WELLS IN DEPTH - Gary Varner
and Other Sacred Waters
of the Americas
by Gary Varner
While most of the well known sacred wells and waters of the world are found in Europe, the Native Americans also had water sites that they believed to be holy. While not as well known, a few examples of sacred cenotés and other water features in North and South America are discussed here.
One of the most famous of the sacred cenotes is the Chichen-Itza Sacred Cenoté in remote Yucatan. An oval shaped opening in the earth 180 feet across and sixty feet below the lip of the rocky rims, this natural well has been used to connect with the Otherworld for centuries. Located in an open area surrounded by the steaming jungle, the cenoté is of a dark green color with sheer white rock walls. Today the well is still open with no protection for the unfortunate pilgrim who happens to walk too close to the edge. In 1579, Charles V of Spain received a report from the mayor of Valladolid, located near the cenoté:
According to Frederick Peterson (1962, p.83), the survival of these sacrificial victims was rare as evidenced by the rewards and honors bestowed upon those lucky few, including being made temporary ruler of certain geographic areas. Most of those chosen for sacrifice, however, were given up to the rain God during periods of drought (Krickenberg 1968, p.35).
The skeletons of several men, women and children have been recovered from the sacred cenoté at Chichen-Itza. They were all sacrificed during periods of drought to appease the rain God Chac (who is still worshipped by the Maya to this day). It was believed that Chac resided at the bottom of the cenoté, referred to as 'The Well of God' (Chen-ku). Early Meso-Americanist Thomas Joyce wrote, in a somewhat contradictory manner from the report made to Charles V, that 'at Chichen Itza human sacrifice was made to the sacred cenote (natural well), which was supposed to be a place of great sanctity. The victim was cast into the water with other offerings and was believed to emerge alive after three days had elapsed' (Joyce 1920, p.262).
The Sacred Cenoté at Chichen-Itza was a destination for pilgrims who came to give offerings. Votive offerings of gold, jade, a turquoise 'serpent mask', and other items were recovered from the Sacred Cenoté during the early twentieth century by Edward H. Thompson. Thompson attempted to establish a link between the Mayans and the Lost Continent of Atlantis during his excavations. In addition gold discs have been found which date to the tenth century with etchings depicting warfare and human sacrifice on their surfaces. Over the last hundred years more than 30,000 items of gold, copper, jade, pottery, fabric, human bones and wooden and stone artifacts have been recovered from the Well of God (Baldwin 1998, p.68). Other artifacts found in the Sacred Cenoté originated in central Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama (Krickenberg 1968, p.72).
This particular cenoté may have been the most important pilgrimage site that existed in pre-conquest Yucatan. It has been suggested, 'the great round surface of water may have been perceived as a giant mirror for divination and auguring' (Miller & Taube 1993, p.58).
Certain hot springs were also regarded as being sacred to the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. According to Joyce (1920, p.37), 'the valley-dwellers of Michoacan around Pazcuaro revered a goddess of fertility and rain, named Cueravahperi, casting the hearts of her victims into certain hot springs which were supposed to give birth to the rain-clouds'.
John L. Stephens in his classic work of archaeological discovery, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, described a mysterious cenoté he happened upon in a thick grove at Balankanché ('Hidden Throne'), on his 1841 expedition:
Stephens discovered a well-worn pathway around the cenoté leading to a stone block, which according to Stephens (1963, p.213), 'had been a great item in all the accounts, and was described as made by hand and highly polished'. After descending through the passageways for sometime, Stephens and his party finally came upon the well itself. The water, he wrote, 'was in a deep, stony basin, running under a shelf of overhanging rock.' Stephens believed that the well was the main source of water for a nearby ruined city located between Nohcacab and Uxmal. Due to the hand crafted stone altar and the various legends associated with the well, it would appear that the indigenous people had considered it sacred for hundreds of years. The admonishment to not enter the well after twelve oclock is also one of many legends that are attached to sacred wells. Caves and still, standing water were all viewed as entryways to the Underworld by the Meso-Americans as they were among most other cultures. They were held sacred and were places of veneration, but they were also viewed with fear as they led to the world of the dead.
The cave shrine at Balankanché has still not been fully explored but many of the stone and wooden offerings, stoneware pots, incense burners and other offerings remain as they have since 860 CE. The most amazing aspect of this shrine is a huge, fused stalagmite-stalactite column, which rises from the caves floor reaching the roof in an amazing likeness of a great treethe representation of the Mayan World Tree (Devereux 2000, pp.95-6).
Page designed by Rich Pederick (© Living Spring
Written & maintained by Rich Pederick
Created November 1, MMII