Kukulkan- All you need to know about the Mexican snake-deity

Folklore has always been an interesting affair. The Kukulkan, also spelled K’uk’ulkan (“Plumed Serpent“, “amazing Serpent“) is a product of one such folklore. He is a winged and feathered serpent-deity. He is worshipped by the Yucatec Maya people of the Yucatan Peninsula( present day Mexico).


Kukulkan Mayan God

The story of the all-powerful snake-God Kukulkan is a widely accepted folklore among the people of the Maya tribe in Mexico. He was a prominent figure in the mesoamerican region.

He was a creator god, and the god of rain, wind, storms, and life.

Even today, the ancient Yucatec language-speaking Mayan people worship the mythological snake as God.

Various artists have depicted the winged snake quite uniquely.

For example, most mesoamerican arts identify his body differently. The cave represents the mouth of the snake. On the other hand, the sky signifies the body of the snake.

However, these artists portray the Mayan God as a deity of the earth as well as the underworld. The artistic interpretation of its mouth as a cave actually represents its connection with the underworld. On the contrary, its body is represented as the sky. So, that connects it to the gods. Further, the Maya words for sky and snake have the same pronunciation. Thus, this deity forms a connection between the Gods and life on earth.

The figure first appeared  in carvings of the Olmec civilization, which prospered in Pre-Classical Mesoamerica from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE.

Kukulkan is also the name of a 10th-century CE cultural hero in Yucatec Maya history. Moreover, he has a counterpart in the Toltec and Aztec histories. Even today, the feathered serpent god remains a powerful symbol of Mexican cultural heritage.

 In fact, the Toltecs and Aztecs identify him as the feathered serpent god Quetzalcóatl.

We have also talked about their similarities in this article.

Kukulkan pronunciation

The Yucatec Mayan people spell the name as Kʼukʼulkan. However, in Tzotzil it is Kʼukʼul-chon . The word kukul “feathered”, combined with kan “snake” (Tzotzil chon), gives a literal meaning of “feathered snake”.

Moreover, the cult of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl was quite special. They were the first Mesoamerican religion to forward the old Classic Period language. This cult helped conduct peaceful trade. They made communication easier among people of various social and ethnic backgrounds. The origin of this group was in the ancient city of Chichen Itza in the modern Mexican state of Yucatán. In fact, it spread as far as the Highlands of Guatemala.

Kukulkan God

Of course, there have been various myths referring to the serpent-deity Kukulkan, among the tribes of Mexico. However, the most famous version of the stories suggest that Kukulkan was a boy who was born as a snake. So, when he grew older he started growing feathers on his body. Additionally, his sister took care of him in a cave. Eventually, he could not fit in there any longer. He came out of the cave and flew into the sea, thus, causing a huge earthquake.

Accordingly, the non-destructive tremors every July let his sister know of his presence.

A modern collection of folklore from present day Mexico tells us about Kukulkan. According to it, he was a winged serpent that flew to the sun and tried to speak to it.  However the sun, in its pride, burnt his tongue. Also, the same source relates how Kukulkan always travels ahead of the Yucatec Maya rain god Chaac. He helps to predict the rains as his tail moves the winds and sweeps the earth clean.

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Not all legends portray him as God either. For example, among the Lacandon Maya tribe, Kukulkan is an evil, monstrous snake that is the pet of the sun god.

Since the deity is in the form of a feathered serpent, it is obvious that he can fly. However, he may or may not be able to fly to the sun. Also, it is true that heat hurts Kukulkan. Further, Kukulkan is actually large enough to sweep the earth clean – due to his relationship to the rains. However, this case depicts Kukulkan as a companion of a rain god rather than an actual rain god.

Currently, the winged serpent god remains a powerful symbol of Mexican cultural heritage.


What does Kukulkan look like?

Quetzalcóatl was one of the most important gods in ancient Mesoamerica, particularly for the Toltec and Aztec civilizations. Further, he is known as the Plumed or Feathered Serpent. His appearance is a mix of bird and rattlesnake. Indeed, his name is a combination of the Post-Classic Nahuatl words for the quetzal – the emerald plumed bird – and cóatl or serpent.

