To be able to understand the mystery of Kukulkan, the descending feathered serpent, we must first travel to the beginning of the legend: Quetzalcoatl.

Quetzalcoatl comes from quetzal, the Nahatls’ mythological bird and means to fly, to go away. Coatl means serpent, the rattlesnake that means time. Quetzalcoatl means the time that goes away, time that flies.

The story of Quetzalcoatl begins with the Aztecs. Legend has it that Ometecutli, Lord of Duality, and Omecihuatl, Lad of Duality, created all life and produced four sons: Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, and Tonatiuh. These powerful sons represented different cardinal directions and grew up to be powerful, ruling gods.

Quetzalcoatl was a benevolent god and founded agriculture, industry, and the arts. Tezcatlipoca was the patron of evil and sorcerers and god of the night. Tezcatlipoca transformed himself into the first sun, but because he was evil, the other gods were not pleased and Quetzalcoatl struck him down into the sea, where Tezcatlipoca assumed the form of a tiger and devoured all the giants and humans.

Quetzalcoatl became the second sun, but was taken down by Tezcatlipoca’s paw. The other gods then banished the two quarrelers and made Tlaloc—god of rain and heavenly fire—the third sun. But Quetzalcoatl was so angry that he caused a rain of fire that devastated the Earth and destroyed man.

The serpent god then made the goddess Chalchiutlicue the fourth sun, but she was taken down by Tezcatlipoca who caused the destruction of the Earth for the fourth time.

In response to the darkness, the gods assembled in Teotihuacan in modern day Mexico City to offer a series of sacrifices to return the light to Earth.

Quetzalcoatl then descended to the underworld and collected all of the bones of the humans. He fashioned a new human out of his own blood—the Aztecs. Tezcatlipoca, still angry, poisoned Quetzalcoatl, causing him to commit incest with his sister. This caused him great shame and he left Teotihuacan, never to return, but bowed the Aztec people he would return and reign once again.

Quetzalcoatl is believed to have returned as Ce Acatl Topiltzin and became king of the Toltec people. The Toltecs were ruled by Quetzalcoatl and he brought them all of their arts and science. When he was disposed of by his enemies on a raft of snakes, he vowed, once again, to return.

The raft of snakes carried Quetzalcoatl east and south across the Gulf of Mexico to a Yucatan beach. The Mayan people, at this time, awaited the return of their plumed serpent god Kukulkan.

Kukulkan—like Quetzalcoatl—promised to return to rule his people after being forced to leave. The new Kukulkan became the king of the Itza Maya and rebuilt the ancient city of Chichen Itza.

Eventually, the feathered serpent god was found by his enemies once again and was forced out of Chichen Itza.

Now Kukulkan returns every year to his beloved city during the spring and fall equinox during his symbolic descent down El Castillo (the Castle), the most famous structure in the archeological site—one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The incredible descent is created when the sunlight hits the western part of the pyramid’s main stairway. Seven isosceles triangles are formed to compose the 37 yard-long shadow that creeps downwards joining the serpent’s head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway.

This site happens twice a year during the spring and autumn equinox when the sun passes directly over the Earth’s equator, making the length of daylight and evening hours equal.

The rare event is the most dramatic display of the Mayan’s astronomical knowledge and has a 72-year time window—from 1976 to 2048.

The 2011 Spring Equinox is taking place on March 20th , and the Autumn Equinox on September 23rd.


About the Author

Pamela Acosta is a Mexican travel photographer and writer for Yucatan Holidays. She is seeking to travel throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, Riviera Maya & Cancun in an attempt to capture beauty and wonder in words & pixels. Follow Pamela on Twitter.


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Yucatan Holidays


One Response to “Understanding the Equinox | Mayan legends”

  1. Rosy Hugener

    Nice article: I am Mexican but my family is from Yucatan. I live in Chicago. I wrote Xtabentum: A Novel of Yucatan. It’s a fiction book and it has Mayan legends and a lot about the history of the region.
    I will really like for you to read it. I will really like your comments.

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