The Serpent of the Yucatan
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
"We found a large number of books and, as they contained nothing in them which were not superstitions and lies of the devil, we burned them all."
- Archbishop Diego de Landa on the eradication of the Mayan Codices at Mani, 1562
Of all the civilizations that influenced Mesoamerica, the richest spiritual, cultural and scientific legacy was found in that of the Maya, as embodied in their complex architecture. Some of these monuments can be read literally as a book - with inscriptions and symbols that tell stories of a deeper world.
The Maya have a complex and fascinating legacy. Like many past civilizations, the Maya experienced a period of rapid growth, followed by peak development, and an eventual sudden decline. Given the historic importance of the Yucatan, I wanted to deep dive into some of the symbolism and myths that predominate the region.
The Yucatan Peninsula is home to several Maya heritage sites, followed by Toltec structures that were constructed during their presence in 1000 AD.
The Maya, Aztec, Olmec, and Toltec are often used interchangeably, as they bear some overlapping resemblance. However, these civilizations occupied very different timelines within Mesoamerican history, each playing a distinct role in the shaping of the region. While some universal symbolism was shared between them, these societies varied widely in terms of customs, practices and overall cultural identity.
The Olmec (1600-350 BC) were the first civilization to appear in Mesoamerica. The name "Olmec" means "rubber people", given their level of skill at crafting with the material.
The traditional ballgame which involved passing a large ball of solid rubber through a stone hoop was created by the Olmec and later adopted by its descendants (the Maya, Toltec and Aztec).
The Olmec were also polytheists - worshiping multiple gods which corresponded to natural elements. Along with the Maya and the Aztec, the rain, honey, and maize were each represented by a specific deity. As there are very few written documents of Olmec history, most of their legacy has been preserved in the form of their craftsmanship. They were skilled artisans, who beautifully sculpted with jade, obsidian and basalt.
The Colossal Stone Heads are the most well-known remnants of the Olmec. Numbering seventeen in total, each of these monuments weighs approximately 24 tons and stands eight feet tall. Every boulder was given a unique appearance, headdress and facial structure - possibly to commemorate the most influential Olmec rulers of the period.
The Colossal Olmec Stone Heads:
By 400 BC, the Olmec population declined due to environmental changes. The buildup of silt in the surrounding rivers choked off the water supply, while increased volcanic activity caused the population to scatter and relocate. It is unclear exactly what ended the Olmec civilization, but by then, their lasting influence had been cemented firmly in the region.
The Maya - (250 - 950 AD)
(a small sampling of Mayan hieroglyphics).
Further east from the heartland of the Olmec, by the second century, another civilization began to take hold in the Yucatan.
The period around 250 AD marked the beginning of the Classic Maya period, where the Maya attained peak influence in the peninsula. The major cities of Uxmal, Tical and Chichen Itza were established during this period, as Mayan influence spread throughout the Yucatan, and gradually throughout the rest of Mesoamerica.
Unlike the Olmec, there are have been several written documents that preserved Mayan culture, religion and spirituality. However, during the Spanish conquest, the number of sacred Mayan texts was reduced from 40 to only two. In a single night, Archbishop Diego
de Landa destroyed nearly all of the Mayan source texts under the premise that they were "the superstitions and lies of the devil". The only surviving texts would be the Popol Vuh and Chilam Balam. For the Maya, this act was synonymous with Caesar's burning of the Library of Alexandria.
The Grand Cycle
The largest Mayan unit of measurement is one alataun made up of 20 Kinchtilun, designating a total of 63,000,000 years.
Above: Various ancient symbols depicted within the Mayan Calendar.
The Popol Vuh:
Of all the surviving texts of the Maya, the most spiritually significant is the Popol Vuh.
The majority of content in the Popol Vuh was extracted from older Mayan Source Texts that were destroyed during the Spanish Conquest. With the constant threat of oppression by the Spanish, Mayan Elders understood that the Maya were facing a decisive turning point in their history, and compiled the book to preserve the remaining fragments of their culture.
Originally written in 1554, the Popol Vuh can be seen as the Mayan Book of Genesis. This document describes the first act of Creation, and the origin of life as told by Mayan priests. The Popol Vuh documented the creation and destruction of different epochs,
and the birth and extinction of several species. It also states that four different "Suns" (eras) existed, each with varying lengths and each brought to an end by a natural cataclysm:
The First Sun - thirteen 52-year cycles (676 years). The world was overrun by jaguars
The Second Sun - seven 52-year cycles (364 years). The world was destroyed by hurricanes.
The Third Sun - six 52-year cycles (312 years). The world erupted into volcanic fire.
The Fourth Sun - thirteen 52-year cycles (676 years). The world was erased by a giant flood.
The descendants of the Maya believe that we are currently in the age of the Fifth Sun, in which the Popol Vuh predicts will be brought to an end by cataclysmic earthquakes.
