Dead snakes lay strewn along my road. Several tarantulas, their crossing interrupted, froze, as if petrified, at our approach. Bemused vultures sidled up expectantly to the ‘sleeping policemen’ for a cursory inspection, then retreated in disappointment. Goats and pigs snuffled in scrubland at the roadside, and an occasional peacock screeched as it tiptoed in their midst. I was on my way to the world famous Mayan site at Chichén Itzá. After the bumpy road, I was relieved to get out of the car at the entrance. As I stepped through a gap in the hedge, feeling as if I were being ushered into someone’s back garden, a huge stone pyramid rose before me, as if it had materialised from nowhere.
‘This way, Señora!’
Startled, I noticed a tiny wizened man at my shoulder –my guide for the day. A faint smell of stale perspiration made me wrinkle my nose. He began with a tour of the Ball Court, the largest of its kind in Mexico. Here, fourteen young Mayan men would vie with each other for supremacy. Using only elbows, knees and hips, their task was to aim a rugby-shaped rubber ball into a ring of stone sited half way up the walls of the court, seven metres high. This was to be accomplished at great speed, running to avoid the ‘tackles’ of opponents.
He told me of the prize for the winner, which was not at all what I expected. According to him, being sacrificed was a great honour, guaranteeing favour among the gods, both for the hero and his family. What’s more, the most beautiful virgin of the day would have been tossed into the sacrificial cenote (well) to intervene on his behalf with the gods, to plead with them - drugged though she was - to look favourably upon him. She would have been chosen for her thick, straight, black hair and above all, for her crossed eyes, a sign of great beauty. So the victor, not the loser, would have his throat slit, in front of the spectators, by the High Priests. His skull would then take its place on the grisly Wall of Death’s Heads, where sharply defined carvings depict the fate of human sacrifices.
We spent the best part of the day exploring the rest of the site, including the striking Observatory and the Temple of Warriors. But the pyramid was my favourite. At the Spring equinox, the snake god Kukulkán emerges from the top, to slither down the side of the north steps, to the rapture of hundreds of onlookers. It is an illusion: shadows cast by the sun leave seven triangles of light, one below the other, to form the silhouette of a serpent.
From its top, the view probably hasn’t changed in seven centuries: all I could see was jungle, with the occasional Mayan construction poking up above the trees, whilst at its base, Chac Mool, a life sized sculpture of a reclining male, holds a platter on his belly to receive the blood and heart of each sacrificial victim. I shuddered as a flock of squawking parrots rose into the air, and turned, somewhat subdued, towards the exit gate.
This ancient site retains the essence of pre- Spanish Mexico. After my visit I returned to the coast with its enticing jungle-fringed, idyllic beaches, and to the twenty first century.
Feature contributed by Maureen Moss on September 27, 2010 at 5:36 pm.