If you thought we’d run out of strange myths surrounding the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza last week, you were wrong. Very wrong.
There’s certainly something elegantly simple about focusing a game about Chichen Itza (or an entirely fictional homage) around the apparently blood-thirsty Mayan rain-god Chac, who supposedly inhabited the deep, sacrificial wells the city’s inhabitants once dug into the broad, limestone plateau. Simplicity can, however, be the enemy of a game centered around secret (or even just pulp) history. People as (relatively) sane as Graham Hancock (and as crazy as Robert E. Howard!) have built literary careers on the idea that all similar cultural and religious beliefs must spring from a single source (in his case, a non-specific Atlantis-esque global civilization that supposedly collapsed during the last ice age), so mixing and matching (or just conflating) mythic figures from ancient Central America is really small potatoes as such things go.
OUT OF THE WEST
Mayan texts claim that a man (or perhaps a god) calling himself Kukulkan arrived in the city of Chichen Itza from the West (along with the returning Itza) some time in the late 10th century AD. The real Kukulkan was probably the leader of two tribes of Toltecs, who, like the Itza, (re)invaded Mayan territory just as the southern Empire was collapsing. However, the mythic Kukulkan bears a startling resemblance to two other prominent pre-Columbian demigods, the Toltec Topiltzin and the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, and some spotty scholarship has linked all three with the Incan Viracocha, another mysteriously powerful demigod (like Chac, a rain god) from parts unknown. All three (or four) are often depicted as feathered (or plumed) serpent-men (which can easily be stretched to make them snake-like Ophidians, D&D-style lizardfolk, or even extradimensional reptilian aliens), although some iconography dispenses with all pretenses toward humanity and depicts these mysterious figures more simply as gigantic plumed serpents. What game couldn’t use one (or more) of those? Combine Kukulkan with Chac, and your players may really have something to worry about: an ancient semi-divine plumed serpent that hasn’t been fed in hundred years, hiding in the bottom of a forgotten well.
Regardless of the Kukulkan’s true nature, his legendary arrival at Chichen Itza heralded the establishment of Chichen Itza as the capital of a new Mayan empire, and the Toltecs he led influenced the remaining Maya and the Itza in more ways than one. The Toltecs brought a religion that emphasized human sacrifice with them to Chichen Itza (or maybe the great god Chac/Kulkulkan was simply hungry), along with a kind of cunning realpolitik that led them to attempt to expand their power by allying with the nearby cities of Mayapan and Uxmal.
No longer a lone city-state, Chichen Itza’s inhabitants used their expanding wealth and influence to add even more spectacular buildings to the city, including the Observatory, the Temple of the Warriors, the Group of the Thousand Columns, and the mysterious Ossario, which protects the mouth of an apparently shallow, natural cavern once thought to serve as a tomb for Mayan priests and kings (but could really lead anywhere your game needs to go). Under Kukulkan’s rule, Chichen Itza also added an enormous ball court—the largest known in the ancient world—where players would strive to bounce a rubber ball through small scoring rings set high in the court’s walls. To lose this contest was, according to some historians, to risk sacrifice to the hungry, brutal gods of the Toltec, though others suggest that, perversely, only the victors were given the honor of being fed to the entity at the bottom of the Chenku cenote. Sure sounds like the kind of logic that would drive a Lovecraftian (or just Gygaxian) cult to me.
Nevertheless, the most impressive building built during this era is the Pyramid of Kukulkan, sometimes also called el Castillo (“the Castle”), built to honor the plumed conqueror, or perhaps in fear of the strange powers that he commanded. Rising from the center of Chichen Itza, the imposing pyramid was one of the last, and arguably the greatest, temples the Maya ever built. This 79-foot pyramid has four sides, representing the four seasons, and a total of 365 steps (including the top platform) in an apparent homage to the solar year. Its position and dimensions are so precise that, on the days of the spring and autumn equinox , a shadow falls on the great stepped pyramid. As the sun sets, sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the pyramid’s main stairway, causing seven isosceles triangles of light to form, imitating via silhouette the body of a serpent slithering down the stairs to join the huge serpent’s head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway. Not to get too carried away, but a broken body being repaired via cosmic intervention sounds a little like Egypt’s Osiris, as well. If you’re going to mix and match, why not go all out?
Scholars call the event “the descent of Kukulkan.” while the true religious significance of the event is largely lost to history, your game can prominently feature the display of shadow and light as part of a longer ritual, one perhaps meant to awaken Kukulkan himself. Alternatively, if your Chichen Itza is hiding a passage to Hollow Earth (or to Xibalba, or to dim Carcosa), Kukulkan’s descent might serve as an important aspect of the ritual opening the way between worlds.
LOST TO THE JUNGLE
Chichen Itza served as a bustling trade center for the Itza and the Toltec until around 1200 AD, when the Mayapan broke their alliance with Chichen Itza and Uxmal and brought both former allies into their own empire by force. As a vassal to the Mayapan, Chichen Itza’s influence slowly waned, and by 1400 its inhabitants had abandoned the city (again!) to jungle, where it would remain undisturbed for nearly 500 years. While Chichen Itza’s final abandonment was probably driven by issues much like those that caused the downfall of the southern Mayan civilization hundreds of years before, you should feel free to create a more exciting explanation for their disappearance into the jungles of the Yucatan.
Chac’s peaceful slumber (or Kukulkan’s, should you decide that he’s best cast as a gargantuan plumed snake) may have been disturbed by some action of the conquering Mayapan, his
anger eventually driving the Itza and their Toltec allies into the jungle. If your Chac is a giant Atlantean weather machine (he was a god of “water sorcerers” who wields a “lightning axe,” after all), it may have begun to malfunction, creating a meteorologically improbable apocalypse that forced the city’s inhabitants to flee.
The Mayan calendar is — when it comes right down to it — a big wheel, so one can expect a certain amount of repetition in eschatons. Whatever cosmic cycle kept driving people away from the city may lead the stars to align again when your PCs finally push their way out of the jungle to discover the city, unwittingly stumbling into the waiting maw of some hidden menace stirring from its ages-long slumber. For a more modern twist, your PCs might not be stalwart explorers of any sort, but rather happy tourists unexpectedly stuck in the city as the ancient curse makes its presence felt once more. What would a suddenly wakened demigod, its hunger once sated by steady diet of human sacrifice, do with a bunch of fat, happy tourists? Wouldn’t you like to find out?