At some point during your visit to the land of the Mayab you will have seen or heard about the incredible Chac Mool sculpture: a male human figure reclining toward the back, legs together, knees bent, feet usually on the floor, with his head turned to the left or right in a straight angle, with a circular or square container resting on his stomach, always looking towards the pyramid of the archaeological site where he is found. This “great red jaguar”, as it is translated from the Maya, remains to this day one of the greatest mysteries connected to the Maya and Toltec cultures. His name should not be confused with “Chaac”, the Maya rain god.
Imagine for a moment that you have gone back in time to the 1800s, a time when many Maya archaeological sites have yet to be discovered, when suddenly you are able to participate in the unimaginable: the discovery of the figure of Chac Mool! It was discovered for the first time in Mesoamerica, in southeastern México: Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, in 1874, and then later 14 more similar sculptures were found, from various places including Tula, where the Toltecs settled; and also in Tlaxcala, Michoacán, Cempoala and México-Tenochtitlán, all located in Central México.
Augustus Le Plongeon, the British-American photographer and antiquarian, disembarked from a ship in Progreso with his wife in August of 1873, with the objective of excavating the Maya ruins, in the region which was in the midst of the Caste War at that time. In early 1875, Le Plongeon’s wife Alice wrote in her personal diary: “On Sunday, November 1, in the interior of the Plataforma de las Águilas y Jaguares (eagle and jaguar platform), Augustus discovered a sculpture” which was named Chac Mool. In their enthusiasm to study it, they tried to take it out of the country, but the governor of Yucatán at that time, Protasio Guerra, confiscated the sculpture and it was sent to Mexico City.
Although its true function and identity have been the subject of much speculation, two distinct functions have been ascribed to the statue, both with religious overtones: as a stone for sacrifices and as an altar, where human hearts and other objects were placed as offerings to the gods.
Various figures were also found at the ancient city of Tenochtitlán, where the Aztecs, or Mexicas, settled and made their own replicas of the sculpture, possibly with a different significance.
Of course we will have to wait for new studies and discoveries to help clarify the function of this mystic sculpture and who it was dedicated to, for there are many versions which exist, based solely on theory and speculation. Meanwhile, its origin and significance remain part of the mystery of this amazing millennial culture.
Sources: INAH; document by John B. Carlson from the Center of Archaeoastronomy, University Honors College, University of Maryland, College Park.
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