Chichen Itza's Shadows: Unexpected Light Shed on Ancient Maya
What we see is not always what we expect, whether from nature or man-made. This is often true with archaeological remains of cities or human settlement, when new discoveries shed unexpected light on old finds, leaving question marks in their wake. So, let’s have a look at Chichén Itzá , the great Maya city in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, a place we thought had been thoroughly explored and visited many times. But yet what about Chichén Itzá’s shadows that are cast on the ancient citadel during the course of the year?
At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, as it moves from east to west, sun light plays with the angles of the northeast stairway of the Kukulcán pyramid, called El Castillo in Spanish. The course of the sun projects the shadows of the corners of the pyramid onto the vertical northeast face of the stairway balustrade, giving the visual impression that the body of an undulating serpent slowly crawls down toward its stone head at the bottom.
Thousands of tourists gather on the Grand Plaza to witness the event. They come to share in a communal spirit that transcends time and culture. In our times of extraordinary changes in science and technology, unimaginable only fifty years ago, people search for mythical answers to clear, or not so clear, contradictions in their swiftly moving world.
But that’s only one of Chichén Itzá’s shadows. There are many others attached to major and seemingly minor structures. The ancient city was planned as the center of the world, with Kukulcán at the intersection of direct lines between four important cenotes or sink holes, ritually complementary to ceremonial caves, the other mythological ‘shadows’.
Chichén Itzá’s Shadows and the Equinox
For the ancient Maya, the Kukulcán pyramid was representative of the four-sided temple-mountain, or the fourfold partitioning of the world. The name of the deity is a Maya- Yucatec, translation from the name Quetzalcoatl in the nahuatl language, that translates as ‘Quetzal feathered serpent’, the deity from Tula in central Mexico. The archaeological record shows that the feathered serpent ideology spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Maya Classic period (950AD).
Kukulcán is believed to represent the Creation Mountain, with its Feathered Serpents’ head and mouth agape at the base of both balustrades of the north stairway. The serpent symbol, in Maya iconography, appears profusely on numerous stone stelas, temple columns and painted on ceramics. The shedding of the serpent’s skin was perceived as the renewal of time and life through the enduring of nature’s repeated cycles. This perception explains why the serpent symbol, attached to both life and death events, is so widespread throughout the ancient cultures of the Americas, and beyond.
The Temple-Pyramid. ( George Fery )
The temple-pyramid is not cardinally oriented, although mythologically it sits at the center of time and space. The pyramid’s corners are lined up on a northeast-southwest axis toward the rising sun at the summer solstice, and its setting point at the winter solstice, making Kukulcán a monumental sun dial for the solar year.
Each of the temple-pyramid’s 52 panels contained in the nine terraced steps, equal the number of years in the Maya and Toltec agrarian calendars. The pyramid’s nine levels are reminders of the nine steps to Xibalba, the underworld. Above all, Kukulcán is an instrument dedicated to the deities of nature and their role in the repeated night-day alternances, as well as that of life and death.
The main doorway of the outer temple at the top of the pyramid opens to the north. The four stairways ascending the pyramid, one on each side have 91 steps each, equal to 364 steps that, with the temple at the top, total the 365 days of the solar year, the haab’, in Maya. The north stairway is the main sacred path, and it is on its northeast balustrade that the sun casts the triangular shadows. Of note is the fact that in Maya culture, north equals the departure from the power of nature and anchors the sun in culture. It is a metaphor associated with the understanding of mankind’s burden and commitment in the universe.
The Great Plaza, Kukulcán and the Primordial Sea
The Great Plaza that surrounds El Castillo on four sides, is part of the New Chichén (950-1500AD), a portrayal of the Primordial Sea of Creation from which, according to Maya tradition, all life sprung at the beginning of time. The plaza’s north side, on which Kukulcán stands was also the area where major ceremonies took place, it is bordered by the Venus Platform, close to that of the Jaguars and Eagle Warriors.
Behind it is the massive skull rack, or tzompantli in Nahuatl; it is 164 feet long by 40 feet wide (50 meters by 12 meters) and may be the second largest in Mexico after those of the Templo Mayor in Technoctitlán. On the skull rack was a scaffold-like construction of wood poles built over the stone structure, on which hundreds of skulls of war captives and sacrificed victims were displayed.
