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Mexicolore contributor John B. Carlson

The chacmool and the ballgame (1)

We are most grateful to Dr. John B. Carlson, Director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy, University of Maryland (USA), for giving us permission to reproduce, with a few tiny abridgments, his intriguing and thought-provoking article, originally titled Chacmool: Who Was That Enigmatic Recumbent Figure From Epiclassic Mesoamerica? Reposing the Question, and published in the Pre-Columbian Society of Washington DC newsletter, “Smoking Mirror” (November 2013).

Pic 1: Chac mool figure, Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza
Pic 1: Chac mool figure, Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza (Click on image to enlarge)

The monumental stone sculptural human form known as a “Chacmool” (pic 1) first appeared suddenly in Mesoamerica - probably in the 9th century CE - notably in Toltec Central Mexico (Tula, State of Hidalgo), and in Yucatan at Chichen Itza, but spread as far as the Tarascan region of Michoacan, Guatemala, El Salvador, and perhaps even Costa Rica. For all who have confronted them - whether atop a temple pyramid, resting among the ruins, or in a museum - they immediately command one’s attention, with their direct and seemingly emotionless enigmatic gaze. Always a male figure, he effortlessly holds a unique and challenging pose. He rests recumbent on his back, with legs drawn up, knees bent, and feet flat on the ground; with his upper torso elevated, and his head always turned at a right angle - either to the left or the right - he is always looking out away from the associated temple, based on the evidence for those found in their original contexts. Furthermore, the figures invariably have their hands raised to the side of their abdomens where they hold a plate or, in some cases, the effigy of a very specific variety of vessel.

Pic 2: Chac mool figure from Chichen Itza, excavated by Augustus Le Plongeon
Pic 2: Chac mool figure from Chichen Itza, excavated by Augustus Le Plongeon (Click on image to enlarge)

Since such uniquely posed male sculptures were first brought to world attention and imaginatively named “Chaacmol” by French adventurer and photographer Augustus Le Plongeon - inspired by the famous example he excavated at Chichen Itza in 1875 (pic 2) - their true function, identity, and region/culture of origin have remained largely subjects of speculation. Although they were still in active use at the time of Spanish contact in Central Mexico in the Aztec (Mexica) capital Tenochtitlan, no obvious recorded names for these enigmatic monumental sculptures, nor the identities of the single male figures represented, have ever been recognized in any Mesoamerican language. However, several lines of evidence and argument have now convinced most scholars that they were a genuine innovation for a specific type of sacrificial altar for the placement of an offering bowl - called a cuauhxicalli (in Nahuatl) by the Aztecs - associated with quite ancient and pervasive militaristic cult practices of human heart and blood sacrifice. However, several key questions have remained:-

Pic 3: Modern Mexican silver 5-peso coin depicting the iconic chac mool figure
Pic 3: Modern Mexican silver 5-peso coin depicting the iconic chac mool figure (Click on image to enlarge)

(1) What was the culture and place of origin of this remarkable sculptural innovation? Since the 19th century, most scholarly debate has continued to focus on either a Central Mexican (Toltec) origin at Tula or a Maya innovation at Chichen Itza.
(2) Who were these male figures? Were they generalized figures or portraits of individuals - perhaps elite lords or rulers? Or were they images of deities or supernaturals or their ritual impersonators? Do the style, the iconography of the figure (with its costume, adornments, and what he is holding in its hands), the associated material culture, and the archaeological contexts offer any clues? Yes they all do, but at present, although there is some agreement on certain details, there is no overall scholarly consensus.
(3) What is the origin and meaning of the challenging recumbent pose for these human figures with the unblinking, enigmatic gaze? Outside of Mesoamerica, is there any other world artistic or sculptural tradition where the Chacmool form is represented? And finally,
(4) What were they, and what were they called, or described with a phrase, in any Mesoamerican language? Despite more than a century of investigation, no compelling indigenous name or description has been found to date.

