In December 2012, I made a marvelous trip to Mexico, where I spent 10 days amid Maya (and “Toltec”) ruins in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. The main archaeological site we visited repeatedly was Chichen Itza, a Maya site in the Late Classic period (c. 600-900 AD/CE) built over extensively during the later period of apparent Mexican influence that produced the merger between the serpent deities Kukulkan and Quetzalcoatl, the syncretized god whose worship became the central focus at Chichen. When we are discussing Mesoamerican culture, it is important to distinguish between the native Maya and the Mexicans, a distinction that became obvious to me during my journey. Another obvious distinction, of course, is that between the Maya and the even later Spanish conquerors.

I became acutely aware of the fact that, in addressing the Maya in their “own language” of Spanish, in fact we were using the tongue of the Conquistadores who had nearly sounded the death knell of Maya culture. Fortunately, all was not lost, and the Mayans are slowly regaining much of their original culture. In my presentation, I hoped to help them restore their roots, and I believe I was successful to a small but perhaps meaningful extent, as a Mayan elder who attended seemed very pleased with my emphasis of pre-Spanish Maya religion and mythology, with its focus on the “living cross,” at once a very earthy and cosmic concept.

I will be putting together a DVD of my presentation, so I will not go into great detail here. One of my main thrusts is to show the pre-Columbian religion and mythology, with emphasis on parallels between Mesoamerican and other religions and mythologies. I focused on the pre-Maya Olmecs and pre-Toltec, pre-Spanish Maya, revealing that these peoples possessed some very important religious and mythological concepts that can be found in Christianity, among others, including the abundant use of the cross. To the Maya, the cross represented a number of germane theological ideas, including as a solar symbol, as well as symbolizing the Milky Way and the primordial World Tree.

Toltec or Maya?

The Maya beliefs regarding the cross also predate apparent influence by the Mexican peoples, who evidently brought with them into the later amalgam a more violent cult than that of the native Maya. While the Maya engaged in human sacrifice, their religious violence was more measured and not as extensive as that of Mexicans from the north and northwestern regions, who included the Toltecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Aztecs. The physical differences between the Mexicans and Maya are striking, with the former resembling the more Modern Maya mannortherly Native American tribes such as the Navajo or Apache, while the Maya are shorter people with more heart-shaped or round heads with sloping profiles, features one can still see abundantly in the villages of the Yucatan and Quintana Roo.

The Mexicans also emphasized more warlike animals, apparently bringing with them from the northern mountainous regions the cult of the eagle, as well as a seemingly more aggressive version of the jaguar cult. In the “Toltec” imagery that covers much of the famous site of Chichen Itza, for example, one sees fang-bearing jaguars and sharp-beaked eagles devouring hearts, while there is also a platform of the skulls where sacred ballgame “losers” were depicted by the dozens. The Mexican “cult of death” with its emphasis on skulls is obvious here, and one can find many skull replicas for sale by the countless friendly Maya vendors at Chichen Itza, for instance, as one runs the “one dollar-almost free” gauntlet that surrounds the massive site.

As concerns the purported “Toltec” influence at Chichen Itza, Mesoamerican anthropologist Dr. John Hoopes kindly has read this article and advised that the Toltec domination theory presented by some Chichen guides is considered “outdated.” Although some scholars have abandoned the Toltec origin of the later facades at Chichen Itza, in their book Twin Tollans (262) art historians Drs. Jeff Karl Kowalski and Cynthia Kristan-Graham propose a “Tula-Chichen Itza collaboration” to explain the “Toltec” characteristics:

While many scholars now feel that the earlier Toltec conquest explanation for the correspondences between Chichen Itza and Tula is no longer persuasive, there is still compelling evidence that the Itza rulership of Chichen Itza did maintain ongoing elite-level contacts with the Toltec rulers of Tula at a time (the Terminal Classic through Early Postclassic periods) when both cities served as important regional capitals…. This Tula-Chichen Itza collaboration is reflected by their shared architectural, artistic and iconographic repertories, and by the probable introduction of new warrior orders and religious cults and ritual practices, particularly during the period after AD 900…

While it seems the Maya were not subjugated by the “Toltecs,” the former apparently incorporated various Mexican elements into their conglomerative religious effort at Chichen Itza. This sort of syncretism can be explained by either invasion/domination or deliberate incorporation, over a period of years to centuries. It is possible that both factors were at work here, but the current guides at the site are definitely explaining the facades as Toltec, possibly through the employment of Toltec architects and builders.