On the east side of the Great Plaza is the massive Temple of the Warriors, and the no less important Ball Court to the west. It is the largest in the Americas – 552 feet long by 300 feet wide (168 meters by 91 meters), with walls that rise 20 feet (6 meters). The Great Plaza was closed by a wall over 17 feet (5 meters) high in places, with a limited number of guarded entrances. Among such places is the one leading to the sacred well, sacbeh.1 or ‘white road’; there are over 34 sacbehobs, (sacbeh plural) in Chichén. Most buildings are oriented 17 degrees off true north; Kukulcán is 23 degrees off.
Chichén Itzá’s Great Plaza. ( George Fery )
Chichén Itza’s Spiritual Gateways
Two other portals, or spiritual gateways, are linked to the temple-pyramid, one natural and the other man-made. The first is the huge sacred cenote, or sink hole, referred to as the ‘ Great Well of the Itza ’. The well was not used for domestic purposes, but exclusively for rituals. It is reached by the large elevated sacbeh.1 heading 900 feet (274 meters) northward from the Great Plaza and the Venus Platform. The cenote was believed to be the place of communication with the gods of Xibalba, the ‘Place of Awe’ or underworld; home of the Maya pre-Classic god (2500 BC) of a thousand faces, the lord of rain, lightning and thunder, Cha’ak.
The second gateway is the ballcourt where, according to the Maya- Kichè sacred book the Popol Vuh or Book of Counsel, men and deities of the underworld battle for supremacy, for one or the other team in the real world during ritual ballgames. According to Maya tradition, it is only when ritual games with the deities of the underworld were played simultaneously with a game in the world above that interaction between the two worlds, or field of opposites, was believed to take place. There was no interaction with the deities of the underworld during secular or common games.
The seasons and the metronomic passage of the sun and heavenly bodies were understood by the Maya as essential markers to alleviate anxieties of daily life by their repeated familiarity. Their transit through both day and night is enshrined in belief structures and ceremonies spanning thousands of generations. Like most cultures, the Maya believed that the sun did not set, but continued its course as the ‘black sun’ at night through the underworld, to gloriously rise again the following morning. Most ancient monuments are also associated with this spiritual view of the world, essential in carrying out secular and spiritual functions.
The Cenote of Sacrifice, the First Gateway
The Sacred Well is oval shaped (164 feet by 200 feet / 50 meters by 61 meters)). From its lip to the water the drop is 72 feet (22 meters) and its depth is 65 feet (20 meters); there is a bed of mud about 20 feet (6 meters) thick at the bottom.
The Well of Sacrifice (Cenote de Sacrificio) ( George Fery )
In one of the rooms of the small structure built on the lip of the Sacred Well of Sacrifice was the temazcal or steam bath to purify sacrificial victims to Cha’ak, god of rain and thunder, and its deities. Gifts were of precious jade and gold, fine ceramics and lives, as human remains found at its bottom testify. Of note is the absence of Toltec material in the cenote.
Each offering was made in accordance with the needs of the time and the demands of the gods. The archaeological record shows that human sacrifices were of both gender and of any age. In time of dire needs such as a persistent drought, a community would sacrifice its best, not the sickly or the maimed. Sacrificed victims had to be able and in their prime and, the younger the better, for Cha’ak would not accept anything less.
Fundamentals in Maya Belief Structure
The socio-economic organization of ancient Maya communities revolved around agriculture, grounded in two seasons at that latitude, which meant two harvests. Hence the Maya belief structure and religious organization that adhered to their seasonal and daily partnership with nature. The gods and deities from their pantheon were those driving the fundamentals of nature: the sun, rain and the vegetal world.
These fundamentals are enshrined in the Popol Vuh, that describes the creation of the universe by the gods who, after failing three times, succeeded in creating man out of maize dough. Above all, concurrently with the deities, ancestors were believed to participate at every stage of individual and family daily life. They were not however, recipients in self-sacrifices, exclusive realm of the gods and deities.
