Chac/Tlaloc, painted ceramic urn, Balankanche Cave, Yucatan
By Peter T Markman
A consideration of the Maya use of the mask as a metaphor for the rain god is somewhat more difficult. That there are masks of the rain god is clear: any visitor to the archaeological sites of the Yucatán finds masks of Chac forming the doorways, lining the stairways, marking the corners, and embellishing the facades of ancient pyramids and temples. But lowland Yucatán is only one part of Maya territory, and most of the masks we see are from relatively late in the development of Maya civilization. It is somewhat more difficult to isolate a mask of the rain god in the Classic period, especially in the highlands, and yet the antecedents of the Chac masks of the late Classic and Postclassic Yucatán seem to be found in Preclassic developments in those distant highlands and on the Pacific slope. And a difficulty of another sort arises from the fact that the rain god of the codices, presumably of Postclassic Yucatec origin, is a man, or four men, with exaggerated and distorted facial features but not a mask. These difficulties are compounded by the paucity of knowledge of Maya religion available to modern scholars. Nevertheless, we feel that a case can be made for the existence among the Maya of a metaphorical mask of the rain god, a mask that, like those of Oaxaca and central Mexico, carries with it connotations of fertility and divinely ordained rulership, and that, like those other metaphorical masks, was derived from an Olmec original.
The case for an Olmec source of Chac was made early. Covarrubias's chart traces Chac's descent from the Olmec were-jaguar, and J. E. S. Thompson, who saw serpent rather than jaguar associations, believed that the Maya rain cult, "with world color and directional features and with quadripartite deities deriving from or fused with snakes, had developed in all its essentials in the Formative period, probably as an Olmec creation." Not until recently, however, did scholars begin to understand the precise means of transmission of the were-jaguar mask to the Maya. While still not as clear as it might be, it now seems that
Classic Maya civilization's Olmec ancestry is traceable through the Izapan culture, which spread through the Intermediate Zone and much of the Maya Highlands in the late Preclassic period. Olmec art preshadows Izapan art in subject matter, in style, and even in specific iconographic elements. . . . In a very real sense, Maya symbol systems began with Izapan culture, which in turn has an obvious Olmec ancestry.
While Olmec influence can also be seen in the lowlands of the Petén and Belize (Olmec-related objects from as early as 1000 B.C. appear at Seibal, Xoc, and Cuello), Izapan art, characteristic of sites on the Pacific slope and in the highlands, seems to be the link between the Olmec were-jaguar and Chac.
Among other human and composite beings depicted in the relief carvings of Izapa "is what may be called the 'Long-lipped God.' This being has an immensely extended upper lip and flaring nostril and is surely a development of the old Olmec were-jaguar, the god of rain and lightning." This god "becomes transformed into the Maya rain god Chac." And Izapan art displays other symbols associated with later rain gods as well—fangs protruding from the corners of the mouth à la Tlaloc and Chac and bifurcated tongues like those of Cocijo—though not in the context of the long-lipped mask. In profile, that mask shows obvious similarities to the Olmec were-jaguar mask because in both cases symbolic attention is focused on the exaggerated upper lip. While the exaggeration of the Izapan upper lip is greater than that found on most Olmec were-jaguar masks, a number of stone masks have an upper, "jaguar" lip elongated so as to protrude well beyond the plane of the face.
There are other signs of continuity between Olmec and Izapan art directly related to the mask of the rain god. Significantly, the long-lipped god of Izapan art is found primarily on stelae presumably associated with rulership. The Olmecs began the long Mesoamerican tradition of carving and setting up stone stelae, a tradition that was to reach its apex among the Classic Maya. From its Olmec inception, that tradition was dedicated to the portrayal of rulers, and the Olmecs often indicated the ruler's status on the stelae in the same way they symbolized it on the throne/altars: a number of the earliest stelae depict a figure or figures associated with rulership within the open mouth of a jaguar. The Olmec Stelae A and D from Tres Zapotes depict this motif most clearly; both frame scenes involving what seem to be rulers and warriors within the jaw of a jaguar.
