Chac: Deity on the Yucatán

In the summer of 1989, the residents of a Yucatán village near the ancient ruins of Yaxuná were in great distress. Due to a drought, two of that year’s crop plantings had failed and a third crop failure would spell disaster for the villagers. Unwilling to leave the third crop’s success to mere chance, the inhabitants resorted to an ancient custom that their ancestors had used for more than one thousand years. [1]

Under the guidance of a local shaman, the residents built an altar of gourds, saplings, and corn to summon the ancient Mayan god of rain and thunder, Chac. For three days, the shaman burned incense and made offerings of honey wine, meat, and cornbread before falling into a trance for ten hours. [2]

David Freidel, an archeologist who then worked for Southern Methodist University and a participant in the ceremony, recalled what occurred next.

“When the ceremony ended, we heard the deep rumble of thunder.” [3]

Despite repeated attempts by Spanish colonial authorities to eradicate the ancient gods of the Yucatán, the ch’achac or “summoning the Chacs” ceremony is an ancient religious tradition that the modern residents of the Yucatán peninsula continue to practice today. The ceremony pays homage to Chac, the ancient deity responsible for rain and the most prayed to pagan entity on the Yucatán. [4] The region’s unique geography played a key role in shaping the special relationship between the Indians and Chac.

The Yucatan peninsula is a vast limestone shelf devoid of readily accessible sources of fresh water such as rivers and streams. [5] In Pre-Columbian times, Indian farmers had no livestock with which to supplement their diets. The survival of a village wholly depended on the successful harvest of their crops and the timely arrival of rain. In times of drought, all the men of a village would gather to perform the ch’achac ceremony in the hope that the rains would return to water their crops and replenish the cenotes. Cenotes are large sinkholes that provide easy access to an immense network of underground pools of fresh water throughout the Yucatán region.

With rain and water playing such a crucial role for the survival of the Indians, Chac figured prominently in the daily lives of the peasants working the fields. In his analysis of the Dresden Codex, one of the four Mayan codices that survives today, historian Paul Schellhas noted that Chac was invoked 141 times, more than the mentions of all the other Mayan deities combined.

Historian J. Eric S. Thompson notes how Chac was not single deity but a group of deities that served a variety of functions related to rain and the natural phenomena associated with it. The four main Chacs resided at the “foot of the sky” and were responsible for rain, thunder, and lightning. Lesser Chacs such as Ah Ch’alelem Caan Chac or “He with the Jar Sky-chac” were responsible for replenishing the water in the cenotes. Thompson asserts the Indians believed these lesser Chacs resided in caves and cenotes found throughout the Yucatán and were the most accessible of the Chacs. [8]

The Yucatec natives viewed cenotes as “gifts from the gods” and began to hold religious ceremonies at the cenotes, especially at those located at Tabi, Tibolón, Sotuta, Kanchunnup and Yaxcabá. The most sacred of the cenotes was located at Chichen Itza. [9] The Maya believed that their sacrificial victims, who were thrown in the cenotes, would interact with the Chac deities beneath the surface of the water. [10] Historians believe the ceremonies and rituals performed at cenotes were primarily for the purpose of petitioning for rain. [11]

Chac’s uncontested rule over the Indians ended abruptly in 1545 when the first Spanish missionaries set foot on the Yucatan peninsula. Initially, the natives and the Franciscans preachers established an uneasy peace as evidenced by the Indians showing the Franciscans their sacred codices. That trust however ruptured in the summer of 1562. Two villagers reported finding bones and skulls in a cave near Mani prompting church officials to launch a brutal inquisition. [12] More than 4,500 natives endured weeks of torture meted out by the Spanish clerics. For another seventeen years, the Franciscans continued their extralegal inquisition without consulting secular authorities. [13]

The zealousness of the Franciscan missionaries however laid the foundation for the Indians to continue the practice of their ancient religion. The Franciscan goal of eradicating idolatry using harsh methods caused widespread unrest in the province leading to several rebellions. This drew the ire of secular authorities who wanted to pacify the province to maximize the profits earned from the land for themselves and the Spanish crown.

In the ensuing tug-of-war for control between church and state, the Indians themselves noted the divisions between their conquerors and moved quickly to take advantage of the situation.[14] When church officials handed down cruel punishments for idolatry, the Indians complained to the secular authorities. When the secular authorities tried to enslave them, the Indians sought the protection of church officials. Historian John Chuchiak notes this careful “balance act” as the key to the survival of traditional Yucatec culture and religion. [15]

“By playing a delicate balance act between a full-scale revolt against secular authorities and total submission to religious authorities, the Maya preserved their unique culture and civilization against all odds.” [16]

Today the practice of “summoning the Chacs” continues with some changes. Human sacrifices no longer occur, and rituals no longer happen at cenotes but in times of drought, Yucatec villagers continue to reach out to their ancient gods. Although the specifics of the ceremony vary according to each village, the modern ch’achac ritual typically consists of a three-day ceremony in which all the men of a village gather to make offerings to Chac.

Pascale Meehan, a historian from the University of Colorado, witnessed the Chac summoning ceremony in August 2011 near Yaxaba, Yucatán. On the first day of the ceremony, she said the villagers gathered at a location in the forest near the village and built a four-post altar made of leafy branches and saplings. Using vines from the forest, the altar’s four posts were “anchored” to nearby trees. A recently hunted deer was butchered and the meat was used to make a stew while the animal’s blood was set aside. The blood was then mixed with ba’alché, a tea made from tree bark, to make a ritual beverage which is considered the favorite drink of Chac. [17]

Over the next two days, the shaman makes offerings of corn bread, honey wine, and stewed meats. On the third day, the shaman consumes of a special alcoholic beverage which causes him to enter an altered state of being during which he consults with the gods. Afterward, the shaman leads a set of final prayers in the hope the ceremony has appeased Chac and the rain will return. [18]

Although the modern-day Yucatec villagers consider themselves good Roman Catholics, Chac and the ch’achac ceremony remain a crucial part of their daily lives. [19] The ceremony has changed since the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century. The people of the Yucatán remain as they were then, an agriculture-based society. When in dire need due to a lack of rain, they still turn their ancestral gods in times of distress and despite all odds, continue to keep their culture and religious traditions alive well into the twenty-first century.