The serpent sculpted on monuments at Chichén Itzá and other ancient Mesoamerican and Mexican sites is a metaphor, not a representation of the animal in a zoological sense. It was perceived that the serpent body as it moves, is comparable to the swirls of smoke after a self-sacrifice by members of the nobility or the priesthood. After bloodletting, the blood of a person would fall on bark paper that was then burned. The swirling smoke was believed to carry the prayers of the supplicant to ancestors and deities, seeking their guidance for living another day in a dangerous world.
The swirling smoke reminiscent of the serpent, was a reminder of a changing and unpredictable world. For ceremonies today, copal nodules known as pom in Maya- Kichè, are used instead of human blood. Copal, copalli in Nahuatl, is a resin obtained from the sap of tropical trees, believed to be the equivalent of the ‘blood’ of the plant-life world.
Planting and harvesting were central daily concerns of past communities, together with the weather, rain specifically because its delay or limited downpour could translate into a bad or no crop, and its consequences: famine, death, and the return of anguish and fear. The milpero (farmer) profound mystical relationship to corn’s mythological substance, and not just its use for actual sustenance, still is a way of life entirely alien to non-traditional communities.
The Great Ball Court, the Second Gateway
The second portal or ‘shadow’ at Chichén Itzá is the man-made spiritual gateway, the Great Ball Court, located on the west side of the Great Plaza together with the Temple of the Jaguars. For the ancient Mayas ball courts, under specific ritual games, were believed to open into the ‘o ther world’. This ‘opening’ however, could only take place during a ritual fateful game destined to end in sacrifice.
The deities of Xibalba, the underworld, did not play unless a ritual contest took place above ground at the same time. It is only when the ritual games were concurrent in this world and the ‘ other’ that the interplay between the participants in the two worlds were believed to materialize. The metaphor that took place in the ballcourt reflected the tribulations of life and death that define human struggle and tragedy.
Through history, the universal use of games for secular and ritual reasons, underlines the commitment to maintain peace and balance between communal factions. Essential to ritual games, and to a certain extent secular games as well, was the need to keep in check latent antagonism within the same polity, as well as between polities.
The Great Ballcourt. ( George Fery )
The concept of Kukulcán, or ‘ Feathered Serpent’ , dates to the Maya Late Classic period (600-900AD). In Guatemala the deity was called Guqumatz by the Maya- Kichè, but was perceived as an evil monstrous snake, the pet of the sun god, with the Maya- Lacandón. The ancient Maya name for the god of agriculture, wind, and storms was Cha’ak with roots in the pre-Classic (1500BC).
Kukulcán also appears in the Post-Classic period (950-1500AD), as the Vision Serpent. The god came in the Yucatán in the early 7 th century with the Toltecs that migrated from Tula. The archaeological record shows a long history with Teotihuacán and Tula, on the central plateau of Mexico, with roots going back to the Olmecs.
The Mexicans introduced human sacrifice on a scale unknown before by the Maya. Their military expansion aimed at dominating the surrounding land and people, together with control of the important salt trade and sea lanes around the peninsula. Their main anchor on Isla Cerito, gave them and their allies command of the Yucatán coastal trade routes. Meanwhile in the countryside, Maya gods and deities remained mostly unchanged, since the cult of Toltec deities centered in large towns and cities, while Cha’ak reigned supreme in the countryside.
The First Pyramid and the Cenote Within
Chichén Itzá today is not the city that was conceptualized by the Maya before the arrival of the Toltec- Itzá migrants. Long before it was called Uuc Yab’nal (the city’s name in Maya- Yucatec). In the mid-1950s investigations brought to light a smaller pyramid of nine terraced bodies within Kukulcán (drawing below: A. Ruz Lhuilier, 1967:33). Building a larger structure over a smaller one was common practice in the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures. The reason was that the first structure was believed to be saturated with ancestor power that could not be denied through willful destruction, under pain of failure of the new generation and its ultimate demise.
The single stairway of the buried temple faces northwest; it has 61 steps and a temple on top with two parallel galleries. There is a triple molding on its façade and a frieze showing a parade of jaguars, shields and two intertwined serpents over the entrance. The architectural similarities between the two pyramids indicate that the one within may also be of Toltec origin.
