Midwifery on Ancient Cozumel Island

In ancient times, the now resort-laden island of Cozumel, Mexico served Maya women as a sanctuary, pilgrimage, school of midwifery, weaving and sacred mysteries. In this piece, Rosita Arvigo, naprapathic physician, herbalist, and teacher of Maya medicine, shares her knowledge of this incredible monument to women, fertility and the sacred profession of midwifery, which have in so many ways been forgotten, along with the goddess who represents them, Ix Chel.

If you visit Yucatan, Mexico on a journey to Cozumel Island you will see ocean-side resorts, cruise ships, sun umbrellas, white beaches and ubiquitous dive shops.  Few realize that they tread on sacred ground once the sanctuary and home of Ix Chel, Maya Earth Goddess of medicine, midwives, fertility, childbirth, the moon, death and weaving.  Her temple at San Gervasio, one of three ancient island sites dedicated to the Goddess of Healing, is a sprawling complex of stone and mortar buildings, sacred caves and an island-wide white road that wisdom-seeking women traversed when on pilgrimage to the island.  The ancients named the island Cuzamil after the cliff swallows (cuzam) that return annually to the seven high stone towers that once graced the central ceremonial district.  Hernan Cortes and his five hundred Spaniards, twenty-four horses and five ships first landed here on their journey from Hispaniola (Cuba) in 1519.  The cruel Bishop Diego de Landa referred to the women of Cuzamil as “those infamous idolaters” because they continued to worship their beloved Goddess well into the 19th century.  “They go there for parturition,” Landa reported to the King of Spain in 1541.

Cozumel served Maya women as a sanctuary, pilgrimage, school of midwifery, weaving and sacred mysteries.  They learned midwifery techniques along with general care of women and children. They were taught water scrying (divination), crystal gazing, astronomy and the sacred art of prophecy. Here, in peace and safety, lived abandoned childless women, orphaned girls and women who preferred the love of other women.  It was particularly compassionate that childless women were charged with raising orphaned children who might otherwise be likely victims of human sacrifice. Cuzamil was home to the Oracle, a priestess of Ix Chel’s temple who, in a hallucinogenic trance induced state, gave prophecies from inside a seven-foot clay likeness of Her.  Like other Earth Goddesses around the world, Ix Chel was depicted in the three phases of a woman’s life: maiden, mother and grandmother. Maya women once referred to these as women of the first, second and third age. Her name, Ix Chel, best translates as Lady Rainbow or Goddess of Translucent Light. Thus her symbol was the rainbow; her totems were the snake for wisdom, medicine and intuitive knowledge; the rabbit for fertility; the spider for weaving; and the dragon-fly who hummed her back to life when she was killed with a bolt of lightning by her jealous husband, the Sun. Ix Chel had many husbands.  She left  the cruel and abusive Sun God for the Rain God, then left him for the Vulture God until  she decided to live alone as the Moon Goddess.  As soon as one of her consorts, the Sun, sets in the West, she makes her lone appearance in the East. You can see her image in the full moon if you look closely for a rabbit or a young woman kneeling at a loom.

For hundreds of years, ancient women from all over Meso-America (known then as The Land of the Turkey and the Deer which included ancient Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba and Puerto Rico) made pilgrimages to Cuzamil to birth their babies.  Custom was to take girls on a pilgrimage to Cuzamil as soon as the blood cycles started to request fertility, a good husband and ease of childbirth. A second pilgrimage was required after the child-bearing years to give thanks for Her blessings or, if fertility challenge was a woman’s fate, she would return to live out her days on the sacred island in service to Ix Chel and the women and children who lived and visited there. Because childless women were rejected by their husbands and often refused back into the parent’s home, many pilgrims to Cuzamil were married women seeking fertility treatments from the famous midwives.

The pilgrim’s offerings, the industriousness of the women and the wealth of the land made the island incredibly prosperous, thus independent. The queens of Cuzamil controlled lucrative ocean going trade routes at the Northern end of the island where traders from Tenochitlan and as far south as Panama came to make their offerings to the Goddess of All Waters, to determine prices, trade and pick up valuable feathers, woven mantles and honey produced by the women of the island. The Spanish chroniclers said that long before arriving at the harbors surrounding Cuzamil, one met a high, rich aroma of honey.

From the ancient chronicles recorded by the Spanish friars, we know that midwifery was a highly respected profession, especially if learned on Cuzamil Island with the realm’s best midwives who lived in service to Ix Chel.  There would, of course, have been various methods of childbirth but one of the most interesting was for the mother to squat holding on to a rope tied to a house beam overhead.  When a contraction came, she pulled on the rope. Leaning against an elder female relative, (feet firmly planted on the earth) a cotton band was tied above the mother’s fundus and then tightened during contractions to aid the downward passage of the fetus.

Cuzamil midwives practiced and taught pelvic/abdominal massage as a part of women’s care to center the uterus, re-position a fetus and strengthen uterine ligaments and muscles to allow for an unimpeded flow of chu’lel, a word that best translates as vital force or chi.  Three days after delivery, the mother, sitting upon a round opening in a stone bench, was given a yoni steam with nine herbs.

During my thirteen-year apprenticeship with Don Elijio Panti, (1893-1996) shaman, healer and advisor to midwives in Belize, I learned about the healing prayers, massage and steams. Although I have been a practicing natural healer specializing in women and children for over four decades and have studied a great deal, no modality has served so many women so well as the Maya abdominal massage and the yoni steam.  (See Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer, Harper Collins, 1994)

Like the ancient Maya women, our organization of Maya Abdominal Therapists makes a semi-annual pilgrimage to Cozumel Island to offer our gratitude and prayers to Ix Chel who has become our patroness.  Until we started digging up Her many images to spread around the world, writing about Her, researching and passing down Her ancient teachings, she was all but a forgotten Goddess of the Americas.  Now, in keeping with the Maya promise of a resurgence of the Divine Feminine Principle after 2012, she has been enthroned in her former glory. My life is now completely dedicated to sharing these ancient techniques with people the world-over and to assuring that Ix Chel is never again a forgotten Goddess.

Rosita Arvigo, DN is a naprapathic physician, herbalist, international lecturer, author and teacher of Maya medicine. She has lived in Belize for thirty years where she studied with more than a dozen traditional healers, the most famous of whom was her mentor Don Elijio Panti who passed away in 1996 at the age of 103. Dr. Arvigo is the director of The Arvigo Institute, Rainforest Remedies, The Traditional Healers Foundation and founding member of the Belize Ethnobotany Project. For the past fifteen years, Rosita Arvigo has been working on a novel called “The Island of Women, the story of ancient Cuzamil, the seers and midwives who lived and taught there”, to further explore and reveal the power of these women and the Goddess. To learn more about the Arvigo Techniques of Maya Abdominal Therapy visit www.arvigotherapy.com and www.rositaarvigo.com.

“Hail Ix Chel Mother of All Creation. Blessed art Thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of the womb, all Creation. Holy Ix Chel Mother of all pray for us now and at the hour of our trials. Amen”

— Prayer to Ix Chel