Does the pyramid of Xochicalco tell the history of Atlantis?
|The pyramid of the feathered serpents at Xochicalco, as seen from the front, with the main stairway facing West. [Photo by Author]|
Does the pyramid of Xochicalco tell the history of Atlantis? This apparently outlandish claim first appeared in the works of British-American antiquarian and amateur archaeologist Augustus Le Plongeon (1825 – 1908) around the year 1880. A fervent believer in the history of Atlantis himself, Le Plongeon believed the Maya area to be the true cradle of civilization, which then spread from there to ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean world, through the fabled lost continent. Nowadays, Le Plongeon is mostly remembered (other than for his priceless collection of early photographs and daguerreotypes of ancient Maya sites) for his fanciful translations of the Troano (Tro-Cortesianus) codex, which he also believed told the history of the destruction and sinking of Atlantis. 
Le Plongeon also took a keen interest in the so called “Pyramid of the feathered serpents” at Xochicalco, which resulted in the publication of a posthumous book in 1914, with the title “The Pyramid of Xochicalco”.
Although the translation provided for the glyphs, at a time when Maya and ancient Mesoamerican studies where still in their infancy, is no less fanciful than the one he made of the Troano codex, many authors have ever since quoted his claims to support the most various theories.
As Le Plongeon’s interpretation of Maya writing has been now thoroughly discredited and dismissed as a romantic flight of fantasy (at best), still the question remains. What is the message of the pyramid of Xochicalco? And more important, is it somehow connected to Atlantis?
The pyramid of Xochicalco
The ancient site of Xochicalco, in the highlands of Morelos and a short drive from the state’s capital of Cuernavaca, is visited by hundreds of tourists every day. Its present name was given to it by the Aztecs, meaning “Hill of Flowers”. Between 650 and 900 AD, Xochicalco was one of the major city-states in central Mexico that tried to fill the power void left after the fall of Teotihuacan.
The major ceremonial center was built around that time as a large acropolis occupying the summit of a natural eminence. Among the many remains of monumental architecture at Xochicalco are several pyramids, three ball court games, as well as palaces and residential areas occupied by the priests and the nobility. Massive stone walls surround the site, forming the terraces of the acropolis, a clear hint to Xochicalco being also an important military stronghold.
|Another view of the main pyramid, as seen from the plaza of the two glyphs. The very broad stairway in the front was one of the few monumental accesses to the acropolis. [Photo by Author]|
The reasons of the fall and abandonment of Xochicalco might never be known or fully understood. Certainly, the city had a violent ending around 1100 AD, with extensive traces of burning and looting. Whether that was the work of foreign invaders or the product of an internal revolt of the lower classes against the ruling elite, is still the matter of considerable debate. In support of this later interpretation, all signs of violent devastation seem to be limited to the elite areas of the city and the acropolis, whereas the lower class residential areas would seem to have been largely spared. After its sudden abandonment, the city was never reoccupied and survived as a ruin until its modern rediscovery.
The building at Xochicalco that has most attracted the interest of antiquarians and archaeologists, ever since colonial times, is the so called “Pyramid of the Feathered Serpents”, occupying a privileged spot on the acropolis. Already in 1810, Baron Alexander von Humboldt was very moved by the ruins of Xochicalco. Even earlier still, in 1791, José Antonio de Alzate y Ramirez (1737-1799), a clergyman, had published a first sketch of the site, accompanied by drawings of the bas-reliefs decorating the main pyramid, which he took for a military building. Dupaix also published many very fine drawings of the pyramid and the site (after Castañeda) in his monumental Antiquités Mexicaines (1805), which made the ruins of Xochicalco known for the first time to the general public outside of Mexico. Notwithstanding the extensive restoration works carried out in 1910 by Leopoldo Batres, the pyramid doesn’t seem to have suffered any major damages from those early times, with most of the original stones of the first two platforms still remaining in situ.
|Another view of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, on the main acropolis of Xochicalco. The pyramids is roughly square at the base, with each side having a length of about 20 meters. [Photo by Author]|
|A view of the Acropolis of Xochicalco, from the top. The pyramid of the feathered serpents is to the left. [Photo by Author]|
The Pyramid of the feathered serpents, or Pirámide de las serpientes emplumadas, as it is known in Spanish, is unique in all of Mesoamerica for being built of large, megalithic basaltic stones, all covered in exquisite bas-relief carvings. An earlier stage of construction is also visible within the now exposed core of the pyramid, although lacking the fine bas-reliefs.
