The History of the Cañada de la Virgen Pyramid

by Christine Maynard

Surrounded by gorges and located on a plateau at 7,000 ft. elevation, the site chosen by the architects of the pyramids of Cañada de la Virgen was surrounded by an ancient forest, in a time when the climate was much wetter and cooler. There was a gallery of hardwoods as well as other plant and animal species which don’t exist today. The people who settled here, in 540 A.D., found the perfect locale; it proffered water, fertile black soil, building materials, flora and fauna. Until the drought of 1050 A.D.- a sudden climate shift caused hunters and gatherers to move in, pushing the pyramid builders out. The hunters and gatherers were known as the Chichimecs and today the region is known as the Chichimec highlands.

The main pyramid/patio complex at Cañada de la Virgen is referred to as the Relox Cosmico, the cosmic clock. It has also been termed the ‘House of the Thirteen Heavens.’ There is evidence of an orientation toward the movements of the moon. The possibility exists that this was a matriarchal society.

The pyramid was first reported to the government in 1985 by a cowboy. It had previously been thought of as “just another mound.” In their ascent, the horses easily found footing, as if they were climbing stairs, and so they were! In 1999, the 16 hectares surrounding the pyramid were bought by a German woman- a descendant of steel producers during WWII.

Pyramid de la Virgen was a religious center in which gods and ancestors were worshipped, and the movement of celestial bodies and their relationship to points on the earth, studied. The people had a vivid pantheon of gods whom they believed incarnated as their ruling class. The Pyramid was opened to the public in 2011.

The dormant volcano, Volcan Palo Huerfano, is referred to by locals as Los Picachos because of the jagged edges of the rim of the crater. The peaks and other topographical features were deeply significant to the architects of the pyramids. The astronomer priests understood that the celestial bodies and land forms were the Gods interacting. This was not metaphorical to them. They viewed it as their job to keep the celestial clock progressing, through bloodletting and other sacrifices and offerings, ensuring the sun would continue to rise.

One of the first minerals to cool from molten lava is obsidian, which is in great abundance in the surrounding area. It was used for jewelry as well as to form sharp needles for auto sacrifice (bloodletting.) Albert informed us that obsidian is so sharp that is was used, historically, for eye surgery.

Our tour was studded with many fascinating, relevant stories from Aztec and Mayan myths. Albert introduced our group to Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, who both collaborated in creation. They were the yin and yang of life. Their images were painted on pottery and bark paper books called codices. Their duality is crucial to understanding this culture.

Tezcatlipoca was the embodiment of change through conflict. Tezcatlipoca appears on the first page of the Codex Borgia carrying the 20 day signs of the calendar; in the Codex Cospi he is shown as a spirit of darkness.

Quetzalcoatl, whose name means ‘plumed serpent’ was identified with the planet Venus and probably lived at the start of the fourth age, around 3114 BC.

Tezcatlipoca, the trouble maker, intentionally got Quetzalcoatl intoxicated and caused him to sleep with his sister. He was very remorseful, as he was akin to the patron saint of penance, and he left his people, shamed. He floated away on a funeral pyre of serpents, but the Aztecs always knew he would one day return. When the Spaniard Cortez appeared, bearded and in foreign costume, he was welcomed as the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl.

Albert told us the Aztecs had never seen horses before Cortez’ arrival, and they thought the horses and their riders were monstrous, two headed creatures.

Just as Constantine tried to please his converted Catholic wife by allowing Catholic holidays to replace/ absorb traditional days of pagan celebration, many ancient customs of the North Central Meso Americans are shrouded in the parades and religious activities one witnesses in the streets and churches of modern day San Miguel de Allende. The four cardinal directions become the cross. Dias de la Locos may come from the celebration of the Lords of the Underworld. Fireworks at dawn evolved directly from the concept that it was only through sacrifice that the celestial bodies stayed in movement, and life continued. This inclusion of traditions from the past is referred to as syncretism.

Before we climbed the pyramid, we ventured into the patio area. It is flat, surrounded by a quadrangle of ascending steps which could have been seats for viewing the theater of the sky. Some surmise that a pool of water in the center was still, and would have perfectly reflected the sky without one having to crane one’s neck to see. Plant materials provided shelter from the wind and made the patio acoustically sound.

Rosanna Quiroz, who holds a doctoral thesis as an archaeo- astronomer, explains the lunar and solar calendar of the Otomí in her book El Cerro y El Cielo. The Otomí were elite mercenary warriors for the Aztecs who joined with the Spanish. Their speech was very tonal, a bit like Chinese Mandarin. Albert also noted the similarities between the Chinese dragon and the feathered serpent.

