Chaac - Ancient Maya God of Rain, Lightning and Storms

The Curly-Nosed Maya Rain God Chaac Had Ancient Mesoamerican Roots

Chaac Rain God Mask, The Church (La Iglesia), Chichen Itza
Curly Nose of Chaac Rain God Mask Protrudes from The Church (La Iglesia) at Chichen Itza. Getty Images

Chaac (spelled variously Chac, Chaak, or Chaakh; and referred in scholarly texts as God B) is the name of the rain god in the Maya religion. As with many Mesoamerican cultures that based their living on rain-dependent agriculture, the ancient Maya felt a particular devotion for the deities controlling rain. Rain gods or rain-related deities were worshiped beginning in very ancient times and were known under many names among different Mesoamerican people.

Identifying Chaac

For example, the Mesoamerican rain god was known as Cocijo by the Late Formative period Zapotec of the Oaxaca Valley, as Tlaloc by the Late Postclassic Aztec people in Central Mexico; and of course as Chaac among the ancient Maya.

Chaac was the Maya god of rain, lightning, and storms. He is often represented holding jade axes and snakes that he uses to throw at the clouds to produce rain. His actions assured the growth of maize and other crops in general as well as maintaining the natural cycles of life. Natural events of different intensities from the vivifying rain and wet season storms, to the more dangerous and destructive hailstorms and hurricanes, were considered manifestations of the god.

Characteristics of the Mayan Rain God

For the ancient Maya, the rain god had a particularly strong relationship with rulers, because—at least for the earlier periods of Maya history—rulers were considered rainmakers, and in later periods, were thought able to communicate and intercede with the gods.

The alter-egos of Maya shamans and rulers roles often overlapped, especially in the Preclassic period. The pre-classic shaman-rulers were said to be able to reach the inaccessible places where the rain gods dwelled, and intercede with them for the people.

These deities were believed to live on the tops of mountains and in high forests which were often hidden by clouds.

These were the places where, in the rainy seasons, the clouds were hit by Chaac and his helpers and the rains were announced by thunder and lightning.

Four Directions of the World

According to Maya cosmology, Chaac was also linked to the four cardinal directions. Each world direction was connected with one aspect of Chaac and a specific color:

  • Chaak Xib Chaac, was the Red Chaac of the East
  • Sak Xib Chaac, the White Chaac of the North
  • Ex Xib Chaac, the Black Chaac of the West, and
  • Kan Xib Chaac, the Yellow Chaac of the South

Collectively, these were called the Chaacs or Chaacob or Chaacs (plural for Chaac) and they were worshiped as deities in many parts of the Maya area, especially in Yucatán.

In a "burner" ritual reported in the Dresden and Madrid codexes and said to be conducted to ensure copious rains, the four Chaacs had different roles: one takes the fire, one begins the fire, one gives scope to the fire and one puts out the fire. When the fire was lit, hearts of sacrificial animals were cast into it and the four Chaac priests poured jugs of water to put out the flames. This Chaac ritual was performed twice each year, once in the dry season, once in the wet.

Chaac Iconography

Even though Chaac is one of the most ancient of Maya deities, almost all of the known representations of the god are from the Classic and Postclassic periods (AD 200-1521).

Most of the images depicting the rain god are on Classic period painted vessels and Postclassic codexes. As are many Maya gods, Chaac is portrayed as a blend of human and animal characteristics. He has reptilian attributes and fish scales, a long curly nose, and a protruding lower lip. He holds the stone ax used to produce lightning and wears an elaborate headdress.

Chaac masks are found protruding from Maya architecture at many Terminal Classic period Maya sites such as Mayapán and Chichen Itza. Mayapán's ruins include the Hall of Chaac Masks (Building Q151), thought to have been commissioned by Chaac priests around AD 1300/1350. The earliest possible representation of a pre-classic Maya rain god Chaac recognized to date is carved into the face of Stela 1 at Izapa, and dated to the Terminal Preclassic Period about AD 200.

Chaac Ceremonies

Ceremonies in honor of the rain god were held in each Maya city and at different levels of society. Rituals to propitiate rain took place in the agricultural fields, as well as in more public settings such as plazas. Sacrifices of young boys and girls were carried out in especially dramatic periods, such as after a prolonged period of drought. In Yucatan, rituals asking for rains are documented for the Late Postclassic and Colonial periods.

In the sacred cenote of Chichén Itzá, for example, people were thrown and left to drown there, accompanied by precious offerings of gold and jade. Evidence of other, less lavish ceremonies has also been documented by archaeologists in caves and karstic wells all over the Maya area.

As part of the care of a cornfield, members of historic period Maya communities in the Yucatan peninsula today held rain ceremonies, in which all the local farmers participated. These ceremonies reference the chaacob, and the offerings included balche, or corn beer.

Sources

Updated by K. Kris Hirst

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