Drawing showing the smaller pyramid within Kukulcán. (A. Ruz Lhuilier (1967) / provided by the author)
In the antechamber of the inner temple was found a red jaguar that may have served as a throne for the high priest. On the seat was an offering of a turquoise mosaic disk. The jaguar is painted red on limestone; the teeth are made of flint, and there are incrustations of fine jade disks for its eyes and on its body, for the animal spots.
The Red Jaguar Throne. (HJPD / CC BY SA 3.0 )
After its initial discovery by farmers in 1966 a cave later called Balamkú, was found 50 feet (15 meters) below Kukulcán. The discovery was sealed off from the outside world by archaeologist Victor Segovia Pinto, probably for lack of resources to further exploration at the time. It was reopened in 2018 by INAH archaeologist Guillermo de Anda and his team of the Great Maya Acquifer Project (GAM- Gran Aquifero Maya ), funded by the Mexican INAH- Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia , and in part by the National Geographic Society, in cooperation with the University of California at Los Angeles.
In the 1500 feet (457 meters) long corridor, so far explored, were found small rooms. The cave is called Balamkú or ‘ Jaguar God ’ in Maya, another of Chichén Itzá’s shadows, its ancient name is unknown. The jaguar is a central mythological figure in Mesoamerican and other myths of the Americas, because of the belief in the animal’s ability to enter and leave the underworld at will.
So far, over 170+ ceramic bi-conical censers were found in seven ‘rooms’ hollowed out from deep underground limestone. These are identified as those of the Toltec god Tlaloc. The ceramics are dated from the Late Classic (700-800AD) to the Terminal Classic (800-1000AD) periods, similar in type and timeline to those found at Balamkanché. Strictly Maya ceramics were also found in deeper parts of Balamkú, that pre-date the Toltecs first arrival. This important discovery will no doubt help rewrite Chichén Itzá’s history.
Great Plaza discoveries. ( George Fery )
- “Elaborate Underworld” of Mayan Pyramids Explored by Archaeologists for the First Time
- Hidden Passage Discovered Underneath Chichén Itzá
- Balankanché Cavern: Underground World Tree Reveals Secrets of Sacred Maya Beliefs
Chichén Yet to be Discovered
Then as today, traditions were comparable to those seen on more recent temple-pyramids, which symbolically show the same concern for life’s daily predicaments, and societies’ dependence on agriculture. Was the serpent’s shadow also seen on equinoxes on the now-hidden pyramid within Kukulcán? We do not think so. Chichén Itzá’s shadow, as seen on the more recent structure may not have been visible then, given its shorter size and the sun’s angle striking the diminutive structure. It may, however, have been a marker for the spring and fall equinoxes, but not in the fashion we see today.
There is much more to be said about Chichén Itzá’s shadows and the ancient city itself. There is still more to be unveiled, above and below ground, as work in the Balamkú’s cave reminds us. Furthermore, excavations programs in the Great Plaza, started in 2009, revealed buried structures that pre-date Kukulcán. By then we already knew about the pyramid within. Puzzling discoveries and wonders are certain to continue.
We will visit Chichén Itzá again of course, since this story is only a glimpse of the ancient city’s complex history, that has so much more to tell us. Understanding the ‘whos’ ‘whys’ and ‘whens’ of its great past will take a few more ‘stories’ and no doubt, interpretations in the light of ongoing discoveries.
Other major monuments of the ancient city will be presented together with their history and purpose, from Old Chichén, to the Observatory (or Caracol), the Temple of the Warriors, the Temple of the Three Lintels, the community well Xtoloc or ‘iguana’, the Chinchán-Chob or Red House, the Osario and its cave, and the nunnery that together with the Akab-Dzib, are among the oldest buildings in the ancient city, and much more.
Statue ‘looking back’ at Chichén Itzá. ( George Fery )
Visit Again for More on the Maya World
Whether or not seeing Chichén Itzá’s shadow of a serpent during the equinox helps visitors in their quest for balance in their lives, they will return home with fascination and wonder: What else does Chichén Itzá and its great temple-pyramid hold? And what happened to Kukulcán? After the defeat of Chichén Itzá by Unac Ceel ruler of Mayapán in the 13 th century, the deity moved with the conqueror to the new Maya political epicenter, 65 miles to the west; but that is another story.
Top image: Chichén Itzá’s shadow revealed during the spring equinox on Kukulcán. Source: George Fery
By George Fery
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