Gazing out over the Mopan River Valley, stands Xunantunich, one of Belize’s most beautiful and mysterious ancient Maya Sites. The site’s modern name, pronounced zoo-nan-tun-ich, means ‘stone woman’. It references a local legend of a ghostly belle adorned in white, scaling the steps of El Castillo before disappearing into the stone face at the top.
El Castillo, the most prominent structure at Xunantunich, towers over the central plaza and faces the North. This structure is known best for the exquisite stucco friezes flanking its east and west sides. The glyphs represented there are also known to symbolize the sun, the moon, and Venus; three celestial bodies that play major roles in the cosmology of the ancient Maya.
All visible with the naked eye, the movements of these bodies were understood and charted by the ancient Maya with patent precision. The Dresden Codex, an ancient scripture of Mayan origin, details the positions of Venus over a period exceeding 100 years.
The importance of the cycles of the stars and planets were paramount to the ancient Maya. This is also portrayed in their building practices. Moreover, Xunantunich is one of many Maya sites, which contains a fascinating building style, known among researchers as an E-Group. Structures were built in a row of three along a north-south axis, with another facing them from a distance. From this fourth structure, often set in the west, one can watch as the sun rises directly over the central structure at the equinox, or over one of the outer structures during the summer and winter solstices.
The ancient Maya celebrated this east/ west alignment as it represented life, death, and rebirth. In classic Mayan creation myth, a young goddess falls in love with a hunter – the Sun – without the approval of her father. Furiously, however, her father orders her to be killed. She is soon reborn as the Moon, but cast opposite the Sun, to rule the night. Each lovers’ eternal search for the other is the cause for the recurring day and night.
On the other hand, in other versions of the story, the goddess is magically impregnated and gives birth to feathered serpent twins. The twins are seen in the sky as the morning and evening star, both Venus at different times of the year.
In Mayan art, this moon goddess takes on many forms and is often linked with the Mayan goddess Ix Chel, weaver of the universe. Her name means Lady Rainbow, and she is also associated with the strength of young motherhood and the color white. In another light, she is cast in red as Chac Chel, the wise and experienced crone who is depicted pouring water. She symbolizes the cleansing of old, to make way for the new.
Could it be, the lady at El Castillo, with her white flowing garments and glowing red eyes, has something to do with this story of the maiden, adrift in search of her glittering prince?
The only way any of us could truly know would be to go to Xunantunich and ask the spirit herself… that is if you are willing to ask and she is willing to answer.
Written by Michael Bowen