Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Seeing with Maya Eyes Volume 49 Number 4, July/August 1996
by Andrew L. Slayman

A vernal-equinox appearance of the feathered serpent highlights a seven-day cruise to the Yucatán.

Every March 21 some 4-5,000 people travel to Chichén Itzá to witness the vernal-equinox appearance of Kukulcán, the feathered serpent of the ancient Maya. Beginning about 4:30 P.M. the rays of the setting sun shine across the stepped northwestern corner of the site's principal temple, known in Spanish as the Castillo, casting a zigzag shadow along the balustrade of the northern staircase. Within an hour alternating triangles of light and shadow stretch from top to bottom, much like a diamondback rattlesnake in profile, connecting with the carved stone snake's head at the foot of the balustrade. This phenomenon was first noted in 1948 by the photographer Laura Gilpin, but it was only in 1969 that Jean-Jacques Rivard suggested the Maya might have seen the event as a manifestation of Kukulcán. Rivard also pointed out that, when Kukulcán reached the bottom of the staircase, he might have continued north past the Platform of Venus, along the Sacred Way, to the small temple on the brink of the sinkhole known as the Sacred Cenote. Since Rivard's proposal, scholars have wondered whether the Castillo's architects actually had Kukulcán's annual appearance in mind when they built it. Edwin Krupp, director of Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory, has suggested that the recent restoration of a nearby temple known as the Osario, or High Priest's Grave, may be relevant. With four staircases with serpent-headed balustrades, this temple appears to be a smaller version of the Castillo. It too stands at one end of an alignment including several platforms and a causeway stretching to a temple on the brink of a cenote. The alignment, however, faces east instead of north, so a serpent could not have descended its balustrade--or not, at any rate, on the equinoxes. Whether any shadows are cast on its balustrades, and if so when, remain unanswered, but as Krupp points out, a date of June 20, A.D. 842, inscribed on a stela found atop the Osario suggests that "someone ought to take a look at this mini-Castillo at the summer solstice."

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America