"The Book of the Prophet Jaguar" recorded information vital to Mayan culture - namely maps, almanacs and medical texts. The book also accurately predicted the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadors. While the original document was written in traditional Mayan hieroglyphic text, the Spanish eventually translated it into the Roman alphabet and circulated it widely. A copy of the Chilam Balam was kept at every Mayan community, as books were given official regional titles based on the region in which they were kept.
The Chilam Balam captured the extent of Mayan proficiency in astronomy, documenting several constellations that comprise a complete zodiac. These observations were compiled and documented into a 22-page document known as the Paris Codex.
A restoration of the Paris Codex.
The cyclical nature of time is indicated by the Mayan long count calendar, which to me,
is the most impressive aspect of the Mayan legacy. Bearing similarities to the Yugas
of Vedic cultures, and the Kalpas of Buddhist tradition, the Maya devised this calendar
to observe the cycles of celestial patterns throughout the ages, and to track ceremonial
dates accordingly. One must wonder why the Maya felt the need to record one Kinchiltun, which spans an unfathomable length of 3,156,164 years. (Similarly, the Vedic traditions register 4,320,000 years as One Day of Brahma).
The largest Mayan unit of measurement is one alataun made up of 20 Kinchtilun, designating a total of 63,000,000 years - approximately 1/222th of the estimated age of the universe (14 billion years).
(Note that all of the numbers of days after 20 are divisible by 72 - a key number involved in the calculation of the Earth's axial precession, in which the stars in the sky appear to move by one degree every 72 years due to the Earth's natural wobble).
Duality and the Mayan Underworld
At the bottom of Cenote Hubiku, a massive sinkhole near Chichen Itza. Approx 100 feet deep. This is just one of many hundred cenotes caused by an asteroid fragment. (Hard to imagine such a tranquil setting being literally carved out of a fireball from space).
The Popol Vuh functioned as a manual for life and death, charting the path of the spirit after it has left the material domain. For the Maya, the deceased were given the final task of entering Xibalba, a multi-layered underworld whereupon they would face a series of trials by the Twelve Evil Lords of the realm. The Popol Vuh describes Xibalba as a vast domain comprised of nine layers, large enough to contain rivers, mountains and entire cities (similar to the nine layers of hell depicted in Dante's Inferno).
The Maya believed that entry to Xibalba was granted through water. Home to Mesoamerica are natural sinkholes called cenotes derived from the Mayan word ts’ono’ot meaning "water pool". These large subterranean pools of water were formed by fragments of the massive Chicxulub asteroid that struck the Yucatan 66 million years ago - believed to be the same one that led to the extinction of dinosaurs.
To access a cenote usually involves descending a tunnel deep into the underground to enter a pool of water at the bottom. It is a symbolic entry into the depths of the Earth. For this reason, the Maya perceived these cenotes as literal portals to the underworld, making them sacred ceremonial sites for Mayan priests. It is said that rituals of sacrifice took place in the waters of these cenotes, as bones of humans and animals have been found at the bottom.
What stands out are the direct parallels to Ancient Egyptian accounts of the underworld and the afterlife.
Xibalba was connected to the source of all life and evolution, "The Great World Tree", in the sky. By this, the Maya were referring to the Milky Way. The deceased would undergo the trials of the Twelve Evil Lords before dissolving and merging into singularity with The Great World Tree.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead acknowledges the entry of the dead into the underworld known as the Du'at, and describes the soul's journey through the "Winding Waterway" (The Milky Way) to reach the domain of the stars - the intended destination for the "ba" (soul). The deceased would endure trials in the Twelve Domains of the Du'at, before attaining oneness with Ra or Osiris, depending on the version.
The Architecture of the Maya
One of the major cities of the Maya. Chichen Itza was founded in approximately 600 AD, before attaining peak influence in 900 AD. This is the city that is synonymous with the legacy of the Maya, having been the de facto capital of the Mayan civilization for centuries.
El Castillo - The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. This is the most widely recognized symbol of the Maya, even more so than the larger Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal. or the colossal El Mirador of Guatemala. This structure has become the de facto symbol of the Maya, and some would say, the "face" of the Yucatan.
Symbols and references to a serpent can be found embedded within most of Mesoamerican architecture. Throughout history, the serpent has been regarded universally as a sacred keeper of wisdom and a protector of secrets. In this case, the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, "descends" the staircase every Spring Equinox, as its shadow arrives at the top of the pyramid, and departs through the serpent's mouth depicted below. This illusion lasts for three hours, after which the serpent "disappears" and awaits the arrival of the following Spring.
What makes this site truly unique are its strange acoustics. During rituals, Mayan priests would face the pyramid and clap - El Castillo would respond with a high-pitched chirp, similar to the long-tailed quetzal bird of the Yucatan. To the Maya, the quetzal was a sacred animal, said to be a manifestation of Quetzalcoatl himself.
