When you enter the archaeological site of Uxmal in Mexico, you are immediately captivated by the first structure that you see: a gigantic, stepped pyramid called the “Pyramid of the Magician” or the “Pyramid of the Dwarf”, which towers 115 feet above the surrounding ruins. This pyramid, with a temple on top, has a distinctive rounded look because of its elliptical base, which sets it apart from the other pyramids of the Maya world. Like many Mayan monuments, the Pyramid of the Magician was superimposed over older structures. Four substructures have been identified, which were built in successive phases. The construction of the first pyramid temple began sometime in the 6th century CE, while the last level, when the temple was placed on top, dates from the 10th century CE.
When I had visited Uxmal nearly a decade ago, I heard the story behind how the pyramid came to be called the Pyramid of the Magician or Dwarf. As per legends, it was built by a dwarf magician in one night, with the help of his mother who was a witch. In 1843, John Stephens wrote “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan” - an account of his travels through the Maya world. He tells of his arrival at Uxmal and meeting a local Maya man who was seated under a portal at the base of the largest pyramid at the site. The man narrated the following story to Stephens:
“In this very place near the Palace of the Governor, a long time ago, there lived an old woman. She had no children. One day she found an egg, a very special one, so she covered it with cloth and hid it in a corner of her house. She spied it every morning to see if the egg had hatched, and one day she found that the shell had broken, and a small child lay by its side. She was overjoyed, and she raised the child with love and care. The child was a quick learner, and by one year of age, he could speak and walk, but he also stopped growing. No matter, she had faith that he would become a great king.
One day, the old lady instructed the Dwarf to go and challenge the Governor of Uxmal. The Dwarf had misgivings, but he conquered his fears and went to see the ruling man. “I challenge you to three trials,”said the Governor. “First,” instructed the Governor, “build a long road of stones, very straight, and very white.” The Dwarf ran back home crying for help. His mother gave him the following advice: “Go back and ask the Governor to place the first stone, and see what happens.” And so he did. The Governor placed the first heavy stone with much effort, and the Dwarf followed suit. Aided by the magical powers of the old woman, the dwarf easily built the long and straight road between Uxmal and the neighboring city of Kabah.
The Governor, furious to see himself challenged by a dwarf, gave him the second trial. “Tonight you must raise a house taller than any other in the land, and if the house is not finished by sunrise, you will die,” said the Governor. The Dwarf ran home crying, but his mother consoled him and put him to sleep. The Dwarf woke up the next day lying on top of the tallest pyramid in the land. The Governor, seeing the beautiful and tall pyramid, became even more irate, and demanded to see the Dwarf to challenge him a third time.
“Go get three cocoyoles, the hard fruit of that tree, and return immediately,” instructed the Governor. “We will hit each other over the head until one of us emerges triumphant.” The Dwarf ran home one more time, and his mother rubbed a corn tortilla on top of his head. The Dwarf returned to the Governor with the hard, round fruit, and the Governor broke them over the Dwarf ’s head, but did no damage. The Governor’s subjects were all watching, so the Governor allowed the Dwarf to have his turn. The Dwarf hit the Governor over the head with one, two, and three cocoyoles and killed him.
Everyone declared the Dwarf the winner, and he became the new Governor of the land. A few years later, the old lady died. The people of this place believe that she sits by the mouth of a very long tunnel that connects the nearby town of Maní to Tho’ (Mérida). She sits there, caring for the serpent that guards the underground waters. The great pyramid at Uxmal is now known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf, the Soothsayer, or the Magician.”
This, quite obviously, is an extraordinary tale, and one might wonder how such a large pyramid could be built in one night. We now know that the Pyramid of the Magician was built in five different phases through superimpositions. Which means that the legend of the dwarf probably applies to the last level that was raised in the 10th century CE, during which time the temple on top of the pyramid was built. This is why the temple is called “The House of the Dwarf”.
That leaves us with an equally perplexing question: Did magical dwarfs really exist during the times of the Maya, even as late as the 10th century CE, and did they have the ability to raise enormous structures of stone almost overnight? If so, where have they disappeared?
The story of the dwarf magician of Uxmal is by no means exceptional or anomalous, for dwarfs with magical abilities were ingrained in Maya beliefs. Sir Eric J. Thompson - possibly the most well-known Mesoamerican archaeologist – wrote in his book Maya History and Religion (1970) that the Yucatec Maya refer to dwarfs as zayamuincob. They are the Earth’s primeval beings who lived during the First Creation and built the great ancient cities of Maya using their supernatural powers.
