Still hungry for information on lost cities in North America? Good. Because I wrote some more (with a lot of assistance from our own Lucky Duke) about it this week. I have previously suggested that abandoned city-scapes can be great gateways to high weirdness. That makes the city now called Chichen Itza even more interesting, because it’s been abandoned more than once. You’d think that one apocalyptic moment would be enough to keep people away, but there’s just something about those pyramids (or maybe the gods beneath them?) that kept the Maya coming back for more.
Gone With the Wind
While the original inhabitants of Chichen Itza* were hiding out on what would become Mexico’s Pacific coast, having abandoned the city they built, things were going poorly in the southern half of the Mayan empire, as well. Still hundreds of years from the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the bulk of Mayan civilization in these territories suddenly and catastrophically collapsed; the people who lived in those cities vanished, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 million Maya simply disappearing into the jungles of present-day Guatemala and Honduras. Their temples and cities fell to ruin; Chichen Itza — part of the northern Empire — lived on, and grew. Any proper conspiratorial historian should know that these two departures must be linked by some unnatural and terrifying eschatological event. I’ve already suggested an invasion of morlocks (or why not mole-men?) from the Hollow Earth as an explanation for Chichen Itza’s abandonment, but you could certainly use a wider war to explain the massive depopulation. You could also turn things around — instead of having subterranean monsters chasing your Maya into the forests, maybe the stars aligned to open a gateway to a more peaceful Xibalba, and they simply packed up and moved to the Mayan version of Pellucidar. Why not let Chichen Itza mark a hidden passageway between this world and the world below? Of course, your Xibalba might hew a little closer to the Mayan myths: a land of the dead. Maybe a ceremony gone-wrong tore the veil between the material and spirit worlds, spilling a horde of angry ghosts into Chichen Itza and across the southern Empire? After being assaulted by a plague of angry phantasms (or zombies, or poltergeists, etc.), I’d certainly consider moving to friendlier environs.
Mi Casa Es Su Casa
With the city abandoned, another group quickly occupied the site, and repurposed it as a ceremonial center. In real life, these new inhabitants were probably just happy to find some pre-laid foundations in an otherwise inhospitable rainforst, but that’s not necessarily a great plot to hang a story on, so I suggest looking for something more entertaining to explain their sudden appearance in the abandoned city. Perhaps a hidden power cut deep into the limestone foundations of the city called out to them? Perhaps a forgotten god spoke to them in their dreams (like Cthulhu!), bringing them to its thrall?
In any case, these secondary inhabitants built the earliest of the city’s surviving structures, including the Akab Dzib (which roughly translates as the highly evocative “house of mysterious writing”), and buildings now called the Red House, the House of the Deer, and the Temple of Three Lintels. As the years passed, the descendents of the Itza began to return to the city, ultimately helping give the city its current name. Although our knowledge of the Mayan language is greatly diminished, remaining records suggest that the Itza were thought to be immensely powerful. Scholars suggest that the name “Itza” may be a derivative of the Mayan word “itz,” which roughly coincides with the English words for “magic” and “power.” “Ha” is the Mayan word for water. Thus, the Itza would have been known by their contemporaries as “the Water Sorcerers,” a concept particularly significant because of the Itza’s centuries-long sojourn to the Pacific, and because the land around the city of Chichen Itza is surprisingly arid.
Well, Well, Well
The Itza (and their predecessors) relied on freshwater wells known as cenotes (pronounced “see-no-tees”) for water. Chichen Itza was built around two of these wells: Xtoloc, the source of drinking water for the city; and Chenku, the deeper sacrificial well where the Mayan rain god Chac (maybe Dagon wearing another face?) supposedly dwelled. During the frequent periods of drought or turmoil, hopeful supplicants would hurl sacrifices of jade (or, in particularly desperate times, people) to the bottom of the Chenku well in order to appease Chac and free the city from its troubles. Chac, one might deduce, was not a particularly friendly god, and his apparent hunger for human sacrifice could certainly lend your game a touch of eldritch horror. However, your Chac could instead be an ancient Atlantean weather machine (water sorcerers, right?), and the Chenku cenote merely the gateway to a massive, technologically advanced complex barely concealed by the monuments that now stand forgotten in the jungles of the Yucatan.
No matter what the Chenku well really represents, Chichen Itza derives its name from this site, as well. Fully translated, “Chichen Itza” is literally the city “at the mouth of the water sorcerers’ well.” The name suggests adventure possibilities aplenty. Your modern game might feature a modern cult dedicated to recovering the power once wielded by these ancient hydro- (or Atlantean techno-) mancers, or, better yet, a cabal of immortal Mayan priests hiding in the modern world, still drawing power from the mysterious entity (or entities) trapped beneath the now-brackish waters of the Chenku cenote.
Still reading? Check out part three!
*Original, unless the city was actually built and inhabited by degenerate Atlanteans or stranded space aliens. Or both. They probably called the city Uuc Yabnal, or at least chanted the words while they sacrificed screaming captives to their dark and bloodthirsty gods.
Image Credit: FICMaya.com