The Maya understood that the site had unique acoustic properties, and different stimuli most likely produced a different result.
The myth of Quetzalcoatl has been embodied by a mysterious bearded figure known as Kukulcan. The Mesoamerican myth states that Kukulcan arrived to the Yucatan bearing gifts of culture in the form of writing, agriculture and mathematics. He also opposed the practice of human sacrifice, proposing that flowers be sacrificed to the gods instead. Kukulcan ushered the Yucatan into a Golden age, before disappearing "into the direction of the rising sun, while promising his return". A similar figure exists in Babylonian mythology in the form of Oannes (a scaled serpent), and Viracocha of Incan/Andean myth, both of whom appeared suddenly and brought gifts of civilization to the mainland, before returning to the ocean.
A rare up close look at the engraving at the top of El Castillo - I was able to zoom in and capture some of the smaller details. Taken from ground level with a 720mm focal length. This engraving was likely an interpretation of Kukulcan in human form.
The two heads of the serpent. (Each of these heads stands about four feet tall)
El Castillo is a three dimensional calendar, that not only marks the arrival of the Vernal Equinox, but the number of days in a year. Each of the four sides of El Castillo has 91 steps. 91 multiplied by 4 will give you 364. The main platform at the top represents the 365th step.
One of the few Toltec structures in the complex of Chichen Itza which was built circa 1000 AD, as Toltec influence gradually began to show itself in Mayan community centers.
Temple of the Warriors
The main Toltec structure in the complex. The building is surrounded by a total of 200 columns portraying warriors carved in bas-relief. At the top of the staircase is a statue of Chacmool, the messenger god, and two large pillars bearing the image of the Feathered Serpent. It is likely that ritual human sacrifices took place atop this platform, a practice implemented by the Toltec towards the end of the Mayan classical period. The top of the staircase is closed off to visitors, but it offers an excellent vantage point of the entire city.
A platform in the main courtyard dedicated to Venus, the most important celestial body for the Maya. Venus (called Chak Ek, by the Maya) was used for timekeeping, as the 584-day orbit of the planet denoted cycles that were measurable. By observing the position of Chak Ek in relation to other celestial bodies, the Maya were able to calculate eclipses, equinoxes and solstices. These records were compiled into the Dresden Codex.
(The Dresden Codex: Where complex astronomical alignments based on the positions of Venus were documented. There are six pages dedicated to the movement of Venus.)
Coba - "The Water Stirred By Wind"
The structures of Coba are uniquely Mayan in that none of the buildings contain elements of Toltec influence. This site is actually a network of 6000 Mayan structures connected by 50 winding trade routes. Coba was almost considered the heartland of the Maya, entering a power struggle with Chichen Itza in the 9th century, losing by only a margin.
Unlike Chichen Itza, access to the top of the pyramid is open. The summit of Nohoch Mul has one of the best viewpoints the region has to offer:
The Nohoch Mul Pyramid
One of the lesser visited Mayan Heritage sites, Coba is home to several massive stone pyramids deep in the Mayan Jungle. The largest and most frequented of which is Nohoch Mul, a 140 foot tall pyramid that offers an incredible view of the horizon. The site was built towards the end of the Late Classic period (600-900 AD),
Coba means "water stirred by wind", and was linked by a network of winding trade routes known as "sacbe", which connected the city. As stated, there are a total of 50 roads that stretch deep into jungle, that are accessible via bicycle or rickshaw.
The Summit of Nohoch Mul: After a steep climb up the 120 stone steps 140 feet above ground, this is the horizon overlooking the Mayan jungle. This is also the highest viewpoint of any Mayan structure across the entire Yucatan. #SynchronizationComplete.
Among the ruins of Coba is a large court for the traditional Mayan ballgame, pok-ta-pok.
(The story that the winning team was sacrificed is just a myth, according to the locals.)
Tulum - The City of Dawn
At the time of construction of Tulum, Toltec influence had already begun to show itself. Serving as a trading port towards the end of the Classical Maya period, Tulum remained an important ceremonial and commercial center at the tip of the Yucatan.
Tulum's traditional Maya name was "Zama", meaning "Dawn". The site was renamed in the 1800's to "Tulum" which means "fence" in Yucatec. There are 16-foot tall, 26 feet thick walls on the other three sides - one of the few walled cities built by the Maya. This site is situated on a 40 foot cliff that overlooks the Caribbean Sea, indicating its strategic importance as a trading hub and as a natural fortress.
The Temple of the Descending God
One of the more obscure figures in the Mayan pantheon. This temple was designed to honor this "Diving God" who some say was the "patron saint" of bees, as honey was a major commodity for the Maya. Others say that the Diving God had a strong connection to Venus/Chak Ek - the most important planet in Mayan astronomy. (Shots were taken in the middle of peak rain season, weather was not cooperative. Can't argue with nature).