“First Creation. The zayamuincob built the now-ruined archaeological sites, and the great stone roads while the world was still in darkness, before the sun was created. They were dwarfs, but they could carry great loads on their backs. They were also called p’uz, “hunchback” or “bent” in Yucatec, but in other Maya languages, such as Tzotzil, the word signnifies “dwarf”. They had magical powers and needed only to whistle to bring together stones in their correct positions in buildings or to cause firewood to come from the bush to the hearth by itself. The people became wicked and it was announced that there would be a flood. The little people built great stone tanks like the underground storage reservoirs as boats, but as they did not float the people were drowned. According to Tozzer…when the sun appeared, the dwarfs were turned to stone. Their images are to be seen today in many of the ruins.”
Apparently, the Maya believed that the dwarfs could not only carry great loads, but they could whistle and magically transport rocks through the air to build the ancient Maya cities! One comes across similar stories from various archaeological sites. C. F. Volney wrote that the inhabitants of Baalbek, Lebanon, believe that the great stones were brought and put together by Djinns - magical creatures, intermediate between angels and demons. Francois Lenormant wrote in Chaldean Magic that the priests of ancient Bablylon could raise heavy blocks into the air by means of sound. Certain Arab sources say that the enormous stones used for building the pyramids were wrapped in papyrus and then struck with a rod by a priest, at which they became weightless and moved through the air.
One might argue that these tales may have been invented by people later, in order to explain how the gigantic blocks of stone were moved and fitted together with astonishing precision. However, the truth is that, we still do not know how and why the ancients worked with massive stone blocks, when they could have easily opted for brick-sized blocks like we do today. It is almost as if it was no big deal for them! In which case, the question would be, why? Did they really employ the assistance of supernatural entities like dwarfs and genies? Did they have access to acoustic levitation technology that we have forgotten in course of the descending Cycle of the Ages? Did they use some kind of stone softening chemical to join the stones blocks togther? If so, how did they acquire these technologies? So many questions, too few answers.
Thompson further mentioned that, as per the beliefs of the Tzotzil and Oxchuc Maya, the dwarfs live below the surface of the Earth. “In Oxchuc belief,” Thompson wrote, “the flat earth is supported by four thick columns, at the bases of which live dwarfs only a foot tall and black because the sun passes so close to them (in its journey through the underworld).” Now, isn’t that interesting? In Norse and Irish legends as well, the home of the dwarfs is in subterranean caverns, where they live in lavish comfort. In Irish folklore, the dwarfs are said to be enormously strong, “as powerful as ten men”, which parallels the Maya beliefs about the dwarfs being able to carry heavy weights. It seems like legends across the world are telling us of an alternate dimension of reality, populated by supernatural dwarfs, right below our feet. These magical beings used to interact with us in the past, but not anymore. Which is why they have gradually slipped into the realm of myths.
Thompson made another insightful observation about the dwarfs of Maya beliefs, that ties them to the Ant People of the Hopi! He wrote,
“Zayamuincob (the name of the dwarfs) can be translated as “the twisted men” or “the disjointed men,” suggesting a connection with “hunchback.” The word may also be connected with zay, “ant,” for there is also a Yucatec tradition of an ancient race called chac zay uincob, “red ant men.” They were industrious like the ants which take out the red earth and make straight roads through the forest.”
As per Hopi legends – which I had discussed in an earlier article - the Ant People live in dimly lit subterranean halls, where all the comforts of life are found. They had led some of the righteous Hopi to their underground home during the cataclysmic periods of destruction after the first two Worlds had ended. The home of the Ant People could be reached by entering an Ant Kiva or mound from where a hidden passage leads to their chambers. Of course, it is not surprising to find that the Maya also referred to the dwarfs as the “ant men”, since there is evidence that the Hopi had cultural and trade ties with the civilizations of Mexico.
So, what do these dwarfs of Maya legends look like? A number of ceramic figurines of dwarfs were found in elite burials on the Jaina Island, in Yucatan’s Gulf coast. Since the dwarfs lived underground, and were believed to guard the entrance to Xibalba – the Maya underworld – these figurines probably served as psychopomps i.e. as spirit guides who escort the soul of the deceased to the underworld. The dwarfs are typically depicted with large bellies, wearing a loincloth, a big headdress and oversized ear ornaments. They generally have flat noses and thick lips.