From Kukulkan to Quetzalcoatl

The emphasis on the War Snake Kukulkan, expressly said to represent also the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, is an important factor in surmising a Maya-Toltec collaboration or confederation. This cooperation includes an obvious signal to the Mexicans that they were being accepted, with the “Vatican” of the Maya world incorporating the then highly important Quetzalcoatl as a central focus in their main religious center, which possessed the largest sacred ballcourt in the Maya world. This confederation seems so obvious to scholars like Belgian professor Dr. Annie Dorsinfang-Smets that she speaks of “toltéco-maya” in reference to Chichen Itza. (“Les aspects multiples de Quetzalcoatl.” Mélanges 3.48. ed. Armand Abel. Leiden: Brill, 1978)

In this regard, the rumors of Toltec influence appear in legends centuries old that depict a Toltec leader named Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, supposedly a more peaceful priest-king who stood against human sacrifice but who was opposed and left the land with a promise to return. Legend holds that this “peaceful” Quetzalcoatl migrated to the Chichen Itza area, but the facts indicate this purported era of Toltec influence was no improvement as concerns human sacrifice and violence. This tale of Quetzalcoatl’s return led to the uncritical acceptance of the Spanish leader Cortez, presumed to be the prophesied “second coming,” so to speak.

As concerns this puzzle of “Toltec” influence on the later edifices of Chichen Itza, Dr. Hoopes advises to look towards the massive pre-Classic and Early Classic Mexican site of Teotihuacan, where there is a “Feathered Serpent Pyramid” of the third century AD/CE that he states is “more similar to El Castillo than any other in Mesoamerica.” Hoopes also states:

I’m skeptical of a strong Tula-Chichen connection and actually suspect influence trended to both Tula and Chichen from Teotihuacan, emphasized by later reconstructions at the hands of enthusiastic archaeologists. Teotihuacan is the key, but it’s too often ignored. For ancient Mesoamerica, it was like Jerusalem, Rome, and Mecca all rolled into one.

In any event, we do find this “Toltec” or Teotihuacano influence at a later period, overlaying strictly Maya edifices and artifacts. It is interesting to note that, while the Aztecs used the term “Toltec” to denote anything ancient, the article on Teotihuacan at Wikipedia states that the Nahuatl word “Toltec” means “craftsman of the highest level,” a term that in turn connotes a highly skilled mason.

Serpent and Turtle Cults

While, again, the Maya did engage in more limited religious violence such as human sacrifice and self-wounding, the Classic and pre-Classic Maya religion emphasized worldly and cosmic ideas outside of the human being. One such fascinating notion has to do with the esteem for serpents and turtles, the former of which, of course, can be fierce, like the jaguar and eagle, particularly as there are several poisonous species of snakes in the jungles of the Yucatan peninsula. (A jungle, by the way, that is very flat and extremely humid, two factors that likewise must be kept in mind when analyzing Maya culture.) One finds the serpent represented in many instances, both in the Maya and later Toltec/Aztec cultures, as it symbolizes, among other things, fertility, an all-important element of life to the ancients.

Maya maize god growing as World Tree through the earthy turtleThe turtle, however, is a far more peaceful creature, a delight of children everywhere, who rarely feel threatened by them, other than snapping turtles, naturally. In some instances, the turtle or tortoise – called áak in Maya and tortuga in Spanish – appears to have been combined with the serpent, possibly as at the great ballcourt at Chichen Itza. In traditional Maya cosmology, the turtle represents a sacred mound with a hole or crack in its shell, through which grows the World Tree. This motif connects the earth to the cosmos via the Milky Way. The First Father, Hun Hunahpu, also the solar maize god, is depicted as resurrecting through the turtle’s split shell, like a seed giving birth to the world tree, which was represented by the local ceiba tree.

