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The chacmool and the ballgame (2)

This is the conclusion to John Carlson’s thought-provoking article on the possible link between reclining chac mool sculptures and reclining ritual ballgame players...

Pic 1: Artist’s impression of a Maya ballgame player entering a ‘por abajo’ stance against the ball...
Pic 1: Artist’s impression of a Maya ballgame player entering a ‘por abajo’ stance against the ball... (Click on image to enlarge)

Of course, the position - whether “arriba” or “abajo” - requires that the ballplayer turn his head - to the right (or the left) - to watch the oncoming ball and prepare to strike it with his hip only (pic 1). It is this unusual universal signature stance that I propose as the inspiration for the unique Chacmool form. It is not specifically either Maya or Toltec (Central Mexican) ... it is pan-Mesoamerican ... and the form was as well known and appreciated two millennia before the Late Epiclassic artistic innovation of the Chacmool as it is today. For stylistic reasons, I have become convinced that the (probably) single individual innovator was likely a primarily Toltec Nahua speaker from Tula - because of the non-Maya Highland Mexican architectural and geometrical sculptural iconography and styles (see, e.g., Part 1, pic 6, bottom) - but the point is moot.

Pic 2: Headless Toltec chac mool figure found by chance  in 1995 by archaeologist José María García under the Casa del Apartado, Templo Mayor site
Pic 2: Headless Toltec chac mool figure found by chance in 1995 by archaeologist José María García under the Casa del Apartado, Templo Mayor site (Click on image to enlarge)

Chichen Itza was, from ancient times, a major pilgrimage and trading destination, and there was undoubtedly a long tradition of polyglot merchants, travelers of all kinds, and foreign- born residents of many ethnicities in the city. The same can be said for Tula. This had been the case at the greatest of the cosmopolitan centers, Teotihuacan, centuries before its decline around the beginning of the Epiclassic Period (ca. 650 CE). Indeed, this international long-distance contact and exchange was how the Greater Mesoamerican cultural sphere was formed. The likely single creator of the Chacmool sculptural form in the 9th century may well have spoken several languages - including a Nahua tongue as well as Chontal, Itzá, and Yucatec Mayan - and have been in residence in both Chichen Itza and Tula. He may well have witnessed and even participated in the hip ulama game at both cities and in other Mesoamerican ballcourts of renown.

Pic 3: ‘Ballplayer-become-Chacmool’...
Pic 3: ‘Ballplayer-become-Chacmool’... (Click on image to enlarge)

Summary and Conclusions
In stark contrast to the iconic image of a contemporary basketball player caught suspended in the instant of leaping to make a slam dunk, the elite ballplayer-become-Chacmool is posed serenely in a formalized ritual “por abajo” stance well after the game is over, to play his final role as the recipient of the sacrifices. He is frozen for all time in the form of a sacrificial altar to engage the ball in the form of a cuauhxicalli offering bowl with the heart and blood of the vanquished player and probably also his decapitated trophy head transformed into the ball itself. In this serene formalized position, with frozen gaze looking out for eternity, the defeated player’s heart and head were placed directly over the Chacmool’s navel, transforming him into a living portal into the Underworld and symbolically creating an umbilical connection for rebirth and new growth in our world of the living. Such imagery is found, for example, carved in relief in the North Temple of the Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza and on the back of an Aztec throne in the form of a temple pyramid known as the “Teocalli de la Guerra Sagrada,” now located in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The decapitated trophy head was the kernel from which the new maize and all life will be reborn from the living Earth.

