Sacred Texts  Native American  Maya  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 173



Chichen Itzá was at one time not only the greatest and most powerful city in Yucatan, but it was a sacred city as well, a center of pilgrimage to which people flocked from every part of the peninsula and from foreign countries also to make offerings of gold, incense, copper, precious stones and human victims. The city owed its reputation for sanctity to its cenote, 1 or natural well, which was believed to be inhabited by the gods and the spirits of the illustrious dead. It is a great cup-shaped depression in the earth with perpendicular walls, about seventy feet down to the surface of the water and about one hundred and seventy feet across. The sacred well served no utilitarian purpose; the city obtained its water from another more convenient cenote and several artificial wells.

We first hear of the Sacrificial Cenote from Bishop Landa who mentions it several times in his report on the natives of Yucatan. He gives an account of human sacrifice and adds: "Besides killing people in their towns, they had two infamous sanctuaries at Chichen Itzá and Cozumel, where they sent an infinite number of wretched people to be sacrificed. At the former they were flung headlong down a precipice, and at the latter they tore out their hearts." 2 "From the court facing these theaters (two stone platforms in front of the main temple) a broad and handsome causeway led to a well about twice a stone's throw distant. Into this well it was their custom to cast living men as a sacrifice to the Gods in times of drought; and it was their belief that they did not die, although they never saw them any more. They also threw in many other things of precious stone and articles which they highly prized. Thus if this land had contained gold, this well would hold the largest part of it, so devoted were the Indians to it. It is a well with a depth of seven times a man's height down to the water and a breadth of more than one hundred feet. It is round with a sheer precipice down to the water which is extraordinary. The water appears to be very green, and I believe that this is caused by the thicket of trees with which it is surrounded. It is also very deep. Above, close to its mouth, is a small structure where I found idols made in honor of all the principal edifices of the country, almost like the Pantheon at Rome. I do not know whether this was a device of the ancients or of the moderns in order to encounter their idols when they came to this well with offerings. I found pumas carved in the round, (stone) jars and other things such that I do

p. 174

not know how anyone can say that these people did not have steel tools. 1 I also found two men of great stature each carved from a single block of stone, naked but their modesty preserved by the coverings the Indians formerly used. They had separate heads with ear-rings in the ears such as the Indians used to wear. There was a tenon at the back of the neck which fitted into a deep hole made for it which was also in the neck. When fitted together it made a complete figure." 2 Landa also tells us "that they held Cozumel and the well at Chichen Itzá in as great veneration as we do the pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome." 3

A report by the municipality of Valladolid written in 1579 covers a number of details omitted by Landa. Here we read: "This pyramid (the principal temple of the city) lies between two cenotes of very deep water. One of these is called the Sacrificial Cenote. Chichen Itzá was named for an Indian who lived beside the Sacrificial Cenote and who was called Ah Kin Itzá. 4 It was the custom of the lords and nobles of all these provinces of Valladolid to fast for sixty days without raising their eyes during this time even to look at their wives or those who brought them their food. And this they did in order, when they should arrive at the mouth of that cenote, to cast into it at break of day some Indian women of each of these lords. They had told them that they should ask for an abundant year <and> all those things which occurred to them. Thus when these Indian women were thrown in without being bound but flung down as from a cliff, they fell into the water striking it with great force. Precisely at mid-day the one who was to come forth made a great outcry for them to let down a rope to draw her out. When she came up half dead, they built large fires about her perfuming her with copal incense. After she recovered consciousness, she said that down below there were many of her nation, both men and women, and that they received her; but when she raised her head to look at any of them, they struck her with heavy blows on the back of the neck so that she should keep her head bowed. This was all within the water, below which there were believed to be many hollows and pits. And they replied to her whether there would be an abundant year or a bad one according to the questions which the Indian woman asked of them. And if the devil was angered with any of the lords who threw in the Indian women, when none asked to be drawn out at precisely noon, they knew that he was angry with them and that she would never more come forth. In this it rather resembles

p. 175

what occurred at the cave of Salamanca. 1 Then when it was seen that she was not coming out, that lord and all of his <men> threw great stones into the water and fled precipitately from the place making a great outcry." 2

We have seen in the Chumayel, 3 however, that one man at least did not flee in terror from the cenote when none of the messengers to the gods returned. This was Hunac Ceel, later the head-chief of Mayapan who conquered Chichen Itzá and drove out its inhabitants. 4 He was evidently of the stuff of which rulers are made, a man with sufficient courage and force of character to shape his own destiny. When no one appeared on the surface of the water crying to be drawn out, he realized that the prophecy must be obtained at any cost. "It was Cauich, Hunac Ceel, Cauich, was the name of the man there who put out his head over the mouth of the well on the south side. Then he went to get it. Then he came forth to declare the prophecy." There can be but one interpretation of this terse statement: Hunac Ceel cast himself into the cenote and returned from its depths bringing the desired prophecy.