The turtle platform at the site of Old Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico (Photo: turtle cult also apparently tied into the phallic cult, with the turtle’s tail and head possessing a phallic appearance and attributes. At the pre-Classic and Classic site of Old Chichen Itza, occupied before the Toltec influence or incorporation, the Maya elite lived in luxury and evidently practiced the old blood-letting and sacrificial ritual of piercing their penises with stingray spines. This latter violent religious practice was apparently foremost at Old Chichen, as there is also an unusual temple there covered with phallic imagery.

In contrast to the more earthy, less violent and roundly softer Maya artifacts, the apparently Toltec-influenced buildings and imagery at the larger site of Chichen Itza are more angular and violent, again with depictions of jaguars and eagles devouring hearts, and the main temple of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl eventually becoming the site of tremendous carnage, with many thousands sacrificed upon its summit, their bodies thrown down its extraordinarily constructed and ordered sides.

Chichen Itza at Solstice 2012

In my journey with Power Places Tours, I spent several hours over a period of some days at Chichen Itza, including as one of only a few groups allowed on the site a couple of hours before the gates were opened to the public on December 21st, the day of the winter solstice. We were fortunate to be standing right below the south corner of the enormous Quetzalcoatl temple, also called “El Castillo,” as the sun rose at the temple’s eastern alignment. It was a glorious moment, as one imagined oneself to be on the same spot occupied by Mayans and Mexicans a thousand and more years ago, greeting the solar orb and sun god as he rose to bring his soothing light and life-giving rays to the world.

As we stood in front of the temple at 6:00 AM or so, with our arms raised or in other positions, we could hear entering the site a procession consisting of Mexican dancers in feathered costumes with drums and bells. This group, also wearing red headbands and various artifacts indicating animals such as eagles, jaguars and serpents, spent some hours dancing and singing, with many foreigners looking on and participating. What was very striking about this group of ritual dancers and musicians is that they were clearly not Maya; nor were their practices. They appeared to be the descendants of Toltecs or other Mexicans, originally from the north and northwest regions. They were much taller, with angular faces, and their costumes and music were similar to those of the Native American tribes of Navajos, Apaches, Comanches or others. While I thoroughly enjoyed this experience, I found it unfortunate that most tourists will come away with the impression that what they had witnessed and participated in was Maya, when it was not.

Maya Language

Moreover, there appeared to be no real Maya ceremony other than the relatively small one by the Maya elder who accompanied us, Hunbatz Men. I also found it disturbing that these ritual performers sang in Spanish, the language of the conquerors, this latter fact I had remarked upon to a taxi driver as I arrived initially in Cancun. Everywhere we turned, of course, including on the Mexican currency, we found Spanish, and I longed continually to hear and see more Maya. In this regard, whenever we were serenaded by Maya guitar-players and singers, I requested songs in Maya, with which our amicable hosts happily complied. In this way, and by virtue of the Mayan elder who accompanied us, as well as the numerous vendors at various sites, I learned a few germane bits of Maya, such as áak for “turtle,” pek for “dog,” balam for “jaguar,” ch’en for “spring” or “well,” ol for “heart” or “spirit,” uh for “moon,” malo-kim for “good morning” (lit. “good sun”), while I already knew that kin meant “sun” and that ek meant “star” and “Venus” but also apparently “darkness,” as in the starry night. It should be noted that there are several Maya dialects, and it is curious that the Yucatec word for “hole” is hool and interesting that the words for “bee” and “earth” are pronounced the same: chab or kab.

In any event, there is much more to this subject, a significant amount of which will be included in my forthcoming DVD.

Further Reading

Preclassic Maya Funerary Patterns in Northern Belize (e.g., cross imagery)
World Tree as Milky Way growing out of the back of a turtle
A Basic English-Yucatec Mayan Dictionary
Why do the Maya believe Christ is the sun?
Jesus as the Sun throughout History
2012: A New Beginning
Our Lord and Savior Quetzalcoatl
Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan and Christ
Maya watchtowers discovered to align with solstices and equinoxes
December 21, 2012 is coming – are we all going to die?
The Mayans and the Milky Way (radio program)
Astronomers catalogue 84 million stars from a new image of our Milky Way galaxy
The 2013 Astrotheology Calendar: The Wonders of the Milky Way
Parallels between Mesoamerican and Middle Eastern/Egyptian Religion and Mythology