chac mool

︎Sculpture, Photography, Architecture   
︎ Ventral Is Golden

“Wisdom fears no thing, but still bows humbly to its own source, with its deeper understanding, loves all things, for it has seen the beauty, the tenderness, and the sweetness which underlie Life's mystery.” - Manly P Hall.

After arriving in Chichen Itza for the first time in 1875, after a long and arduous trip through politically unstable territory during the uprising of the Chan Santa Cruz, the Le Plongeons spent five months living in and around the Maya ruins, constantly in fear for their lives, yet meticulously documenting buildings and friezes, taking plaster casts of hieroglyphs, bas-reliefs and sculptures, eventually undertaking two excavations that led to the discovery of the first Chacmool, an enigmatic stone carving that became the symbol of mesoamerican archeology, at a time when the established consensus of the noble savage discredited indigenous cultural heritage and any evidence of the existence of high civilisation in the so called ‘New World’.

︎ Chacmool, Chichen Itza, Yucatan.

︎ Toecallis at Chichén-Itzá. Drawing by Frederick Catherwood (1844).

Taking place mostly during the late nineteenth century, the research of Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, within the field of archeology, a discipline still in its infancy yet dominated largely by male inflections upon cultural narratives, were inspired by the earlier drawings of English artist, architect and explorer, Frederick Catherwood and the contemporary discovery of the ancient, mythical city of Troy (in modern day Turkey) by amateur explorer Heinrich Schliemann, who, armed with only a copy of Homer’s ‘Illiad’ and his intuitive passion for archeology, discovered the lost city, along with a cache of golden artefacts he dubbed ‘Priam's Treasure’, later to be identified as the mask of Agamemnon.
Up until Schelimann’s discovery, Troy had been thought a purely literary creation by academics and historians with no real basis in the historical timeline. Nevertheless, Schleimann was convinced and overcame his critics. 

Although they were two of the earliest individuals to investigate extensively the Maya civilisation, Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon are today dismissed by nearly all Maya scholars as little more than troublesome eccentrics, who spent a considerable time working in Yucatan, concocting theories of cultural diffusion in an era when esoteric philosophies relating to aspects of spiritualism and mediumship were becoming popular throughout western society. This, in turn, had prompted an overly sceptical response regarding their archaeological research from the material sciences and academics, who were unwavering in their established historical timelines of the development of the world’s mother cultures.

This kind of cultural climate, although on the one hand heavily influencing empathic social movements in the development of the humanities, such as the Abolitionists, Woman’s Suffrage and the Temperance Movements (who all occupied an alternative spiritual dimension to the dominant social politics of the time), left the early archeological work, field research and ultimately the personal lives of the Le Plongeon’s completely entangled and open to unfair amounts of derision which subsequently left their contribution to Maya history relatively obscured.

︎ Discovery of Chacmool at Chichen Itza, Yucatan (1876).

︎ Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, Uxmal (1876).

︎ Augustus Le Plongeon photographing a facade at Uxmal, Yucatan, taken by Alice Le Plongeon (1876).

︎ Gateway of the Great Teocallis, Uxmal. Drawing by Frederick Catherwood (1844).

“In this work, I offer no theory. In the question of history, theories prove nothing. They are therefore out of place. I leave my readers to draw their own inferences from the facts presented for their consideration. Whatever be their conclusions are no concern of mine. One thing, however, is certain - neither their opinion nor mine will alter events that have happened in the dim past of which so little is known today. A record of many of these events has reached our times written, by those who took part in them, in a language still spoken by several thousand human beings. There we may read part of man's history and follow the progress of his civilisation.”
- Augustus Le Plongeon.

Augustus Le Plongeon was a man of many purported professions. A civil engineer, surveyor and town planner in America, a Freemason, a master in the art of photographic development, an amateur archeologist and a trained doctor, where some reports suggest that he tried to pioneer  “electro-hydropathic" therapy in his clinic in Lima, Peru (1862). Meanwhile, his wife Alice Dixon was by no means an obedient follower of her husbands beliefs, but was herself an accomplished photographer, author and public speaker, often lecturing with the Theosophical Society and publishing her own literary works on maya life in the Yucatan peninsula.

Both Alice and Augustus were also heavily involved in social work, often times raising funds to build local churches for the poor, whilst largely self financing their archeological expeditions and being called upon by the govenor of Yucatan to vaccinate any Maya person suffering from the 1874 outbreak of Smallpox, which he did free of charge.
Both also learnt the local customs and language and had the full trust and support of many conflicting maya communities, which gave them even greater access to ancient ruins during times of civil unrest.

