The island of Cozumel, called Cuzamil by ancient Mayas, lies off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It was a shrine and pilgrimage destination for women, sacred to the goddess Ix Chel. Mayan women made the journey to Cuzamil twice during their lives, at menarche and menopause. They sought the blessings of Ix Chel for a good marriage, fertility, abundance and safe childbearing. Thousands would travel by canoe from Pole, present-day Playa del Carmen, across treacherous currents. The trip took twelve hours, and specially trained men, who understood the shifting currents, rowed the canoes. Legends tell that between 600-800 CE only women and children could live on the island. It was a place of sanctuary for marginal women, and sheltered orphans, widows, barren women and those who crossed sexual boundaries.
Today in Yucatan, the ritual crossing to Cozumel is held annually, called “La Travesia.” It is a re-creation of the ancient Cuzamil pilgrimage that was lost for over 500 years. The ruins of a city called San Gervasio hint at its former splendor, with columns rising on large platforms, shrines to the goddess and the elements, and a long causeway (sakbe) leading to the landing point for canoes bringing women for pilgrimage. One shrine to Ix Chel holds a carved stone column with a woman giving birth, with imprints of red hands over the carving. Another shrine called “Las Manitas” has a stucco facade with murals
decorated by designs in black lines on a Maya blue background. To the right side of its facade, Maya visitors left their own red hand prints on the wall, a common practice in the region. Passages run underneath these structures leading to small shrines inside caves, and causeways connect many complexes. The site was abandoned during the 10th century, but it continued as a pilgrimage site, noted by Spanish friars in the early 16th century.
The Oracle of Cuzamil. The Spaniards reported that Mayas sought advice of an oracle on the island of Cuzamil. A large statue of Ix Chel, made either of ceramic or wood, allowed a person to remain concealed inside. Pilgrims would ask the oracle questions, either directly or through a priest, and the Ix Chel priestess inside the statue would give answers. Pilgrims believed the Ix Chel oracle gave true answers to questions about their lives and guidance about which choices to make. It was even reported that the oracle would prophesy outcomes of conflicts and wars.
Oracles exist in many cultures, and usually function under the influence of mind-altering substances. The famous Oracle of Delphi, Greece, who prophesied during the seventh to the fourth centuries BCE,
was said to allow Apollo to possess her body and speak through her. Called Pythia, she sat on a tripod seat over a fissure in the earth. Myth relates that when Apollo slew the great snake Python, its body fell into this fissure and fumes arose from its decomposition. The priestess breathed these fumes and became intoxicated, falling into a trance during which Apollo spoke through her. Plutarch described that Pythia would lapse into semi-consciousness, and respond to questions in an altered voice. At other times, her trance involved frenzied delirium, with wild thrashing of limbs, groaning and inarticulate cries. After this delirium, she died in a few days and another Pythia took her place.
According to toxicologists, these symptoms are associated with inhalation of hydrocarbon gasses. Similar effects are observed in “huffers” who breathe fumes from glue, paint thinner, or gas. The presence of a sweet smell, which Plutarch reported during Pythia’s trances, indicates the hydrocarbon gas ethylene. Greek geologists have identified a small fracture in the earth extending up from the intersection of two major fault lines running underneath the Delphi temple. The limestone under the temple is bituminous (oil-bearing) with a petrochemical content as high as 20 percent. It appears that slippage in the faults heated adjacent rock masses, vaporizing the lighter petrochemicals in the limestone and expelling gasses upward through the fissure. They believe that gases produced rose up the crack and entered the temple just below the stool on which Pythia sat. Ethylene is known to produce violent trances. Probably when smaller amounts were expelled, the oracle was less affected and was able to speak lucid prophesies.
The Oracle of Cuzamil also used hallucinogenic substances to vacate her body and offer it as a vessel for the goddess Ix Chel.One such substance came from the skin glands of a large bufonid marine toad. A disproportionate number of these toad bones are found in human burials on Cuzamel, probably because of their ritual uses. The poison from toad glands was prepared in special ways, because when ingested it can cause tremors, paralysis, convulsions and death. It appears that the ancient Mayas made it into an enema; these clysters or enema syringes had a distinct glyph and appear frequently in painted ceramics. The clysters were gourds with an elongated, pointed end. Other substances were included, such as concentrate made from crushed Datura flowers and fermented maguey juice. Maguey is an agave plant related to those used for tequila. Datura, which grows wild in regional jungles, is a well-known hallucinogen. The oracle’s preparation probably included ritual purification in a steam bath, infused with herbs such as basil, cedar, vervain and Pay-che; and a period of fasting. She likely smoked potent tobacco in a small clay pipe that also affected her senses. A rare blue-leafed tobacco was grown on Cuzamil that is said to produce a floating sensation and separate consciousness from the body. Morning glory seeds, which alter consciousness, may have been used, along with other herbs, in an ointment to massage the oracle’s skin, opening the path to disembodiment.
After such a potent mixture of hallucinogens, the oracle would be semi-conscious and need assistance walking. She may have been carried by attendants to the temple and helped into the statue, where she probably was tied to a chair or other type of support to prevent falling over. It seems amazing that the oracle could function, much less understand communications and give coherent responses. But, such is
the sacred mystery of the oracle. Those with mystical leanings will believe that another intelligence took charge of this vessel, emptied of its human awareness and ritually purified. Whether goddess, god or the collective consciousness, this intelligence reached down through the human vessel to deliver messages to seekers.
To be an oracle required extensive training, unwavering commitment and a strong constitution to survive the rigors of the process. Still, oracles did not have a long life expectancy, either in Greece or Cuzamil. The great honor of serving the Goddess and her people drew many young women into training, and the gifts given in appreciation built the wealth of the oracle’s city.
The Oracle of Cuzamil appears in the final book of the Mists of Palenque Series, as youthful K’inuuw Mat makes the sacred pilgrimage to the island of Ix Chel and hopes to remain there to serve the goddess. However, fate has other plans and she is destined to marry Pakal’s youngest son in Lakam Ha (Palenque), and through this union to continue the dynasty.
The Prophetic Mayan Queen: K’inuuw Mat of Palenque, Book 4 by Leonide Martin (expected publication date summer 2016)
Buy Books 1, 2 & 3 at my Amazon Author Page