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5 / Cosmology and Belief

El Castillo (The Castle)
El Castillo (The Castle)
Artist / Origin Unknown architect(s), Mayan, Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico
Date ca. 800–1000
Material Stone
Dimensions H: approx. 79 ft. (24 m.)
Location Yucatan, Mexico
Credit © Michele Falzone/JAI/CORBIS

expert perspective

Rosemary JoyceProfessor of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

Additional Resources

Freidel, David, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica, 4th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Miller, Mary Ellen. Maya Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

Schele, Linda, and Peter Mathews. The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs. New York: Touchstone, 1999.

Sharer, Robert, and Loa Traxler. The Ancient Maya, 6th ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

El Castillo (The Castle)

» Unknown architect(s), Mayan, Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico

The great stepped pyramid called El Castillo that dominates the remains of the ancient Maya city Chichén Itzá is at once visually and symbolically powerful.

It may be said that the structure functions as a sort of three-dimensional diagram of the universe, mapping out both time and space while simultaneously revealing the relationship between the realm of humans and the sacred Otherworld.

El Castillo has four symmetrical sides that radiate from a central axis atop which sits a temple structure. Ninety-one steps run down each of the structure’s sides. When the top level of the pyramid is included, the total number of steps at El Castillo adds up to 365, the number of days in a year. The structure itself takes the form of a sacred mountain, believed by the ancient Maya to be a portal to the heavens.

The workings of the heavens are made transparent at Chichén Itzá. El Castillo has been precisely aligned so that on the annual spring and fall equinoxes, the light of the setting sun creates a series of shadows running down the north side of pyramid. These triangular shadows merge with the carved head of a serpent at the pyramid’s base, forming what looks like the body of the reptilian creature. As the light changes, this serpent seems to slither down the pyramid and off toward the sacred cenote, a natural sinkhole considered by the Maya to be an opening to the Underworld.

In Maya mythology, the notion of the feathered serpent that can move between worlds was associated with the god Kukulcan (known as Quetzalcoatl by the Toltecs and later Aztecs). One of the creator deities, Kukulcan was linked with resurrection and rebirth and was believed to have brought civilization to human beings in the form of art, calendars, and agriculture, among other things. Various images of the feathered serpent can be found at Chichén Itzá and since at least the sixteenth century, El Castillo has also been referred to as the Temple of Kukulcan (both names coined by the Spanish). If the pyramid was, in fact, a temple to the deity, the descent of the serpent on the occasion of the equinox may have symbolized the beginning of the agricultural cycle and the renewed life it implied.

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