Blinking snake


Each year, thousands of people travel to the Northern Yucatan, to brave the heat and the bugs and to wait for the arrival of the Vernal Equinox at the Pyramid named El Castillo, in what was once central downtown Chichén Itzá.  At noon on the day of the equinox, if you stand in just the right place, you can see a particular pattern of light crawling down the sides of one of the stairways leading to the top of the pyramid.  If your imagination is reasonably well-lubricated, you can see the body of a gigantic snake there, culminating in a grotesque head, ringed with feathers, at the base of the stairs.

This is the image of the feathered serpent.  The one you can see at the equinox connects the top of the pyramid with the base.  In April of 1999, tourists were forbidden to ascend to the platform at the top.  At the peak of Mayan civilization, over a thousand years ago, commoners were also banned from that platform.  The rulers of the polity that was Chichén performed religious rituals there, in the purview of those below, but they, too, were connected to a higher place by the body of a snake, yet another feathered snake.  As above, so below.

As tourists, we can see this image of the feathered snake one day a year.  If we choose, we too, like the Mayan rulers, may also see the living body of the celestial snake at some point in every night sky.  The Milky Way is not a symbol of the snake, it is the snake; it is the sky, as is attested by the homophony of the two words in most Mayan languages.

A thousand years ago, the Mayan civilization was the greatest on this side of the planet.  The Mayans listened to the sky, and left the words that were given to them in a book now called the Popol Vuh.  The Mayan rulers spoke to the governed, and left the words they wrote carved in stone, incised in stucco and in wood, relating how only the elite could intercede between and connect the commoners and the gods of the underworld, who lived in the sky.  Scribes, of royal blood themselves, wrote down the paths of the planets and the moon, the locations of the killer snakes that ate the Sun during eclipses, and the many ways to calculate these things in exquisite calligraphy on fig bark paper, and they bound the paper into books.  Nearly five hundred years ago, one of the first Europeans to meet the descendants of those who built Chichén Itzá burned most of their sacred books.

We have only four of those books left.  In one of them, we see numbers written between the coils of great serpents.  The meaning of those numbers remains a mystery, but we believe that, if we could but understand them, they should somehow connect above and below.

Pythons are denizens of the Old World, while the feathered serpent is a creature of the New, as is its natural model, the Anaconda.

Not all meetings between different worlds need end in book burnings.

—Ivan Van Laningham
“Colophon” originally appeared as the colophon to Python Essential Reference by David Beazley.  New Riders: Indianapolis, 2000.  The book’s cover photograph was of El Castillo, unfortunately not at the equinox.  If I ever get there, I will post a picture here.

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