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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Do You Know Chichn Itz's Well of the Gods?

By Linda Patterson

One of the most important Maya cities ever constructed, Chichn Itz was a center of culture, power, diversity, and religious practice for much of their civilization's reign over the Yucatn peninsula. Established around 600 AD and active through the majority of Mayan history through the early Post-Classic period, its diverse population and fascinating architecture stood as a testament to Mayan ingenuity and capability. Within its area of influence, however, the practice of human sacrifice thrived for at least a part of the city's lifespan. On the northern edges of Chichn Itz lies a cenote, which is a round depression left by the collapse of an underground cave's roof that often then fills with water. This cenote, called the Sacred Cenote (or Cenote Sagrando in Spanish) was used exclusively to send untold numbers of sacrificial victims to their deaths.

Below the soil, the Yucatn peninsula is made largely of limestone. Because of this, surface waterways like streams and rivers are extremely rare, and the Mayans came to rely on cenotes as their primary source of fresh water, to be used for irrigation, drinking, bathing, and so on. Though the Sacred Cenote at Chichn Itz is impressive in size and purity, and therefore of great practical value, its well of water was strictly reserved for the practice of human sacrifice. Writings preserved from both Spanish ecumenical sources such as Bishop Landa's journals, as well as Mayan histories, indicate that there was most likely a chamber inside the city itself where perhaps thousands of slaves were kept, waiting to be thrown to their deaths over the sheer, steep walls of the sacred well.

Those victims were by and large slaves and captives of war, often as not young virgin women, although there is evidence that any regular citizen stood a chance of being selected to make a passage to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. They would then face a long and terrifying fall past the cenote's 27-meter high sheer walls, which form a hole nearly 60 meters in diameter. The force of impact with the water below was likely enough to make a quick end of nearly all who were chosen to give up their souls in this fashion.

In fact, it seems that more than just bodies were offered up as sacrifices to the gods. Recovery of artifacts from the bottom of the Sacred Cenote has been ongoing and fruitful since the early 20th century. However, during the early days, little attention was paid to preserving the integrity of the site, making use of rather crude steel bucket-and-claw contraptions to extract items from the well. Today researchers employ less destructive means, including divers in scuba gear, while simultaneously making repairs to fortify the cenote so that studies can continue well into the future. The cenote's purity is one if its most astounding features, such that materials which normally degrade quickly, like wood, are often preserved for hundreds of years, enabling scientists to get an extremely varied perception of the kinds of items sacrificed at the cenote. These included pottery, statues, tools, and weapons of all kinds, as well as large quantities of jade, gold, and incense, indicating that the Mayans would often offer up their most valuable possessions as tribute. Many of these items have been damaged intentionally, thought to have been a ritualistic "killing" of the objects in order to effect their passage to the land of the dead.

According to Mayan belief, the pathway to Xibalba, the land of the dead, could be reached via the Sacred Cenote, through other entrances to underground cave systems, or by competition in Tlatchtli, the ancient Mesoamerican Ball Game famously played on the Great Court at Chichn Itz. In the Mayan tongue, the Sacred Cenote was known as Chen Kul " literally, the Well of the Gods. The sacrifices at the Cenote Sagrando were chiefly to Chac, the Mayan god of rain, meant to ask for relief from droughts or for a good year of plentiful rain and rich harvests. A Spanish report written in the late 16th century gives a harrowing (if somewhat dubious) account of the origins and progression of a sacrificial event.

According to that text, the site of Chichn Itz (which literally means "at the mouth of the well of Itz") was named for a Mayan called Ah Kin Itz. "Ah Kin" is usually an honorific for high-ranking clergy. Customarily, the report says, the nobles of that region would fast for sixty days, and during their fast avoid looking up or making eye contact with any other humans, including the servants and wives who brought what little food they allowed themselves to have.

Once the fast was over, the nobility would walk to the cenote and preside over the sacrificial ceremony, taking a personal hand in selected and throwing young women into the well. Before their fall, the women were instructed to make requests for a fruitful year upon meeting the gods on the other side of the doorway to Xibalba. Supposedly, if the gods were pleased with the offering and the rulers making them, at least one victim would be spared, and after being lifted out of the cenote and revived with burning incense, relate the tale of her journey past the gates of Xibalba and back. However, should the gods be displeased, no victims would be left alive, and the nobles could be certain of a year filled with misfortune and difficulty.

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