Show of Shadows: Spring Equinox at Chichen Itza

Spring Equinox
By Dani Knod

The month of March boasts an important solar phenomenon, the Spring Equinox, or the point in which the daylight hours will begin to outnumber the hours of darkness of each day. A special treat to visitors to the Yucatan Peninsula in mid to late March, the Spring Equinox is a time to flock to the great ruins of Chichen Itza to witness the effect of the setting sun on the Great Pyramid of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo. A travel tip for the uninitiated: Experiencing the Spring Equinox at Chichen Itza leaves little doubt as to the true magnificence and utter genius of the ancient Mayan People.

The Maya were accomplished mathematicians and astronomers, and the temples constructed by these ancient people were poetic combinations of their sciences, religion, philosophy, and functionality. El Castillo is particularly amazing due to its accuracy, significance, and relevance within the Maya Calendar and to the direct relationship the structure itself has with the Solar year. Scholars have long recognized that El Castillo is no mere "accident." Its location, geographical orientation, and structural design combine to make The Great Pyramid of Kukulkan a most deliberate statement of Maya genius. To better understand the significance of El Castillo, one might first look briefly at four dates that mark significant events in the earth's travels around our Sun.

Those dates, the spring equinox and the fall equinox along with the summer solstice and the winter solstice, divide the year into fourths. The word "equinox" literally means "equal night," referring to the fact that night and day are the same length. The Spring Equinox falls on or about March 21, and six months later, on approximately September 22, we experience the Fall Equinox. The summer solstice, or longest day of the year, occurs around June 21, while the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, is close to the 22nd of December. The cycle repeats as the Earth continues to rotate around the sun. We note that there are 91 days between each of these events (the exception one 92-day interval, this year falling between the summer solstice and the fall equinox). The sum, of course, equals the 365 days that make up the solar year.

On the day of the Spring Equinox (and the Fall Equinox as well), all corners of the Earth experience the same amount of daylight hours as well as the same track of the sun as it passes overhead. On the morning of the Equinox, the sun rises exactly in the East, travels through the sky in a directly westward motion for 12 hours, and sets exactly in the west. The Spring Equinox has, historically and cross-culturally, been used as celebrations of rebirth, new beginnings, and the victory of lightness/warmth over darkness/winter. The Maya, it is said, believed that on the Equinoxes, their god Kukulkan came down from the heavens to speak directly to their priests. And that brings us back to the mysteries of El Castillo.

The Great Pyramid of Kukulkan has four stairways--one on each side--each consisting of 91steps, with one step at the top that is common to all four sides. This creates a total of 365 steps, the number of days in the solar year. But, the most amazing part of this pyramid can be witnessed every Equinox when the diamond shaped shadows forming a snake's body undulate down the north stairway of the temple. A serpent's head carved in stone at the base of the stairway completes the picture of an upside-down serpent slithering in speculated representation of the deity serpent, Kukulkan, descending from the sky.

Each year, tens of thousands of people flock to Chichen Itza to experience this incredible phenomenon. The appearance of the serpent as well as the relationships between the pyramid's structure and the solar calendar are fascinating phenomena in themselves. But, El Castillo harbors even more secrets; its structure reveals deeper insights into the Maya society. Most interesting, according to many, are the numerical links to the Maya Calendar.

The Gregorian calendar, used by our contemporary societies, is a calendar directly based on solar cycles; however, the Maya Calendar actually exceeds the capabilities of the popular Gregorian calendar. Following the movement of the sun, moon, and stars with such accuracy, the Maya were able to create a much more accurate count of days, and El Castillo is an elaborate and detailed standing representation of various parts of this calendar system.

When looking directly at one of the faces of the pyramid, the basic structure composed of nine tiers, split by the staircase in the middle, to actually give 18 smaller tiers. There are 18 months in the Maya Calendar. As stated before, each staircase contains 91 steps with one common step on the very top to yield 365 steps in total, the same as the number of days in the Solar Year. Furthermore, each side of the Great Pyramid of Kukulkan has fifty-two rectangular panels, and 52 is the number of years in the Maya cycle. It was hypothesized that after 52 years, a newer structure was built over the old one. And in fact, archaeologists have discovered an inner pyramid within the walls of El Castillo that is believed to have stood for 52 years before being covered by the present structure.

It is also interesting to note that the Northeastern point of the square base of the pyramid is skewed exactly 18 degrees from true north. Again, this is a reflection of the 18 months of the Maya Cycle. However, even more impressive, it is due to this precise angle that the solar occurrences of the equinox and solstice are represented distinctly in shadow on El Castillo. The axes that run through the northwest and southwest corners of the pyramid are oriented toward the rising point of the sun at the summer solstice and its setting point at the winter solstice. During a solstice, two sides of the pyramid are completely lit while the other two sides stand in complete shadow.

Unquestionably, the ancient Mayan people created a wonder of the world in the Great Pyramid of Kukulkan. As each equinox and solstice occurs, the pyramid marks these celestial events with its own unique and somewhat ethereal display. Not unlike a grand clock, El Castillo's special shadows remind us on a regular basis of mankind's ancient and perhaps eternal fascination with the heavens. If you were fortunate enough to plan your trip to the Yucatan Peninsula during mid-to-late March, and do not mind crowds, the best place to spend the Spring Equinox of 2003 is at the base of El Castillo in Chichen Itza.