Pic 4: The Mexica calendar sign Movement (‘Ollin’) alongside stone ballcourt ring, Chichen Itza
Pic 4: The Mexica calendar sign Movement (‘Ollin’) alongside stone ballcourt ring, Chichen Itza (Click on image to enlarge)

The root word for rubber in Nahua languages, ulli or olli, contains within it the essence of oscillating rhythmic motion, the bounce and back and forth play of the rubber ball in the court as well as the celestial motion of the planets in the heavenly ballcourt, the Citlaltlachco, in Aztec cosmology. The derivative Nahua term for this kind of motion, Ollin, is the 17th Aztec day sign of 20 - coming right before Tecpatl (the sacrificial knife) and Quiahuitl (rain, the profile face of Tlaloc). Rubber and rhythmic motion, Ollin, are also at the root of the Aztec word for the beating heart, yollotl; thus heart sacrifice, as well as head sacrifice, were intimately associated with the sacrificial theatre of the elite rubber ballgames of ancient Mesoamerica. With the intertwined feathered serpents - Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan (the pan-Mesoamerican Venus manifestation of warfare and sacrifice) - forming the Ollin symbol around the two great tlachtemalacatl stone ballcourt rings at the Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza, the connection of the archetypal ballgame with death and rebirth in offerings of heart and head sacrifice placed over the navel of the Chacmool is made manifest. If a word or descriptive phrase for the Chacmool survives in any indigenous language, I expect it may well have a word for the rubber ball or ballcourt (tlachtli ... tlachco for the court in Nahuatl) as well as an expression for the sacrificial bowl, such as cuauhxicalli.

Pic 5: Detail from panel at Chichen Itza ballcourt depicting the decapitation of a ballgame player; drawing by Miguel Angel Fernández
Pic 5: Detail from panel at Chichen Itza ballcourt depicting the decapitation of a ballgame player; drawing by Miguel Angel Fernández (Click on image to enlarge)

It is my hypothesis that the vanquished captive ballplayers had their hearts excised and their heads decapitated with a special sacrificial knife over a stone techcatl, as depicted at Chichen Itza. The decapitated trophy head was ultimately pierced and placed on a tzompantli skull rack at the conclusion of the ceremony. The symbolic taking of the trophy head of the victim is graphically depicted in bas relief on the Great Ballcourt and several other ballcourt panel groupings at the site. On these panels, the ball itself is depicted containing a human skull (pic 5), implying to most scholars that the elite ritual combat game - essentially a gladiatorial duel - was sometimes played with the decapitated heads of the defeated players, recreating scenes from the legendary Popol Vuh mythos of the Hero Twins playing the game in the old “dusty court” of Xibalbá with the Lords of Death.

Pic 6: Underside of Aztec chac mool excavated in 1943 in Mexico City centre; two large knife blades are clearly visible, left
Pic 6: Underside of Aztec chac mool excavated in 1943 in Mexico City centre; two large knife blades are clearly visible, left (Click on image to enlarge)

Such sacrificial knives are depicted explicitly on the famous Toltec Chacmool from Tula and also around the sandal backs (and on the underside - pic 6) of the great Tlaloc-masked Chacmool of Tenochtitlan. In further support of the pan-Mesoamerican connection with Central Mexican Tlaloc ritual warfare taking place in elite ballcourts, the Late Classic Maya carved panel from La Corona (see Part 1, pic 17) shows the ballplayer lord with the Maya version of Teotihuacan Tlaloc war symbolism carved on his stone ballgame hacha (a ritual axe, attached as the frontal part of his ballgame yoke assemblage) and sporting Tlaloc Warrior-Butterfly knee protectors. He also wears a prominent probably jade skull bar pectoral device around his neck, emphasizing the gladiatorial sacrificial nature of this elite game.

Pic 7: ‘The swimmer’ - chac mool from south building, great ballcourt, Chichen Itza, showing figure reclining on his side with legs drawn up and holding a cup
Pic 7: ‘The swimmer’ - chac mool from south building, great ballcourt, Chichen Itza, showing figure reclining on his side with legs drawn up and holding a cup (Click on image to enlarge)

To add support to the hypothesis that the Chacmool innovation was directly inspired by the signature “por abajo” Mesoamerican ballgame stance, there is at least one other Chacmool variant from Chichen Itza with the same right-facing rotated hip form as the Columnas Esculpidas Chacmool. Known to some as “the Swimmer” - but looking far more like a bather lounging on the beach (pic 7) - this remarkable ballplayer Chacmool sculpture was found in the center of the South Temple of the Great Ballcourt, where he could look down the center line of the court toward the North Temple for eternity. It is also highly significant that virtually all of the archaeological sites with Chacmools also have associated ballcourts nearby, although I have yet to check all the known examples, a non-trivial research project.
It is fortunate that the ancient and venerable ballgame has survived and the sandlot form of the ancestral hip ulama game is still being taught, with regard to safety and respect, to young men (and women) in Mexico today as an example of fair play. However, as a parting shot, would that our world’s leaders and politicians should resolve their disagreements and settle scores in the ballcourt with a significant endgame ritual and spare us the interminable verbal sparring we must endure.