Feathered snakes, lost cities and the Lords of Time
The pyramid has an East-West orientation, with the main stairway facing the setting sun, and consists in its present state of two superimposed bodies arranged in the typical Talud-Tablero Teotihuacan architectural style. It measures 19.6 by 21 meters at the base, and while the lower level survives almost intact, the upper frieze band is highly fragmentary. Only few decorated stone blocks remain of the actual temple, occupying the second level. Several more decorated stones have not yet found a collocation within the partially restored pyramid, and now lie quite chaotically in a small storage area to its side.
The most striking feature of the bas-reliefs that decorate the lower portion of the pyramid is the undulating serpent motif occupying three of its four sides, a total of 60 meters in length.
The serpent is clearly a symbol of Quetzalcoatl, the legendary culture hero and civilizing god, and this is reinforced by at least two attributes: the cut snail glyph, believed to represent the Wind (in the image of Quetzalcoatl as Ehecatl, the god of Wind), and the glyph 9 “eye of reptile”, itself one of the calendric names of Quetzalcoatl. The coils of the snake are also suggestive of the waves of the Sea, an imagery which is reinforced through the analogy with the pyramid of the feathered serpents at Teotihuacan, itself considered to be the prototype of the one at Xochicalco. At Teotihuacan, the marine imagery is further stressed by the presence of different types of seashells among the volutes of the snakes; which are also recalled at Xochicalco in the form of the cut sea snail glyph (itself the most recurring glyph on the pyramid walls).
|The feathered serpent motif on the outer walls of the pyramid of Xochicalco. The serpent appears multiple times on all the four sides of the pyramid, and might be interpreted as a symbol for comets and recurring catastrophes. [Photo by Author]|
According to some interpretations, the giant snake is highly suggestive of a global cataclysm. Astronomers William Napier and Victor Clube argued in their books The Cosmic Serpent and The Cosmic Winter that the mythical imagery of sky serpents and dragons, which is found throughout the world, was in fact a metaphor the ancient astronomers used for comets. 
There is also abundant evidence of the association of Quetzalcoatl with comets. In its starry aspect, Quetzalcoatl was associated with the planet Venus, being the brightest “star” in the night sky. Venus was often referred to as the “smoking star” , a name that the ancient Mexicans also associated to comets . This makes Quetzalcoatl also an astral deity, somehow associated with wind, fire, the planet Venus and comets (as well as, interestingly, with water).
The other most recurring imagery on the lower band is a curious set of glyphs, appearing a total of 6 times within the coils of the snake. This set of glyphs contains the calendric date “9 eye of reptile”, also associated with Quetzalcoatl, surmounted by what appears to be a temple from which emanate large tongues of fire. Interestingly, a glyph in the shape of a volute, emanating from the serpent’s tail, appears to be hitting the temple as a giant wave. Similar volutes are also to be seen underneath the temple, as if the intent of the artist was to represent the construction sinking underneath the waves.
The overall picture is a highly suggestive of a fiery catastrophe terminating in a giant flood that consumed the original homeland of the gods.
A seated figure, possibly Quetzalcoatl himself in human form, is depicted 10 times among the volutes of the snake. The posture, with the legs crossed, and the hand gestures are highly reminiscent of Maya royal iconography, and there are words coming out of the mouth of the seated figure in the form of speech. It is as if the figure was being carried by the waves - that is, the serpent coils – on top of what might be interpreted as smaller serpent or snake-like forms in the shape of the letter S. There might be a connection here with the legend of Quetzalcoatl sailing across the ocean towards the setting sun on a boat of snakes. There is also a curious resemblance with the Olmec Monument 19 of La Venta, dating between 1200 and 800 BC and considered the earliest known representation of the feathered serpent in Mesoamerica.
The upper frieze, occupying the tablero portion, shows a number of similarly seated features accompanied by the same enigmatic set of glyphs. These figures have been called the “Lords of Time”, as they bear attributes usually associated with the year. There were probably 22 of those, but the sequence is fragmentary, with many of the original stones missing. They all seem to carry a sort of bag, again highly reminiscent of the iconography found on the Monument 19 of La Venta. To their right, is a glyph showing of a circle divided into four quarters, with an open jaw to its side. There is no agreement about the meaning of those glyphs, but they seem suggestive of place names.