El Castillo (Tulum)
Not to be confused with the El Castillo/Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza. This is the largest of all structures at Tulum, and appears high above a cliff, overlooking the rest of the site. It once served as a lighthouse for incoming trading ships, and is visible for miles off the coast of the Caribbean Sea. Engravings of the Feathered Serpent can be found within its upper enclosures.
This structure looks similar to the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza - both buildings were constructed by the Toltec whose militarism influenced their architecture. For this reason, Toltec structures are less ornate then Mayan structures, often resembling fortresses or strongholds.
Temple of the Wind God
El Templo Del Dios Del Viento - (shot taken from approx 700ft away, as entry was closed and visibility was poor). Note the round base, meant to symbolically disperse the wind into the four cardinal directions.
This structure also served as an early hurricane warning system - when strong winds approached the land, the building would emit a high pitched whistle through a hole at the top.
The Mayan Legacy
Mayan presence is so expansive that newly discovered sites are continually being discovered, forcing a revision of the old timeline. What we know about the Maya is still gradually unfolding in light of new information. The giant El Mirador in the Aguada-Fenix archaeological region near the Mexican-Guatemalan border is one such example, when it was spotted by aircraft in the early 19th century. Recent lidar scanning has revealed the historic importance of the complex.
While its discovery was relatively recent, this site is now confirmed to be the oldest Mayan settlement, and has been named the Mayan "Cradle of Civilization". This 25-square kilometer site shows signs of occupation as far back as 1000 BC. It was believed to house over a million residents during its peak in 400 BC-200 AD. The massive pyramid of La Danta towers the region at 230 feet in height, once considered to be the largest structure in the ancient world. The site itself is 1400 meters in length, nearly 4600 feet of stonework and roughly the size of four football fields.
The site is important because of its visual similarity to the Olmec site of San Lorenzo near Veracruz, Mexico. This poses the question: were the Maya influenced by their Olmec predecessors, or did they develop their own style of architecture independently? The long, flat appearance of the site indicates that it was built before a system of hierarchy was established; it was likely a large communal effort whose construction did not make distinctions between ruling and lower class. In addition, there are no symbols of a stratified society to be found. Instead of prominent sculptures depicting high-status individuals, there is only a single sculpture of a coati (type of rodent) to be found across the entire 4500-foot site.
It was previously believed that this type of construction was possible only with highly stratified and class based organizations of labor, but not in this case. This lack of stratification makes it unclear exactly how the Maya organized the building process, without a clear structure or leadership.
(Aerial view of the Aguada Fenix complex)
The Mayan Disappearance
There has never been a singular answer as to why the height of Mayan civilization collapsed, scattered and disappeared from the region in a span of 100 years. While descendants of Maya remain all throughout the Yucatan and Central America, it is unclear why the Maya suddenly and abruptly abandoned their cities during their peak prosperity. Scholars agree that it was likely drought caused by deforestation or political pressure from rivals.
The Maya cut down trees in large numbers to maintain the infrastructure of their city centers. It has been said that 20 trees were used to build one square meter of an average Mayan city. This massive deforestation led to a decrease in precipitation in surrounding regions, eventually leading to a complete lack of rainfall. A drought combined with an increasing population undermined the viability of large city centers like Chichen Itza. As crops failed and sustenance for a large number became more difficult, it's possible that the residents were forced to revert to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle after fleeing their homelands.
Another possibility comes from political factors, where neighboring states may have pressured the Maya into relocating. The rapid expansion of Teotihuacán could have led to the destruction of Mayan trade routes, as the cities were slowly eroded by outside forces. This naturally would have led to revolts, and political instability. The problem with this theory is that most documented interactions between the Maya and Teotihuacán took place centuries before the first waves of Mayan disappearance.
A prevailing theory holds that disease or some kind of viral outbreak caused the Maya to flee in large numbers. Lacking the medical knowledge of viral infections, the Maya would have interpreted an unexplained plague as a religious omen, signaling their exit from the region. Mosquitoes, parasites and other disease-carrying organisms thrive in the hot, heavily forested ecosystem surrounding the Mayan cities. A single outbreak in the heart of a Mayan capital would be devastating to the unprepared population, easily threatening the stability of the city.
It's likely that a combination of all of the above, among other factors, led to the Mayan collapse. It's also possible that another undiscovered site is hiding somewhere in the jungles of Mesoamerica that might further explain the Mayan disappearance - there are 60,000 unexplored sites in Guatemala alone. Whatever the cause, the people of the Serpent were driven out, leaving behind one of the most complex legacies in history. The harshest loss came in the form of Diego de Landa's destruction of the Mayan codices, which would have given us a far deeper understanding of the heart and soul of the Maya.