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Gulf Coast was once called "Place of the Moon Goddess"

Ixchel was both the goddess of the New Moon and the Rainbow to the Chontal Maya of southern Mexico.
Ixchel was both the goddess of the New Moon and the Rainbow to the Chontal Maya of southern Mexico.
Photo and sculpture by Richard Thornton

Thousands of rivers, creeks, mountains and towns across North America carry Native American names. Most can be translated from the language of the indigenous people who once lived in that place. What does it mean, however, when the word comes from a people who supposedly lived 800 miles away?

When Spanish explorer, Pánfilo de Narváez sailed into Pensacola Bay, FL in 1528, he was told that the name of the province that formed a crescent from Mobile Bay, AL down to Cedar Key, FL was a word that the Spanish recorded as Amichel. The Pensacola Indians, who lived there, apparently didn’t know what the word meant. They called the bay area itself, Ochausi, which the Spanish recorded as Ochuse.

In the five centuries since Pensacola’s discovery, scholars have debated the meanings of these two Native words, Amichel and Ochuse. Ochausi is identical to a Creek Indian word and very similar to a Choctaw Indian word, but Amichel didn’t seem to come from any known Native American language. On the other hand, the meaning of Pensacola was obvious. Pensacola means “Live Oak People” in the Apalachicola-Lower Creek language. It is known that unlike most branches of the Creek Indians, the Pensacola harvested Live Oak acorns instead of growing corn. The Wahale Creeks (Guale) of coastal Georgia also did this.

The Chontal Maya

The Chontal Maya were merchants and skilled navigators, who sailed the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and the Pacific coast, to haul luxury goods between the great civilizations of the region. They built true sailing ships, not canoes that had about the same capacities and qualities of Viking long ships. The Chontal Maya originated in the tidal marshes of Tabasco in Mexico. They spoke a somewhat different language than most Maya city-dwellers. Even though the Chontal Maya were considered illiterate barbarians by the more sophisticated Maya peoples of Yucatan, they eventually became very wealthy and powerful from trade. After most of the great Maya cities were abandoned, the Chontal Maya came to dominate the region.

Amichel has no meaning in any of the indigenous languages of the Southeast, but is pronounced the same as the Chontal Maya word for “Place of the Moon Goddess” – Am-Ixchel. “Am” was a prefix meaning “place of.” “Ix” is Chontal Maya prefix applied to deities. “Chel” means “rainbow.” Ixchell was once the goddess of the rainbow, but eventually also became the goddess of the new moon because of the crescent shape of both rainbows and new moons. The name Am-Ix-chel was applied to several islands off the coast of Mexico and Yucatan where young single women and newly married women would go to pray at temples to Ixchel for healthy children.

Ixchel was a very important goddess to Chontal and Itza Maya women in the centuries immediately prior to the Spanish conquest. However, it was not an important goddess to the Classic Mayas, who built the great cities in Central American between 200 BC and 900 AD. Originally, Maya artisans portrayed her as a beautiful, young woman. However, in later centuries, she could also be portrayed as a mature woman carrying a pet rabbit. The rabbit symbolized fertility. It is thought that second type of artistic portrayal was symbolic of Ixchel’s role as a “spiritual midwife” to assist problem-free births.

Chontal Maya temples, dedicated to Ixchel, were constructed on crescent-shaped earthen mounds that both symbolized the new moon and the rainbow. In the lower Southeast, several small, crescent shaped mounds have been discovered, particularly in Florida and Georgia. Archaeologists in the past were perplexed because the shapes didn’t seem to match what was typical of American Indians. However, historians and anthropologists knew little about the Chontal Mayas until recent decades. Since the Chontal built mounds and houses identical to those of the ancestors of the Creek Indians, the possible connection to Mexico was not considered by archaeologists.

Perdido Bay, Florida

There are literally thousands of earthen mounds in the Southeast, but only a few survive that are in eyesight of the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, or even a bay. This does not mean that they never existed. The Gulf and South Atlantic Coasts are is intermittently subjected to violent hurricanes which severely alter the landscape of the ocean’s edge each time they strike. The outlets of major rivers such as the Mississippi, Mobile and Apalachicola are constantly dumping silt on the landscape. The barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina are constantly changing, even though they are rarely hit directly by major hurricanes.

There is one bay, however, in which for unknown reasons, there are numerous earthen mounds still existing. They are mostly at the edge of the bay and under shallow water. None have been excavated by professional archaeologists. Very few, if any, have been even assigned formal numbers in Florida’s archaeological site index file. One bay is immediately east of Pensacola and the other is west of Pensacola. The one on the west is named Perdido Bay. Ironically, “perdido” means “lost or hidden” in Spanish. Could this “hidden bay” also be hiding vestiges of the explorations of ancient Maya traders? This question can not be answered until these mounds are studied by professional archaeologists.

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