The dwarfs were not only exceptional builders; they had a host of other magical abilities for which they were greatly prized by the Maya kings. Judith A. Storniolo, Auxiliary Professor of Anthropology at Drexel University, elaborated on some of the supernatural traits of the dwarfs in a paper published in the Expedition magazine of the Penn Museum. She related a creation myth of the Yucatec Maya which describes how the gods were angered by the dwarfs “who could see to the ends of space and time”, and brought a flood to destroy them.
“Creation narratives told in Yucatan also tell of a world, before the present, when the gods fashioned a race of dwarfs from mud so that these creatures would worship them. The dwarfs possessed eyes that could see to the ends of space and time. Before the gods could even fashion wives for them, the dwarfs began to ignore their creators. Rather than worshipping the gods they spent their time creating beautiful pottery, writing books of prophecy, and constructing magnificent buildings of stone. The dwarfs angered the gods so much that they sent a flood to destroy the world. They also destroyed the false sun that gave the dwarfs’ world a dim light. Being possessed of keen intellect and foresight, some of the dwarfs managed to escape the water by stepping onto ledges in caves in the Puuc Hills where the hunchbacks live.”
Evidently the dwarfs were intelligent, wise beings who were gifted with foresight and claivoyance, that allowed them to compose books of prophecy, for which the Maya were quite reknowned. No wonder, then, the dwarfs were depicted on ceramic vessels and stelae as important members of the Maya royal courts. They wore the headdress of gods, scribes and court nobles, and were depicted in various roles as attendants, counselers and protectors of the king, holding sacred objects for the ruler, and as diviners and scribes. Prof. Judith Storniolo writes,
“Dwarfs also appear frequently on stelae as attendants of the ruler at sites in the Peten, Usumacinta River Valley, and at Calakmul during the Classic period. They hold torches and feathered fans, often mimicking the dress of the lord they serve. On a stair riser in front of Structure 33 at Yaxchilan, two dwarfs look toward the king playing ball; they peer out from inside a cave on whose walls is written a large hieroglyphic text.”
The dwarfs’ role in prophecy is illustrated on certain ceramic vessels of the Classic Period, which show a dwarf holding a mirror for the ruler - the mirror being a symbol of divination and prophecy. Prof. Judith Storniolo writes,
“On ceramic vessels the dwarf ’s role in prophecy enhanced by his clear vision is symbolized by his holding a mirror, an opening to the spirit world, into which the ruler gazes. He wears a headdress that also adorns other mythical dwarfs on carved stone in Yaxchilan.”
Clearly, the dwarfs of the Maya times were highly esteemed members of the royal court because of their wisdom and foresight. Their strength and magical prowess were utilized for building the grand ancient cities, and they functioned as protectors of the kings, and perhaps, also of the sacred sites that they built. There is nothing to suggest that the Maya envisoned the dwarfs as mythical or imaginary beings. They were always shown in the company of human beings, even though they were not quite human. Their real home was underground, from where they emerged to play a role in the affairs of men. At some point, with the collapse of the Maya civilization, and the subsequent colonial conquests, the dwarfs withdrew to their hidden lairs.
But they did not completely disappear. And this is the most striking part about the Maya dwarfs. While the goblins, leprechauns, dwarfs and fairies of other cultures have more or less ceased their interactions with humans for a long time, the dwarfs still play a role in the life of the farmers of the Yucatan, who refer to them as as alux (ah-loosh), the plural being aluxes (ah-loosh-es) in Spanish and aluxo’b (ah-loosh-ob) in the Mayan language.
The aluxes or aluxo’b are invisible to humans, but can be seen by children. They come out after sunset, are about knee-high, and wear a loincloth and a large hat. Like children, the aluxes are playful and mischievous, but can become vindictive if they are offended. The aluxes live in natural environments - forests, caves, hills, cenotes and cornfields. Of course, they no longer associate with the rulers, write prophetic texts or build architectural wonders, as in the past. However, the farmers of rural Yucatan solicit their supernatural assistance for the protection of their cornfields (milpa) from animals and thieves. Prof. Judith Storniolo writes,
“Small hills near the fields are said to be the homes of the aluxo’b. Food, alcohol, and cigarettes are often left at the hills for the resident alux so that he will continue to protect the milpa (cornfields). If they require anything from the villagers, the aluxo’b have been known to get their attention by stealing tools, throwing belongings on the floor of houses, and keeping people up all night by screeching or, in one case, playing the guitar badly. When given food, drink, and ritual homage, the aluxo’b protect the farmer’s crops from hungry animals.”
