Feathered Serpents Litter the Grounds at Chichen Itza, But One Can Only Be Seen on the Equinox

Worship of a feathered serpent deity may have begun as early as 200 B.C. at Teotihuacan near present day Mexico City, but it reached its pinnacle at Chichen Itza, the Mayan cultural capital in the north central plains of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Named Quetzalcoatl by Nahua residents of Teotihuacan, to Maya the plumed serpent was Kukulcan, a name they also gave to the famous stepped pyramid that today dominates the archeological site.

Serpent protruding from ball court stadium at Chichen Itza appears to devour Kukulcan pyramid
Serpent protruding from ball court stadium at Chichen Itza appears to devour Kukulcan pyramid

Chichen Itza is rife with signs of serpent worship. Thousands of limestone blocks at the base of the great ball court are carved with scenes of athletes who, upon losing a match, were decapitated; the blood flowing from their severed necks turns into wriggling serpents. Giant serpent heads protrude from the ends of the ball court stadia, while still others stand guard at the bottom of the staircase leading to the top of the smaller Ossario pyramid. The Kukulcan Pyramid also features a pair of serpent heads but strangely, they flank only the north staircase; the other three grand staircases may have purposely been left unadorned as a clue to the significance of the solo pair. The Maya built the temple so precisely that on the spring and autumn equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the pyramid casts a serpent-shaped shadow on the side of the north staircase that slithers down to the serpent’s head at the base.

North stairway at Chichen Itza on a normal day, with serpent heads at base
North stairway at Chichen Itza on a normal day, with serpent heads at base
Corner of Kukulcan pyramid at Chichen Itza casts shadow of a serpent's body on north stairway during sunrise and sunset on spring and fall equinox. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Corner of Kukulcan pyramid at Chichen Itza casts shadow of a serpent’s body on north stairway during sunrise and sunset on spring and fall equinox. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia; author’s personal annotation on photo.

By all indications, the Maya culture at Chichen Itza was steeped in violence. In addition to serpents, other carvings feature jaguars eating human hearts, battle scenes, and row upon row of stones depicting human skulls. Even the cenote, which was undoubtedly their sole source of fresh water, was the site of human sacrifice, a fact that was confirmed when the cenote was dredged from 1904 to 1910 and human remains of adults and children were found at the bottom, all of which had evidence of wounds consistent with human sacrifice.

Can’t see the above slide show of Chichen Itza Mayan ruins in Mexico’s Yucatan? Click here.

Serpents, jaguars, and other violent deities failed the Mayans; by 1000 AD the site was mostly abandoned, although it continued to be a pilgrimage site for indigenous peoples until well after the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in 1526. Archeologists offer no explanation for the decline of the city, but I couldn’t help but wonder if residents were forced to leave because water in the cenote was fouled by bodies of victims who were tossed into it. Today Chichen Itza is enjoying a resurgence of sorts: the ruins are the second most visited in Mexico and the Pyramid of Kukulcan is considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in my experience with Cancun cosmetic dentistry.


25 thoughts on “Feathered Serpents Litter the Grounds at Chichen Itza, But One Can Only Be Seen on the Equinox”

  1. We’ll to my understanding the Mayans weren’t as violent as the Civilizations in central Mexico. It was really the Toltec that brought the cult of the feathered serpent to Chichen Itza, thus they introduced mass sacrifices. Also, the Mayans didn’t accept the Spanish that easily, they continued to fight way into the late 1800’s that later erupted into what is now called the Caste War.

    • Michael, you are quite right. When the Spanish arrived to conquer the new world, the Mayans fell into three groups. The first accepted domination with very little resistance, the second fought for a while and then succumbed, but the third group – those who resided around what is present day Merida – fought long and hard, ending in the Caste War that virtually decimated them. I find the constant comments about the Mayans mysteriously “disappearing” as a race to be laughable. The flat noses, full lips, and high cheekbones and foreheads that distinguished the Mayans are still quite prevalent, especially in the Yucatan. They didn’t disappear, they were conquered and absorbed; even many of the signs are still in Spanish and Mayan. If they disappeared, how would their spoken language have survived?

  2. Known as the Temple of Kukulkan, this is a step pyramid whose floor is covered with square terraces and contains stairways to the temple atop. When the sun sets and rises on the spring and autumn equinox, a corner along the west of north staircase emits a serpent-liked shadow – Kukulcan or Quetzalcoatl. There is also another temple below the current one within whose chamber is a Chac Mool statue and a throne shaped like a Jaguar.


  3. Two things, Barbara, first – if nothing else your pictures and account of your travels have certainly opened the eyes of this European. Were it not for having “followed” you over the past months, I would be thinking of Mexico only in terms of the lurid headlines of violence and decapitated bodies which fill the news here in Spain.

    Second – this is a very odd conversation you are having here – the guy has changed his name for one thing. Maybe just a troll?

