Mending the Past: IX Chel and the Invention of a Modern Pop Goddess

Article excerpt

Introduction

Archaeologists have begun to examine the ways in which knowledge about the ancient past is consumed and appropriated. The Postclassic period supernatural patron of weaving known today as Ixchel, the Maya Moon Goddess, has become a common image in both modern marketing and cultural revitalisation movements within the greater Maya area. A simple search for 'Ixcher on Google or any other search engine produces almost 50 000 instantaneous results for everything from resorts to language schools to feminist retreat centres. How has this relatively obscure deity from the Maya ethnohistoric literature penetrated so deeply into modern popular consciousness? This essay explores the history of an idea based on archaeological evidence, and attempts an archaeology of knowledge about an ancient deity with modern significance. The study documents the modern appropriation of academic scholarship for deliberate re-imaginations of the past, by exploring the relevance of a re-imagined ancient deity to modern communities as both a native symbol of gender specific household roles and an exoticised commercial symbol of Maya-ness. I use the populariscd spelling 'Ixchel' to refer to the modern re-imagination of the ancient deity known in the academic literature also as 'Ix Chel'. Three well-known modern examples, each using the icon of Ixchel, are examined for evidence of a pattern of interpretation and intention. I conclude with suggestions about why the study of archaeological knowledge production is important today, and why myths about the weaving goddess continue to retain meaning and significance among various modern communities along the Caribbean coast and beyond.

Modern citations of Ixchel

Perhaps the best-known museum of Maya textile arts is the Museo Ixchel in Guatemala City (Figure 1). Opened in 1973, the museum claims to have taken its name from the pre-hispanic Maya goddess of fertility and weaving arts. It displays hand-woven fabrics from 120 highland Maya communities, some produced as early as the nineteenth century, but focuses upon a large number of huipiles and other fabric arts from Maya weavers working today. Rotating exhibits of photographs, sculpture and painting centre on so-called 'folk artists' of Guatemala, some of whom are culturally Maya. The cafe and gift shop are popular places for tourists, and as one of the most popular museums in Guatemala, the Museo Ixchel receives thousands of visitors a year. One of the explicit aims of the Museo Ixchel is the preservation, promotion and documentation of traditional Maya weaving technology, and to that end weaving classes and demonstrations of the back strap loom are given, and a library of specialised literature on the Maya textile tradition is available to scholars. The Museo Ixchel also publishes books devoted to Maya textiles, such as the Bibliography of Maya Textiles (Randall 1993) and The Maya of Guatemala: Their Life and Dress (Peterson 1976).

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The Ix Chel Tropical Research Foundation in Belize, better known as Ix Chel Farms, is a 35 acre private foundation and forest preserve in western Belize on which popular naprapathic healer Rosa Arvigo lives and cultivates medicinal plants. Dr Arvigo is best known as the author of Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer (1994) which chronicles her apprenticeship with Don Eligio Panti, a traditional Maya herbalist of Belize, but Arvigo has also written other popular books on herbal healing and sells a line of products based on Maya recipes called Rainforest Remedies. The remedies use a prominent popularised image of Ix Chel (Figure 2) on their label, and literature from the preserve says Ix Chel Farms is named in honour of the Mayan goddess of healing.

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'Dr Rosita', as she is known, was a student of alternative healing and moved her family from Chicago to Belize in order to live in a country where herbal healing was culturally accepted. …