La Venta Stela 2, discussed below, lacks the jaguar mouth "frame" but also relates the jaguar mask to rulership. This stela depicts a standing figure holding a ceremonial bar and wearing an elaborate headdress displaying prominently a common Olmec abstract motif that Joralemon calls the "four dots and bar symbol" representing a mask. The headdress is depicted with a curving lower edge that seems to disappear behind the figure, creating a clear visual reference to the cave/niches of the altars and uniting this stela with those monuments that legitimize the ruler by associating him with the were-jaguar mouth. For the O1mecs, then, the stelae, like the altars, provided a means of defining, through the symbolic use of the mask, the spiritual nature of temporal power. And that use of the stela passed to Izapa and ultimately became one of the primary features of the cult of the divine ruler among the Maya.
The Izapan-style Stela 11 from the highlands site of Kaminaljuyú brings together the mask of the long-lipped god and the stela tradition by depicting a man, presumably a ruler, wearing what Coe describes as "a series of grotesque masks of Izapan long-lipped gods" to indicate his exalted status. There are four masks in this "series." One of them covers his face, and another is in his headdress. Above his head "floats" a third, downward-peering mask prefiguring the Classic Maya convention of representing the ancestor of the current ruler, and a fourth mask with a long bifurcated tongue marked with what may well be water symbols hangs from his belt. Somewhat different from each other, these four masks share the emphasis on the exaggerated upper lip derived from the Olmec tradition, and there are other, equally clear references to that mask tradition. The ruler's x-ray style depiction within the mask is similar to that of the ruler atop the throne/altar in the Olmec painting at Oxtotitlán and represents a symbolically important convention in the depiction of masked figures which we will discuss in the context of masked ritual below. In another similarity to that painting, this figure stands atop a stylized jaguar mouth, the symbolic equivalent of the mouth on the Olmec throne/altars and stelae from which rulers symbolically emerge from the world of the spirit to provide a sacred order for the world of man.
This stela is but one indication of the exaltation of the ruler at Kaminaljuyú; another can be seen in the elaborate burials uncovered there. These burials were located within pyramidal temple platforms, anticipating the later Maya practice, and in one of them,
the corpse was wrapped in finery and covered from head to toe with cinnabar pigment, then laid on a wooden litter and lowered into the tomb. Both sacrificed adults and children accompanied the illustrious dead, together with offerings of astonishing richness and profusion. . . . Among the finery recovered were the remains of a mask or headdress of jade plaques perhaps once fixed to a background of wood.
Also in that tomb was a soapstone urn similar to the Tlaloc urns displaying a face with an Olmec-like were-jaguar mouth. In life, as depicted on the stela, and in death, the mask symbolized the divine status of the ruler in Preclassic Kaminaljuyú as it did earlier for the Olmecs and would soon do for the Maya. That aspect of the symbolism of the were-jaguar mask would be the dominant one in Maya art, although its association with rain and fertility was always just beneath the surface.
We do not know the name of the deity symbolized by that mask of the long-lipped god of Izapa, but we do know that the Classic-period god in whose mask Maya rulers often displayed themselves was one of the quadripartite Chacs, Chac Xib Chac by name. In a fascinating symbolic shift, the elongated lip of the Izapan god at times becomes an elongated nose or both lip and nose are elongated. Throughout the Classic period, that long-lipped or long-nosed mask and the accoutrements of Chac Xib Chac are worn by living Maya rulers and accompany them in death. On Tikal's Stela 31, for example, which depicts the accession rites in A.D. 445 of the ruler Maya scholars have named Stormy Sky, a downward-peering "floating image" like that above the figure on Kaminaljuyú Stela 11 appears over Stormy Sky's head. It is a manifestation of his dead father, the previous king, called Curl Snout because his upper lip is elongated like the Izapan lips but turned upward in this case. Above and below his disembodied head, however, are long-nosed masks, "one of the earliest known examples of the Maya rain deity much later known as Chac." And Stormy Sky himself wears a buccal mask with a long upturned lip like that worn by Curl Snout and also displays masks with exaggerated noses in his headdress and on his belt. Both the headdress and belt masks, like those of Curl Snout above, display a backward-curving spiral at the corner of the mouth very similar to the fangs protruding from the corners of the mouths of the later Chacs. Similar images of Chac Xib Chac were worn on pectorals and suspended from symbolic ceremonial belts worn by kings throughout the Classic period.
This symbolic identification of the ruler with Chac through the use of the mask continues later in the Classic period. A late Classic figurine illustrated by Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller wears a costume of Chac Xib Chac which is "standard for Maya rulers" and "identical to costumes worn by rulers on Dos Pilas Stelae 1 and 17." And one of the better-known rulers of the late Classic, Yaxchilán's Bird Jaguar, is depicted on Stela 11 from that site in an X-ray image discussed in the following section. Portrayed in ritual "directly preparatory" to his accession, he manifests himself as Chac Xib Chac in a mask with an elongated nose, the suggestion of an elongated upper lip, and a spiral device at the corner of the mouth.
