books bring ancient Maya culture and civilization to life in stories about both real historical Mayans and fictional characters. She has studied Maya archaeology, anthropology and history from the scientific and indigenous viewpoints. Website: Mists of Palenque: http://mistsofpalenque.com/
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