Recently, my attention was drawn to a unique representation of a Maya Goddess in the Cozumel Island Museum in Mexico. This statue depicted the goddess with only four fingers on each hand, unlike the nearby replica that showed five. I wondered who this goddess was and if the missing finger in the original was intentional.
The goddess in question turned out to be Ixchel, a Mayan goddess associated with fertility, agriculture, rain, childbirth and healing. She was also closely linked to the moon and its phases, which the Maya believed to be female due to its connection to the length of the menstruation cycles. Ixchel was a vital figure in Mayan mythology, and her worship was widespread throughout the Mayan empire. In the Dresden Codex, one of the very rare surviving Maya writings, she is depicted as an old woman with a serpent headdress, as well as a young woman with rabbit ears holding a water jar.
Ixchel was closely associated with the moon and was thought to have the ability to control its phases and the tides.
Cozumel Island was an important center of her worship and pilgrimage, with the Temple of the Goddess being a low but impressive structure where important ceremonies and rituals were held. The temple was also referred to as the Temple of the Moon or “Miramar” because of its proximity to the sea.
Ancient pictures of Ixcel from the Dresden Codex.
The image in the museum showing the elderly Ixchel kneeling on the floor, also known as the “Old Lady of Cozumel,” is a unique and powerful representation that has survived from ancient times. Ixchel is portrayed as an old woman with long hair and drooping breasts, kneeling with her arms over her belly. And with four- fingered hands.
The depiction of the goddess with only four fingers can not only be found in Cozumel but also in other Mayan sites. This cannot be an error, as signs above Ixchel’s statue in the Cozumel temple also show clearly only four-fingered hands. Moreover, Mayan cave paintings very often feature three and four-fingered hands. Therefore, the possibility of a symbolic association to Mayan beliefs and numerology and especially to the moon cannot be ruled out.
The significance of the four-fingered portrayal of Ixchel is not entirely clear. Yet, it may relate to the moon phases, as the Maya utilized a complex system of timekeeping based on moon observations.
The Cozumel temple is believed to have been a lunar observatory that recorded the lunar standstill and the moon’s movements through the sky. Therefore, it is likely that the original representation of Ixchel had only four fingers in reference to the moon.
The Maya gave an enourmous atention to the earth’s satelite: The full moon was associated with planting fruits that grow on the ground (tomatoes, chiles, cucumbers, melons, watermelons). The crescent moon phase was used to plant plants with leaves (flowers, and stems, such as coriander, lettuce, peppermint, epazote). The waning moon was the moment for planting grains and seeds (corn, beans, and lentils). Finally, the new moon was used to plant fruits beneath the ground (onions, garlic, beets, radishes, carrots, and potatoes).
In the Maya world, the moon was associated with the rabbit. On the surface of a full moon, the rabbit was said to be visible in profile, and various myths explained its presence. Thus, the goddess Ixchel was also often depicted as a young and beautiful woman with rabbit ears or holding a rabbit in her arms.
Much of our knowledge about Mayan calendars and timekeeping is based on interpretation and speculation, as much of the written records were destroyed during the Spanish conquest. As a result, it is difficult to determine the precise meaning of many Mayan symbols and signs, including those associated with Ixchel.
One thing however seems certain: The goddess Ixchel was intentionally depicted with only four fingers.
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