The bas-reliefs of the uppermost surviving registry, comprising the second layer of the pyramid – or what was possibly the inner temple chamber – are too incomplete to hazard any kind of reconstruction. Again there appear the usual seated figures with their legs crossed, wearing some sort of large hats or turbans and a carrying a staff. The interpretation of these figures as military lords is reinforced by the set of three arrows and a shield that they carry in front of them. Unless, of course, these items have a different ritualistic meaning that we do not yet understand.
|Some of the glyphs and bas-reliefs that decorate the upper portion of the pyramid, possibly the depiction of military Lords or deified ancestors. [Photo by Author]|
|This glyph, from the South-East corner of the pyramid, shows a man of which only the head is visible above the water. Yet another depiction of a deluge? [Photo by Author]|
Although there is no agreement among scholars on the meaning of the bas-reliefs and glyphs of the pyramid of Xochicalco, two main interpretations have emerged; that of a genealogy of rulers and of a correction to the calendar.
The genealogy of rulers interpretation is quite straightforward in that it sees in each one of the seated figures the representation of a lineage of kings, connected by the symbol of the feathered serpent and each one accompanied by a date glyph. This is a rather simplistic explanation of the very complex symbolism of the pyramid bas-reliefs, and does not moreover account for the hundreds of other glyphs and carvings that do not seem to be associated with the images of the assumed rulers or kings.
The second hypothesis of interpretation is based on a specific tablero located to the left (North-East) of the main access stairway of the pyramid. In it, a glyph is found which can be interpreted as the date “5 Calli” or “5 House”, which is tied by means of a rope to another date glyph “11 Ozomatli” or “11 Monkey”. This is somehow interpreted as the “pulling” of a date, that is to say, a recalibration or adjustment to the sacred calendar. The pyramid would therefore represent (and was built in order to commemorate) an astronomical conference, or a meeting of the “Lords of Time” from all over Mesoamerica in Xochicalco to decide on the calendar correction – that is, as the calendar had apparently gone out of sync with astronomical observations. This event is believed to have occurred sometime around the year 743 AD, when the pyramid was dedicated. This interpretation was first suggested by Enrique Juan Palacios in 1920, and later supported by renowned archaeologist Roman Piña Chan in his doctoral thesis in 1970.
Starting from the 1970s, however, skepticism started to emerge in the academic community towards this reading of the glyphs. Hanns J. Prem (1974), firmly denies this interpretation, and the whole subject of the glyphs of Xochicalco seems to have become the matter an archaeological taboo ever since. In a 1994 article, Mexican archaeologist Ruben Morante Lopez goes as far as saying that since then “The majority of studies on the Mesoamerican calendar and the history of Xochicalco barely mention the tablero, and do not dare to take a stance on the very tricky matter of the interpretation of those glyphs”. 
An alternative interpretation
|Another view of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, on the main acropolis of Xochicalco. The relative position of the different superimposed levels can be easily appreciated, as well as the sequence of the main bas-reliefs. [Photo by Author]|
Here I will propose an alternative interpretation of the glyphs and bas-reliefs based on the idea that the pyramid of Xochicalco contains a mythical account of historical events, which does not by itself exclude other interpretations of portions of the glyphs as related to the sphere of astronomy or to the calendar.
As noted earlier, the cosmic serpent, itself the most prominent feature on the pyramid, can be interpreted as the metaphor for a comet and a deluge (the undulating movement) – the two being possibly interconnected – and might therefore be taken as the symbol of a global catastrophe. The obsessive repetition of the same motif on the four faces of the pyramid could, in turn, hint at the cyclical nature of such global catastrophes, brought by comets or other celestial bodies.
The flaming temple, overthrown by the waves and sinking in the waters appears to be an allusion to a lost “Land of the Gods”, identified by the glyph “9 eye of reptile”, and associated with wind and Quetzalcoatl (as the god of wind). The name of this mythical island might have been therefore “Island of the Winds” if we take the glyphs for their literal value. This is again obsessively repeated for a total of 6 times on 3 of the 4 sides of the pyramid.
A deluge seems therefore to have been responsible for the final destruction and sinking of the island of the gods, after it was first hit by a fiery catastrophe (the high flames rising from the temple) possibly caused by the impact of a large celestial body, such as a comet.