Pic 4: Le Plongeon excavating the ‘chac mool’ figure, Chichen Itza, 1875
Pic 4: Le Plongeon excavating the ‘chac mool’ figure, Chichen Itza, 1875 (Click on image to enlarge)

The independent explorer Augustus Le Plongeon along with his American wife Alice Dixon excavated the well-preserved example at Chichen Itza in 1875 (pic 4) within the mound now known as the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars. This square radial platform (i.e., with stairways on its four sides) is located about midway between the Great Ballcourt (and the associated Tzompantli Skull Rack) and the great central radial pyramid known as the “Castillo” or, more correctly, as the Temple of Kukulkan, the Plumed Serpent, based on early Colonial sources. Le Plongeon and his wife created for themselves a complex mythology of the Maya following some of the esoteric ideas of the day. He imagined that the ruin of the Eagles and Jaguars Platform was the mausoleum for a mythical Maya prince named Coh, who was once the ruler of Chichen Itza but was later killed by his brother, Aac, the lord of Uxmal. After death, he was given the emblematic title “Chaacmol,” meaning something like “Paw swift like thunder” or “Great (perhaps bloody red) Jaguar Paw.” Soon after the discovery of the Chacmool, one of Le Plongeon’s patrons, antiquarian Stephen Salisbury, published (1877) the first details of the discovery and changed the name to “Chacmool.” Variations on this baseless fiction have nonetheless become the name used in the literature to this day, although Le Plongeon’s idea that the Chacmool might have portrayed an individual, perhaps a noble or even the ruler, remains a real possibility.

Pic 5: Le Plongeon’s reconstruction of the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars at Chichen Itza
Pic 5: Le Plongeon’s reconstruction of the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars at Chichen Itza (Click on image to enlarge)

However, rather than being a mausoleum, the Platform itself (pic 5) is adorned with sculptures and bas reliefs of plumed serpents, warrior figures, and eagles and jaguars consuming (presumably human) hearts. Human heart sacrifice as well as decapitation sacrifice are explicitly depicted at Chichen Itza in several media - including jade, gold, and stuccoed limestone - as well as on many other structures of this period at the site. There is little scholarly doubt that these practices occurred there, as they did throughout Mesoamerica from Formative times to the time of European contact. Virtually all of the buildings in the monumental core of Chichen Itza are replete with images of warriors, with military and sacrificial iconography, and the site has the largest number of Chacmools known (about 16) in Mesoamerica.

Pic 6: Tula - chac mool sculpture (top) and Atlantean columns (bottom)
Pic 6: Tula - chac mool sculpture (top) and Atlantean columns (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

The architectural style and decoration of this later phase in the history of Chichen Itza has been recognized for more than a century as being closely related in detail with that of the contemporary Toltec capital of Tula in Central Mexico (pic 6). There is a huge literature on this subject regarding the nature of the connection between the linguistically Mayan-speaking peoples of the Yucatan Peninsula and the almost certainly Nahua-speaking Toltec peoples whose capital was Tula. However, although the ceremonial core of Tula is smaller than that of Chichen Itza - and Tula has the second greatest number of Chacmools (about 12, see, e.g., pic 6 top) - the architectural and sculptural styles at both sites are recognizably much more Central Mexican than Lowland Maya in tradition, to my eyes. My opinion is that the more geometrical, cookie-cutter, austere styles of Toltec Tula (pic 6, bottom) are more closely related to the Chacmool forms - wherever they are found - than are the far more baroque Classic Maya styles (e.g. pic 17). And even after the collapse of both Chichen Itza and Tula before Spanish contact in the early 16th century, Chacmools with their austere Mexican style and pose (e.g., pic 7) were still in continuous use on the day that Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors entered the Aztec capitol city of Tenochtitlan in 1519.

