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Picturing Ixchel, the Mayan Goddess of Weaving

Picturing Ixchel, the Mayan Goddess of Weaving

The ancient Mayan pantheon is expansive. I say 'is', rather than 'was', because for many communities in Guatemala, Mayan beliefs and ceremonial practices are still part of daily life, co-existing alongside the Catholicism that's now the country's primary religion. Active Mayan altars can be found all over the country, including at a number of ruin sites of ancient Mayan towns, like Iximche, near Tecpan.

Some members of the Mayan pantheon hold authority over fairly common divine territories. There's Hum Hau, the god of death and the underworld, and Kin, the god (or personification) of the sun. Others are patrons of more unusual realms: Ixtab is specifically the goddess of suicide, and Ah-Muzen-Cab is the god of bees.

Within this group, Ixchel stands out for the wide range of her patronage. She's most commonly recognised as the goddess of medicine and midwifery, as well as being associated with the earth, the moon, and the rain - domains that hold clear fertile, traditionally-feminine symbolism. Images of her at the head of a collection of midwives have been found in ancient Mayan art, and her feast day was most commonly celebrated by doctors and shamans.

But above all, Ixchel is feminine. Her sanctuary stood on the island of Cozumel, and in pre-colonial times, women would make pilgrimages there in the hopes of ensuring a successful marriage. It's even been suggested that young, unmarried women were sacrificed to Ixchel in some regions, while the Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women) still bears its name thanks to the idols depicting Ixchel that were found there.

So it's no surprise that Ixchel is also remembered as the goddess of weaving. In Mayan culture, weaving has always been a fundamentally female activity. Potential wives in ancient times would be judged by their weaving abilities, while in modernity, women like those who make up the Trama Textiles community have been able to use weaving as an economic gateway accessible to them as women after many of them lost husbands, fathers and sons in the violence that swept through Guatemala in the second half of the twentieth century.

Ixchel's patronage over weaving can also be read as a metaphor representing the power of female creative processes: Mayan weaving has been read by many scholars as a metaphor for both childbirth and the wider creative processes of the cosmos, implicitly marking women out as the creators of the world.

Ixchel herself is an accomplished weaver. Wearing a snake headdress, the goddess is often depicted at a loom, and Mayan mythology sometimes describes the movement of her drop spindle as the force at the centre of the perpetual motion of the universe.

Reading Ixchel in this way not only reinforces the ongoing connection that exists between female identity and weaving in Mayan culture, but also the high value placed on weaving itself as an activity. Alongside marriage and childbirth, women passing down weaving techniques to their daughters is one of the practices that ensures the perpetuation of the identity that Mayan communities centre their existence around. That's why it's worthy of divine patronage.

Nowadays, cooperatives like Trama, which aim to protect ancient weaving traditions in the face of aggressive modern industrialism, represent the spirit of female community that Ixchel was historically part of. The work produced by the Trama weavers is slow fashion: the textiles are high-quality and long lasting, challenging the environmentally-damaging habits of the fast fashion industry. In this way, the co-operative channels the spirit of Ixchel, combining weaving, womanhood, and protection of the earth's natural creative state.

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