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5 / Cosmology and Belief

El Castillo (The Castle)
El Castillo (The Castle)
Artist / Origin Unknown architect(s), Mayan, Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico
Date ca. 800–1000
Material Stone
Dimensions H: approx. 79 ft. (24 m.)
Location Yucatan, Mexico
Credit © Michele Falzone/JAI/CORBIS

expert perspective

Rosemary JoyceProfessor of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

El Castillo (The Castle)

» Unknown architect(s), Mayan, Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico

expert perspective

Rosemary Joyce Rosemary Joyce Professor of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

One of the things that’s been thought of as being very distinctive about the classic Maya is that their architecture and their site planning is seen as being a very self-conscious attempt to represent the aspects of their cosmology, of their belief systems, of the way they think their world is structured by reproducing it in architecture. And so there is this idea that when you have a temple like the Castillo at Chichén Itzá that that selection of nine terraces is intentionally done to mimic the nine layers that the Maya conceived of the underworld as having. And so we can begin to actually look at architecture as being very symbolic, very overt, very much a language—a language that is being used to structure the architecture, but that can then be deciphered by other people that know the language. And in that sense it links people together who have a higher degree of, let’s say, theological understanding of belief and of cosmology.

At the same time, that is a very self-conscious way of thinking about architecture. These buildings also were experienced by larger groups of people who probably didn’t look at them everyday and think, Ah, the self-consciousness of this building is that it is a representation of the layers of the underworld. And here, again, we can compare this somewhat to contemporary architecture in any city where you have a building that was done by a noted international architect, and that person clearly had some intentions. But most of the people in the city don’t think about it that way. They experience it either as a good looking building, a gloomy building, an ugly building, a building that looms over you or that stands back and sort of lets you have some breathing space.

So we need to think about these buildings both ways at once, the sort of explicit cosmology that is built into such things, as being able to count the number of stairs in the Castillo and find that there are 365, if you include the step up to the top, which is the number of days in the year. That’s not accidental. That happened because someone designed it. The person who designed it had an idea of the calendar, had an idea of the cosmology. The person who oriented the Castillo at Chichén Itzá so that in the spring around March 21st as sun sets, the light of the setting sun makes the serpents on the balustrades of the staircase on the north seem to ripple down so it looks like the serpents are crawling down to the earth, did that all on purpose. But probably not everything that was done was done quite so purposefully.” 

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