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Art Through Time: A Global View

Cosmology and Belief Art: El Castillo (The Castle)

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

El Castillo (The Castle)

El Castillo (The Castle)
Artist / Origin: Unknown architect(s), Mayan, Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico
Region: Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Caribbean
Date: ca. 800–1000
Period: 500 CE – 1000 CE
Material: Stone
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: H: approx. 79 ft. (24 m.)
Location: Yucatan, Mexico
Credit: © Michele Falzone/JAI/CORBIS

The great stepped pyramid called El Castillo that dominates the remains of the ancient Maya city Chichén Itzá is at once visually and symbolically powerful.

It may be said that the structure functions as a sort of three-dimensional diagram of the universe, mapping out both time and space while simultaneously revealing the relationship between the realm of humans and the sacred Otherworld.

El Castillo has four symmetrical sides that radiate from a central axis atop which sits a temple structure. Ninety-one steps run down each of the structure’s sides. When the top level of the pyramid is included, the total number of steps at El Castillo adds up to 365, the number of days in a year. The structure itself takes the form of a sacred mountain, believed by the ancient Maya to be a portal to the heavens.

The workings of the heavens are made transparent at Chichén Itzá. El Castillo has been precisely aligned so that on the annual spring and fall equinoxes, the light of the setting sun creates a series of shadows running down the north side of pyramid. These triangular shadows merge with the carved head of a serpent at the pyramid’s base, forming what looks like the body of the reptilian creature. As the light changes, this serpent seems to slither down the pyramid and off toward the sacred cenote, a natural sinkhole considered by the Maya to be an opening to the Underworld.

In Maya mythology, the notion of the feathered serpent that can move between worlds was associated with the god Kukulcan (known as Quetzalcoatl by the Toltecs and later Aztecs). One of the creator deities, Kukulcan was linked with resurrection and rebirth and was believed to have brought civilization to human beings in the form of art, calendars, and agriculture, among other things. Various images of the feathered serpent can be found at Chichén Itzá and since at least the sixteenth century, El Castillo has also been referred to as the Temple of Kukulcan (both names coined by the Spanish). If the pyramid was, in fact, a temple to the deity, the descent of the serpent on the occasion of the equinox may have symbolized the beginning of the agricultural cycle and the renewed life it implied.

Expert Perspective:
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.”

Additional Resources

Freidel, David, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica, 4th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Miller, Mary Ellen. Maya Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

Schele, Linda, and Peter Mathews. The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs. New York: Touchstone, 1999.

Sharer, Robert, and Loa Traxler. The Ancient Maya, 6th ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

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