St. Itzel?

Okay, this one is a weirdie, because (as with Gaelic or Germanic names) the people giving their kids this name “Itzel” do not necessarily care about its actual meaning. They are giving the name out of ethnic pride, or because it’s a family name, or because it’s an “old” name or a “cool” name. And there’s nothing wrong with that. OTOH, there’s a big Mayan language resurgence, among people of Mayan descent and people who just like Maya stuff. So you could run into someone who could give you a dissertation on the name.

“Itzel” means “star” in Nahualá K’iche’, a Guatemalan dialect of Quiche Maya. So it’s the exact equivalent of names like “Esther,” “Stella,” “Estrella,” “Aster,” “Zvezda,” and so on. It’s pronounced with the “ts” in English “mats.”

It may be related to the Mayan word “itz,” meaning dew or nectar. The ancient Mayan tablets record a title, itz’at, which means something like “scholar” or “learned man.” So it’s possible that this title is also a cognate. (Yeah, you can tell I don’t know bupkis about Mayan languages/dialects, and this is just me looking stuff up on the Internet. If you are serious about learning Mayan glyphs and language, has a huge printable study guide.)

There are also close “false friend” cognates which don’t mean the same thing. “Itzehl” is the name of a moon goddess among the Huastecan and Poqom, in southern Mexico. “Itsehl” is a Yucatecan and Quichean name, also in southern Mexico, and people think of it as meaning “rainbow.” Both are names descended from the old Mayan goddess named Ixchel (pronounced “Ishchel,” and meaning something like “Lady Rainbow” or “Female Rainbow,” but her name was also written in Mayan glyphs as “Chak Chel” or “big rainbow”) who was the goddess of the moon, midwifery, etc., was a jaguar, and had the rabbit in the moon as an attribute.

On the old Mayan tablets, a woman holding an office has her office preceded by the prefix “ix-“, meaning “woman.” So anyone titled kalomte’ was a very high status king, but an ixkalomte’ was a very high status woman ruler. (So maybe there were other gods holding the title of Rainbow, at some point, but Ixchel was the female rainbow, or rainbow-ess.) However, it was also used as a generic female name prefix, where the male prefix was ah-. (Unless those “names” were actually titles also.)

Anyhoo, they say that Itzel was an uncommon name in Guatemala, but it’s now a common name among Americans of Guatemalan, Mexican, or Mayan heritage, or those who wish to identify with Mayan heritage. So is Ixchel and its modern-day versions, Itzehl and Itsehl.

Obviously Ixchel can be a sticky Catholic baptismal name if somebody were actually worshipping pagan goddesses or trying to do so. But Christians have a right to give names that have been well-established among local Christians, just like you meet Catholics named Diana.

And like I said, the name Itzel is analogous to Esther in the Bible. So no problem there. The Bible associates stars with angels, and obviously there’s the Christmas star.

St. Esther’s Day is July 1. Her feast is often forgotten because it’s also the Feast of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, but she’s got one.

There are twenty-one Maya languages just in Guatemala, so the Guatemalan government standardized the Latin alphabet used to write them down, in 1987. Resources from before this standardization will employ different spellings.

K’iche’-English Dictionary, by Allen Christenson, which includes a pronunciation guide, and reversed English-K’iche’ Dictionary. In this K’iche language, which is spoken in Momostenango and Totonicapan, “ch’umil” means star — and “itzel” means bad or evil, with “itz” meaning a demon or the devil, and “itzij” meaning to bewitch someone. So you can see there’s a lot of differences between vocabulary in closely related languages! OTOH, “Ix Motz” (female star-cluster) is the name of the Pleiades.

Combined Dictionary/Concordance of the Yucatecan Maya Language, linked to the “itz” page. “Itz” is a sap, resin, or liquid. “Itz caan” is dew, ie, sky-liquid, as explained by a legend about the king/god Itzamat-ul. “Idzat” as a verb is to learn an art, and an “idzat” is either a learned, wise man or artist, or the apprentice of such a person. “Idzil” is something annoying that makes you angry.

