The Snake & The Pyramid

Along we went, a tiny black ant and I, baking under the Mexican sun.  Walking in my shadow, it carried an insect over its head to some unseen destination.    Other ants came marching in from the forest, by the hundreds, falling into formation like freeway traffic.  But in short time they came upon their colony, the dirty pyramid that marked the labyrinth below, the ants’ monument to civilization.  Around it they gathered in a frenzied pile of black, no one different from any other.

From up ahead my aunt called my name, waving between passing people in the middle of the trail.  Down the path lay the ruined Mayan city of Chichen Itza and thousands were gathering.  It was an auspicious day, the spring equinox.  For the Mayans, who worshipped the cycles of the celestial, this was a day of high significance—and we expected a visitor.  Kukulcan, the feathered serpent god, was coming to Earth.

Mysteriously, people began to rise and move back towards the temple grounds . . . Kukulcan was coming.

Travelers came in droves, dressed in all whites.  Tongues of every flavor could be heard in the air.  While the tourists walked around, the dark, round-faced descendants of the Maya watched.  They sat behind tables lining the pathways, selling their heritage: woven blankets, wooden carvings, and jaguar toys that had children roaring like beasts.  The touristas gobbled up the wares.  Lounging in the forest shade, the artisans’ families escaped the afternoon heat while the visitors lumbered by, sweating and fanning themselves under the sun.

Eventually, the long dirt path opened up out the thicket into a large grass clearing and the city revealed itself.  It was immense, the ancient buildings rising in all directions, standing remarkably intact after hundreds of years of abandonment.  The people swirled amongst the ruins, snapping photographs and listening attentively to the local guides explain the vanished culture.

Joining into the flow, we came to the stone court where the natives played an obscure ball-sport known only by its traditional name, ōllamaliztli (ooh-ya-ma-list-lee).  Using only their hips, the players passed around a heavy ball made of forest rubber, trying to make it through a vertical stone ring above their heads.  A sacrificial altar stood at the end of the court, where it is believed the winners were offered to the gods.  Beheading—the honor of victory.

Drifting out of the arena, the wide path veered into the forest again.  Sunlight filtered through the canopy, throwing shadows on our eyes, and the roars of jaguars echoed throughout the trees as children ran around playing with their new toys.  The path opened up and we came to the edge of a cenote, an underground lake that provided fresh water to the Maya.  Reaching far over the rim, roots and vines descended through fifty feet of air to the water, drinking it all the way back up to the top.  Hundreds of people milled about, looking into the water and seeking shade, having learned quickly from the locals.

Then, mysteriously, people began to rise and move back towards the temple grounds as the sun sank deeper into the afternoon sky.  Kukulcan was coming.

The gravity of the temple pyramid pulled us in.  It towered over the people sitting in the grassy field, like a sea of white rippling around an old mountain island.  We found our place amongst the crowd and settled in, waiting.

Along all four sides grand staircases ran up, each step representing a day in the year.  The calendar dictated every aspect of Mayan life, and the pyramid was their masterpiece.  Every step and terrace contains significance.  At the base of each stairway lay the disembodied head of Kukulcan, mouth agape and tongue outstretched.  Though on that day he would be whole again, because with each spring equinox, the sun shines at a precise angle and a slithering shadow falls on the pyramid, bringing the deity’s body into the material world.

It began.  A small form appeared at the top of the balustrade from out the sky.  Slowly, the shadow moved down the pyramid, quietly growing longer with each passing minute.  A hush came across the crowd, every eye fixed upon the ancient stone coming alive.  The serpent’s body moved towards the foreboding head and great energy was seeping into the crowd.  People began to rise.  A lone cloud drifted across the sun and the serpent disappeared in the shadows.  The small breeze pushed it along and the sun began to reach around the cloud.  At once, Kukulcan was revealed.  The feathered serpent god lay down the entire length of the pyramid, immense in its presence.  Everyone had come to their feet and the quiet broke.

Each person raised their hands to the sky, receiving the energy from the deity who had come from the ethereal world above.  The power of the moment had fully come upon us and I imagined the Mayans taking part in the same holy ritual, centuries before.  At that moment, we were all connected.

Within minutes, just as it had come, the serpent slowly retreated back into the world of the gods, leaving the material realm and all of us in it.  The crowd began to disperse, spreading out again down the dirt paths, past the artisans and their wares, and back into the modern world from where we came.  The tour busses awaited.  I stood on a small hill by the pyramid, watching the people weave in and out of each other.  The frenzy of movement and everyone the same, no one different from any other.