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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

The mysterious meaning and origins of the Chaac Mool

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.

The Chaac Mool is one of the most enduring and well-known icons of México’s ancient past.

One of the best preserved Chaac Mools ever discovered is now on display at México City’s Museum of History and Anthropology. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But the meaning and role behind the Chaac Mool during antiquity is hotly disputed.

In reality, even the name of this reclined figure is a mystery, as the term Chaac Mool was coined by the British-American archaeologist Augustus Le Plongeon in 1875.

The name was chosen because Le Plongeon then believed the sculpture represented a ruler he named “Paw swift like thunder,” which was then translated into Yucatec-Maya as Cháak mo’ol.

The first Chaac Mool discovered in Chichén Itzá by Le Plongeon sits atop The Temple of the Warriors in Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

However, the first published account of a Chaac Mool appeared decades before, in 1832, after the discovery in the area surrounding México City. This fact is widely unknown, perhaps because its discoverers did not give it a catchy name. 

The Chaac Mool of Tacubaya is one of the most unique of its kind, though dating it has proven to be difficult. Photo: Courtesy

As excavations in Chichén Itzá continued, at least 15 different Chaac Mool sculptures were discovered, with large numbers also being uncovered nearly 1,000 miles away in Tollan-Xicohcotitlan (Tula).

One of the best preserved Chaac Mool’s found in Tula, Hidalgo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Chaac Mool figures have also been found as far as Quirigua in Guatemala, as well as in Costa Rica’s Limon province, though there is some debate regarding whether this figure really qualifies.  

Recent excavations in Michoacan have unearthed a particularly large Chaac Mool in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, with features believed to be of Otomi origin.

The recent discovery of a Chaac Mool in Pátzcuaro only further solidifies the influence of peoples from central México. Photo: Courtesy

Archaeological evidence suggests that Chaac Mools began to be produced in large numbers in the early Postclassic period.

Beautifully preserved Chaac Mool inside Chichén Itzá’s Kukulkan pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But despite the close association of the Chaac Mool with Chichén Itzá, archaeological evidence tends to lean in the direction of a Toltec origin.

The discovery of Chaac Mools missing their heads is quite common, as the figures are quite heavy and the heads are easier targets for looters. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This would make a lot of sense since the period during which we begin to see Chaac Mools appear in Chichén Itzá was marked by large migrations from central México.

Though the general design of the Chaac Mool is similar from region to region, differences such as its facial features, posture, and adornments can vary drastically.

The Chaac Mool of Ihuatzio is striking for its Tarascan features, which make it resemble an old man. Photo: Courtesy

Given that the Chaac Mool is not believed to represent any specific historical figure and its range across Mesoamerica is so vast, it is hard to generalize regarding its purpose.

Because one of the features across cultures of these figures is a plate or vessel set on the figure’s stomach, it has long been assumed the Chaac Mool was some sort of messenger capable of delivering earthly sacrifices to the gods. Today, it is sometimes confused with Chaac, the Maya rain deity.

Occasionally, Chaac Mools are depicted with their legs reclining to the side, as seen in the replica in Mérida’s Parque de las Americas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This theory is further backed up by the context in which Chaac Mools are often found in the Maya world, near or inside temples, making references to Jaguars — who were believed to be able to transit freely between realms. 

A stunning jaguar throne sits directly behind the Chaac Mool found inside Chichén Itzá’s Kukulkan pyramid, also known as El Castillo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine.

In central Mexico, the meaning of the Chaac Mool appears to be quite different, with its context and features associating it with the rain god Tlaloc.

One of the several Chaac Mools discovered inside the Templo Mayor, in what today is México City. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In the Aztec context, it has been suggested that the Chaac Mool served as a techatl, or sacrificial stone, on which victims had their hearts ripped from their chests. However, archaeological evidence to support this claim appears rather dubious. 

A modern reproduction of a Chaac Mool oversees the Caribbean Sea in Cancún at a beach named after him. Photo: Courtesy

The full truth behind Chaac Mool will likely remain a mystery, but frankly, that is part of its enduring allure.

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