Eternal guardian of the water cycle
The Mayan story of Tsukán
One of the main attractions of the Yucatan Peninsula are cenotes, deep natural wells fed by the filtration of rain, and river currents. Its majesty amazes visitors from all over the world, who take the opportunity to learn the importance of these underground caves in the Maya civilization worldview.
One day about 66 million years ago, a huge meteorite crashed on Chicxulub, Yucatán (it had a diameter of 145 to 180 km); it created deep underground flooded depressions, thus creating cenotes and forever changing the flow of water, above all, under the ground.
Also read: How was the Yucatan Peninsula formed?
Cenotes (sinkholes) owe their name to the Maya, who assigned them with the word Dz’onot, which means ‘cavern with water and from this, its current name was derived: cenotes.
There are around 7,000 to 8,000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula. These natural pits are divided; into four types according to their age: cavern (the youngest), semi-open, open, and ancient (the oldest).
Cenotes hold a certain mysticism. The Maya had a strong connection with them as they were their main source of water and the entrance to Xibalbá, the underworld. For this reason, they were venues for rituals, sacrifices, and ceremonial offerings to please the gods. Nowadays, we visit cenotes for fun, but we must keep in mind; these are sacred places.
In the Maya culture, it was a tradition to ask permission from the aluxes, guardians of the jungle, before entering a cenote. Although these mythological creatures serve as the lead protectors of these underground bodies of water, the Mayan legend of Tsukán suggests that they are not the only ones…
Before telling this legend, we want to talk about the snake, one of the most important social and religious symbols for the Maya. Maya mythology describes snakes as the vehicles through which celestial bodies such as the sun and stars across the heavens. The shedding of their skin made them a symbol of rebirth and renewal.
Now, let’s talk about the Mayan legend of Tsukán…
Thousands of years ago, the Maya empire went through an intense drought. Desperate, they begged for help from Chaac, god of the rain, who mounted on his winged beast and undertook the task of going through all the cenotes to obtain water. However, all of them were dry.
Tired, the god sat on what appeared to be a big tree trunk… until it moved. In fact, it was a gigantic maned serpent, called Tsukán (from the Mayan “tsuk”: horse, and “kaan”: serpent), which quickly raised up and devoured Chaac’s winged beast in a single bite. He mounted the viper, whipped her, and said that she would now be his property because she had eaten his animal.
Furious, Tsukán asked him who he was, to which Chaac replied that he was the god of rain and that he was going to collect water from the sea mounted on her back (Chaac believed that the snake had drunk all water). This threat provoked the wrath of the snake, which writhed violently, and suddenly a pair of wings sprouted on both sides of her body and started flying against her will.
Upon reaching the ocean, Chaac filled many containers with water, while Tsukán marveled at the beauty of the sea since it was the first time she had seen it. The snake told the god that she did not want to return home; Tsukán wanted to stay there because she could go wherever. Chaac ordered her to fulfill his new obligation of supplying water to the Maya empire. He promised her that when she was old, she could live there.
Back at the cenotes, Tsukán pulled Chaac off her back, annoyed he whipped her, causing lightning to fall on her, turning Tsukán into thousands of drops of water that spread all over the earth. This filled-up cenotes; at the bottom of a cave, thousands of drops gathered and resurrected the winged serpent, who, by challenging the god of rain, fell under the curse of being the eternal protector of the water cycle of the caves, cenotes, and rivers of the Yucatan Peninsula.
And that is how the Mayan legend of Tsukán arose. Like all legends passed down from generation to generation, it may undergo some changes; Nowadays, the most important thing is that the inhabitants show deep respect to everything taught to them. That is why, when entering any cenote, they ask the aluxes for permission, and with deep devotion, they take care of the place. With that, they have the certainty, or maybe the hope, of not meeting Tsukán.
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Do you think the colossal Tsukán exists?
Degree in Communication. Occasional traveler, sometimes writer, lover of felines, and photographer by hobby. I love to capture and treasure every moment of my life.