Ancient Mayan glyphs for “star”. I think it’s a very pretty glyph; and very suitable for drawing, if you’re looking for kids’ activities. (Of course, since I’m not good at drawing anything complicated, I love simple and pretty things!) Anyway, yet another word – ek’. Presumably the “star” meaning of “itzel” is derived from this, somehow.

The morning star (ie, Venus seen in the morning) was associated in ancient Mayan materials with the reborn/deified One Hunahpu, the slain father of the hero twins, who became the morning star, One Ixim. (If I understand this correctly.) Apparently this was reenacted by a lot of Mayan kings in rituals. The day name “Lamat” was supposedly referring to Venus as the star in question.

Dictionary of the Chuj (Mayan) Language. Star is k’anal, from k’an, yellow.

Obviously this is a big topic!


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3 responses to “St. Itzel?

  1. Oooh, the title of Wise Man related to star would also point to the Three Wise Men.

  2. Nice catch!

    Yeah, I think it’s a pretty name.

    There’s a whole bunch of Nahuatl (Aztec/Toltec) names that are also becoming more common, and I want to cover some of them too.

    It’s kind of a mixed bag, because some of them are pretty and all of them are interesting, but obviously the spelling and pronunciation are kind of a nightmare for most of the world. But a lot of the parents choosing these baby names (or at least the ones on Reddit, sigh) are kind of highhanded about it, just assuming that the rest of the world are evil “colonizers” who must be made to deal with it, or that magically people will be able to pronounce any name if they try hard enough.

    Sigh. We live in a world where my own name, despite being “normal,” was constantly transformed into ENTIRELY DIFFERENT NAMES, a different one every time, by most of the people to whom I introduced myself. We also live in a world where both unfamiliar and totally familiar names, regardless of ethnic background, are routinely changed into the worst possible words that sound vaguely like the name, and used by kids to mock and bully kids.

    So it’s all very frustrating to see parents, of whatever culture, primarily worried about their own creativity or culture or feelings, and not just trying to give their kids a solid name that they can live with throughout life, and that won’t look too strange on a resume and get it thrown out as someone trolling the company. (Although, if you live in Utah, apparently a “normal” name might make you stand out, in some parts of the state.)

    But also, I just want to find out what names actually mean, and not what some baby name site has pulled out of their butt to have them mean. Even one museum running a Maya exhibit had a Mayan name article that was obviously derived from a baby name site, and which included a bunch of what were either not native Mayan names, or had mistakenly been defined as meaning what the European meaning was. (I had been hoping there would just be an article about contemporary Mayan names in Guatemala/Mexico, but nooooo.)

    Apparently, re: the museum article, there is some kind of number prefix thing going on, which tells about the date of birth of the Mayan kid, and is a pun or something related. But I really couldn’t understand it or trust it, especially since the museum article didn’t give any examples. It does seem sort of plausible, because one of the academic sites said that a lot of ancient Mayan names on the stelae would be prefixed by the k’atun (sp?) of the person’s life, which lets the archaeologists figure out the age of the person at the time of carving, but that wasn’t explained much either.

    OTOH, if there’s a bunch of resources out there that are just crazy and patchwork made up, that means a lot of people are searching for resources, and that the shadier baby name sites were determined to meet the demand.

    Baptismal names are important, and I want both namegivers and people with those names to be able to feel the full dignity of the names they bear.

    • Generations of women named some variation of Catherine– I think we got over 20 variations that one time we asked folks for examples of spellings people had seen on Sarah’s site, and that’s before the Cathy, Kitty, Kate stuff– laugh at the idea of folks just knowing how a name is said and spelled. 😀

      OTOH, the slightly odd old Roman name we gave one of the boys (justified by Longinus) matches the slightly younger little boy who lives across our tiny town, so names can cycle quickly even if they’re out of mode right now, and is easy to spell.

      I’ve loved knowing what names mean ever since I realized that it makes everything sound like a fantasy novel. Catherine Jones becomes Pure Favor of God, etc.

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