Some farmers of the Yucatan employ a shaman to build a clay figurine of an alux at the time of sowing. The farmer leaves the figurine beneath the oldest tree on his land or in a house specially built for the alux which is known as the kahtal alux - “the house of the alux”. The farmer leaves food and drinks for the alux on a daily basis until the clay figurine disappears. Then the farmer knows the alux is alive and will now protect his land from predators and thieves for a period of seven years. After seven years, the contract ends, and the farmer must close the windows and doors of the little house, sealing the alux inside. If this is not done, the alux will run wild and start playing tricks on people.
Clearly, the farmers of the Yucatan still strive to please the aluxes in order to ensure their protection. Outsiders might think that these are the superstitious beliefs of simple people, but the farmers, themselves, swear by their experiences with the aluxes. In an article in the Yucatan Today, Olivia Cervera wrote,
“Let’s talk about the milpas, the large plots of land where crops are grown. If you venture on those roads and talk to the Milperos or their family, you’ll hear genuine adventures, going from voices, whistles, noises of children playing at dusk, and “good” whirlwinds that protect wanderers, to rituals to request the Aluxes‘ help for a thriving harvest and protection from thieves. To keep them happy and calm, it’s necessary to make an offering during sowing time. …Those of us who have heard or experienced their mischief know the importance of following tradition, as they are very capable of sending sickness through “bad wind” and only a J-men (wise man, or “Hacedor”) has the ability to determine the cure for this type of illness.”
It is easy to spot the parallels between the mischievous nature of the aluxes and the dwarfs of other traditions, such as the goblins, leprechauns and gnomes, who were generous to those who pleased them but vengeful when offended. The aluxes also protect the sacred archaeological sites containing the tombs of the ancestors and the Maya kings. Prof. Judith Storniolo writes,
“In the Maya ruins, they protect the tombs of the ancestors from pillage and looting. The aluxo’b summon strong winds, emit piercing whistling sounds, and propel stones at intruders. The aluxo’b who guard the ruins may also call their dogs to chase looters and archaeologists away if they are at the site at night. I have been told stories of workers being pummeled with stones and bothered by loud noises in the night if they sleep at an archaeological site. A guard at Dzibanche told me that a dwarf and a pack of wild dogs chased him when he fell asleep on night duty. A neighbor in Quintana Roo showed me ancient small stone houses that she believes were the dwelling places of the aluxo’b. Today the aluxo’b are also said to burrow inside small hills in the bush near ancient ruins.”
It appears from these accounts collected by Judith that the aluxes take their responsibility of guarding the ancient sites very seriously. I wonder what issue the aluxes could possibly have with the security guards or archaeologists who stay overnight at the ruins. Surely neither of them would try to vandalize the monuments? Then why scare them away? Are these simply stories which have been spun to discourage tourists from hiding in the ruins to spend the night? Or do the aluxes feel some kind of attachment to these ancient monuments which they had helped to build long time ago? Do they want the place all to themselves at night, so as to be able to cherish the memories of the good old days? We can only guess for now.
According to the local tradition of the Yucatan, when archaeologists begin work on a specific site, they need to take permission from the aluxes who are the guardians of these sacred places. The Yucatan Times carried an interesting report on this:
“In 1993, mainstream media reported about a “strange ceremony” in the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. In this rite, researchers and workers of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), asked the Mayan gods for permission to carry out their work, since they wished to protect themselves from the wrath of the aluxes, the pixies in charge of taking care of the lands the crops and the archaeological zones.”
Even if you want to enter a cave or a cenote - which are sacred places of the aluxes – you should ideally ask for permission. Moreover, one must never take anything back with him or her from a sacred place, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Not even the simplest rock. Else you might have hell to pay. Olivia Cervera wrote in the Yucatan Today that,
“More people than I would like to know have said that, after taking a trinket, they began to be victims of their pranks. The most recent story I’ve heard involves Gruta Chocantes (in Tekax) and a family from Mérida who had to come back to return three stones. They couldn’t sleep at night, nor stop seeing “little people.” Hearing this, and not knowing about the stones, a J-men (shaman) told them to return what they had stolen.”