    • Hi Islandmomma: Yes, I believe there is more going on here than meets the eye, but he has to deal with the karma he is creating. I frankly don’t remember meeting any Mark or Mike (thanks for pointing out the name change – I didn’t catch that!), but I did Google his email address and it returns searches for someone who has rooms to rent in Merida. Of course, he could just be using someone else’s email address. Also, for someone who claims to be so dirt poor, he has regular access to Internet, which doesn’t add up. He’s probably just yanking my chain, but I try to treat everyone with as much respect as possible. And any further comments he writes will be deleted, if he continues in the attack mode.

  4. Well, Barbara, I am probably wasting my breath but I never said anything about you being rich. I just wanted to make clear that your view on my country isn’t based on research and conversations with many people.

    To me it’s like an other tourist opinion, very tendentious, very coloured. I can’t blame you too much… grown up in this big, wealthy country, having the idea being superior to the rest of the world.

    But realise…

    You have the option to quit your job. To buy your big, fancy camera and too travel around the world. Without any problems you can visit countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Ofcourse; it will cost you some savings… but atleast you have them. Staying in hostel dorms… yeah, but with wifi connection, because you need to be in contact. Read your newspapers about whats happening at home or check the stockmarket…

    I didn’t want to start this subject, but don’t you dare to tell me that you are poor! You have NO idea.
    Comming here to make nice pictures about us… Saying how beautiful life can be, even without any possessions. That Mexicans can smile, even if they don’t have anything. That children can play with toys made out of cans…. telling home that life is worth even without Game boy.

    But Barbera, we wish we could have your opportunities. Consider this when you eat another Alabama shrimp and realise that your life is still
    a hole in the donut – solid on the outside, but empty on the inside.

    I wish we could change the way we were born… and I wish you would be born in a nice Mayan family. Playing with a car made out of a can, or a doll made out of some old dirty fabric. Knowing that the only option you have in life is getting 6 children (or more) so you will have some income, when you are old.

    • Mark: You make some very erroneous assumptions about me. I do not have savings – I scrape by and sometimes don’t know where my next paycheck is coming from. I need to stay connected to “check the stock market?” Really, that’s ridiculous. I DO wish to understand. This is why I have given up most of my material possessions (other than my camera and laptop), to write about other cultures and places. And I never said your life was beautiful. I said the country was beautiful and the people were beautiful and some of the most gracious I have ever met.

      But I have eyes and ears and I am certainly aware of how difficult life is for many Mexicans. Interestingly, I also am aware that many peoples who have very little in the way of material possessions seem to be so much happier than people in the U.S. I’ve seen this in many places in the world, which makes me believe we have it all wrong in the U.S. What you see as opportunity in our lives – and it is – has also created a society with fractured families who have lost sight of what is truly valuable in life. If I could create a perfect world, there would be no division between the classes, because I am no better than the next person. Do I have more opportunities than you? Yes. Am I ashamed of that? No. Do I wish to help, if I can? Yes.

      What I cannot understand is why you are blaming me for your lack of opportunity. If anything, I would think that providing exposure for your country would help. Would you prefer that no tourists visit your country, spend their dollars, write articles and take photos, which results in more tourists coming and more money coming into your country? Have I done something so very wrong by saying that Mexico and it’s people are lovely? If you wish to have an ongoing dialogue about this, without verbal attacks and and insults, I am happy to oblige, since coming to a place where we better understand one another can only be beneficial. But if you intend to continue in a vein of personal attacks please don’t bother replying.

  5. Barbara, as I can see you get your information from wikipedia… as showed in the reply you send me.

    “I did the research and spoke to many people”

    We met during your travel, and you gave me your card. At that moment I already had my doubts. Your Spanish is very basic and with a strong American accent. You really think that locals take a tourist like you serious? Walking around in new-bought mayan clothes (wich you discribe as:in hand–embroidered white dresses… 90% of those dresses are nowadays machine made) with a huge camera hanging on your belly. For your information, your camera is more expensive then what a local Yucatecan family earns in half a year work.

    about the cenotes…

    Many of the cenotes formed as a result of a city-size meteorite slamming into the region 65 million years ago, generating a global cataclysm. Giant waves inundated shorelines, and fine dust blotted out the sun and cast the world into darkness. Most scientists now accept that the meteorite helped trigger the K–T (Cretaceous–Tertiary) mass extinction, which included the dinosaurs.

    Millions of years later fractures appeared in the limestone that overlaid the perimeter of the 110-mile-wide crater, leaving a ring of underground chambers that filled with rainwater. Over time, the limestone that covered the chambers eroded, thinned, and collapsed, exposing the waters and the complex of fractures as cenotes.

    To be honest; I think you are to old to travel like a backpacker, to explore ,or to write any objective review. Your view on the world is angled by age.

    • Well, Mark, I am probably wasting my breath, but you say: “Over time, the limestone that covered the chambers eroded, thinned, and collapsed, exposing the waters and the complex of fractures as cenotes.” In my post, I said: “Some of the limestone ceilings of these caves eventually collapsed, creating sinkholes, or cenotes, that exposed the caverns below.” Exactly how do those two statements differ? I don’t dispute your information about the meteroite; it is commonly accepted theory. I just didn’t delve that deeply into geologic information or describe why the roofs of the cenotes collapsed when I wrote the article.

