In the world of the ancient Maya there were many sacred days, most often associated with celestial events. But none perhaps more widely celebrated than the Spring and Fall Equinox at the ancient site of Chichén Itza in central Yucatan.
Each year thousands of pilgrims and curiosity seekers flock to the nearly six square miles of national park ruins to watch a phenomena that was carefully mapped by ancient architects and astronomers. On the day of both the vernal equinox and the autumnal equinox (and several days leading up to and after the events), afternoon sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the El Castillo pyramid's main stairway causing seven isosceles triangles to form and create a shadow that imitates the body of a 120 foot long rattlesnake that creeps downwards until it joins a huge serpent's head at the bottom of the stairway.
Dominating the center of Chichén Itza and the center stage for this event is the remarkable Temple of Kukulcan (the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl), often referred to as "El Castillo" (the castle). Great sculptures of Plumed Serpents run down the sides of the northern staircase, and are set off by shadows from the corner tiers on the Spring and Fall equinox.
This twice-annual spectacle is said to have captured the hearts and imaginations of the Maya and Toltec people who once inhabited this robust ancient city. Scholars believe certain rites of agriculture may have been the basis for the design and concept. A few argue that the importance of celestial events to the Maya was the primary reason the complicated shadow system was developed.
Regardless the reason, still they come, new agers who travel from all over the world to witness the grand shadow dance of the sacred serpent, local descendants of the Maya who come because they always have, scholars and curiosity seekers, historians, anthropologists, astronomers -- all with a sense of awe at the complexity of the architecture and design and the depth of Maya understanding of the Cosmos.
Life scientists believe the exact celestial calculations required to create the effect are a demonstration of the Maya's extreme aptitude for astronomy and the cosmology of deep space. Most of the secrets of the ancient Maya scholars are still lost to modern science. How these people, who lived in a world where not even the invention of the wheel had been introduced into their social structure, could have been so well versed in art and science is a major stumbling block for those who trying to put together the puzzle of these ancient and elusive indigenous people. What secrets remain buried in the Central American jungles? Why did the Maya, and later the Toltec, abandon their great cities, like Chichen Itza, Tikal, Palenque, Uxmal, Copan?
Perhaps it is this underlying mystery of a people that we know only a little about that drives us to the need for a greater understanding. Perhaps that's why multitudes flock each spring and fall to the this ancient site in the lowland jungles of the Yucatan to view a spectacle originally designed and orchestrated by these fiercely independent people, driven by their mysterious culture.
In the Maya language, Chichén Itzá signifies "at the mouth of the great well" because of its immense, sacred cenote ("well" in English). The cenote was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the Mayan world. Some scholars believe that its importance was related to the astronomically-related layout of the site; the city was apparently designed to take full advantage of astronomical events.
Here's How It Works:
At the precise time of the spring and fall equinox, the sun casts its rays on the balustrade, in turn highlighting a feathered serpent that seems to be moving or slithering its way down the steps. How the Maya managed to concentrate its energies in building a monument of incomprehensible scale to highlight the time of year when the hours of daylight and darkness are equal is extraordinary.
El Castillo stands as testimony to the Maya’s superiority as builders and mathematicians. The surfaces are massive, detailed, and sharp. The sophisticated Mayan calendar is incorporated in the architecture of this structure. For example, the number of steps on each of the four sides is 91, adding up to 364, which together with the top platform equals the number of days in a year. On the days of spring and fall equinox, the edge of the shadow from the sun, falls exactly on the corner of the pyramid, leaving one side in total sunlight and the other in total shadow. This always provides the shadow on the balustrade which takes on the appearance of slithering snake.
Lessons on Solar Orbit
According to the Shadow of the Equinox Home Page, an equinox occurs twice each year when our sun, in its orbit around the earth in a fashion unique to these times of the year, passes directly over the Earth's equator and the length of the daylight and evening hours is equal. Hence the word equinox is derived from the Latin for "equal" aequus, and nox meaning "night". The spring equinox occurs on March 21. Six months later, on Sept 22, we have the Fall Equinox. The summer solstice occurs on June 21st. On this day earth sees the longest duration of daylight. Six months later is the winter solstice on December 22, when we see the shortest daylight and the longest night of the year.
On these days the sun almost seems to pause in its orbit before resuming its course, and it is why the word solstice is based on the Latin sol, for "sun", and sistere or "to cause to stand". This cycle then repeats itself as the Earth continues to rotate around the sun. It is interesting to note that there are exactly 91 days between each of these events, and 92 days between the June 21 summer solstice and the September 21 equinox. This adds up to a 365 day solar year with the 91 days between each event matching the 91 steps to each side of the pyramid.
Chichén Itzá is open 8 A.M. to 5:30 P.M., every day of the year. Arrive early if you can so as to avoid the tour buses from Cancun. The entrance fee is (was) 88 pesos per person, or about $8 dollars. Kids under 13 get in for free. Every night at 8 P.M. there is a sound and light show, when the buildings are bathed in colored light and the history and legends of Chichén Itzá are narrated.
Be aware summer temps can be devastating if you're not prepared, another good reason to schedule your visit as early as possible. A good mosquito repellant is also recommended, as well as a good pair of comfortable shoes. Tour buses leave Merida, Cancun and Play Del Carmen regularly, but it's better to stay near the ruins and enter early to avoid the crowds.