The Chaac Mool is one of the most enduring and well-known icons of México’s ancient past.
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.
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.
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.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Chaac Mools began to be produced in large numbers in the early Postclassic period.
But despite the close association of the Chaac Mool with Chichén Itzá, archaeological evidence tends to lean in the direction of a Toltec origin.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The full truth behind Chaac Mool will likely remain a mystery, but frankly, that is part of its enduring allure.