This is the fifth in a series of articles that explores the philosophic and spiritual concepts of the Classic Maya. What did these intelligent people believe about themselves, life and the gods, and how did those ideas influence the way they lived? This article will explore my favorite place, Isla Mujeras, The Island of Women, and some of my favorite stories.
The Island is dedicated to the Great Goddess Ixchel, co-creator of life.
Half an hour from Cancun, I caught the ferry to the island. Perched precariously on the prow of the rickety weather beaten ferry, I leaned over the edge captivated by the unbelievably blue color of the water. The landing at Puerto Juarez disappeared behind as the long strip of Isla Mujeras slowly moved toward us. The chugging of the engine drowned out all but the high cry of an occasional bird overhead.
The town’s buildings; painted bright red, orange, purple and yellow, rose up like gifts the sea offered to the sky. So perfectly did the sky and sea reflect one another that the thin line between them was the only differentiating factor; that, and the occasional puff of white cloud passing by.
For two thousand years Mayan women have made the pilgrimage to Isla Mujeras (Island of Women). They’ve come with offerings –clay statues, cocoa beans, turquoise, hand woven objects, and the now rare feather of the Quetzal bird, a most prized object — to give to the great mother goddess Ixchel in thanks for what She’d given them and prayers for what they lacked.
Rowing across the turquoise water from the mainland would have taken two hours or more. Slowly Ixchel’s temple would become visible at the south end of the island; three buildings of limestone blocks fit snugly together, hunkered down close to the earth for protection from the hurricane winds that regularly flatten anything with height. Soft trade winds would now ruffle the warm air that welcomed the women to this gentle land.
When I’d heard about the island on a previous trip to study the Maya ruins of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, my imagination was captivated. I wondered what was in the women’s hearts when they made such a journey and why this particular island had been chosen for a sacred site. I’d learned from Mayanologists that temple areas were built where the diviners of their religion perceived sources of particular power.
When the Spanish first came to the island, they discovered hundreds of female statues among the buildings of the temple. When they came to the town they found only women and children. The men were out fishing. For that reason they named the island, “Isla Mujeras.”
Set at the base of the village, the landing — where several other boats of varying sizes and shapes were tied up — jutted out to meet us. Beside the beach in either direction, a myriad of small boats bobbed in the turquoise water beside palapa style buildings planted in the white sand.
A flock of taxi drivers descended on me as I made my way through the crowd on the pier to the street. The scent of fish, hot tortillas, beer, and suntan lotion mixed deliciously with the salt-sea breeze as I was whisked away the five blocks to the hotel.
Hotel Nabalam –meaning the jaguar’s house — was at the north end with nothing but a wide, white sand beach and shallow, lake-still water for as far as you can see. Attractive low buildings were covered in bougainvillea surrounded by tropical gardens dotted with palapas and bright colored hammocks that swung leisurely in the breeze.
Late in the day when it was cool enough to venture out, I called a taxi to go to the south end, to the site of Ixchel’s temple. The taxi driver dodged the village traffic deftly and soon we were in new territory on a road that ran the length of the island on the west side. Where the pavement ended a dirt-rock road meandered drunkenly through low brush to the lighthouse where I got out of the taxi to walk. A trail led over rocky terrain above jagged high cliffs to a small structure built in the place of the temple to mark the spot.
Ixchel was the most important of the many females worshipped by the Maya. Her role was fertility, ease in childbirth, family harmony, and weaving of all kinds — very like the great goddesses of other cultures.
The spot was beautiful, and indeed, it did feel powerful even though the temple structure was flattened. This southern tip of the island received strong winds and water currents even on a mild day. As the waves hit the rocks below the water splashed high into the air that then carried drops up to dampen our faces as we peered out from the high vantage.
As it grew dark, my imagination was captivated by this place that had drawn women, not unlike myself, to sit and contemplate the night sky. It was a brilliant clear night, and as the sliver of a new moon rose out of the east, above my head the Milky Way glistened.
One of my favorite of the Mayan creation stories came to mind.
“One day Ixchel, who was the most beautiful girl who ever lived, and who was the moon, was weaving in the afternoon in the yard of her father’s house. As was her custom when she worked, she dreamed dreams of her lover, Kinich Ahau, the sun. Suddenly, as if in answer to her prayers, he appeared and grabbed her in his arms and flew up into the sky to make his escape with his beloved moon. Just then her father came out from inside the house, and, upon seeing the two escaping, took out his blowgun and shot the sun. The sun sank and the moon, his daughter, fell into the sea and shattered into a thousand pieces. When the fish saw this, they tried to patch her together with their scales. When that failed, they linked themselves together, mouth to tail to mouth to tail and so on, until they formed a net in which they could lift her shattered body to her lover the sun. This also failed, and they could only leave her in the sky where she passes all her time chasing the sun across. The fish that tried to help her turned into the Milky Way.”
Modern physics describes the creation of the cosmos as beginning with a Big Bang that led to the formation of stars which gathered together into galaxies, with suns and moons and planets. They tell us exactly how that occurred according to physical facts; of atoms and force fields like gravity and the speed of light, quarks and particles so infinitesimally small hundreds of thousands of them live in a mote of dust. They describe exactly how it happened according to physical facts discovered by instruments so sophisticated that they must build underground tunnels miles long and force the particles to move faster and faster through those tunnels to collide with other particles. By this method they assure us they know exactly what the truth is about the stars and the formation of cosmic life. It is an awesome endeavor and full of wonder and beauty.
However, as a simple human being watching the night sky and wondering how it came to be, and further, wondering what does it have to do with me; a small being living in a dwelling with other beings that I love and hunting for my dinner in the jungle and growing corn in my garden to feed myself and my children and meeting birds and animals as I move through my day? As that person, I want to know what’s expected of me and who made me and why. Ixchel’s story satisfies my need when I imagine her as the moon and feel the sadness of her separation from the sun; something I can understand because I too suffer losses and separations from people I love. I know what it means to suffer, and so I have a relationship with the gods and am connected; no longer a drifting bit of nothing in a giant void, but a being who can relate to the most profound experiences.
These questions have intrigued humans since the dawn of time and the answers change with the time but are never diminished in importance. Today we are more oriented to science; to physical proofs to answer our questions, but need that diminish the value and correctness of the view of people of other times, who, lacking modern instruments, were more poetic in answering those fundamental questions?