Where Feathered Serpents Wait

The Mayapán Taboo Cenote Project will undertake an extensive exploration of the underwater cave, Cenote Sac Uayum, to document 20+ submerged skeletons and artifacts. Team leader and National Geographic Grantee Bradley Russell will also investigate the modern belief that a supernatural power- a feathered serpent- guards the water within.


Calming the Beast That Lies Beneath 

Dark clouds were gathering as we hauled various offerings and an altar table into the forest.  Rain began to pour as we arrived at the cenote and I worried that it would be taken as a negative omen.

We were there to perform a Jeets’ Lu’um (calming of the earth), a Maya ceremony to ask permission from the gods of the sky, earth and winds for permission to enter and explore Cenote Sac Uayum (Sacuayumil), a sacred water filled sinkhole believed to be very dangerous by the local population of this part of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

I have been told by many about an enormous serpent guardian of the cenote and how when disturbed its waters can explode out in a geyser washing victims in to their deaths.  In 1997, the local community of Telchaquillo insisted the same ceremony be performed when another archaeological project led by Eunice Uc was recording various caves and cenotes at the site.

A violation of the cenote could bring drought or other disaster to the community.  The cenote has long interested archaeologists as the large city wall surrounding much of the site clearly deflects northward to exclude this otherwise prime source of water, highly unusual in this arid area where much ritual, such as the Cha Chaac, centers on bringing rain.

Local Shaman Don Teodormio San Sores lights candles to add to ceremonial altar. Photo buy author.
Local Shaman Don Teodormio San Sores lights candles to add to ceremonial altar. Photo by Bradley Russell.

The Shaman and the Offering

Don Teodormio San Sores, an h-men or local shaman from the nearby village of Tekit set about establishing the altar or kanche’ with candles lit at each corner.  Other participants erected a rain shelter under a tarp strung from trees and barrel cacti.

They lit a fire to cook the eight chickens and other food offering we had brought.  Don Teodormio mixed a bowl of saka’, a sugar sweetened mix of water and corn masa which he used to fill five gourd bowls set at the corners and center of the altar, symbolizing the cardinal directions and the cosmologically important central “axis mundi” or world axis, the point which connects the heavens, earth and underworld in Maya beliefs, both modern and ancient.

A series of barely audible prayers were then said.  A sixth bowl of saka’ was placed at the rim of the sacred cenote as an offering directly to its guardian(s), at least one of whom is said to take the form of an enormous serpent.  This act was also accompanied by a short series of prayers.

The remaining congregants, consisting of myself, the son of the shaman who is training to someday take his father’s place and several local workmen employed by our project, slaughtered the chickens and began preparing them for cooking as another food offering.

Don Teodormio prepares the ceremonial altar. Photo by author.
Don Teodormio prepares the ceremonial altar. Photo by Bradley Russell.

More of our team arrived sometime later as the boiling chickens were seasoned with onion, garlic, achiote and a mix of other spices.  Once pulled from the enormous steel caldron, the birds were placed in a vessel beside the alter, where more prayers were offered.

The third critical food offering, k’ol, is a mix of rendered pork fat, large quantities of corn masa and the seasoned broth.  Preparation of the k’ol is time consuming and labor intensive, requiring the work of a large number of individuals to keep the huge caldron of heavy, boiling masa mixture stirred and in constant motion as it thickens.

All of this work is done by men and the action seems to be viewed as something of a playful test of strength and stamina.   Traditionally, women were not allowed to attend these events and to this day are forbidden to prepare of the ritual foods.

One exception to this rule that I have observed at similar rituals is the use of cut up pieces of tortillas (made by the women), a staple of nearly all Maya meals, into xeek’, a soup made from the same seasoned broth used to boil the chickens.  In more recent times, women have been allowed to attend and prepare secular foods consumed throughout the day’s events.

Don Teodormio offers saka' to the gods of sky, earth and the winds. Photo by author.
Don Teodormio offers saka’ to the gods of sky, earth and the winds. Photo by Bradley Russell.

A Spiritual Feast 

Once all food offerings had been prepared, the shaman gave instructions that some of the k’ol be placed on plates and put on the alter.  Another round of prayers was made to formally offer the feast to the gods and the cenote guardians.  We were instructed to wait half an hour as the spirits consumed their fill of the feast.

At the end of this spiritual feast, more prayers were offered and bits of the food were scattered to the four directions surrounding the alter.  Chickend and k’ol was added to the saka’ in the bowl at the rim of the cenote then similarly scattered to the four directions before the remaining contents were tossed reverently into the cenote itself.

The offering was declared a success by Don Teodormio and we feasted on the remaining food before departing with assurances that our work would now be safe.

Don  Teodormio offers saka' to the guardians of Cenote Sac Uayum. Photo by author.
Don Teodormio offers saka’ to the guardians of Cenote Sac Uayum. Photo by author.


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Meet the Author
I am an archaeologist studying the ancient Maya culture. Since 2000 I have been working to expand our understanding of the Late Postclassic political capital of Mayapan, The city of thousands of structures was the dominant center of Maya civilization in the northern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico for more than three hundred years (1100-1450AD) just prior to the arrival of Spaniards in the New World.