The seated figures (10 in total), could represent the survivors from this catastrophe leaving towards the different cardinal directions and spreading into the world, carried by the waves (on what appears to be a boat of snakes, again reminiscent of the legend of Quetzalcoatl). This company of gods or demi-gods, whose leader can be identified as Quetzalcoatl – the feathered serpent – (himself depicted in a sort of “boat” on the sides of the main entrance stairway), was probably at the origins of the city of Xochicalco, or seen perhaps as a mythical ancestor to the city’s royal lineage.
|A detail of the right Tablero, towards the South-West corner. A rather curious glyph amid the coils of the snake is believed to represent the figure of a "Sky bearer", carrying upon his shoulders a starry sky glyph. [Photo by Author]|
|A general view of the Southern side of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, as taken from the South-West corner. [Photo by Author]|
The frieze occupying the entire length of the Tablero of the lower platform would have originally contained 22 depictions of the “Lords of Time”, each one associated with a specific glyph indicating a place name. This could be interpreted as an account of the mythical foundations of the gods, a list of cities founded by the same company of gods depicted in the lower Talud upon their arrival in Mexico. Each one of these “Lords of Time” carries a peculiar bag, which might be interpreted as a bag containing the metaphorical seeds of civilization, or a symbol related to the introduction of agriculture – itself one of the gifts of civilization brought by Quetzalcoatl to ancient Mexico. The peculiar hat that they seem to be wearing contains the symbol of the year, in the tradition of Teotihuacan, a symbol usually associated with great Lords, and perhaps with astronomy. There also seems to be a snake head coming out from the front. Interestingly, each one of these figures seems to be wearing some sort of “goggles” or “eye-glasses”, itself a symbol commonly found in ancient depictions of Tlaloc, the god of rain. Perhaps more curious, the strange figures appear to be bearded.
This whole section is very fragmentary, but contains depictions of what are usually interpreted as military Lords, each carrying a staff, a shield and a set of three arrows. These might be the lords of Xochicalco and other places, who inherited rulership over the land directly from the gods. The very complex symbolism and glyphs associated with this figures suggests however there might be something else. One interpretation is that the figures on this level of the pyramid have to do with the “gifts” of the gods, which might explain the vegetal motifs of what appear to be crops, the calendric glyphs as well as the other animal figures. So far, there are not enough elements to attempt a satisfactory interpretation of this section of the pyramid.
A monument to the end of times?
If the above interpretation is correct, then the pyramid of Xochicalco might be interpreted as a monument erected to commemorate the mythical ancestry of the lords of Xochicalco, descendants from a company of gods that were the sole survivors of a cataclysm that destroyed and sunk their primeval homeland, the “Island of the Winds”. This cataclysm appears to be related to the impact of a comet or another celestial body, and there is moreover a suggestion of cyclical or recurring cosmic events. In this sense, even the calendric glyphs on the pyramid of Xochicalco might be interpreted as referring to some recurring astronomic event, perhaps the passage of a comet, which was believed to cyclically bring devastation to the world.
The story goes on with the arrival of this company of gods, the “Lords of Time”, to Mesoamerica, where they founded a number of cities and temples, taught agriculture, astronomy and the arts of civilization to the still primitive inhabitants of the valley of Mexico, and also established a lineage of kings to whom the rulers of Xochicalco and other places in Mesoamerica traced back their ancestry and, ultimately, their divine right to kingship.
A leap to the other side of the Atlantic
This story, if correct, bears some remarkable similarities to other cosmological myths of a global cataclysm from across the Atlantic, particularly to the famous Edfu building texts. The similarities are so striking that one might be induced to think that the pyramid of Xochicalco and the Edfu building texts do indeed tell the same story.
The Edfu building texts are a collection of hieroglyphic writings found on the outer walls of the Ptolemaic temple of Edfu, in Egypt, dating to the 2nd Century BC. No doubt, however, the Edfu building texts were copied after some much older material, possibly dating to the Old Kingdom. The story told in these ancient Egyptian texts is almost identical to the one represented on the walls of the Mexican pyramid of Xochicalco.
This corpus of texts, which has only been partially translated, also seems to refer to a primeval abode of the gods, which was destroyed in a violent cataclysm and was later submerged. The similarities, however, don’t stop here.
In the Edfu building texts, this primeval “Land of the gods” is depicted as an island, variously called “Island of Creation”, “Island of Trampling”, “Island of Combat”, “Island of Peace” or “Island of the Egg”, names that might all possibly relate to mythical events in the island’s history. This island, the original abode of the gods and seat of the first, mythical ancestor of the Temple, appears to have been destroyed in a violent attack by a “snake” or “serpent”, which caused the island to split and sink in the primeval Ocean, causing all of its divine inhabitants to perish.