Pic 7: Late Postclassic Aztec chac mool, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 7: Late Postclassic Aztec chac mool, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In my view, this late Postclassic Aztec Chacmool (pic 7) with its Tlaloc Storm God mask, may well have been the Chacmool on top in front of the north Tlaloc temple of the Great Temple pyramid at the heart of Tenochtitlan’s sacred precinct. (The second South temple of the two was devoted to the Mexica tribal tutelary spirit, Huitzilopochtli, as we know from reliable Colonial sources and the archaeological evidence.) The upper levels of the main twin-temple Great Pyramid were destroyed in the Spanish conquest, but the excavations of these Templo Mayor ruins, beginning in the late 1970s, revealed an early level with the original temples partially intact. A simple prismatic techcatl sacrificial stone was found in front of the early south Huitzilopochtli temple and, significantly, a painted stuccoed Chacmool was found where it should have been, in front of this early temple devoted to Tlaloc. Both this Chacmool, and at least two late Aztec examples exhibit a number of specific Tlaloc and aquatic elements. This great Chacmool (pic 7) has marine shells, sacrificial knives, and the image of a fanged Tlaloc-faced monster carved on the bottom beneath the sculpture, with Tlaloc’s face on the flat top of the cuauhxicalli bowl that the Chacmool holds in his hands.

Pic 8: ‘Cuauhxicalli’ bowl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 8: ‘Cuauhxicalli’ bowl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

It is well known, beginning with explicit colonial sources and archaeological evidence, that a cuauhxicalli vessel - the Eagle Vessel - with a band of clipped eagle feathers beneath an upper border of sacrificed hearts around the brim was used as a receptacle for sacrificed hearts and blood, usually obtained from war captives, and offered to Tlaloc and the other gods of fertility and generation. My working hypothesis is that all Chacmool sculptures were altars or pedestals for the placement of sacrificial gifts, specifically cuauhxicalli bowls (pic 8) with their blood offerings to the gods of rain and fertility, and that they are not altars on which the sacrifices themselves were performed. In Central Mexico, Tlaloc and the spirits of generation, including the ancestors themselves, live within the great mountains. In the flat limestone region of Northern Yucatan, they dwell in the cenotes (sinkholes) - notably the Great Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza - and within the artificial mountains that they built. The central Temple of Kukulkan at the heart of Chichen Itza was such an altepetl - mountain of water and fertility - and there were Chacmools placed out in front of the temples on top where the ruler was enthroned and often surely impersonated the Maya Rain deity, Chac, and the Highland Tlaloc, who dwelt within the pyramid. The same pattern is found at the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza, the Temple of the Atlantes (Pyramid B) at Toltec Tula (pic 6, bottom), and at the Great Temple of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan.

Pic 9: Tlaloc pot, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 9: Tlaloc pot, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Tlaloc, with his diagnostic eye rings, fangs, and a characteristic “moustache” form over his mouth (pic 9), was the Aztec (Nahuatl) name of the ancient and venerable Central Mexican earth and mountain, rain and storm deity, whose ancestry goes back to the beginnings of the Teotihuacan civilization (ca. 150 BCE). Teotihuacan was ancestral culturally to the Toltecs, and later the Aztecs, but was also a considerable influence on the Early Classic Maya across their territory as far to the southeast as Copán in Honduras. Associated closely with the complex pan-Mesoamerican Feathered Serpent deity of warfare and sacrifice as well as being a manifestation of Venus (Quetzalcoatl in Nahuatl; Kukulkan in Yucatec Mayan), Tlaloc was also an entity closely associated with a specific cult of Venus-regulated warfare and sacrifice. Imagery of “Tlaloc” is found in the Maya zone from Early Classic times (4th century CE) and is well represented at Chichen Itza, a form of which is likely portrayed in the rectangular ear ornaments of the famous Chacmool in Picture 2.

Pic 10: Detail of the chac mool figure at Tula, showing the sacrificial knife strapped to the left arm
Pic 10: Detail of the chac mool figure at Tula, showing the sacrificial knife strapped to the left arm (Click on image to enlarge)

Most scholars accept that Chacmools in general were associated with sacrifices to storm and war deities such as Tlaloc, Chac, and with aquatic imagery, as well as with human heart sacrifices offered to these entities. The best known example of a Chacmool from Toltec Tula (pic 6, top) - which was placed in front of a palace chamber with a bench throne - adjoining the Pyramid B of the Atlantean Columns (pic 6, bottom) - has a sacrificial knife strapped prominently to his left arm (pic 10). If we accept this as a working hypothesis, we are still left with the search for answers to the four research questions I posed above.

