18 April 2009

The Snake Pit


In Cancun, you see this word everywhere. On a sign for a cheesy souvenir shop. On a shiny, modern shopping mall. Even given to the boulevard that winds like a serpent's path through the Zona Hoteles.

What is the Kukulcan? A word made up to tangle up tourists' tongues? Being a word-oriented person who loves looking for deeper meaning behind seemingly innocuous place names, I went looking for the face lurking behind the Kukulcan...and found a legend.

The Kukulcan, like in many early cultures, is a supreme god that is represented in the form of a snake. Master of the four elements, possessor of all wisdom and knowledge, creator of the universe, guide through the labyrinth of death, resurrection, and reincarnation.

Originating from Toltec myth, the Kukulcan brought to his people the gifts of fishing, healing, the calendar, and agriculture. His name means "feathered serpent", and part of his name can be found in the very name of "Cancun", which translates literally into "snake pit."

As little as 50 years ago, the area we now know as the vacation destination of Cancun was a tangled jungle, a few Mayan huts along the shore...and dozens and dozens of species of snakes. Even that recently, if an outsider set foot on those shores, if the suspicious Mayan villagers didn't kill him on the spot, the snakes would eventually take care of him!

It's a myth, as well, that the Mayan people are extinct. They are as alive and thriving as the ancient culture they are determined to hold onto. If you're staying in Cancun, Mayans are cooking your food, cleaning your hotel rooms, owning and managing the shops where you buy handcrafts.

Generally small in stature (even the men are 5 feet tall or less), they wear the proud, strong facial features of ancestors that may stretch back to Asian lands, and carry themselves with a quiet dignity that is humbling to anyone who meets them.

Once they as a people were enslaved by Europeans who tried their best to stamp out the Mayan way of life and its revered serpent god as evil; now, like the snake god who can twist and turn on a dime, they have adapted to a new economy for survival - the tourist trade.

It is said the Kukulcan disappeared into the sea, never to be seen again. I beg to differ. The vibrant life force of the Feathered Snake still thrums like a heartbeat right under your feet - if you're brave enough to look and listen for it.

(Photo 2009 at Chichen Itza, Carolan Ivey)

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