Quiroz writes that the Otomís’ art reflects a sun with seven moons, drawn as spirals coming off of the sun. There were 7 tiers, 7 bands of color, 7 hills, and a House of the Longest Night oriented toward the setting sun on December 21st (our tour guide Albert’s birthday!)

A landscape calendar was an integral part of the main pyramid at Cañada de la Virgen. The sun sets into the top of the pyramid on March 4th, denoting the seed going into the earth. On the day of planting on April 17th and harvesting August 25th the sun rises in alignment with the doorway of the patio.

The Aztec Empire’s calendar had 20 days in each of the 18 months, and each month was represented by a specific deity, with an animal or nature association. Eagle, jaguar, wind, reed… would dictate the personality and type of work for which one was best suited. A particularly auspicious birth date allowed one to drink the holy intoxicating drink that otherwise was reserved for high priests, the elite or for those who passed the revered age of 52, representing the end of a cycle. The ritual calendar , known as the T’zolkin to the Maya was a combination of 13 numbers and 20 day symbols which worked with the solar calendar to produce a 52 year cycle.

Mixcoatl, the cloud serpent, was identified with the Milky Way, the stars, and the heavens in several Mesoamerican cultures. He was the patron deity of the Otomi, and was part of the Aztec pantheon. The 20-day Aztec month was dedicated to Mixcoatl. Round structures found in pyramids are thought to be related to the worship of Ehécatl, the god of the wind.

Many of the skulls discovered display facial deformities, which could have been due to dietary deficiencies or inbreeding. Some infants’ heads were wrapped tightly, causing cranial deformation. The Mayans wished for the head shape to emulate corn as one of the Gods they worshipped was the God of the Corn. Only a tuft of hair was allowed to remain on the top of the head, further enhancing the resemblance.

They possessed much wisdom in the fields of botany and herbalism; they knew which plants would treat stomach ailments, kidneys and liver problems. Chile as an additive “fixes” protein, making it accessible. Scientists now know that unprocessed maize is deficient in free niacin, and a population depending on untreated maize was much more likely to develop pellagra. The Mesoamerican diet included Nixtamalization, which means adding lime to corn, thus providing the necessary niacin, in the early Mesoamerican diet. They embraced the symbiotic trio of corn, beans and squash.

The Maya were very refined and advanced, with an elaborate expression of art and architectural genius. They understood the concept of zero. The Yucatan Maya worshipped the triangle of the three stones of the hearth, which, dimensionally, represents the Belt of Orion. They also share the myth of the turtle rising out of the sea to create the first land mass, with Hawaiians as well as with other cultures around the world.

And as other cultures use hallucinogens to part the veil, this culture also embraced the use of San Pedro cactus, peyote and psilocybin to help them more clearly hear their dead ancestors and receive direction from their Gods. To enhance communication even further, the dead were buried beneath the floors of the living. Ancestor veneration was second in importance only to keeping the celestial bodies in motion.

Intelligence, artistry and movement were revered and honored, after death, by the removal of the head, the hands and the feet, respectively, in burials of the elite. El Hierarch, whose bones were carried for one thousand years before being placed in a temple chamber at the top of the main pyramid, was missing the bones of his feet and lower legs. It is thought that they may have remained “planted” in the soil of the pyramid builders’ previous homeland. He died from an axe blow to his skull at age 52. His possibly mummified remains were laid to rest under the Red Temple, surrounded by items reserved for the highest elite’s burial- human infants, a dog ,necklaces, other jewelry, pottery, and needles of obsidian or bone.

A female warrior, no more than nine years of age, thought to be a descendent of El Hierarch, was also buried with great honor in the pyramid. The little girl of the rain was found buried near the drain in the patio area of the ‘House of the Longest Night,” along with symbols for water. When her remains were unearthed, the archaeologists had to put off work for over two weeks due to sudden, torrential rains. It appears that it was a society in which the feminine was revered, and worshipped.

Their culture exhibited leadership, and excelled in art and astronomy. The Spaniards, who wished to bring an end to the hearth society venerated in this established culture, brought warfare, disease and poverty.

In an unearthed area of the pyramids, complex C, there is assumed to be a ball court. A ball made from rubber trees was bounced off of one’s thigh or knee. The objective was to pass it through a hoop. Many theories abound about whether the victor or the captain of the losing team was sacrificed. There is one eye witness account, according to our guide, Albert. In this particular game, a player who successfully negotiated the ball through a hoop won the jewelry of all those in attendance. Sometimes when the ball was finally successfully passed through the hoop, all of the spectators ran away!

To book a tour or find out more, contact Albert Coffee ArchaeoTours • San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, México


Christine Maynard has worked as a stringer for the New York Times, in new product development for numerous industries, for Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, as a yoga teacher... She now lives in San Miguel de Allende.

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