The Chac Mool Sculptures of Ancient Mexico

Reclining Statues Associated with Mesoamerican Cultures

Maya chacmool from Chichen Itza displayed at the National Museum of Anthropology
Luis Alberto Lecuna/Melograna /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

A Chac Mool is a very specific type of Mesoamerican statue associated with ancient cultures such as the Aztecs and Maya. The statues, made of different types of stone, depict a reclined man holding a tray or bowl on his belly or chest. Much is unknown about the origin, significance, and purpose of the Chac Mool statues, but ongoing studies have proven a strong link between them and Tlaloc, Mesoamerican god of rain and thunder.

Appearance of the Chac Mool Statues

The Chac Mool statues are easy to identify. They depict a reclining man with his head turned ninety degrees in one direction. His legs are generally drawn up and bent at the knees. He is almost always holding a tray, bowl, altar, or other recipient of some kind. They often are reclined on rectangular bases: when they are, the bases usually contain fine stone inscriptions. Iconography related to water, the ocean and/or Tlaloc, the rain god can often be found on the bottom of the statues. They were carved from many different sorts of stone available to Mesoamerican masons. In general, they are roughly human-sized, but examples have been found which are larger or smaller. There are differences between Chac Mool statues as well: for example, the ones from Tula and Chichén Itzá appear as young warriors in battle gear whereas one from Michoacán is an old man, nearly naked.

The Name Chac Mool

Although they were obviously important to the ancient cultures that created them, for years these statues were ignored and left to weather the elements at ruined cities. The first serious study of them took place in 1832. Since then, they have been viewed as cultural treasures and studies on them have increased.

They got their name from the French archeologist Augustus LePlongeon in 1875: he dug one up in Chichén Itzá and mistakenly identified it as a depiction of an ancient Maya ruler whose name was “Thunderous Paw,” or Chaacmol. Although the statues have been proven to have no relation to Thunderous Paw, the name, slightly changed, has stuck.

Dispersion of the Chac Mool Statues

Chac Mool statues have been found at several important archaeological sites but are curiously missing from others. Several have been found at the sites of Tula and Chichén Itza and several more have been located in different excavations in and around Mexico City. Other statues have been found at smaller sites including Cempoala and at the Maya site of Quiriguá in present-day Guatemala. Some major archaeological sites have yet to yield a Chac Mool, including Teotihuacán and Xochicalco. It is also interesting that no representation of the Chac Mool appears in any of the surviving Mesoamerican Codices.

Purpose of the Chac Mools

The statues — some of which are quite elaborate — obviously had an important religious and ceremonial uses for the different cultures that created them. The statues had a utilitarian purpose and were not, in themselves, worshiped: this is known because of their relative positions within the temples.

When located in temples, the Chac Mool is nearly always positioned between the spaces associated with the priests and that associated with the people. It is never found in the back, where something revered as a deity would be expected to rest. The purpose of the Chac Mools was generally as a place for sacrificial offerings for the gods. These offering could consist of anything from foodstuffs like tamales or tortillas to colorful feathers, tobacco or flowers. The Chac Mool altars also served for human sacrifices: some had cuauhxicallis, or special recipients for the blood of sacrificial victims, while others had special téhcatl altars where humans were ritualistically sacrificed.

The Chac Mools and Tlaloc

Most of the Chac Mool statues have an obvious link to Tlaloc, the Mesoamerican rain god and an important deity of the Aztec pantheon.

On the base of some of the statues can be seen carvings of fish, seashells and other marine life. On the base of the "Pino Suarez and Carranza" Chac Mool (named after a Mexico City intersection where it was dug up during road work) is the face of Tlaloc himself surrounded by aquatic life. A most fortunate discovery was that of a Chac Mool at the Templo Mayor excavation in Mexico City in the early 1980's. This Chac Mool still had much of its original paint on it: these colors only served to further match the Chac Mools to Tlaloc. One example: Tlaloc was depicted in the Codex Laud with red feet and blue sandals: the Templo Mayor Chac Mool also has red feet with blue sandals.

Enduring Mystery of the Chac Mools

Although much more is known now about the Chac Mools and their purpose, some mysteries remain. Chief among these mysteries is the origin of the Chac Mools: they are found at Postclassic Maya sites such as Chichén Itzá and Aztec sites near Mexico City, but it is impossible to tell where and when they originated. The reclining figures likely do not represent Tlaloc himself, who is usually depicted as being more gruesome: they could be warriors who carry the offerings to the gods they were intended for. Even their real name – what the natives called them – has been lost to time.

Sources:

Desmond, Lawrence G. Chacmool.

López Austin, Alfredo and Leonardo López Lujan. Los Mexicas y el Chac Mool. Arqueología Mexicana Vol. IX - Num. 49 (May-June 2001).

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Minster, Christopher. "The Chac Mool Sculptures of Ancient Mexico." ThoughtCo, Apr. 2, 2018, thoughtco.com/chac-mool-sculptures-of-ancient-mexico-2136309. Minster, Christopher. (2018, April 2). The Chac Mool Sculptures of Ancient Mexico. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/chac-mool-sculptures-of-ancient-mexico-2136309 Minster, Christopher. "The Chac Mool Sculptures of Ancient Mexico." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/chac-mool-sculptures-of-ancient-mexico-2136309 (accessed May 26, 2018).