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The weather is getting hot now (super hot in some areas), and we are drawing close to the Summer Solstice, which is on Saturday. That means Christmas holidays are just about to start, or have started already! It seems like a good time of year to look at a name connected with both sunshine and Christmas.

I only learned about this name a few months ago, when I saw a Tasmanian chef called Chaxiraxi Afonso Higuera on television. Her first name absolutely fascinated me, and I had to look it up. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

Chaxiraxi is a goddess known as the Sun Mother in the Guanche religion – the Guanches are the indigenous people of the Canary Islands. The Canaries belong to Spain, but are situated just off the coast of north-west Africa, and the Guanches are Berbers, who have been in the Canary Islands for perhaps as long as three thousand years. The Guanches are not considered to exist in the Canaries as a distinct ethnic group, but traces of their language and culture can still be found there, and DNA tests show a high proportion of the Canarian population have Guanche ancestry from their female lineage.

Not much is known of the Guanche religion, but their gods lived in the mountains, descending to hear the prayers of the people. The Guanche worshipped outdoors, under trees, in caves, or near mountains, with particularly fervent prayers during times of drought. Chaxiraxi was their mother goddess, who had a special festival on August 15 to celebrate the end of the harvest season, and at that time food such as milk, flour made from roasted grains, and sheep and goat’s meat was shared.

The worship of Chaxiraxi continued in the Canaries in a very surprising way. According to legends told by early Spanish settlers, a statue of the Virgin Mary, holding a child in one hand, and a green candle in the other, was discovered on a beach on the island of Tenerife by two Guanche goatherds. This was in 1392, before the islands were conquered by Spain.

One of the goatherds tried to throw a stone at the statue, but his arm became paralysed; the other tried to stab it with a knife, but ended up stabbing himself. The goatherds took the strangely self-protecting statue to their king, who recognised it as a sacred artefact, and kept it in his cave-palace, where it was venerated as an image of Chaxiraxi. Holding a baby it was easy to see it as a mother goddess, and holding a source of light made it easy to associate with a goddess who gave birth the sun.

Later, a Guanche who had been enslaved by the Spanish and converted to Christianity recognised the statue as the Virgin Mary. The Guanche then took it to another cave, where it was venerated as the Virgin. Archaeologists tell us this cave was a holy site long before Mary was worshipped there, and many of the Guanche continued to see the statue as Chaxiraxi, or saw no difference between the mother goddess and the mother of God. When the islands were conquered, the Spanish believed that the Guanche were already Christians because of the statue.

In 1497 the first mass was performed at the holy shrine, and a hermitage built there in 1526, in the name of Our Lady of the Candelaria – the name coming from the candle the statue held. The Virgin of Candelaria was named as the patron saint of the Canary Islands in 1559, and prayers to the Virgin have been offered against epidemics, plagues, droughts, and volcanic eruptions. Her feast day is August 15 – the same day as Chaxiraxi’s festival, which coincides with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

The original statue was lost in 1826 when a tsunami carried it out to the sea from which it emerged; the present statue is a copy, always dressed in rich robes and jewels (it’s possible the one lost at sea was a copy of the original).

The cult of Our Lady of Candelaria swept through the Americas when the Spanish conquered there; Canarians emigrating to America took the veneration of the Virgin with them, in the same way Irish emigrants would later bring Saint Patrick. She is venerated in South America and the Caribbean, where she is the patron saint of cities in Bolivia, Colombia and Puerto Rico, and there is an image of her in San Antonio, Texas. The oldest Catholic cathedral in the United States is in San Fernando, Texas, and here you may see a replica of the statue of the Virgin of Candelaria.

As the veneration of the Virgin of Candelaria spread through different countries, she came to be identified with other goddesses. In the Caribbean religion of Santeria, with the Yoruba storm goddess Oya; in the Brazilian Canomble, with the love goddess Oshun; in Hinduism with the goddess Kali, who rules over Time; and in the indigenous religion of the Andes, with Pachamama, the mother goddess of earth, time, fertility and the harvest – the closest one to Chaxiraxi.

The original statue is believed to have been a medieval Gothic image of the Virgin Mary, perhaps from the prow of a wrecked ship. Because it had dark skin and held a baby, it was one of the so-called Black Madonnas which were created in medieval Europe.

Their significance is not understood, but one theory is that they were an attempt to convert images of ancient earth goddesses to Christian use. Many goddesses such as Isis and Demeter were depicted with black skin, because black is the colour of rich soil, and thus a sign of fertility. The Black Madonnas appear around the time of the Crusades, when Europeans travelled to the Middle East and Africa, and possibly saw such images.

If so, it would seem that the Virgin of Candelaria is a pagan mother goddess become Christian icon become multiple pagan goddesses merged with a Christian symbol of womanhood and motherhood.

I have seen the meaning of Chaxiraxi given, by scholars of the Guanche language, either “she who holds up the heavens”, or “bearer of he who possesses the world”. It is often translated as “sun mother” or “mother of the sun” but that is the goddess’ title rather than the meaning of her name.

Because Chaxiraxi is so strongly associated with the Virgin Mary (and could even be seen as her forerunner, paving the way for easier acceptance of Christianity), the name was acceptable for use by Catholics. It isn’t that rare in the Canary Islands, although more common as a middle name. The name is also used in the Caribbean and Latin America, in areas where the veneration of the Virgin of Candelaria, and Canarian culture, has spread.

I’m not completely sure on how Chaxiraxi is pronounced. In some South American countries it seems to be something like hahk-see-rahk-see, but the lady I saw, who is originally from the Canary Islands, only used the first half of her name, and pronounced it SHAH-see, which sounds much softer and prettier.

This is a genuinely unusual name, very ancient and redolent of a mysterious power. Chaxiraxi has managed to not only survive, but flourish, and attract followers from a range of religions and cultures around the world. So much of her history is myth and legend, but the mother of the sun who has become merged with the mother of the Son, while not being submerged by her, continues to captivate me.

POLL RESULT: Chaxiraxi received an approval rating of 58%. People saw the name Chaxiraxi as being an interesting part of African-Spanish culture (22%), and fascinating and mysterious (19%). However, people also thought it was too difficult to spell and/or pronounce (17%), and too strange and complex (13%). Only one person considered Chaxiraxi too pagan for Christians, but too Catholic for pagans. 

(Picture shows the statue of the Virgin of Candelaria in her shrine at Tenerife)