Pic 8: Variations on a theme...
Pic 8: Variations on a theme... (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
PART 1.
• Pic 1: Photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: Photo by Luis Alberto Lecuna/Melograna (Wikipedia, Chacmool)
• Pic 3: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 4 & 5: Images scanned from our own copy of Queen Móo and the Egyptian Sphinx by Augustus Le Plongeon, New York, 1900
• Pic 6 (top): Photo by Alan Gillam/Mexicolore
• Pic 6 (bottom): Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia [Wikipedia, Tula (Mesoamerican site)]
• Pic 7: Photo supplied by John Carlson
• Pix 8 & 9: Photos by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 10: See Pic 6 (top)
• Pic 11: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 12: Image scanned from our own copy of Ancient Maya Paintings of Bonampak Mexico - Supplementary Publication no. 46, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1955; painting by Antonio Tejeda (detail)
• Pic 13: Photo by HJPD (Wikipedia Fr., Chac Mool)
• Pic 14: Image from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/tarascans/Chacmool-Tarascan-1898.jpg
• Pic 15: Print and postcard: private collections
• Pic 16: Photo by and courtesy of Jorge Pérez de Lara
• Pix 17 & 18 (top): Images from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/sacred-ballgame.htm
• Pic 18 (bottom): Image supplied by/courtesy Eric Taladoire
• Pic 19 (top): Photo by unknown author (Wikimedia Commons, Tepantitla Ballcourt & Ballplayers Teotihuacan); (bottom): Photo by Daniel Lobo, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tepantitla_mural,_Ballplayer_A_(Daquella_manera).jpg
• Pic 20: Photo by Ted J. J. Leyenaar, courtesy Eric Taladoire.

PART 2.
• Pix 1 & 3 (top): Illustrations by, courtesy of and © Steve Radzi/Mayavision (commissioned by Mexicolore)
• Pic 2: Photo by and courtesy of Leonardo López Luján
• Pic 3: See Part 1, pic 16
• Pic 4: Illustration (left) by and © Felipe Dávalos/Mexicolore; photo (right) from Wikipedia (Mesoamerican ballcourt)
• Pic 5: Image scanned from our own copy of Arquitectura Prehispánica by Ignacio Marquina, INAH/SEP, Mexico, 1951
• Pic 6: Image supplied by John Carlson
• Pic 7: photo courtesy Robert B. Hass Family Library, Yale University (from Historia General del Arte Mexicano, Epoca Prehispánica, by R. Flores Guerrero, Editorial Hermes, Mexico City, 1962); drawing by Linda Schele - from the Linda Schele Drawings Collection, www.famsi.org
• Pic 8: (top L): see pic 1 above; (top R): ChacMool from Tula at the Tlaxcala Regional Museum, photo by Thelmadatter (Wikipedia, Chacmool); (second row): photo of Reclining Female Figure 1982 by Henry Moore by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore (L), photo of Reclining Figure 1929 by Henry Moore courtesy Leeds Museums & Galleries (City Art Gallery); (third row, L): photo of model player in ballgame reconstruction, Querétaro by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore; (bottom L): photo of Aztec chac mool, Templo Mayor Museum by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore; (bottom R): illustration of Maya Vase Ballplayer (original now in Dallas Museum of Art) by Madman2001 (Wikipedia, Mesoamerican ballcourt).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 04th 2015

emoticon Q. What do tourists say when they see a chac mool figure?
A. Ah, so the Maya loved Pilates...!

Read Part One...

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