One of the most famous stories about the aluxes of Yucatan concerns the building of a bridge on the Cancun-Nizuc road, that goes to Cancun’s International Airport. The aluxes in the area were not allowing the bridge to be constructed. Every night, they would disassemble whatever was built by the workers during the day. The Yucatan Times reported that,
“When the workers arrived the morning after the start of construction, they saw that the progress made on the first day of the bridge structure had collapsed…For the second time, they took on the task of reassembling all the structures for the erection of the bridge, however, upon reaching the third day, once again they found the structure on the ground. Again the question was: Who could have done this? Overnight and without heavy machinery?
On the third day, the employees decided to stand guard to prevent the day’s work from being sabotaged again, however, they never imagined what would happen that night.
To the amazement and the fear of the masons, they saw how at night, “small beings” were given the task of destroying the construction with their hands and ancient tools...One of the workers told the others that what they saw were not goblins or demons, but the legendary “Aluxes”, and as they are the guardians of the sacred lands, humans need to request their permission to build the bridge or any other work on their land.
After hearing this explanation, it was decided to bring a X-Men, a Maya priest, and in a special ceremony, he would ask for permission so that the Nizuc-Cancún bridge could be raised, and with the authorization of these beings, the construction was completed, and it never collapsed again. On the advice of the Maya priest, a small pyramid was built under the bridge structure, in order to have a pact with the Aluxes.
This pyramid, known as “Casa de Los Aluxes” remained under the bridge until July 3, 2022, when the local authorities decided to remodel that road, and the house was demolished.”
Did the act of demolishing the pyramid upset the aluxes? Since they have not yet reacted in a violent manner, and it has already been several months since the demolition job was carried out, we can safely presume that they have let it pass. In any case, the kahtal alux i.e. “the house of the alux” is generally sealed off after seven years, so that the alux does not go all crazy, and I suppose it has already been seven years since the bridge was constructed.
The beliefs and stories about the aluxes are woven into the life and folklore of the Yucatan farmers, and are, quite obviously, a continuation of the Maya beliefs in dwarfs with magical abilities. During the times of the Maya, the dwarfs used to hobnob with the royalty and were highly respected as builders, scribes, advisors, soothsayers and protectors. The Maya regarded the dwarfs as primeval beings, far more ancient than humans, who inhabited the First Creation. Today, these mysterious beings, who are capable of becoming invisible at will, have reduced their interactions with us substantially, and prefer to remain at the periphery of our existence, functioning as protectors of the sacred sites, forests, cenotes and farmlands. Sometimes, they demand offerings from the farmers and play tricks on them – if only to keep their legend alive. We do not know why the dwarfs became so elusive over time, to the extent that most people today regard them as mythical entities. Yet, the fact that they keep popping up in some specific parts of the world from time to time, suggests that they are not yet ready to end their involvement in the affairs of humanity.
 “The Legend of the Dwarf and the Governor”, Smithsonian Institution, Living Maya Time, https://maya.nmai.si.edu/sites/default/files/resources/The%20Legend%20of%20the%20Dwarf%20and%20the%20Governor%20of%20Uxmal.pdf
 J. Eric S. Thompson, Maya History and Religion, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1970, p 340-341
 J. Eric S. Thompson, Maya History and Religion, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1970, p 347
 Vernon J. Harward, The Dwarfs Of Arthurian Romance And Celtic Tradition” (1958)
 J. Eric S. Thompson, Maya History and Religion, p 341
 Judith A. Storniolo, "Ancient Mythical Dwarfs in Modern Yucatan", Expedition magazine of Penn Museum, Vol 51 , No 1, www.museum.upenn.edu/expedition 17
 Olivia Camarena Cervera, The Aluxes of Yesterday and Today, Yucatan Today, https://yucatantoday.com/en/the-aluxes-of-yesterday-and-today/
 Aluxes… The Goblins of the Maya Land, Yucatan Times, October 12, 2018, https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/10/aluxes-the-goblins-of-the-maya-land/
 Olivia Camarena Cervera, The Aluxes of Yesterday and Today, Yucatan Today, https://yucatantoday.com/en/the-aluxes-of-yesterday-and-today/
 Legendary “Casa de Los Aluxes” demolished in Cancún, Yucatan Times, July 16, 2022, https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2022/07/legendary-casa-de-los-aluxes-demolished-in-cancun/