These images of living rulers have their counterparts in the tombs of dead rulers. The early Classic period Kendal Tomb in northern Belize, for example, has yielded jade artifacts—a pectoral, an ear flare, and an ax-that "reveal that the ruler... went to his grave dressed in the costume of the god Chac Xib Chac." And the association of Chac with burials can also be seen in the stuccoed wooden figures of the god found in a Classic period tomb at Tikal which display enormously elongated upper lips and noses that have merged in a single projecting form. This association of the mask of Chac with death reveals the Maya belief in regeneration. The king died to the world of nature only to "become a god," to merge with the life-force of which he was the representative and for which he was the conduit in his stay on earth. This belief is captured in the image on a carved limestone panel from Palenque which depicts Kan Xul, dead king of that city, dancing "out of Xibalbá wearing the costume of Chac Xib Chac." The text on this
apotheosis tablet . . . begins by recalling the ritual, on February 8, A.D. 657, in which Kan Xul was named as the kexol, the "replacement," of a dead ancestor of the same name who had died on February 10, A.D. 565, ninety-two years earlier. It ends with the rebirth of Kan Xul on November 24, A.D. 722 after his sacrificial death at Tonina
Death has been defeated, and the cycle of life through which the life-force manifests itself continues its eternal movement. The mask of Chac and the dance of Kan Xul are marvelously symbolic of this victory and of the continuity demonstrated in the person of the ruler who is "replacing" his predecessor as a new manifestation of the eternal god whose mask they wear and are.
This belief is also expressed through the mask and figure of Chac on the painted ceramics characteristically associated with late Classic burials in the southern lowlands and north along the Caribbean coast into the Yucatán. These ceramics are closely allied stylistically and iconographicaly to the somewhat later codices that are presumably also of Yucatán origin. A remarkable example of that ceramic tradition is an "extraordinary plate [that] presents a conceptual cosmological model of the Maya universe that is without previous precedent in the ceramic medium” in the form of "the resurrection of a personage (if not Venus) . . . linked to a visual observation of the first appearance of Venus as the Evening Star (a Water Lily Jaguar) on the night of October 24, A.D. 775." In the center of the plate appears Chac Xib Chac rising from Xibalbá through the waters that separate that realm of the spirit from the world of nature.
His face is the god's distinctive mask with its exaggerated nose, elongated upper lip, curving fangs, and distinctive eye and ear treatment reminiscent of Cocijo and Tlaloc. This is the Chac of the later codices and the mask that decorates the contemporaneous architecture of the northern lowlands. Growing from the top of his head is the World Tree, the branches of which "are transformed into the bloody body of the Vision Serpent." Above and below the god, painted on the angled walls of the plate, can be seen the enveloping world of the spirit; "in the lower border, the skeletal Maw of the Underworld encloses bloody water; in the upper half of the border, the Celestial Monster arches around the rim of the plate forming the dome of heaven."
This single image encompasses the entire Maya cosmos and synthesizes all of the imagery that was integral to the lives and functions of kings. It explains the rationale behind accession, the role of bloodletting, the nature of the vision produced, the necessity of sacrifice, the inevitability of death and the possibility of renewal. . . . To the Maya, this plate held a symbolic depiction of the fundamental causal forces of the universe, exactly as the equation e = mc2symbolically represents our understanding of the physical forces that structure our universe.
The symbolism of this plate offers eloquent testimony to the central role played by the mask of the god in delineating metaphorically the relationship between man and the world of the spirit for the Maya. Its central image refers simultaneously to Venus emerging from "death" as the Evening Star, Chac in his association with the cyclical rebirth of vegetation, and the unknown ruling "personage" who had, like Kan Xul, vanquished death to merge with the life-force.
