Meet Chac Mool: The Mayas’ Ancient Man of Mystery
When I arrived last week at Iberostar’s Paraíso Maya resort as part of the travel blogger StarTrip extravaganza, I spotted a couple of familiar faces – familiar from more than 25 years’ worth of visits to the Yucatan’s archaeological sites. Flanking the corridor from the front lobby to the spectacular pyramid bar is a pair of larger-than-life reclining figures with piercing stares (whether these guys are male or female isn’t obvious or certain, but that helmetlike headgear strikes me as more of a dude thing). They’re supersized versions of chac mools, statues I first gazed upon at the majestic inland Mayan site at Chichén Itzá, then in Mexico City’s glorious National Museum of Archaeology, as well as at sites and museums in Guatemala.
Maya God, Sacrificial Altar, or Both?
These enigmatic figures have been found in both Mayan and Aztec sites, and are attributed to the influence of the Toltecs, an earlier culture based around what is today the eastern central Mexican state of Hidalgo. But despite being common in some quarters, very little is really known for sure about chac mools (not to be confused, btw, with Chaac, the Mayan god of rain). The consensus seems to be that they were used as altars, with the bowls over their midsections once used to hold offerings to the gods (foods and/or very possibly human hearts cut from the chests of sacrificial victims, whether virgins or war prisoners or losers of the ballgames played at the nearby ball court). Even the name of the figure (Mayan for “great red jaguar”) was bestowed by 19th-century Frenchy-sounding-but-American explorer Augustus Le Plongeon. Regardless, this striking figure has always and not surprisingly made strong impressions on writers (like Carlos Fuentes) and artists (hola, Henry Moore!) through the ages.
Whatever the story with the chacmeister, there’s probably no more dramatic or recognizable icon of ancient Mesoamerican civilization, and so besides being an old buddy of mine from way back, he or she will continue to appeal to millions worldwide who like me are fascinated by the rich culture of ancient Mexico and Central America.