Ixchel, the jaguar goddess of midwifery and medicine in ancient Maya.
Today, when most people think about the pre-Columbian Maya people, they think about the long-count (Mayan) calendar and sites like Chichen Itza. But a lot of people don’t realize that the descendants of the ancient Maya still live southern Mexico and northern Central America. There are an estimated 6 million Maya living today, and many of them have kept portions of their Maya heritage.
A Maya girl making a hammock in Yucatan, Mexico.
The Maya standard of beauty was very different than what we think of today. While their skulls were still soft, babies had a board pressed against their forehead to create a flattened surface. Crossed eyes were also desirable, and objects would be dangled in front of a baby’s eyes so they would become permanently crossed. Children were also named for the day they were born; there were specific names associated with each day of the year, and parents were expected to use those names.
Children in the Maya city-states were cherished and valued, but from about the age of five, expected to help their parents, and their duties followed traditional gender roles. Agriculture was a central part of life: boys would accompany their fathers into the fields during the day, and would help them hunt and trap as well. Girls were expected to learn and help with household duties, such as preparing food. Women were responsible for the “economics of food;” in other words, ensuring that there was enough to eat. Deer was a common meat, and sometimes deer were kept in the household, so while men were responsible for killing the deer, the women made sure that there was enough deer to hunt. Households also had religious shrines which the women were responsible for, and, as religion was important to the Maya, girls were taught how to maintain these domestic shrines.
Some, if not all girls, would have also learned the arts of spinning and weaving. Textiles were an important part of the economy, and they were produced by women. Archaeological finds suggest that textiles were created and valued as art, not just for household uses. As such, women would have been valued for their ability to create something with lasting value.
Outside of the household, there were limited opportunities for girls to aspire to, though there is evidence that some girls learned to read and write (and thus could have become scribes). Some girls had the chance to become matchmakers, while others because midwives. ¬†Around the age of 15, children were expected to become independent, and soon after, start their own families.
Girl Museum Inc.