Kukulkan pyramid

Besides the god Kukulcan, the tribal people believed that there was a man called Kukulkan. He was a cultural hero and was either a ruler or priest. In fact, he spent some time in the 10th century CE (perhaps 987 CE). Also, it is probable that Chichen Itza in the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula was his discovery. This individual and his followers had come from the legendary city of Tula/Tollan (a name often applied to any large settlement). According to some Maya legends, Kukulkan and his followers defeated the city’s first settlers. The Mayans called them Itza . Further, they took the city by force. Since his name was the same as the serpent-deity, it has been difficult to distinguish the two in many folklores.

Of Course we don’t have many records of the method of worship of the deity. However, we do have plenty of information to show his worship place. The great step pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza bears his name. Additionally, it also has many images of the god carved into it. Probably, the Mayans used this site as a place of worship for the god. Also, they possibly used it during ceremonies that depended upon the alignment of the stars and planets.

The Maya name “Chichen Itza” means “At the mouth of the well of the Itza.” This derives from chi’, meaning “mouth” or “edge”, and chʼen or chʼeʼen, meaning “well”.


Kukulkan Pyramid: Exteriors

The temple dedicated to Kukulkan is El Castillo, Chichen Itza. The wonder occurs during the spring and fall equinoxes. The shadow formed by the nine steps of the pyramid at this angle of the sun, is beautiful. It creates the illusion of a snake crawling down the pyramid. Of course, the stone serpent head figures enhance the effect. According to people’s beliefs, the serpent-God crawls down the pyramid to bless his followers on earth. After that, he moves into the Xibalba (or, the underworld). So, devotees flock around the pyramid every year to witness this joyous phenomenon.


What is inside Kukulkan ?

Besides the exteriors, archeologists have also studied the interior of this pyramid for a long time.

It is famous for the descent of Kukulkán. Also, its relationship to the Maya calendar makes it special. Each of the pyramid’s four sides has a staircase of 91 steps. The total number of steps, after combining the temple at its peak, equals 365. This equals the number of days in the Maya solar year. The priests primarily used the temple on top. They performed sacred rituals at a height. They thought that it brought them closer to the gods in the sky.

However, in the 1930s, a group of excavators began exploring. They discovered another pyramid-temple within the larger pyramid. Further, in the mid-2010s archeologists used non-invasive imaging techniques to excavate further.  Surprisingly, they found yet another pyramid. This pyramid was buried within the two others. They theorize that it was probably built between 550 and 800 CE. Also, it may have had a single stairway and an altar.

What was the Kukulkan pyramid used for?

The Kukulkan pyramid was used as the mayan calendar.

The first type of pyramid had a temple on the top. The priests climbed these steps to make sacrifices to the gods. The stairs going up the sides of these pyramids were steep, but not too steep for the priests to climb. Also, the most important religious ceremonies were held at the peak of these pyramids.

How old is kukulkan?

The kukulkan pyramid is over a thousand years old. This pyramid was built by the Mayan people roughly in the year 1000 AD. Further, they dedicated this pyramid to the serpent-God Kukulkan.

Quetzalcoatl Kukulkan

Although Kukulkan is Mayan and Quetzalcoatl is of Aztec origin, the two deities are actually equivalent. Kukulkan is closely related to the deity Quetzalcoatl of Aztec mythology. We know little about the mythology of this deity.

In fact, the cult of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl was indeed special. They were the first Mesoamerican religion to carry forward the old Classic Period language.

Kukulkan Mythology

The Mayans worshipped the all-powerful snake god Kukulkan .

However, little information remains about the legends and mythology of Kukulkan. This is due to the tragic destruction of the Maya codes by the Spanish conquests and Catholic priests. However, the depictions of this god live on in the architecture of the Maya. They carry forward the legacy of this once-powerful civilization.