According to E.A.E. Reymond, author of The Mythical Origins of the Egyptian Temple:
“The homeland of the primeval ones […] having been constituted by the creators themselves, came to its end at a definite moment of the primeval age. A storm, perhaps, came over the island, during which an attack was made by an enemy pictured as a snake. The aggression was so violent that it destroyed the sacred land with the result that all of its divine inhabitants perished” 
Concerning the “snake” itself, which was apparently responsible for the destruction and sinking of the island, she adds:
“He refers to a snake, the nhp-wr, the Great Leaping One, who appears to be the chief enemy of the god […] his feet were pierced and the ground of the domain was split. This is a clear picture of a disaster” 
The attack was so violent that it caused the primeval island of the gods to sink and be submerged:
“The primeval water might have submerged the island as a consequence of a fight, and the island became the tomb of the original divine inhabitants” 
This serpent, also called in the Egyptian text “The Great Leaping One” is highly reminiscent of the feathered serpents depicted on the outer faces of the pyramid of Xochicalco, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for comets. There is also an idea in the Edfu text of recurring catastrophes, as the text explicitly references multiple cycles of creation and resurrection of the primeval island.
The “company of gods” that survived the destruction and sinking of the primeval island of creation (otherwise known from other Egyptian sources as the Shemsu-Hor – the companions of Horus), seems to have played a role in the rebirth of civilization after the catastrophe which is very similar to the one attributed in Mesoamerica to Quetzalcoatl and his companions.
There is also another striking analogy in the names used to describe the new homeland of the gods after the catastrophe. The Edfu text mentions that reeds were all that survived of the primeval island of the gods after its sinking, and that the island itself was covered in reeds:
“The beginning of the first Edfu record does not tell us that the new generation of creators arriving in the island would perceive the island itself when the sun shone once more on the primeval waters. It is stated that they saw only the reeds on the surface of the water” 
“The Edfu cosmogonical records begin with a picture of the primeval island where the gods were believed to have lived first…which, in part, was covered with reeds” 
Interestingly, the mythical capital of Quetzalcoatl after his arrival in Mexico was called Tollan, which in Nahuatl means “the place of reeds”. Tollan was considered an ancestral place of origin for the civilizations of Mexico, and was the legendary capital of the Toltecs (meaning “people of the reeds”). The very name of Quetzalcoatl is often associated with the glyph “Ce Acatl”, or “1 reed”, with the reed glyph appearing several times on the pyramid of Xochicalco itself.
In Aztec myths, the original homeland of the Aztec people is named “Aztlan”, a name somehow associated with the color white, whose literal meaning is “place of herons and reeds”. One might also find interesting, and it is certainly matter of speculation, that while the ancient Egyptians located the homeland of the Gods in the far West, Quetzalcoatl was believed to have come to America from the East, that is from across the Atlantic. It is on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico that the earliest known Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs, developed, and it is with the Olmecs that the earliest depictions of the feathered serpents are found.
Perhaps the pyramid of Xochicalco does not tell the same story as Plato’s Atlantis, but the parallels with the ancient Egyptian myths from across the Atlantic, and the Mesoamerican legend of Quetzalcoatl as a civilizing god who came from the East, all point to a common belief in a primeval homeland of the gods, that was destroyed and sank in a time beyond recorded history, from which civilization spread to both the Old and the New World.
|A panoramic view of the Northern side of the pyramid of the feathered serpents at Xochicalco. [Photo by Author]|
 A good online biography of Augustus Le Plongeon can be found at the following website: http://maya.csueastbay.edu/archaeoplanet/LgdPage/LepKehoe.htm
 Victor Clube, Bill Napier, The Cosmic Serpent, Faber & Faber, 1982
 For instance, Venus is depicted as a “smoking star” in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, as well as in the Songs of Dzitbalche, suggesting a connection between Venus and Comets. See Susan Milbraith, Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore and Calendar, University of Texas, 1999
 in Nahuatl, “Citlalin popoca”. Source: Remi Simeón, Diccionario de la lengua Nahuatl o Mexicana, 17th edition, México, 2004 (1st Spanish edition 1977)
 Rubén Morante López, El Templo de las Serpientes Emplumadas de Xochicalco, no. 94, Universidad Veracruzana (1994), accessed online: http://cdigital.uv.mx/bitstream/123456789/1232/2/199491P113.pdf
 E.A.E. Reymond, The Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple, Manchester University Press, 1969, p. 113-114
 Ibid., p. 113
 Ibid., p. 109
 Ibid., p. 109
 Ibid., p. 59
thank you preserving this bit of history...ReplyDelete