Pic 11: Mary Miller’s 1985 article ‘A Re-examination of the Mesoamerican Chacmool’
Pic 11: Mary Miller’s 1985 article ‘A Re-examination of the Mesoamerican Chacmool’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Recent Theories and Speculations
Perhaps the dominant current hypothesis regarding Chacmools is that of art historian Mary Ellen Miller. Following the lead and guidance of her professor, pioneering pre-Columbian art historian George Kubler at Yale University, Miller favors a Classic Maya origin for the form and nature of the Chacmool, with the innovation having taken place at Maya Chichen Itza rather than Toltec Tula. I remember hearing her presentation of these ideas in the 1980s at a Mesa Redonda meeting held at the Maya site of Palenque in Chiapas. The full arguments were published in her 1985 Art Bulletin article, A Re-examination of the Mesoamerican Chacmool (pic 11), and they have been accepted by Mayanists and Mesoamericanists in general, based on a review of the references in the professional and popular literature and discussions with other researchers. Popular books by Miller and her colleague, archaeologist Karl Taube, have also helped to support not only the Maya origin but also, specifically, that the Chacmools represent the sacrificial victims: humiliated war captives preparing to receive, symbolically, their own blood and hearts. Miller makes the case, in her studies, that the unusual recumbent posture is that of the bound captive and soon-to-be-sacrificial victim usually pictured beneath the feet of a Maya ruler—an image often carved on Classic Maya stelae. The arguments are detailed and complex and deserve careful attention and scrutiny.

Pic 12: Detail of war captive slumped at feet of ruler Yajaw Chan Muwaan, Bonampak mural, Room 2, Structure 1
Pic 12: Detail of war captive slumped at feet of ruler Yajaw Chan Muwaan, Bonampak mural, Room 2, Structure 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

However, the examples offered in support of this hypothesis have remained unconvincing to me. The remarkable image from North Wall of Room 2 (upper register) of the Bonampak painted murals, graphically depicting the central tortured, humiliated war captive sprawled out on the step below the victorious Bonampak ruler Yajaw Chan Muwaan (pic 12), is also used in support of the idea that the recumbent, reclining pose of the Chacmool is that of a humiliated bound captive, despite the fact that no Chacmool has any indications of binding cords, evidence of torture or humiliation, or the gaze of the vanquished.

Pic 13: Chac mool, interior of El Castillo sub-pyramid structure, Chichen Itza
Pic 13: Chac mool, interior of El Castillo sub-pyramid structure, Chichen Itza (Click on image to enlarge)

To the contrary, they all are serenely posed, looking directly out at the viewer, with eyes wide open, away from the lord’s temple throne room behind them. They are all clothed and wear their full ear assemblages, and some have the pierced nose ornaments of great lords (e.g. pix 6 top and 16). Furthermore, the best known examples from Chichen Itza - e.g., the ones found in situ atop the Temple of the Warriors, the completely preserved Chacmool placed in front of the Red Jaguar throne within the interior Castillo-Sub Pyramid Temple (pic 13), and Le Plongeon’s famous 1875 Chacmool (pic 2) - and the Chacmool from Toltec Tula (pic 6, top), all still prominently wear their stylized Warrior-Butterfly pectoral pendants.These Warrior-Butterfly emblems are all shown in the same geometrical late Epiclassic/Early Postclassic Central Mexican style as one finds on the Atlantean columns from Tula Temple B (pic 6, bottom). These remarkable columns represent elite warriors with their atlatls (spear-throwers) and hands full of darts and fending sticks much as they are represented in numerous carved, painted columns and murals at Chichen Itza. They also have tezcacuitlapilli “back mirrors” as do their counterparts at Chichen Itza, and the use of these warrior back mirrors have clear antecedents a millennium before at Teotihuacan, based on certain archaeological evidence.

