How To Celebrate The Autumnal Equinox Like The Ancient Maya — With A Feathered Serpent

Wednesday marks the autumnal equinox, and though Google is celebrating the changing of the seasons with a cool doodle, the rest of us will probably just complain that summer is over.

But there is much to be thankful for with the arrival of the autumnal equinox — there’s pumpkin spice coffee, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, comfy sweaters, Halloween, and fall leaves. But at an ancient Mayan pyramid, celebrating the new season takes on a far more mystical tone.

First, what exactly is going on when we mark the autumnal equinox? We’re actually just recognizing the how the Earth is tilted, because that is what causes our seasons to change throughout the year, National Geographic explained.

Our planet’s axis leans a bit, about 23.5 degrees. Summer comes when the northern hemisphere is facing the sun; the result is longer and hotter days. When it’s titled away, you get the opposite effect.

Two times a year, the Earth is awash in sunlight evenly, and the days and nights are almost the same length. That’s what’s happening Wednesday on the autumnal equinox. Such tweaks in our planet’s position of course cause drastic changes in the environment, hazy blue skies, and sunburns giving way to blizzards and frostbite.

Historically, people have marked these changes with celebrations on both the vernal and autumnal equinox and the summer and winter solstice. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Stonehenge is one of the more remarkable tributes to the changing of the seasons.

But if you want to the celebrate the autumnal equinox in truly spectacular fashion, you can’t stay stateside — you have to head down to Mexico and Chichen Itza, where the ancient Maya really knew how to welcome the fall.

A stepped pyramid called El Castillo — or Spanish for “castle” — was possibly constructed just to create an illusion of light and shadow to welcome the spring and autumnal equinox. Back in 1000, when El Castillo was built, the pattern was meant to help the Maya keep track of when to plant, harvest, and perform ceremonies.

Also called the Pyramid of Kukulkán — which recent archaeological excavation suggests may have been built above a sinkhole, as the Inquisitr previously reported — twice a year El Castillo summons a shadowy snake, which crawls down the castle’s stairway to two snake-head sculptures at its base.

The phenomenon is created as the sun sets on the autumnal equinox; gradually, the snake appears down the stairway, formed by a half dozen triangular shadows cast by the pyramid’s terraces. Some believe the shadowy snake is tribute the god for which El Castillo is named — Kukulkán, the feathered serpent. The sight is remarkable, according to anthropologist James Fox.

“Standing at the corner of the building with the sunset to my right, looking on the left you see the big stairway going up the side of the building and you’ll see the light of the un-shadowed portion looks like a snake on the stairway… If that doesn’t make an impression, nothing will.”

Evidence suggests that the ancient Maya built Kukulkán specifically to create this display on the autumnal equinox. The snake sculptures are one hint. Another is the fact that the structure’s western side faces the zenith passage sunset. Its four stairways have 91 steps each — making a total of 365 (sound familiar?) Ninety-one days is the exact length between each phase in the solar cycle — winter and solstice, vernal and autumnal equinox.

[Photo Courtesy Borna_Mirahmadian / Getty Images]