Kukulcan, the Snake God of the Maya, Remains as a Legacy of the Once-Powerful Civilization
Kukulcan was the all-powerful snake god worshipped by the Maya. While little information remains about the legends and mythology of Kukulcan – due to the tragic destruction of the Maya codices by the Spanish conquistadors and Catholic priests - depictions of this god are in the surviving architecture of the Maya and remain as a lasting legacy of this once-powerful civilization.
The temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza ( Filip Maljković / flickr )
The Feathered Serpent Deity
Whilst Kukulcan was a deity worshipped by the Mayas, his concept, i.e. a feathered serpent deity, was not unique to the Maya civilization. He was known as Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecs and Gukumatz to the Ki’che’ (a Maya group located in modern day Guatemala).
The idea of a feathered serpent god in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican religion dates back to the time of the Olmecs, the earliest known major civilization in Mexico that flourished from around the 15 th to the 5 th century BC. The feathered serpent god is also known to have been worshipped by the people of Teotihuacan, as evident in the prominent depiction of this deity on the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, one of the major pyramids at the ancient site.
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Feathered snake, ancient post-classic era, 900 - 1250 AD, limestone. From Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, Mexico ( CC by SA 1.0 )
Spreading the Cult of the Snake God
Whilst the feathered serpent deity may have been worshipped as early as the time of the Olmecs, it was the Toltecs who made its cult a pan-Mesoamerican one. It was this Pre-Columbian civilization, which dominated what is now the region central Mexico between the 10 th and 12 centuries AD, that spread the cult of this god as they conquered their neighbours. It is likely that the Toltecs brought this god to the lands of the Maya, where he became known as Kukulcan.
Some scholars believe that the great Maya city of Chichen Itza had been conquered by the Toltecs, whilst others are of the view that it was founded by exiled Toltec nobles. In any event, the Toltec influence can be felt in Chichen Itza, as similarities have been drawn between the city’s architectural style and that of Tollan (known today as Tula), the Toltec capital.
Pyramid of the feathered serpent at Tula ( CC by SA 3.0 )
The Temple of Kukulcan
The feathered serpent deity was also introduced to the Maya, which is most evident in the major Maya city of Chichen Itza , in the building known as El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulcan. This is a step pyramid dominating the landscape of Chichen Itza, which is obvious based on the depictions of this god in its architecture, in particular the stone carvings of Kukulcan’s head at the base of the pyramid’s staircases.
One of the most interesting aspects of this temple is its astronomical alignment. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rays of the sun interact with the edges of the pyramid’s steps to cast a shadow on the side of the structure’s staircase. This shadow creates the illusion of a giant serpent descending the pyramid. The head of Kukulcan at the base of the staircase certainly enhances the effect of this illusion.
Unfortunately, we know little about the myths surrounding Kukulcan, and scholars are uncertain if they resemble those told about Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs. One of the Aztec myths about Quetzalcoatl states that this god had been a priest-king of Tollan, but was exiled by Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night. In one version of the myth, Quetzalcoatl left the city, embarked on a raft made of snakes, and sailed eastwards. Some have suggested that this legend may have had a historical basis, and that the eastward voyage of Quetzalcoatl may correspond with the arrival of the Toltecs in the Yucatan Peninsula, which may be a common legend shared by both Kukulcan and Quetzalcoatl.
Top image: Kukulkan as a snake deity at the base of the west face of the northern stairway of El Castillo, Chichen Itza ( CC by 2.0 )
By: Wu Mingren
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