Not only does this image of Chac tell us a great deal about Maya thought but in an almost unbelievable way it also suggests the extent to which that thought shared its fundamental assumptions with the spiritual thought of the other great Classic period civilizations. Although the image on this plate is completely different visually from the scene depicted on the upper half of the Tlalocan mural at Teotihuacán, the iconographic parallels are striking. In both cases, an image of the rain god is central and water flows beneath him. And in both cases, this water separates him from the world of the spirit. In both images, a stylized tree from which liquid flows seems to emerge from his head, and in both cases, liquid flows from his hands. These similarities in detail reveal the essential similarity: in both, the figure of the rain god with his characteristic mask is central to a composition that symbolically depicts the gods, impersonated in ritual by priests or kings (or priest-kings), as the conduits through which the life-sustaining forces of the world of the spirit enter the world of man. Similarly, the reciprocal sacrifice required of man is noted in both. While the Maya plate, unlike the mural, refers centrally to Venus and astronomical cycles, in typically Maya fashion, and the Teotihuacán mural's central reference to the union of fire and water has no counterpart on the plate, the imagery of both of these important pictorial statements connects the mask of the god of rain to the eternal elemental processes manifested in the cycle of life driven by the life-force.
Significantly, the image of Chac on the Maya plate is Chac Xib Chac, "the name that is used for God B in the Dresden Codex and documented in colonial sources. In Postclassic cosmology, there were four Chacs assigned to the four directions. The chief among them was Chac Xib Chac, the Red Chac of the east." That eastern aspect of the quadripartite Chac is naturally associated with regeneration since the eastern horizon is the location of the sun's daily rebirth, and red, as we have seen, is associated with the sacrificial blood that man must shed to ensure the continuation of the cycle of generation and regeneration. But in addition to that, the Chac of the plate is the "chief" Chac, the essential Chac, the god who, like the Tlaloc and Tezcatlipoca of central Mexico, unfolds into aspects, each of which are still the god. Tezcatlipoca, as we have seen, was both the unitary god and one of the aspects. The same situation seems to exist here. It is particularly interesting that "the other three Chacs have not yet been identified with specific Classic period images"; perhaps they, like the other three aspects of Tezcatlipoca, have other identities. Whatever the case, it is significant that the unfolding of Chac parallels that of the gods of central Mexico just as the mask of Chac parallels that of his central Mexican "brother."
Those parallels are firmly rooted in Maya history as well as in their common Olmec origin. The mask of Tlaloc and other indicators of a central Mexican presence appeared in the Classic period when "from a base at Kaminaljuyú, Teotihuacanos developed economic ties with a few centers in the southern lowlands." One of these centers was Tikal, and Stela 31 from that site which, as we have seen, presents "one of the earliest known examples" of Chac worn in the headdresses of the ruler, Stormy Sky, and his father, Curl Snout, shows that ruler "flanked by two men dressed in the manner of Highland Mexicans" carrying shields decorated with Tlaloc-like masks. As Clemency Coggins demonstrates, the Tlaloc mask was symbolic of Mexican influence in the spiritually significant areas of calendrical thought and ritual, but "Tlaloc imagery was soon Mayanized to conflate with the Maya long-nosed rain and storm personification later known as Chac." And Tikal was not the only example of this use of Tlaloc; there are similar allusions to Tlaloc in depictions of Bird Jaguar at Yaxchilán, another ruler also connected with Chac. The striking similarities between the Chac of the late Classic plate and the Tlaloc of the Teotihuacán mural are clearly not coincidental.
The late Classic period also saw the development of the architecture of the regional societies of the northern lowlands, an architecture that used the mask to an unprecedented degree. Large public buildings in the Rio Bec, Chenes, and Puuc regions were similarly embellished with mosaic masks of Chac, masks that "most closely resemble the long-nosed 'Chacs' of the Maya Postclassic manuscripts or codices." Made up, mosaic style, of separately carved elements, these masks decorated the facades of the buildings, marked their corners, and delineated the liminal importance of the temple doorways and the pyramid stairways. The large mosaic mask that surmounts a doorway in the east facade of the palace at the Puuc site of Labná provides an excellent example of the type. Clearly identifiable as Chac by its elongated, upturned nose (on which is inscribed a Maya date equivalent to A.D. 862), it contains features characteristic of that god as well as reminiscent of the other Classic period rain gods. Immediately below that characteristic nose is a mustache-like element representing the two curving or spiral fangs that typically protrude from the corners of Chac's mouth, but in this case, the similarity to Tlaloc's "handlebar mustache" upper lip is striking. The mouth, with its teeth flanked by outturned fangs, is also similar to the Tlaloc mouth, although the lower teeth are characteristic of Chac. The roughly rectangular eyes are also typical of the Chac mask, though they are similar to Cocijo's eyes, but the ear flares are again somewhat reminiscent of Tlaloc. Such a mask as this, then, illustrates clearly the iconographic interconnectedness of the masks of the rain god in the Classic period, due in great part to their common Olmec ancestry.