Pic 14: Tarascan Chac mool, excavated by Carl Humholtz, 1898; American Museum of Natural History, NYC
Pic 14: Tarascan Chac mool, excavated by Carl Humholtz, 1898; American Museum of Natural History, NYC (Click on image to enlarge)

The gaze and the more rigid Toltec geometrical style are essentially the same at both Chichen Itza and Tula and differ little from the form of other Chacmools, wherever they are found (pic 14). In every respect, the Chacmools would appear to represent the victorious elite warriors, posed to receive the offerings of their vanquished captives, with the example from Tula (pic 6, top) prominently displaying his sacrificial knife and Warrior-Butterfly pectoral. However, in Miller’s interpretation, from her popular book, The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec (1986:175), this Chacmool represents “a fallen warrior, knife still held in place by an armband.” In my understanding, the innovative style represented in the first appearance of the Chacmool clearly has ancient Highland Mexican origins dating back more than a millennium - in particular to ancient Teotihuacan - ancestral to the Toltecs and, later, the Aztecs. The figures themselves carry the iconography, composition, and bearing of the victorious elite warriors (see pic 6) and perhaps the paramount rulers themselves, and not their humiliated captives prepared for imminent sacrifice.

Pic 15: Henry Moore and Joseph Hirshhorn with Moore’s ‘Draped Reclining Figure’, Washington, April 1976 (top); HM reclining figure, Dartington Hall Gardens, 1964 (bottom)
Pic 15: Henry Moore and Joseph Hirshhorn with Moore’s ‘Draped Reclining Figure’, Washington, April 1976 (top); HM reclining figure, Dartington Hall Gardens, 1964 (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

But what is the true origin and meaning of that most unusual recumbent form of the male human figure depicted in the Chacmool? Are there inspirations for this in earlier Mesoamerican representations, or anywhere else in world art? For years, I have searched for examples from any global cultural tradition - ranging from yoga postures to the demons trampled under the feet of Lord Shiva or St. Michael - and, until recently, had found only one significant example in the works of 20th-century English sculptor Henry Moore (pic 15). However, as is well known in the history of art, Moore became particularly captivated with the forms and quality of pre-Columbian sculpture in the early 1920s. He saw an image of a Chacmool in a book in 1922 and subsequently a plaster model of Le Plongeon’s 1875 original Chichen Itza find in the Musée Trocadéro in Paris in 1925. Moore’s first Chacmool-inspired sculpture of a female form was carved in 1928, and he continued to explore this theme for the rest of his long career. Of course, there are many other Chacmool imitators, but like Moore’s creations, they are all derivative of the Mesoamerican originals.

Pic 16: Chac mool sculpture, Chichen Itza
Pic 16: Chac mool sculpture, Chichen Itza (Click on image to enlarge)

A Whole New Ballgame
In 2012, a brief report on the Web in a 2007 Arqueología Mexicana of a recent discovery at Chichen Itza - including one photograph (pic 16) - caught my attention for the first time. It triggered the immediate recognition that I had seen versions of the essential Chacmool form and posture before .... many times ... in Mesoamerica, but the connection never hit me until that moment. Archaeologist Peter Schmidt - preeminent excavator and interpreter of Chichen Itza in our time - and his team had discovered this particularly well preserved and unusual - but not unique - Chacmool variant in the ruins of the Temple of the Sculptured Columns. The single photograph that I saw was taken by photographer Jorge Pérez de Lara, a friend and colleague, and he generously sent me a high-resolution color image for study. One can readily see that portions of the original polychrome painted stucco have survived. This Chacmool depicts an elite individual with large jade ear disks (in Maya blue), a red headband, and prominent tubular nose bead (indicating noble status and authority) ... posed as a Mesoamerican rubber ballgame player in repose.