All this however is overshadowed by their theories concerning the origins of ancient civilisations and Augustus’ outspoken belief that the Maya were world culture bearers, descendants of the Atlanteans, and founders of the Babylonian and Egyptian civilisations, which were condemned by scholars of the nineteenth century and still carry conflicting sentiments ranging from curiosity to indignation amongst the contemporary public.

︎ El Cstillo, Chichen Itza (1876).

︎ Observatory, Chichen Itza (1876).

︎ Gateway of the Casa del Gobernador, Uxmal, Drawing by Frederick Catherwood (1844).

︎ Alice Dixon at Uxmal (1876).

Within the framework of the prolonged controversy surrounding the origin of the Mayan peoples, Augustus Le Plongeon and Alice Dixon strongly supported the possibility that they were the first inhabitants of Plato’s Atlantis and of Mu (Lemuria, in the Pacific), who found refuge within meso-america after a series of catastrophic floods marked the start of the Holocene Epoch. 
For Alice Dixon, it was in the ancient Mayan books where a large part of the historical and scientific secrets of this civilisation were to be found. Among the books that were saved from the systematic burning by Diego de Landa, Dixon mentions the Codex Troano (Madrid) which, according to Augustus Le Plongeon, constitutes a work on astrology, geology and ethnology of the Kan (serpent) family dynasty. For Dixon, the description of the Kan family in the codex, corresponds “exactly to what we have discovered, regarding that royal family, in our study of the ancient paintings and inscriptions". Dixon also identifies in the codex the record of cataclysms "by which the face of the earth has more than once been changed, owing to the submersion of some lands, and the upheaval of others" (source).

︎ Feathered Serpent Facade, Uxmal, Drawing by Frederick Catherwood (1844).

Whilst working at the very limits of what their technological knowledge would allow (such as misinterpretations of the mayan script that remained undeciphered until a century later, and chronological evidence that placed the Classic maya civilisation after that of the ancient Egyptians) the Le Plongeons’ theories and approahces to archeomythology were less concerned with mere data collection but more concerned with moving into the mythology and cosmology as it was rememebred within the living dimensions of local Yucatecan folklore.

The maya genealogy, ancestry and the general peopling of the ‘New World’ is still causing much debate in modern archeological circles and challenges the conventional timeline of technologically advanced civilisations
Despite the limitations of the Le Plongeon’s theories, it does nothing to negate the possibilitiy of an even earlier common culture that united both Egypt and Meso-america, something that is sometimes still attested to today in northern and eastern coastal regions of the Yucatan peninsula, with ancestral origins ranging from myths of the Tamil Indian Nagaland, the continent of Kumari Kandam, to ‘The Island of Scorpions’ (Zinaan), known today as the West Indian Islands (Antiles).

It was here, in the Antilles of the Carribean and Atlantic oceans, that Augustus and Alice placed one of the main characters of their interpretation of the murals at Chichen Itza.
Princess Mu, later to become queen of Chichen Itza, would marry the great warrior, Prince Coh (later to become Chacmool), whom she loved. Meanwhile Uxmal had been inherited by Prince Aac, but he coveted Queen Mu and was jealous of the fame of Coh.
He conspired to kill his brother, Coh, capture Queen Mu, marry her, and unite the divided empire under his own name. He murdered Coh, and a civil war then broke out, which Aac offered to stop should Queen Mu accept his romantic advances. She rejected him, and his armies finally defeated her followers.
Sometime after her capture, with the help of her people, she escaped, firstly to her ancestral homeland in the Antiles, only to discover that the vast majority of the continent was now submerged, a shadow of a once great civilisation, and so she continued her journey into Egypt, where she was later received as Isis (which according to Le Plongeon’s interpretations meant ‘little sister’ in the Yucatecan maya language).

Although the historicity of the narrative is completely dismissed by mayan scholars, Augustus interpreted these scenes from the bas-releifs at Chichen Itza, which in his time were not considered a source of maya prehistory but merely as quaint scenes of village life. It is now well attested that the murals of the maya are a source of their recorded history.

The Le Plongeons approach to live into the mythology dissolved the boundaries between subject and object, at times allowing them to interpret through means of meditation and ‘psychic archeology’, not only the symbolic and linguistic value of mayan art but also where to locate what was undeniably the most iconic discovery of the Le Plongeon’s archeological careers - the Chacmool.


