Being in charge is no joke. Sometimes at work I’m forced into that position, but it’s not a position I enjoy. It’s hard work being in charge. However, at least when I’m in charge I know there are things outside my control. In ancient Mayan society, rulers were responsible for governance, organization, warfare, keeping the calendar… Oh, and CONTROLLING THE WEATHER. By claiming divine descent and direct communication with the gods, the elite was able to justify its power and obtain necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and status symbols from lower social classes in exchange for divine protection. Great temples were built to house bodies of dead rulers, who were thought to be part god themselves. A combination of rituals and offerings were used as appeals because the Maya believed that their gods rewarded sacrifice with blessings like prosperity, fertility, and military success.
One of the most insatiable deities was Chac, the god of rain and lightning. Chac is often portrayed as being a snake-shaped being with a reptilian face, large round eyes, a down-pointing snout and fangs, and a lightning axe. Chichen Itza is often thought to be acoustically designed so that feet climbing the steps would mimic the pitter-patter of rain drops and please Chac who in turn would cause real rain drops to fall. Not coincidentally, Chac is depicted all over the exterior of Chichen Itza.
On the Yucatán Peninsula, rain wasn’t a guarantee, but it was absolutely necessary for survival; rulers were even known as supreme rainmakers in honor of their most important job. Rituals involved feasts, ceremonious smashing and burning of ceramic vessels, and even mass public bloodletting with stingray spines. Temples were also important divine pathways, and construction was often punctuated with rituals that left artifacts within the building’s structure itself.
During droughts, however, rituals just didn’t cut it. During droughts, human sacrifice was a common practice, and young children were often the sacrificees. Kids represented the same growth and development needed for growing crops that was necessary for survival. On the Yucatan peninsula, archaeologists have recovered the hearts of young boys. Their hearts were ripped out of their body and thrown in the area cenotes. While in the southern highlands, infants were dropped in springs and drowned.
A sacrificial human skeleton known as the Crystal Maiden was found in the dark zone of a cave and dated back to the ninth century, a dry and turbulent era for the Maya. The god Chac was believed to live at the bottom of caves, cenotes, and other dark places, with his pet serpents guarding the layers of water. Though remains are found in cave entrances from the Early Classic period, not until the eighth and ninth centuries were the priest elites venturing into the perilous dark zone with sacrifices like the Crystal Maiden. This may be evidence of a growing desperation to satisfy Chac and pacify an angry populace.
Unfortunately for the elite, the rain didn’t come, despite frenzied temple construction and increased frequency of human sacrifice. Wars and infighting rose, and kingdoms collapsed as the peasant class began to shift blame toward its rulers. Many of the elite were killed for failing to control the rain, and the established social hierarchy deteriorated until the population collapsed. But it didn’t die out, and modern Maya still worship Chac, sending offerings into the cenotes he dwells in.
At least today, no kids are sacrificed. No hearts are ripped from their bodies. And no one is expected to make it rain.