Chicanná: Enter the Maya House of the Serpent Mouth

Chicanna: Enter the Maya House of the Serpent Mouth

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A menacing serpent-like monster glares down at you as you cross the plaza of Chicanná in Mexico. While it is certainly an unnerving thought, you decide to step inside the gaping serpent’s mouth. Instead of fear you are filled with curiosity about what the Maya people used to do at this site.

Chicanná is an archaeological site located in the southeastern Mexican state of Campeche, in the Yucatán Peninsula. This site was discovered during the 1960s and belonged to the Classical period of the Maya civilization. Chicanná is notable for the architectural style of its buildings, i.e. the Rio Bec style, which was also used in other settlements in the region, including Becán, & Xpujil, two sites that are close to Chicanná. The site is believed to have been at its height of power from 300 BC to 250 AD. It was only abandoned around 1100 AD.

Structure XX at the Chicanná archaeological site.

Structure XX at the Chicanná archaeological site. (Daniel Mennerich/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )

The Famous Serpent’s Mouth

The name of the site, Chicanná, is derived from a combination of three words from the Mayan language, ‘chi’, ‘can’, and ‘na’. The first means ‘mouth’, the second ‘serpent’, and the third ‘house’. Therefore, Chicanná literally means ‘House of the Serpent Mouth’. This peculiar name was given to the site due to the design found on the most famous building discovered at the site, ‘Structure II’.

This building was built around 700 BC and is located on the east side of a small plaza. Its portal, which is designed to resemble the mouth of a serpent (one source identifies the serpent with Itzamna, a deity in the Mayan pantheon), is one of the most impressive of its kind in Mexico.

Maya god D, Itzamna

Maya god D, Itzamna. ( Public Domain )

The Maya people built the door as if it were the gaping mouth of a monster, with the creature’s teeth on the lintel (on the top) and on the porch (below). Moreover, eyes with spiral hook-like pupils gaze down menacingly on all who approach the entrance. It has been speculated that this building served a religious / ritual function for the Mayas. By entering into the plaza through the mouth of the serpent, Mayan priests would be able to access the Underworld, conduct the necessary rituals, and then return to the settlement.

Structure II at Chicanná.

Structure II at Chicanná. (Arian Zwegers/ CC BY 2.0 )

A Site for Religious Ceremonies and Rituals

The religious significance of the House of the Serpent Mouth may have also extended to the rest of the site. This may be shown, for example, in the fact that the site is situated on a natural elevation that was found in the area. This allowed the structures built at the site to seem higher, which in turn meant that they brought people closer to the gods. As a result of this close-ness to the gods, Chicanná would have been an ideal place for conducting various religious ceremonies and rituals.

Chicanná, Campeche, Mexico: Structure VI. (CC BY SA 3.0 )

One of the neighboring cities that was inhabited at the same time as Chicanná was Becán. The latter is situated about 2 km (1.24 miles) to the east of the former, and the two cities are believed to have been related to each other. For example, it has been observed that the architectural style of both Chicanná and Becán are quite similar, one indication that they were contemporary. Becán, however, was a much larger city than Chicanná, and it has been suggested that it was the political, economic, and military capital of the Mayan Rio Bec province. On the other hand, Chicanná, which was reliant on Becán, served as the residential area for the rulers of this provincial capital.

Part of the ruins at Becán

Part of the ruins at Becán. (PhilippN/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Rediscovering Chicanná

Chicanná was re-discovered by Jack D. Eaton in 1966. This discovery was made during Eaton’s reconnaissance of the area before the commencement of the archaeological study that was to be carried out at Becán jointly by National Geographic and Tulane University.

As the ancient Mayan name of the city has been lost, it was Eaton who gave it its current name. As a result of the archaeological excavations that had been carried out at Chicanná, this ancient city has been brought to light, and we now have a better understanding of the way it related to the other Maya settlements in its vicinity.

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