Chichén Itzá

El Castillo

El Castillo

Sometimes called "The Castle", "The Pyramid of Kukulkan", or the "Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl" (the name for Kukulkan by the Toltecs) this is easily the most impressive and widely recognized of the structures in Chichen Itza or indeed anywhere in the Mayan region. A true masterpiece of the Toltec-Maya architectural genius.

Every year thousands of visitors gather at the pyramid on the spring equinox to watch the feathered serpent god, Kukulcan, "crawl" down the side of the pyramid, as shown in the photograph above. The alignment of the pyramid is such that in the late afternoon of March 21, the low sun casts a shadow resembling a wriggling snake across the northern balustrade, and illuminates one of the carved heads of the feathered serpent at the pyramid's base.

El Castillo rises 25 meters above the plaza of Chichen Itza. The base of the pyramid is 55.5 meters on each side. It consists of nine tiers or graduated layers stacked on top of each other. Each tier is decorated with rectangular panels, 52 visible on each face. Each face has its own staircase, but the northern-facing one has two large serpent heads, representing the god Kukulcan, at the base. This is the staircase that faces the Platform of Venus as well as the Sacred Cenote.

El Castillo represents the Snake Mountain, a mystic place in Maya folklore where creation first occurred. Snake Mountain is a design practice adopted in Teotihuican as well as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Though brought to its full artistic maturity at Chichen Itza,the design is much older than any of these cities. There are examples of the Snake Mountain design at Waxaktun and at Cerros as early as 100 BCE.

There are two upright bodies of the snakes that serve as columns for the pyramid's upper temple, and are meant to represent the Kuxan Sum or "living cord" that connected the rulers of the earth with their gods. Nowhere in the Maya world is there a larger or more impressive representation of the Snake Mountain design than in El Castillo, nor one with as much functionality as is detailed below. Snake Mountain was also where Xmucane, the first mother, used maize dough to mold the first humans at the beginning of the fourth creation.

The Maya were great mathematicians, inventing the concept of "zero" long before western civilizations. They were also great astronomers, and EL Castillo is a perfect marriage of their sciences with their religion. By far the most amazing aspect of the pyramid is the accuracy, significance, and relevance it has within the Mayan calendar and social system. There are many numerical details regarding the location of this structure that appear to be more than coincidence, for example:

  • Each staircase consists of 91 steps. Four staircases means there are 364 total steps. By combining the platform at the top which forms a common stair to all sides, that brings the total to 365, the number of days in the year.
  • Each side of the pyramid has 52 rectangular panels, equal to the number of solar years in a Maya calendar cycle. The Maya kept two calendars, one solar and another ritual calendar of 260 days. Every 52 years, the first day of each calendar would fall on the same day. The Maya reportedly incorporated this 52-year cycle into their rituals, and would build a new monument or rebuild another to commemorate that cycle.
  • The staircases appear to divide the nine tiers in two, creating 18 tier segments which corresponds to the 18 months or winals in the Mayan calendar that together comprise a Maya year or tun.
  • During the light-and-shadow effect that occurs each equinox, the staircase balustrade is broken into seven triangles of light contrasted with six triangles of shadow. Together there are 13 triangles, a number sacred to the Maya.

During restoration of El Castillo in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mexican arcaheologists discovered it had been built upon an earlier temple. Today a small doorway under the northern staircase leads to a small stairway into temple within the pyramid. In this inner temple is a ~Chac Mool statue and a jaguar throne.

-- Chris Reeves