The symbolic use of such masks will be discussed in our consideration of architectural masks, but it is important to note here Rosemary Sharp's contention that the quadriplicity of the Chacs was used as "a cosmological model" by the peoples of the Yucatán on which to base their political system and that "the conflation of sacred and secular systems was manifested in an artistic form which combined particularly potent natural symbols with a quadripartite plan for the limitation of power." Whether or not she is correct in her contention that rulers were "rotated" on the basis of this cosmological model, the multiplicity of Chac masks on public buildings surely supports her contention that "like Oaxacan Cocijos," and, we might add, the Olmec were-jaguar, "Chacs imply a great deal more than rain." They connote the inherent orderliness of life and are intimately related to rulership.
These late Classic period mosaic Chac masks as well as the Chac depicted on the painted ceramic funerary plate and others on ceramic vessels are no doubt similar to those that must have been depicted in codices at the time. Unfortunately, none of those codices has survived; we have only four Postclassic works, all of them Yucatec, that contain Chacs whose masklike faces are clearly derived from the earlier models. In the Codex Dresden, the most complete of the four, representations of Chac vastly outnumber those of other gods. They are depicted with masklike faces characterized by long noses and fangs curving backward from the corners of their mouths. These Chacs appear most frequently in sections devoted to "problems of farmers—the weather and the crops." This clearly indicates that despite its intimate connections with rulers, the mask of Chac retained its primary association with rain and fertility without losing its ability to delineate symbolically the essential nature of reality.
One group of Chacs enthroned on their directional trees are followed by a fifth Chac seated in a sort of cave or underground chamber with the glyphic label yolcab, "in the heart of the earth" (Codex Dresden, 29a-30a). Directional trees are of this world, so the center is a spot below the center of the world.
These five Chacs, like the five Tlalocs on page 27 of the Codex Borgia, reproduce the sacred shape of space and time and in doing so reveal their use by the Maya sages as a means of understanding and expressing metaphorically the most profound of mysteries. In this, they are essentially similar to the masks of Tlaloc and Cocijo.
But while Chac seems to have continued his existence undisturbed in the Postclassic codices, developments in the Yucatán forced his mask to coexist with that of Tlaloc on the facades of temples and elsewhere. Although its extent, dating, and precise nature are uncertain, there was an intrusion into the northern lowlands, particularly evident in the architecture of Chichén Itzá, of the artistic forms and presumably the belief system and political organization of the dominant power in central Mexico, Toltec Tula. And with their architectural style, the Toltecs brought their gods. Best known of the "new" gods in the Yucatán was Kukulcán, the Yucatec variant of Quetzalcóatl, but masks of Tlaloc also appear. At Uxmal, for example, "on the north range of the Monjas quadrangle ... a pile of Chac masks is surmounted by a Tlaloc," and in the Balankanche Cave near Chichén Itzá, a large shrine surrounded by Tlaloc effigy vessels testifies to the presence of the Mexican rain god.
But Chac survived this challenge by Tlaloc as he survived the smaller but comparable intrusion of the alien god-mask during the Classic period in the southern lowlands. His survival can be seen clearly in the plethora of long-nosed fanged faces on the ceramic urns, figurines, and incensarios produced late in the Postclassic at Mayapán. Although such ceramics are often associated with Tlaloc, these depict Chac. One of the similar effigy urns found in the Balankanche Cave demonstrates the means of that survival. The face on the urn has many of the features of Tlaloc; we see clearly the goggle eyes, the circular ear flares, and the handlebar-mustache upper lip from which protrude Tlaloc's typical fangs. But the nose on the urn is the nose of Chac, and extending from the sides of that nose is the same spiral design that appeared under the nose of the Labná mosaic mask, a stylized version of the fangs of Chac. Significantly, the urn is painted half blue—the color of Tlaloc's urns—and half red—the color of Chac Xib Chac. After centuries of separate development from its Olmec beginning, the features of the rain god are reunited in this urn, which was fittingly found "deep in the cave" from which could emerge the life-sustaining water from the realm of the spirit. Thus, the essential unity of the masks of the rain god of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica can be seen in this simple but striking urn that metaphorically holds both the rain god's waters and a key to our understanding of his mask.