“Whoever has read history knows that in all nations, civilized as well as uncivilised, from the remotest antiquity, the priests have claimed learning as the privilege of their caste, bestowed upon them by special favour of the Ruling Spirit of the universe. For this reason they have zealously kept from the gaze of other men their intellectual treasures, and surrounded them with the veil of mystery. They have carefully hid all their discoveries, scientific or artistic, under the cover of symbols, reserving their esoteric or secret meaning for the initiated.” - Augustus Le Plongeon.

︎ Illustration of Prince Coh (Chacmool) taken from a fresco tracing at Chichen Itza.

I then remember” Augustus wrote in his letter, explaining his finds to the Mexican President, “about one hundred yards in the thicket from the edifice, in an easterly direction, a few days before, I had noticed the ruins of a remarkable mount of rather small dimensions. It was ornamented with slabs engraved with the images of spotted tigers, eating human hearts, forming magnificent bas-reliefs, conserving yet traces of the colors in which it was formerly painted...
Guided by my interpretations of the mural paintings, bas-reliefs, and other signs that I found in the monument raised to the memory of the Chief Chaacmol... By which the stones speak to those who can understand them, I directed my steps to a dense part of the thicket. Only one Indian, Desiderio Kansal, from the neighborhood of Sisal-Valladolid, accompanied me.
With his machete he opened a path among the weeds, vines and bushes, and I reached the place I sought. It was a shapeless heap of rough stones. Around it were sculptured pieces and bas-reliefs delicately executed... Scraping away the earth from around it, with the machete and the hand, the effigy of a reclining tiger soon appeared.... but the head was wanting. This, of human form, I had the happiness to find, some meters distant, among a pile of other carved stones. My interpretations had been correct; everything I saw proved it to me.”

︎ Discovery of Chacmool at Chichen Itza, Yucatan (1876).

︎ Jaguar eating a human heart, bas-relief, Chichen Itza (1876).

︎ Discovery of Jaguar with human head at Chichen Itza (artefact now missing), Yucatan (1876).

After the discovery of the Chacmool through the Le Plongeon’s deductive methods of psychic archeology and interpretations of mayan art, they began to think of themselves as mechanisms of mythological reincarnation, in much the same way as the alchemical spirit lay the foundations of western science.
Initially, the indigenous workers employed by Augustus were reluctant to dig the sacred mound, but believing as he did that the prehistorical religious philosophy of the maya shared concepts of reincarnation as found in India and Egypt, he took them to the summit of the Temple of Kukulcán. There, standing in profile next to a bas-releif, the indigenous men saw the resemblance that Augustus shared with the bearded figure of Kukulcán - the Feathered Serpent.

Although later criticised for this tactic, Augustus was called upon to use it once again when members of the violent Chan Santa Cruz finally came to inspect the Chacmool and the actions of the bearded white man. Taking one of the elders to the summit of the temple, beleiving him neither to be naive nor a fool, he stood next to the bas-releif.

Eying him respectfully and steadily, the elder asked,
Do you remember what happened to you whilst you were enchanted?
Well Father”, Augustus replied. “Do you dream sometimes?
He nodded his head in affirmation.
...and when you awake, do you remember distinctly your dreams?” No, was his answer.
Well Father, and so it happened with me” Augustus continued. “I do not remember what took place during the time I was enchanted”.

Whatever the motives were of the Chan Santa Cruz, they respected the actions of the Le Plongeons and an attack never came.
Some years later, in 1882, after being ridiculed for his beleifs about the origin of the maya civilisation and its connections with the ‘Old World’ in academic circles, Augustus eventually resigned from the American Antiquarian Society, criticising the majority of its members as being armchair archeologists with no real interest in the local customs and culture. In his letter of resignation, he expressly stated that his photos and findings from the field not be used in any subsequent publications.  Only three months later, in an article published by a member of the American Antiquarian Society, two of Augustus’ photos from Chichen Itza were included without proper accreditation and with his own captions used, with the addition of “supposed” before the incusion of “bearded figure” in an attempt to perosnally discredit the Le Plongeon’s work. Since this publication, the bearded figures of Chichen Itza have been proven to be authentic by mayan scholars, and a common feature across the mundo maya.

︎ ‘The Bearded Figure’, Temple of Kukulcán, Chichen Itza (1876).

︎ Chacmool on display in the Anthopological Museum, Mexico City.

︎ Chacmool of Chichen Itza.