Pic 17: Maya ritual ballgame players, bas-relief panel, La Corona
Pic 17: Maya ritual ballgame players, bas-relief panel, La Corona (Click on image to enlarge)

The ancient “hip ulama” ballgame, played with a heavy solid native rubber ball (see, e.g, pic 20), became a pan-Mesoamerican tradition at least three millennia ago. The ballgame is one of the significant defining cultural identifiers of Greater Mesoamerica. Archaeological finds of the rubber balls themselves date, in the Gulf Coast Olmec area (e.g., El Manatí, Veracruz), to the Early Formative Period (ca. 1200–900 BCE) and perhaps earlier, and depictions of individuals in the various signature ballgame poses also date to these times in other areas of Mesoamerica including El Opeño in West Mexican Michoacan (ca. 1600 BCE). There is an extensive literature on the rubber ballgame, with close to 20 variants surviving to the present in some form, including the “hip ulama,” ulama de cadera (Ulamaliztli), game in the state of Sinaloa.

Pic 18: Padded ball player in motion, Chinkultic (top); drawing of the ballcourt at Chinkultic (bottom)
Pic 18: Padded ball player in motion, Chinkultic (top); drawing of the ballcourt at Chinkultic (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

I have watched the game played live on two occasions and in documentary films. The first occasion was in 1987 at an international conference on the Mesoamerican ballgames in Culiacán, Sinaloa, with players coming from many areas of Mexico. I remember the experience well, because during one of these games, the massive ball - typically weighing 6 to 10 pounds - was hit into the bleachers. My left wrist was snapped back as I fended off the ball, and I was lucky to survive this brief encounter with only a painful sprain and a bruise. This game - known to the Aztecs as ulamaliztli - was often deadly, even for the best players. Most physical contact sports around the world are forms of ritual combat, and it is now well established, from many independent sources, that the Mesoamerican ballgame was no exception. The elite ballcourts also served as places of human sacrifice including the gladiatorial ballgame sacrifice of war captives.

Pic 19: Ballplayers, details from the Tepantitla murals at Teotihuacan
Pic 19: Ballplayers, details from the Tepantitla murals at Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

Ballcourts were ritual portals into the Underworld, and the ballgame was a living metaphor for the game of life and death... and rebirth ... as expressed most poetically in the Quiché Maya Popol Vuh legend, recorded in the early 18th century. It is the story of the Hero Twins playing the sacred game with the Lords of Death in Xibalbá and eventually triumphing over them. There are many Classic Maya representations of the ballgame played by elite Ajaws (e.g. pic 17), but there are many far earlier representations known, including the famous portrayals of several different ballgames in the early first millennium Tepantitla murals at that ancient Central Mexican metropolis, Teotihuacan (pic 19). Although no formal ballcourt has ever been found at Teotihuacan, ballplayers and the game itself are graphically depicted in several media in the archaeological remains there.

Pic 20: Hip ball game player about to hit the ball using the ‘por abajo’ stance, Sinaloa
Pic 20: Hip ball game player about to hit the ball using the ‘por abajo’ stance, Sinaloa (Click on image to enlarge)

Ted Leyenaar, the remarkable Dutch scholar from Leiden, studied all aspects of the ancient and contemporary Mesoamerican ballgame. He documented it extensively in film, organized several conferences - I attended at least two - and wrote the definitive first study of the indigenous game in Sinaloa. Played in a simple cleared court, but with complex rules and scoring, it involves hitting the heavy solid rubber ball back and forth between two (or up to seven on each side) players using only the hip. As Leyenaar and others have recorded the styles of play, to simplify it, there are essentially two primary stances - hitting the ball “por arriba” (playing it high) or “por abajo” (playing it low). Leyenaar’s image (pic 20) shows a skillful Sinaloa player preparing to engage the oncoming ball in the “por abajo” stance. To do this, he drops down on his hip, often with knees raised and one or both hands down, to “hit the ball before it hits you” as they say.

For the conclusion to this article, picture sources and more, click on the link below...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 03rd 2015

Part two - ‘Recline and Fall...’

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