The Feathered Serpent of Maya Mythology

In Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, amidst the vast forests and archaeological sites, lies the awe-inspiring city of Chichén Itzá. This ancient Maya metropolis is renowned for its architecture, intricate mythology and reverence for Kukulkan, the feathered serpent god.

A “vision serpent” in Maya culture, Kukulkan represented an important connection between the physical world and the spiritual world, and played a part in many of the people’s social and religious traditions.

The Mythological Significance of Kukulkan

The god Kukulkan is an important figure in Maya history, dating back to pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica’s classic period (250 to 900 C.E.). The Yucatec Maya attributed their living habits and agricultural practices to the benevolence of this god, among other deities.

However, Kukulkan, also known as Quetzalcoatl among the Aztecs, was more than just a deity worshipped by the Maya peoples; he was a creator god, symbolizing the interconnectedness of life, the underworld and the sky.

Maya mythology often depicts Kukulkan as a feathered serpent because snakes were symbols of life above and below the earth, while winged creatures were symbols of the sky.

Connection to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl

The name of the Maya deity reflects this duality. In Yucatec Maya, “kukul” means feathered and “kan” means snake. The god’s Aztec name, Quetzalcoatl, follows a similar logic. In Nahuatl, which is the Aztec language, “quetzal” is a plumed bird, and “coatl” is a serpent.

Kukulkan’s Origin Story

In one Maya story, Kukulkan was both a boy and a snake. As the young boy grew, his sister, who loved him, kept him in a cave and fed him.

When the boy outgrew the cave, he was forced to leave, causing the earth to shake. According to the story, Kukulkan continues to cause earthquakes each summer to let his sister know he is still alive.

Chichén Itzá: El Castillo Temple and Kukulkan

A very famous example of Kukulkan exists at El Castillo, a temple at the pre-Columbian city of Chichén Itzá on the Yucatán Peninsula.

The Maya empire once encompassed what’s now Central Mexico, Guatemala and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. With a population that may have been 10 to 15 million people strong, the Maya people required large cities where people could form communities and worship together.

One such city was Chichén Itzá, the most important Maya hub in the northern region.

Although it was once home to 35,000 Maya, the city is now an archaeological site in the Tinum Municipality in Yucatán, Mexico. At its heart stands El Castillo, an iconic pyramid temple dedicated to the feathered serpent Kukulkan.

Also known as the Temple of Kukulkan, the imposing structure features stone serpent head carvings along its northern stairway, symbolizing the deity’s presence and power. With four sides, each one featuring 91 steps, and a single step up to the top platform, the famed temple has a total of 365 steps. This is equal to the number of days in a single solar year.

Beyond its religious significance, Chichén Itzá was a center of learning and cultural exchange during the Maya civilization’s classic period. The architecture and symbolism within its temples, including at El Castillo, reflect the Maya’s deep understanding of astronomy, mathematics and mythology.

The Return of Kukulkan

For the ancient Maya, celebrating Kukulkan was essential for maintaining balance in the world. They honored the god throughout the year, but there were also special times of celebration.

For example, every year during the month of Xul in the Maya calendar, the people held a festival that involved fasting for five days. This was meant to prepare them for the arrival of the winged serpent god, who would descend upon them from his temple at the festival’s conclusion.

During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadow cast by the pyramid creates a mesmerizing illusion of a massive serpent descending the steps of the temple. Scholars debate whether or not the Maya created this effect intentionally, but evidence suggests it was deliberate.

Either way, the phenomenon is an architectural marvel that captivates visitors to the archaeological site.

According to Maya beliefs, each time the shadow creates the body of the plumed serpent, this is Kukulkan returning to earth so he can bless his people and bathe in the nearby waters before swimming the rest of the way down into the underworld.

Legacy of Kukulkan and Chichén Itzá

The arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century marked a dark chapter in the history of Chichén Itzá and the Maya people. The Spanish conquest brought an end to the civilization’s autonomy, as well as the suppression of indigenous religious practices.

The once-thriving city, with its temples dedicated to Kukulkan and other gods, fell into ruin, its secrets buried beneath the shadow of colonization.

Today, the archaeological site stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of Kukulkan and the Maya civilization. Despite centuries of neglect and destruction, the site continues to inspire awe and wonder, drawing more than 2 million visitors annually from all around the world to marvel at its temples and the feathered snake of El Castillo.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: Kukulkan: The Feathered Serpent of Maya Mythology

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