Wedged between the tourist destinations of Mérida and Cancún on Mexico's Gulf Coast are the temple ruins of Chichen Itza, first used from 500 to 900 ce as a Mayan worship center in honor of the rain god Chac.
After an abandonment that lasted two centuries, Chichen Itza was taken over by the Toltecs, who introduced the cult of Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent. Quetzalcóatl, according to ancient legend, had been driven out after a cosmic battle, and his return would usher in a new age of peace. He was to arrive on white ships from far away. It was this part of the legend that would later make it possible for Cortés to conquer Mexico, since many Indians thought that the white sails of the Spaniards were a sign of the returning god.
Thus Chichen Itza has been the shrine of two gods: Chac, the Mayan rain god, and later Quetzalcóatl. Sculptures of both are found throughout the ruins. The compound contains a large number of shrines and temples, but it is dominated by the seventy-five-foot pyramid that the Spaniards called “The Castle.” Inside the pyramid is a second pyramid containing a red jaguar throne set with jade. El Castillo is a step pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. At the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadow of the pyramid is cast on one of the staircases in the form of a plumed serpent. Each year, large numbers of New Age followers come to Chichen Itza to experience the phenomenon and climb the temple stairs. El Castillo was built on top of an earlier pyramid dedicated to Chac. Whether El Castillo was built over the Chac pyramid as a sign of the triumph of Quetzalcoatl over the earlier gods or merely for convenience is not known.
The pyramid had a role in the establishment of the Mayan calendar, which was more accurate than any other of its time and as good as any today. It has fifty-two panels for the fifty-two years of the Mayan “century,” and 365 steps for the days of the year. During the equinoxes on March 21 and September 21, when day and night are equal, a serpent seems to uncoil and undulate along one side of the pyramid as the shadows fall on a stairway leading to the top.
The Toltecs practiced human sacrifice on a grand scale, and scenes of these grisly ceremonies are found in numerous rock carvings. The main task of special companies of soldiers was to capture prisoners from other tribes for sacrifice. The Temple of Skulls, a grim place where the heads of victims were displayed, is decorated with stone skulls and carvings of eagles tearing the hearts of men from their chests. On a nearby platform similar carvings portray eagles and jaguars with hearts in their claws. A second platform is dedicated to a goddess shown as a feathered serpent with a human head in its jaws.
From the platform, a long path—once a causeway—leads to a Sacred Well of Sacrifice or cenote, sixty yards across and thirty-five yards deep. The skeletons of sacrificial victims have been found in the deeps, along with gold and jade jewelry offerings to the gods. Anyone thrown into the cenote who survived was freed, and the story is told of one noble who threw himself into the cenote as a test of his powers and, emerging unscathed, prophesied that he would be king. Mayan tradition had it that anyone who survived the plunge after several hours was chosen for prophecy by the gods, who had given them messages while they were in the cenote.
There are eight ball courts in Chichen Itza, with stone hoops above them, but these arenas were not merely for games of pleasure. It is thought that the Toltecs sacrificed the losing teams, and the wall carvings show the beheading of players. At either end of the main court are temples, both with elaborate carvings and one with murals. The Great Ball Court, the largest in Central America at 540 feet by 220 feet, has a stone ring high up on its forty-foot surface. The goal was to get the ball (about the size of a handball) through the hoop.
The many buildings at Chichen Itza include two sweat houses used for purification rites and a celestial observatory used for reading the stars in order to determine the most propitious times for planting, harvest, and rituals. Several residences for priests and nobles are preserved, though those of the common people, not being stone, have long ago disappeared. A fertility shrine features a series of stone phalluses. Evidence also suggests that a network of sacred ways may have connected Chichen Itza with other ceremonial centers.
Even though the Toltecs also abandoned the place after 200 years, its religious power was such that Mayan pilgrimages continued for centuries. The daily presence of so many tourists has kept most devotees away, but folk healers and other descendants of the Mayans still come to pray for rain or other needs. Food offerings are made to the gods on makeshift altars lit with candles. One of the petitioners may act the part of the rain god Chac. After the ceremony, when the gods have feasted on the spirits of the sacrifice, the participants share the food in a ritual meal.
See also: Cholula, New Age, Teotihuacan
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