The immense amount of personal energy and finances expended by Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon during a period of two intensely political years whilst at Uxmal and Chichen Itza (out of the eleven years they spent dedicating their lives to the study of maya ruins in the Yucatan), they received little credit, if any at all, for their efforts.
After his letter to the President of Mexico, detailing the importance of his findings within the cultural context of ancient civilisation, Augustus requested that the Chacmool statue be exhibited in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and to be made a member of the committee of Mexican scientists to accompany the findings, but was met with a flat refusal.

Due to the political instability across Mexico at the time, Augustus explained in his letter to the president that he had devised a personal method of transportation of the Chacmool for its excavation, but had then been forced to hide it in the undergrowth of the forest in the nearby town of Piste, away from potential looters and any further damage to be caused by adverse weather conditions.
The Le Plongeons then left for further study of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel, but during their first month away from the mainland, the Chacmool statue was first confiscated by the govenment of Yucatan and then taken illegally to Mexico City via a military warship named ‘Libertad’. To add insult to injury, the local papers of Merida reported that “the entrance to the Capitol of the statue of Chaacmol will also form an epoch in the annals of Yucatecan history and it will be remembered along with Governor General Protasio Guerra under whose administrations our Museum has been enriched with a jewel so priceless.” with further dedication made to the president of Mexico “the illustrious C. General Porfirio Diaz”.

For all of their poetic musings, the Le Plongeons were committing their lives to the point in history where the man, the book, and the dream dissolves. It was the renovation of mythical history that had been neglected by the very nations that once nurtured them into existence. 
One lasting testament to the work of the Le Plongeons at least, is the name of Chac Mool himself. Augustus derived the name he gave to the sculpture, found in the Platform of the Eagles, as follows:

The etymon of the last word is: Chaac "thunder," "tempest," hence "irresistible power," and Mol, "paw of any carnivorous animal ... the Mayas, who as we have said, named all things by onomatopoeia, called their most famous warrior Chaacmol; that is, "the paw swift like thunder," "the paw with irresistible power like the tempest...”

The Chacmool, its distribution as far as Costa Rica and into the Aztec era of central Mexico, as well as the Chacmool - Serpent Column Complex associated with the Toltecs, remain enigmatic in their meaning and socio-spiritual function. 
The aquatic and serpentine imagery carved onto the underside of some of the figures symbolised that they were the frontier between the physical world and the supernatural realm, which can be sometimes attested by the Chacmool’s position at the threshold of a temple structure, suggesting they acted as messengers between the mortal realm and that of the gods.

An alternative view is that the sacrificial bowl on the stomach of the Chacmool was instead filled with liquid mercury (to act as a mirror for divination, largely associated with royal, priestly and warrior iconography). It is a substance well known to the alchemical traditions and recently discovered pools of mercury were found under the main temple at Teotihuacan in central Mexico, where other Chacmool figures were also discovered.

In his own analysis of the statue, Le Plongeon speculated that, “the band that composes the head-dress was formed of pieces of an octagonal shape, fastened by ribbons also on the back of the head. The figure had bracelets and garters of feathers, and the sandals, quite different from those used by the present inhabitants of the country... resemble those found on the mummies of the Guanehes, the ancient inhabitants of the Canary Islands.”And further that, “It is not an idol, but a true portrait of a man who has lived an earthly life. I have seen him represented in battle, in councils, and in court receptions. I am well acquainted with his life, and the manner of his death. The scientific world owes much to Mrs. Le Plongeon for the restoration of the mural paintings where his history and the customs of his people are portrayed”.

According to some sources, Augustus Le Plongeon had decided to burn all his notes and photographs just before his death to prevent their falling into the hands of such an ungrateful world, until a close friend of the Le Plongeons sold their works to 
Manly P. Hall, President and Founder of the Philosophical Research Society and author of The Secret Teaching of All Ages, who in 1948, made this statment about his works:

“Le Plongeon's photographs are of the highest importance to the modern Mayan archaeology, and we are happy to say that the younger generation of scientific men in this field have never known the intolerance of the earlier school. By an almost miraculous circumstance many of Le Plongeon's negatives and prints have survived. He had intended to destroy everything before his death but a kindly fortune intervened, and while much is lost, considerable remains.”

︎ Illustration from Queen Mu’s Talisman, by Alice Dixon.

︎ Later exmaple of the Chacmool altar at Tenochtitlan (Aztec).

︎ Later exmaple of the Chacmool altar at Tenochtitlan. (Aztec).

︎ Alice Dixon & Augustus Le Plongeon in their temporary living quarters / dark room. Governor’s Palace, Uxmal (1876).