El Caracol

El Caracol is one of the most interesting buildings at Chichén Itzá. Apparently it was an observatory. The name, meaning snail in Spanish, referring to the spiral stairway within the building. It is the only round structure found here.

For many years, before its function was demonstrated, it was considered an anomaly, a mistake. The architecture was so out of keeping with the general Mayan architectural style that it was considered one of those architectural "mistakes" that crop up from time to time. More recent studies of the site, including accurate measurements of the lines of sight provided by the door and window openings in the structure, demonstrate that the building was accurately constructed to allow observations of astronomical phenomena which, in turn, influenced the cultural and agricultural life of the community.

The first suggestions were that the four outer doorways were aligned with the cardinal points, N - S - E - W. However, modern measurements demonstrate that this is not true. They miss these marks by 10 - 12°; not because the Maya were could not accurately align their buildings, but because the purpose of the building was to make accurate measurements of the position of Venus. It has been demonstrated by Aveni and his collaborators that the narrow slots built into the observation tower of El Caracol accurately align with the location of Venus when it reaches the horizon at the most northerly and southerly extremes of its path through the sky. Another window was used to track the horizon position of the sun at sunset.

Unfortunately, only the three windows in the western side of the building remain today, limiting our ability to learn more about the extent of the astronomical sightings made from this structure. Studies of other possible alignments related to the orientation of the platforms upon which El Caracol was built indicate the possibility of other significant astronomical alignments having been built into the structure. Aveni suggests that the observations of Venus recorded in the Dresden Codex may actually have been made in this structure.

It should also be noted that Venus is the celestial manifestation of Kukulcán-Quetzalcóatl, who in the form of the wind god, Ehecatl, is symbolized by round structures. It is this figure who is pictured in various "evil manifestations" in the Venus tables in the Dresden Codex, especially when he makes his first appearance in the predawn sky.

Aveni sums up his work on El Caracol with:

While no grand cosmic plan for the architecture of the Caracol tower makes its presence obvious, modern studies of the building imply that, apart from being a monument dedicated to Quetzalcóatl - Kukulcán, the great tower was erected primarily for the purposes of embodying in its architecture certain significant astronomical event directions, in the same sense that a modern almanac exhibits information of importance to us in the keeping of the current calendar.1

1 Aveni, A., Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico, University of Texas Press, 1980.

Return to Day 5
bk5_chac_tr picture

glyphReturn to the Table of Contents

© 1995 - Karen M. Strom