Equinox at the Temple of Kukulcan

Temple of Kukulcan West Façade

Temple of Kukulcan West Façade

September 21st, 2020

Tomorrow is the autumnal equinox, or first day of fall. Here in the U.S., the moment will happen in the early morning and marks one of two days (the other being the vernal equinox) on our 365-day calendar when day and night occur in approximate equal measure. This happens because the sun — on these two days — is aligned with the earth’s equator as the earth orbits around the sun and, from our perspective here on earth and depending on our hemisphere, the sun shifts north or south on the horizon.

The equinoxes are celebrated days around the world as people mark the change of seasons. Maybe you prefer the vernal equinox? Spring, growth, sunshine and the oncoming summer. Or maybe you prefer the autumnal equinox? Fall, harvest, cooler temps and winter on its way. Either way, these days and times of the year have been celebrated by people for millennia, including the Maya as we know by exploring the Temple of Kukulcan at Chichén Itzá.

Temple of Kukulcan north and west façades

Temple of Kukulcan north and west façades

Images of Kukulcan, or “feathered serpent,” appear at Teotihuacan (Mexico City), pre-dating Chichén Itzá. The influence of Kukulcan may have spread from there to the Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula, or possibly arrived with the Toltecs (a contested theory for another day). In Mesoamerican cultures, the serpent figure has been associated with fertility and vegetation, possibly explaining its importance at Chichén Itzá on the vernal equinox.

El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulcan, is Chichén Itzá’s main attraction — a four-sided pyramid with a temple at the top. In 2015, an electrical resistance survey revealed a large cenote underneath Kukulcan measuring more than 65 ft/20 m deep, naturally covered by a layer of limestone. The cenote’s existence was likely known at the time of Chichén Itzá’s construction. The cenote’s water (womb; the origin of life) and the temple’s stairs to the sky (the place where Mayan deities lived) may have illustrated the symbolic connection between life and death in Maya civilization.

Unrestored southeast corner

Unrestored southeast corner

An original, smaller temple was built above the cenote, as early as 600 A.D. This was topped by the larger temple we see today, built between 800 and 900 A.D. Each staircase has 91 steps (364 total) and the smaller temple at the top makes the 365th step, matching the number of days in the Mayan calendar. The angle of the staircases is 45 degrees, standard for Mayan temples, while the tiers of the pyramid angle slightly steeper at 53 degrees. The nine tiers on each side of each staircase (18 tiers per façade) represent the months of the Mayan calendar.

Triangular side wall between 45-and 53-degree angled planes

Triangular side wall between 45-and 53-degree angled planes

Although not aligned exactly north-south or east-west, the Temple of Kukulcan IS aligned exactly for the equinoxes. On these two days of the year, an unusual effect of light and shadow plays out at the north staircase, on the side wall between the 45- and 53-degree angled planes. As the sun goes down, the tiers of the pyramid cast a shadow which grows larger as the sun sets and resembles a serpent descending the staircase, capped by the serpent head at the bottom of the stairs. This is the “Descent of Kukulcan.”

The Descent of Kukulcan, equinox shadow line drawn in red

The Descent of Kukulcan, equinox shadow line drawn in red

I haven’t been at Chichén Itzá on an equinox so I haven’t seen the “Descent of Kukulcan” in person (there are lots of videos online). It’s a compelling visual, I think overshadowed by the geometrical, astronomical and architectural calculations that would have been required to make this happen on the pyramid, on the equinoxes, bringing the serpent to life twice a year, in an endless event that has outlasted Maya civilization itself. No small feat.

The east façade, untouched (left) and restored (right)

The east façade, untouched (left) and restored (right)

Considering the Maya grasped the vast concept of time with their long count calendar date of 0.0.0.0.0 that correlated to April 1st, 8239 B.C., it does beg the question: was this immortal serpent a mere detail of the temple or a prescient attempt to make Maya culture and civilization everlasting?

More from Chichén Itzá tomorrow,
Kelly

P.S. The Temple of Kukulcan looks huge here, but check out this cool interactive graphic of pyramid heights around the world. Mouse over to see the effect.

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.

12 comments

  • In awe of the complexities of these old architectures, and how advanced they were, given the minimal tools and resources. There are architectures which measure time, months of the year. There are old monuments with amazing acoustics built in. Sometimes makes me wonder whether we have progressed at an equivalent pace after the fall of some of these civilizations, or have we lost pace? These seem so ahead of their times.

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    • Totally agree with you! So amazing that they made such advances without the benefit of technology or tools. Pure brain power and observation. The calendar, especially, boggles my mind. It does seem we’ve lost pace in some ways, especially the observational learning that comes with a close connection to nature. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  • Lots of information to better appreciate what would otherwise be just a pile of stones
    The accuracy of the Mayan calculations is breathtaking. Whether it is for astronomy or architecture, there is great accuracy. The accumulation of such knowledge is only possible through the stability of political power, leaving the scholars time to build up their knowledge. But the history of the Maya is a long series of struggles between cities and bloody power overthrows. I can’t explain this contradiction, I leave it to your thoughts 🙂

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    • Yes to everything you’ve said! So much conflict, blood and human sacrifice (which I haven’t even gotten to). In some ways it’s a brutal culture, very in touch with death. In other ways, so wise and connected to the world around them. Hard to grasp everything they understood, including the span of time. I hope we learn even more in the coming years. Still feels like we have yet to understand a lot about the Maya.

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  • I love this post; I’ve also written about the Maya civilization and the Kukulcan temple in my blog. Fall is one of my favorite seasons so I get excited about this kind of stuff. I would love to visit Chichén Itzá during this time to admire the fall equinox and the “Descent of Kukulcan.”

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  • I’m always blown away by what these ancient cultures knew and achieved. I remember Chichen Itza well. We got there really really early and were done exploring the whole site just as the tour buses arrived. From the few people in your pics it looks like you did the same.
    I didn’t know about the equinox serpent!
    Alison

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    • Yes, we got there early thankfully. Wish we had stayed longer but it was SO hot. And yeah, the equinox serpent was something I had heard about but it never really registered with me until I did a little research and finally understood where the visual happens on that side wall. Had I known, I would have taken some close-up photos of the serpent heads at the base of that staircase. There’s also a sacred cenote on site that we missed. Oh well, next time!

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  • A fabulous post — thanks for good photos, red line, and explanations. I have nothing but respect and awe for the people who built this structure — so much to consider in terms of construction, management of resources, weather, etc. Pretty much a miracle, as I see it.

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