In his account of the visit of Father Alonso Ponce to Yucatan in the summer of 1588, Antonio de Ciudad Real, the reputed author of the Motul Dictionary, tells of the Sacrificial Cenote at Chichen Itzá and adds the detail that "they even say that in the wall of this well or zonote there is a cave which enters a considerable distance within <the cliff>." 5 In his description of the ruins of Mayapan the same writer describes the principal pyramid and states: "Near the foot of this mul (pyramid) there is a very deep zonote with a very flat stone at the edge of its mouth from which (as they say) they flung down those whom they sacrificed to their gods." 6 Stephens found a cenote at Mayapan near the base of one of the larger pyramids there but states that it was in a cave. "The entrance was by a broken, yawning mouth, steep, and requiring some care in the descent." 7

Long after Chichen Itzá ceased to be of political importance, its sacred cenote continued to draw pilgrims. The last pilgrimage of which we have any knowledge was in 1536, and although its members never reached the holy spot, the event had considerable influence on the history of the country. "The Spaniards having gone forth from Yucatan (1535), there was a scarcity of water in the land, and as they had used their maize recklessly in the wars with the Spaniards, there came upon them a great hunger, so great that they were

p. 176

even brought to eat the bark of trees, especially one which they called cumche1 which is soft and tender inside. On account of this famine the Xiu who are Lords of Mani resolved to make a solemn sacrifice to the idols, bearing certain slaves, both men and maidens, to be thrown into the well of Chichen Itzá, and to reach which they have to pass by the town of the Lords Cocomes, their principal enemies, and so thinking that at such a time ancient passions would not be renewed in this land, they (the Xiu) sent to them (the Cocom) asking them to let them (the Xiu) pass through their land. And the Cocomes deceived them with a fair reply, and giving them shelter all together in one great house they set fire to it and slew those who escaped, and for this reason there were great wars." 2 Here we have the complete story of the murder of Napot Xiu mentioned on pages 138, 142 and 146 of the present work. From this it would appear that the rain-god was one of the divinities who dwelt in the Sacrificial Cenote.

In a report written in 1581 by one of the early Spanish settlers who tells us that he received much of his information from Gaspar Antonio Chi, we read: "At one time all this land was under the dominion of a lord who dwelt at the ancient city of Chichen Itzá and to whom all the lords of this province were tributaries. And even from without the province, from Mexico, Guatemala, Chiapas and other provinces they sent them presents in token of peace and friendship." 3 We can not but believe that these foreign embassies, which must have traveled for weeks through tropical forests, swamps and waterless wastes to reach a far-off city in northeastern Yucatan, were motivated more by the religious veneration which its famous sanctuary enjoyed than by the political prestige which its rulers enjoyed in such a distant country.


173:1 The word cenote is a Spanish corruption of the Maya ¢onot. As the drainage of Yucatan is subterranean and the ponds of surface water are unfit to drink, the water used is drawn either from cenotes or artificial wells. In Maya cheen, which means an artificial well primarily, is also another name for a cenote, hence the name Chichen Itzá, which means the mouth of the well of the Itzá.

173:2 Landa 1900, p. 367.

174:1 Landa employs the term, herramientas, which means iron or steel tools, but he must have meant merely hard metal tools in general. It would seem that he was too well informed about the Indians to believe that they ever had iron or steel.

174:2 Landa 1900, pp. 365-366.

174:3 Ibid., p. 335.

174:4 Literally the priest Itzá; written Alquin Itzá in the report. Besides being the name of a nation, Itzá is also a common family name in Yucatan.

175:1 There was a story of an enchanted cave at Salamanca in Spain which contained an oracle. Of seven who entered to consult the oracle only six ever returned (Relaciones de Yucatan, II, p. 26, note 1).

175:2 Ibid., II, pp. 25-26.

175:3 Cf. p. 75.

175:4 Cf. p. 137 and Appendix C.

175:5 Ciudad Real 1873, II, p. 404.

175:6 Ibid., II, p. 471. Ciudad Real apparently confused the Mayapan cenote with the one at Chichen Itzá.

175:7 Stephens 1843, I, p. 134.

176:1 The cumche, or kumche, has been identified as Leucopremna mexicana (A. DC.) Standl. and is called bonete in Spanish (Roys 1931, p., 259).

176:2 Landa 1928, pp. 112-114, translated by S. G. Morley, 1920, p. 478.

176:3 Relaciones de Yucatan, I, p. 120.

Next: Appendix C: The Hunac Ceel Episode