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Mexicolore contributor George Frey

Chichén Itzá’s Shadows

We are very grateful to George Fery, a freelance writer-photographer of pre-Columbian history and archaeological sites of Mexico and the Americas, for writing and illustrating this eye-opening look beyond the superficial tourist’s view of the Maya city of Chichén Itzá...

Pic 1: Kukulcán Spring Equinox Shadow
Pic 1: Kukulcán Spring Equinox Shadow (Click on image to enlarge)

What we see is not always what we expect, whether from nature or man-made. It 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...
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 temple-pyramid (pic 2), 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 (pic 1). 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.

Pic 2: The Temple-Pyramid
Pic 2: The Temple-Pyramid (Click on image to enlarge)

But that is only one of Chichen 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, other mythological “shadows.” Most buildings are oriented 17 degrees off true north; Kukulcán is 23 degrees off.

The Shadow and the Equinox
For the ancient Maya, the Kukulcán temple-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 that came from Tula in central Mexico. The archaeological record shows that the feathered serpent ideology spread throughout Mesoamarica by the Late Maya Classic period (950AD).

Pic 3: Chichén Great Plaza
Pic 3: Chichén Great Plaza (Click on image to enlarge)

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 enduring 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 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 levels to reach Xibalba, the underworld. Above all, Kukulcán is an instrument dedicated to the deities of nature and their role in the repeated night-day alternances, reminders of life and death.

Pic 4: The tzompantli at Chichén
Pic 4: The tzompantli at Chichén (Click on image to enlarge)

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 (pic 3), 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 (pic 4); it is 164 feet long by 40 feet wide 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.

Pic 5: Cha’ak
Pic 5: Cha’ak (Click on image to enlarge)

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 300feet wide, with walls that rise 20feet. The Great Plaza was surrounded by a wall over seventeen feet 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.1”; there are over 34 sacbehobs, (sacbeh plural) in Chichén.

Chichén Itza’s Spiritual Gateways
Two other portals, or spiritual gateways, are linked to the temple-pyramid, one natural 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 northward from the Great Plaza and the Venus Platform. The cenote also referred to as the Sacred Well, was believed to be the place of communication with the gods of Xibalba, the “Place of Awe” or underworld; home of the Maya the pre-Classic god (1500 BC) of a thousand faces, the lord of rain, lightning and thunder, Cha’ak (pic 5).

Pic 6: Cha’ak, Chichén, close-up
Pic 6: Cha’ak, Chichén, close-up (Click on image to enlarge)

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 consistent repetition. 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 continues 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 of communities.

Pic 7: The Well of Sacrifice
Pic 7: The Well of Sacrifice (Click on image to enlarge)

The Well of Sacrifice, the First Gateway
The Sacred Well (pic 7) is oval shaped (164 feet by 200 feet). From its lip to the water the drop is 72 feet and its depth is 65 feet; there is a bed of mud about 20 feet thick at the bottom.
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 (pic 6), 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.

Pic 8: The Tomb of the Great Priest or Ossuary
Pic 8: The Tomb of the Great Priest or Ossuary (Click on image to enlarge)

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 of self-sacrifices, the exclusive realm of the gods and deities.

Pic 9: Serpent head at Tenayuca
Pic 9: Serpent head at Tenayuca (Click on image to enlarge)

The serpent sculpted on monuments at Chichén Itzá and other ancient Mesoamerican and Mexican sites (pic 9) 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, 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 bad or no crop, and its consequences: famine, death, and the return of anguish and fear. The milpero’s (farmer’s) 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.

Pic 10: The Great Ballcourt
Pic 10: The Great Ballcourt (Click on image to enlarge)

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 (pic 10), 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 “other world.” This “opening” however, could only take place during a ritual fateful game destined to end in sacrifice. The deities of Xibalba in 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 was the embodiment of 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.

Pic 11: Temples of Venus and Kukulcán
Pic 11: Temples of Venus and Kukulcán (Click on image to enlarge)

The adoption of Kukulcán, or “Feathered Serpent,” in the Yucatán dates back 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 is Cha’ak with roots in the pre-Classic (1500BC). Kukulcán also appears in the Postclassic period (950-1500AD), as the Vision Serpent. The god appears in the Yucatán in the early 7th 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.

Pic 12: Drawing from A. Ruz Lhuilier, 1967:33
Pic 12: Drawing from A. Ruz Lhuilier, 1967:33 (Click on image to enlarge)

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 (pic 12). Building a larger structure over a smaller one was common practice in 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 is also be of Toltec origin.

Pic 13: The Red Jaguar Throne
Pic 13: The Red Jaguar Throne (Click on image to enlarge)

In the antechamber of the inner temple was found a red jaguar that may have served as a throne for the High Priest (pic 13). 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.
After its initial discovery by farmers in 1966 a cave later called Balamkú, was found 50 feet 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 long corridor, so far explored, were found seven small rooms. The cave is called Balamkú or literally “Jaguar God” in Maya, another of Chichén Itzá’s “shadows”; its ancient name is unknown. The jaguar (balam) is a central mythological figure in Mesoamerican and other myths of the Americas. The reference here is about the black jaguar (ekbalam), not the spotted one, because it was believed that only the former had the power to enter and leave the underworld at will.

Pic 14: Tlaloc bi-conical ceramic censer - Balamkanché
Pic 14: Tlaloc bi-conical ceramic censer - Balamkanché (Click on image to enlarge)

So far, over 170+ ceramic bi-conical censers were found in seven “rooms” hollowed out from deep underground limestone corridors; they 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). They are similar in type and timeline to those found at Balamkanché (pic 14). 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.

Pic 15: Great Plaza Discoveries
Pic 15: Great Plaza Discoveries (Click on image to enlarge)

Chichén Yet to be Discovered
There is much more to be said about Chichén Itzá and the shadows still 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 (pic 15). By then we already knew about the pyramid within. Puzzling discoveries and wonders are certain to continue.

Pic 16: Looking Back...
Pic 16: Looking Back... (Click on image to enlarge)

Whether or not seeing the serpent’s shadow 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 holds? And what happened to Kukulcán after the defeat of Chichén Itzá by Unac Ceel ruler of Mayapán in the 13th century? The deity moved with the conqueror to the new Maya political epicenter, 65 miles to the west; but that is another story.

Story References:-
Maya Cosmos – Freidel, Schele, Parker, W. Morrow Co., New York, 1993
The Ancient Maya – Sharer & Traxler, Standford U. Press, Stanford, CA, 1994:735.
Chichén Itzá – Román Piña Chan, Fondo de Cultura Econòmica, Mexico,1980
Maya History and Religion – J. Eric S. Thompson, University of OK Press, 1970
The Chilam Balam of Chumayel – Ralph Roy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

Pic 17: Cenote Ikil, near Chichén
Pic 17: Cenote Ikil, near Chichén (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• All photos © George Fery/, except -
• Pic 8: photo from Wikipedia Commons under Public Domain: Photo ShareAlike 3.0 Unrep. (CC BY-SA).

Author’s Note:-
In (link below) are long-form articles of research papers on the history of the Americas, that focus on Maya and other cultures before 1492. In (link below) are George’s own photos of Mesoamerican, Central American and South American sites. To access, click on “portfolio”; for more information click on “meet George”. Contact the author at: and

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 20th 2020

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