The idea of a feathered serpent god in the Mayan religion first originated in the time of the Olmec civilisation. They were the earliest known major civilization in Mexico. They flourished during the 15 th to the 5 th century BC. Further, the people of the tribes also worshipped the feathered serpent god. It is clear in the prominent depiction of this deity on the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. In fact, it is one of the major pyramids at the ancient site.

However, we know little about the myths surrounding Kukulkan. Also, the scholars are uncertain if they resemble those told about Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs. Also, one of the Aztec myths about Quetzalcoatl presents this god as a priest-king of Tollan. However, the god of the night sent him to exile.

On the contrary, in one version of the myth, Quetzalcoatl had left the city. He sailed eastwards on a boat made of snakes. Some have suggested that this legend has a historical basis. The eastward journey of Quetzalcoatl was in tune with the arrival of the Toltecs in the Yucatan Peninsula. This may be a common legend shared by both Kukulcan and Quetzalcoatl.

Kukulkan FAQs

1.   Is Kukulkan good or bad?

Ans: However, there are different versions of the stories surrounding the serpent-deity. On one hand, the usual stories of the Mayan tribe state the serpent-God as all-powerful. According to those sources, Kukulkan forms a connection between the heavens and the earth.

On the contrary, a few other tribes are of different opinion. They suggest that Kukulkan is an evil, monstrous snake that is the pet of the sun god.

2.   What did Kukulkan represent?

Ans: The name of the feathered serpent of the mayan tribe means just that: feathered (k’uk’ul) and serpent (kan). He was a creator god, and the god of rain, wind, storms, and life.

3.   What was the reason behind Kukulkan’s worship?

Ans: The Temple of Kukulkan stands at 75 feet and helps the Mayans with their astrological works. The feathered serpent god(Kukulkan), was a prominent deity worshipped by most of the Mesoamerican people. The Mayans believed that Kukulkan had a human form as well.

In Yucatán, references to the deity Kukulkan are often found confusing. This is because there was a person of the same name. Thus, the difference between the two has become blurred. This individual was a ruler or priest at Chichen Itza who first appeared around the 10th century. The Maya writers of the 16th century mention Kukulkan as a historical person. However, the earlier 9th-century texts at Chichen Itza do not depict him as human and artistic symbols. Instead, they show him as a Vision Serpent entwined around the figures of nobles. The Chichen Itza, depicts Kukulkan as presiding over sacrifice scenes.

4.   How many months did the Mayan solar calendar have?

Ans: The Vague Year or haab of 365 days is similar to our modern calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days each, with an unlucky five-day period at the end. The secular calendar of 365 days had to do primarily with the seasons and agriculture, and was based on the solar cycle.

5.   How old is the Temple of Kukulkan?

Ans: El Castillo(the Temple of Kukulcan), is a Mesoamerican step-pyramid. The Maya civilisation built it in around 1000 AD. Thus, it is more than a thousand years old.

6.   What is inside the Temple of Kukulkan?

Ans: Scientists have found a second pyramid hidden within the Kukulkan pyramid at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico. Researchers announced the discovery of a pyramid 10 meters tall (33 feet) inside two other structures. This makes up the pyramid also known as El Castillo, or the Castle.

7.   Is Kukulkan the same as Quetzalcoatl?

Ans: In Mayan culture that spans from the Yucatan to Guatemala, people call the deity ‘Kukulkan’. Conversely, in Aztec culture that spans most of Mexico, people recognise the deity as Quetzalcoatl. This particular deity is the god of wind, air, and learning.

8.   Is Kukulkan a demon?

Ans: Kukulkan is the name of a Mesoamerican serpent deity. Prior to the Spanish Conquest of the Yucatán, the Yucatec Maya people of the Yucatán Peninsula worshipped the Kukulkan, in what is now Mexico. However, we know little about the mythology of this Pre-Columbian era deity.

9.   Why is climbing the Mayan temple banned?

Ans: The pyramid of Kukulkán — also known as “El Castillo” — is the most famous Maya monument in Yucatán, and arguably in the entire Maya world. In 2008, Mexico’s Institute for History and Anthropology (INAH) restricted all tourists from climbing the structure citing concerns regarding its preservation.

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