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Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal

1st Qtr 1994


Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico


The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico is this issue's limited edition signed print by Ladd P. Ehlinger. The name of this building is a very poor translation from the Spanish name: Pirémide del Adivino. Adivino literally means fortuneteller or guesser, a kind of seer. This is a more appropriate name for a structure where divination was practiced on it and within it as a major activity. The Maya were avid astronomers and astrologers, and this was the structure from which they stargazed in Uxmal. It functioned as an observatory and place of predictions derived from those observations.

The view in the sketch is of the east stair, which is actually facing slightly south of east. The sunshine angle is in the late afternoon, from the northwest. This pyramid was constructed over a period of about three centuries, ca. 600 to 900 AD. The construction was not to a single fully executed plan that was known from the beginning, however. The first temple built here was superimposed by a later temple, and this one likewise. There were actually five superimposition temples built here.

In the reconstruction, excavations exposed the earlier temples. The first temple, Temple I, can be seen beneath the great west staircase. Temple II is below the east staircase, from which an opening was recently cut to provide access. Temple III was originally reached from an east side staircase that was also later buried by a subsequent staircase.

Temple IV is in front of Temple III, acting as a narthex (sort of a foyer) to it. Temple V is the one visible on the top. It raised the elevation of the pyramid considerably, as its floor completely covers the roof comb (a sort of screen decoration that was tall and thin to increase the apparent height and thus importance) of Temple II which is thus buried whole. Temple IV is in the Chenes style (an adjoining region), its facade representing the god Chac, whose jaws serve as the doorway.

There is a very peculiar aspect of the succeeding superimpositions of the Pyramid of the Magician: the succeeding Temples changed their compass orientation from the preceding Temples that they superimposed or covered over. No one seems to know why, although speculation abounds that alterations in the religious role were expressed by these changes.

The exterior steps on this pyramid are extremely steep, more so than at any other Middle American pyramid site. To descend safely, the writer had to use a chain that functions as a handrail. This chain is draped over the treads and securely anchored periodically to the stone. This chain was provided by the restorers of the structure, it did not exist in Mayan times. At other Mayan sites, chains have also been provided, but one can descend safely at these sites also by walking a diagonal zigzag pattern.

There has been a lot of conjecture about how the Mayans ascended and descended these types of stairs safely without chains and why they were built so steeply. Most archaeologists agree that the steepness was intended to intimidate the faithful and to discourage casual access to the temples on top, by making traversing these stairs an arduous and dangerous experience, but no one is really sure.

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