History : Sep-Oct 2018
COLOSSAL CALENDAR Chichén Itzá On March 15, 1842, Stephens and Catherwood knew they were approaching the ruins of Chichén Itzá, when the 100-foot-high step pyramid of Kukulkan—known locally as El Castillo, the castle—rose over the plain. Chichén means “mouth of wells,” a reference to a nearby cenote, a sacred source of water in a region lacking rivers. The city was founded by the Maya in the 500s and was believed to have been overrun in the 10th century by the Itzá, a Mayan-speaking tribe, who probably built the pyramid. As elsewhere in Yucatán, Stephens and Catherwood were overwhelmed by the sense of fallen magnificence: “The buildings were large, and some were in good preservation; in general, the façades were not so elaborately ornamented as some we had seen, seemed of an old date, and the sculpture was ruder, but the interior apartments contained decorations and devices that were new to us, and powerfully interesting.” He and Catherwood noted with wonder a feature that would later be connected with the scientific function of the pyramid: “On the ground at the foot of the staircase . . . are two colossal serpents’ heads, ten feet in length, with mouths wide open and tongues protruding . . . No doubt they were emblematic of some religious belief and . . . must have excited feelings of solemn awe.” Stephens’s own sense of awe would have been compounded had he known the pyramid was an astronomical instrument: Each of its 365 steps represent a day in the year, and at sunset on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow snake—the manifestation of Kukulkan, the Maya snake deity—slithers down the sides to join with the real stone heads at the base.