Chichn Itz was one of the Mayan civilization’s most important cities. From the time of its establishment, around 600 AD, up through the apex of Mayan rule over the Yucatn peninsula, the city stood as a shining example of their culture’s ingenuity, diversity, and power. It was, therefore, a natural religious center for the Mayan empire as well, and at least during parts of its evolutionary cycle, human sacrifice was one of the rites and rituals practiced there. For this purpose alone, a sacred cenote was vouchsafed on the northern fringes of Chichn Itz; the hole left by the collapse of an underground cave’s roof, which then filled with water, this cenote became the grave for untold numbers of citizens and slaves throughout the long years of Mayan domination over Mesoamerica.
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.
Recovery of objects from the cenote has been ongoing since the early 1900s. The first attempts to dredge the bottom used rather crude steel claw and bucket methods, which may have damaged the well itself; modern researchers must therefore practice both restoration of the cenote’s integrity as they continue to probe for artifacts. Diving expeditions have also been fruitful; one of the most impressive elements of the cenote is its ability to preserve even normally perishable materials like wood for long periods of time. Researchers excavating the site have found numerous objects of art and value in the depths of the cenote, including gold, incense, pottery, weapons, tools, statues, and jade, as well as human remains. This indicates that not only were people cast into the cenote as part of ritual sacrifice, but that nobles and citizens alike offered gifts to gods by throwing important or prized items into the well. Often, these items were intentionally damaged ” in effect, killing them ” belet fore being thrown as part of the sacrifice.
In the Nahuatl language, the name for the sacred cenote is Chen Kul, or Well of the Gods. According to Mayan legends, one could enter Xibalba through a designated series of holy caverns, by passing through the Sacred Cenote at Chichn Itz, or by competition at the city’s enormous Great Ballcourt. Most sacrifices at the cenote seem to have been intended for Chac, the Mayan god of rain whose visage adorns a great number of buildings within Chichn Itz. A successful offering to Chac would ensure sufficient rain and a prosperous harvest in the coming year. An unconfirmed but still chilling account of the sacrificial ceremony and it’s origins was put down in writing by a Spanish delegation in the late 1500s.
The report claims that the site of Chichn Itz was named for a Mayan named Ah Kin Itz (Ah Kin being a traditional honorific for priests of high rank; the name Chichn Itz actually translates to “At the Mouth of the Well of Itz”). It was the custom, the report says, for the nobility of the region to undergo a 60-day fast, during which they avoided eye contact with all other people, including the wives and servants who brought them what little food intake they were allowed during this period.
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.
Looking to travel to Mexico? Check out the Mexico Travel Blogs at the 2Adventuretravel.com travel community. In case you’re looking for a way to enjoy the majestic Mayan ruins, you can see the Chichen Itza Tour.