      Yes, I have a big camera – the better to take photos of your lovely country and write articles that have tried to dispel the fear that traveling in Mexico is dangerous. But it sounds like you think I am rich, and that you hate me for it. If so, let me set you straight on that account. I am poor. I finance all my own travel from the small amounts I am paid to write and the few advertisers on my blog. I stay in the lowest priced hostel dormitories I can find. I do it all because I love to travel and meet new people, and I love to write and take photos. And I have a theory that the better we get to know one another the less likely we will want to kill one another. I believe learning about and accepting other cultures is the path to world peace. But hatred gets us nowhere. If I somehow offended you when we met, please accept my apologies.

      Oh, and in re-reading your last comment, I can’t help but wonder if you have me confused with someone else. I was never wearing a “new-bought Mayan dress.”

  6. Barbara, I suggest you do some better research before posting something about cenotes as being a fact. ´Some of the limestone ceilings of these caves eventually collapsed, creating sinkholes, or cenotes, that exposed the caverns below´, this isn´t even close to the truth, and if you would have asked anyone there in the Yucatan, I´m sure they could have told you.

    • Mark: I did the research and spoke to many people. You are incorrect. These are Karst formations of highly porous, unstable limestone that sometimes collapses where the strata is thin over a subterranean cavern, which was formed by dissolution of the underlying rock.

      From Wikipedia: Cenotes are formed by dissolution of rock and the resulting subsurface void, which may or may not be linked to an active cave system, and the subsequent structural collapse of the rock ceiling above the void. The rock that falls into the water below will then be slowly removed by further dissolution, creating space for more collapse blocks.

      This site has good graphics: http://www.smm.org/sln/ma/chichen.html

      PlayaMaya News has this article, which confirms what I said: http://www.playamayanews.com/cenotes.html

      Perhaps your confusion comes about because cenotes occur in four different types – those that are completely underground, those that are semi-underground, those that are at land level like a lake or pond, like the one at Dzibilchaltún, and those that are open wells, like the one in Chichén Itzá. But in all cases, even the ones that are totally open ponds, geologists concur that they were originally covered with limestone roofs that collapsed, exposing the subterranean water.

  7. I love the sites where the understanding of astronomy is so strong – alignment with solstices and equinoxes are quite remarkable and show a deep understanding of the cosmos and seasons and calendars. I guess the violence was more accepted in their society and not thought of in quite the same manner – maybe many thought they were ascending to a better place?

  8. It’s amazing how precise they could be considering the few tools they had back then. A serpent shaped shadow? crazy!
    I wonder how they figured that out…

  9. There are some places and times I’m glad I wasn’t born in – this would be one of them. Many of those being sacrificed didn’t go willingly – I’m surprised they were able to maintain their society with so much violence.

  10. Like Heather, I’m taken aback by the violence of the Mayan culture. It’s surprising that most of them accepted Spanish domination so easily considering the violence of their religious ceremonies. Your post brought back reminders of Michener’s Mexico.

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  12. It’s amazing how old civilizations around the world could manage to do such things. When I visited Tikal in Guatemala for the first time I was completely amazed. Those are great pictures. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  13. Beautiful photos, Barbara.

    I find Quetzalcoatl a fascinating part of the Mayan legends. Other cultures have given him different names but the symbolism remains the same: the marriage of spiritual and physical. The bird and the snake.

    The lack of explanation for the disappearance of the Mayan culture is equally fascinating. What do you make of that? Any thoughts on the theory that they ascended to another plane?


    • Hi Lauren. Thanks so much for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. I have long wondered about the “disappearance” of the Maya. Now, having traveled extensively in Mexico and spoken with many of Mayan descent, I can tell you that they find the whole concept of the “disappearance” of their race to be laughable. As I was told time and again, “we are still right here.” Indeed. Maya is still spoken – all five dialects – and even the signs at the ruins are in Spanish, English, and the most commonly spoken Maya dialect.

      Historically, the Maya of the southern Yucatan were fairly peaceable and readily acquiesced to the Spanish Conquistadors. Those from tribes in the northern Yucatan, specifically around Merida, were much more fierce and fought long and hard to oust the Spaniards, which resulted in horrid Caste Wars that decimated the Mayan population. Eventually, they too accepted Spanish domination. Where the confusion comes in, I suspect, is the fact that their large cultural centers such as Uxmal, Tulum, Chichen Itza, and Palenque were all eventually depopulated, although they continued to be used for religions and pilgrimage purposes. My suspicion is that this abandonment had much to do with the lack of natural resources; there are no above ground rivers in the Yucatan, and at some of the sites (Uxmal) there is not even a cenote for fresh water. They depended upon scant rains to fill cisterns they dug into the ground and lined with limestone. In times of drought, they would have been forced to move. When Spaniards arrived and enslaved the Maya, I assume that was the final nail in the coffin, as they were forced to live on ranches and in cities to do the bidding of their overlords.


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