Friday, December 19, 2008

Maya Deity of the Day: Chaac

This me, back in March 1988, sitting atop a carved mask of the god Chaac at Mayapan, political hub of the Yucatec Maya from the 1220s to the 1440s. 

Chaac or Chac - later to be known as Tlaloc by the Aztecs and Cocijo by the Zapotecs - is one of the most important deities in Mesoamerican culture as his remit covers agriculture and rainfall, with thunder and lightning as his call-signs. 

As with many other supernatural beings worshiped by the Maya, Chaac has both an individual identity and a manifold one (had to have helped the Maya get a grip on all that Holy Trinity claptrap) precipitating off into four distinct Chaacs, each with its own colour and cardinal direction. All share the same repitilian features with pronounced nose, curling fangs and tears streaming from spherical eyes. 

Over the centuries there have been many different rituals associated with Chaac, such as the rather bizarre Yucatec one where four young boys are tied up and made to croak like frogs. 

Chaac also features heavily in the twelfth century Dresden Codex and the walls of the Puuc city of Kabah are literally covered in impressive, protruding-snout Chaac masks, stacked one on top of another. 

It's not hard to see why Chaac has retained a significant role within the traditional religious practices of modern Maya communities. As Jared Diamond pointed out in Collapse, in spite of what the brochures say, the Petén jungle isn't technically a rainforest;  it's a tropical seasonal forest - which basically means that it doesn't rain there all the time. 

Worse still from the perspective of the various clumps of Classic Maya civilisation in the region, the ground underneath both it and the Yucatán peninsula to the north is made up of porous, limestone-based karst, which means that most of Chaac's bounty seeps away rather quickly. (To counteract this, the inhabitants of Tikal had plastered natural depressions in the karst to create reservoirs which could hold up enough water to meet the needs of around 10,000 people for 18 months.) 

The seasonal unpredictability of rainfall is compounded by a cyclical tendency towards truly desperate conditions: roughly once every 208 years -  apparently owing to variations in solar radiation - a severe drought settles on this region. We know that one such sequía from AD 125 to AD 250 can be associated with the pre-Classic collapse at cities like El Mirador in the north of Guatemala. And the one which began around AD 760 is thought to have been the worst in 7000 years. 

The great Maya centres in the forested lowlands seemed to have suffered the most severe brake on their cultural endeavours at this time, in part because the humidity there makes it that much harder to store corn for periods longer than twelve months. In comparison cities like Lamanai and Tulum, which could supplement their protein-starved corn diet with mariscos, and which were a little less ambitious in terms of ceremonial architecture, (plaster manufacture drove deforestation which in turn helped stifle rainfall), were able to keep up a more sophisticated way of life right up until the arrival of European pathogens. 

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