Foods of the Americas: The origin of corn and its role in folklore of the New World

Nov 27, 2018 | 0 comments

Editor’s note: Michelle Bakeman’s series on Foods of the Americas continues with three columns about maize (corn), which, like the potato, is forever entwined in the Americas’ history and culture.

A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine.
— Anne Bronte (1820-1849)

By Michelle Bakeman 

Maize, or corn, was originally domesticated from a grass called Balsas teosinte in the region of Mesoamerica (comprised of modern-day Central and Southern Mexico and includes portions of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua). This grass, also known as Zea mays ssp. Parviglumis, is still in existence today, although it has a very little resemblance to the maize we eat, which is a domesticated and cultivated foodstuff that never grew wild.

Michelle Bakeman

Recent studies have revealed that Balsas teosinte and maize are in fact very closely related, distinguished by just a handful of genes. It was roughly 9,000 years ago that maize domestication occurred in Southern Mexico’s Central Balsas River Valley. In this area, stone tools that date back 8,700 years have been discovered, and upon them were maize particles. This is an indication that the people of the region had already managed to convert the original grass, which was thin and contained just a few kernels imprisoned inside a hard casing, into a cultivatable foodstuff. The process of this transformation must have taken many years. The ancient people must have noticed that every once in a while they happened upon a portion of grass that had kernels that were exposed, that were missing their outer shell called a glume. This was due to a genetic mutation. The exposed kernels would have easily been consumed by humans, as they would have required no processing first to remove casings. In their brilliance, these people began collecting the plants with the mutation and planting their kernels as seeds, creating a larger percentage of the mutated plant. Similarly, another genetic mutation of the teosinte resulted in larger ears that grew closer to the ground and contained many more kernels, and once again used as seeds, produced more of the same plant. The corn that we eat today is a genetically engineered crop, born of the hand manipulation of the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica, who started with cobs about the size of a centimeter and created cobs almost eight inches long, replete with a nutritious food.

Today’s average ear of corn contains approximately 800 kernels on sixteen to eighteen rows. One ear yields about 58 calories, is rich in B vitamins, thiamin, niacin, folate, and dietary fiber. It also acts as a significant source of the essential minerals magnesium and phosphorus. Corn also provides a higher concentration of some antioxidants than what other grains offer, notably Ferulic acid and also Zeaxanthin and Lutein, the consumption of both of which have been linked to improved eye health. Corn is cultivated in many varieties and colors, the typical being yellow, but also purple, blue, white, red, orange, and black. The most common varieties are the following:

  • Sweet corn- what you normally find at your local grocery store
  • Popcorn- no explanation needed, but thank goodness for it. What is a movie without popcorn?
  • Flour corn- consists of soft kernels, easily ground for baked goods
  • Dent corn- known as field corn, is starchy and used of animal fodder, to make corn syrup and ethanol, makes up 99% of U.S. corn production
  • Flint corn- similar to dent corn, but has a lower yield
  • Pod corn- also called Indian corn, mostly ornamental with varied color patterns and elongated kernels

What happened 9,000 years ago (7000 B.C.E.) that allowed the people dwelling in Mesoamerica to begin their ingenious plant alteration? Studies show that it was at that point in history that a sudden global warming occurred, resulting in retreating glaciers and a spread of tropical forests, which slowly overtook the grasslands of Mesoamerica that had once supported herds of grazing animals that would have helped to sustain human life in the region. In their absence, the people naturally began to turn to farming for subsistence, and over time they domesticated food plants, the most important of which became maize.

Of course, Mesoamerican folklore tells a different story of the origin of corn, and there were many versions of it, most of which revolved around the efforts of the gods to discover and provide the ideal food for human beings. The folklore that has survived the centuries is the product of the Maya and Aztec civilizations. To be clear, it was neither culture that was responsible for the engineering of corn. Before the rise of these peoples, Mesoamerica had already been populated for thousands of years, birthing several civilizations that left behind proof of their existence, notably the Olmec, rising in approximately 1150 B.C.E., followed by the Zapotec people, thriving between 900 and 300 B.C.E. These were the ancestors of the Maya, who flourished until 900 C.E., and who furthered the advancements begun by their forebears in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, hieroglyphic writing, and calendar creation. By the advent of the Maya civilization, corn cultivation would have been a fundamental part of everyday life. The Maya sought to explain how it was that this came to pass as well as how it was that human beings appeared on earth, two ideas that from their perspective were inextricably intertwined.

According to the Maya sacred texts of the Popol Vuh, the gods attempted twice to create human beings and failed, first fashioning them of mud and then of wood. The mud people were immobile and susceptible to water, so the gods washed them away. The wood people had no souls and could not give the gods the gratitude that they felt they deserved, and so the gods washed them away as well, this time with scalding hot water, leaving behind only monkeys. Perplexed, the gods struggled to find a suitable material with which to make humans, until one day, it occurred to them to use cornmeal, yellow and white cornmeal to be exact, indicating that the presence of corn preceded that of men in the world. The cornmeal people could move, had souls and minds, and could appropriately worship the gods. The Maya maize god was called Hun H’unahpu, symbolizing life and fertility, and it was he who was essential in the making of the humans.

The legend says that the god Camazotz (the bad god, associated with death and sacrifice), not realizing that Hun H’unahpu was immortal, ripped off his head as a sacrifice to the underworld. Hun H’unahpu’s head did not die, but rather became a fruit on a tree that then spit upon the hand of the goddess Xquic, who birthed the fabled Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. The twins had many adventures, and on one occasion outsmarted and escaped the gods of the underworld, to then become immortal, residing forever in the heavens as the sun and the moon. It was the blood from Hun H’unahpu’s head that was associated with the ultimate life-giving fruit, as that fruit led to the birth of the sun and the moon, which were integral to the cultivation of the maize from which human beings were fashioned. So in Maya folklore and religion, there existed an unbreakable bond between agriculture, birth, death, blood, the harvest, the sun, the moon, and the maize. It stands to reason, then, that as the gods sacrificed themselves to create and to feed human beings, so human beings should sacrifice themselves to feed the gods.

Hun H’unahpu
Credit: Boondocks Babylon

As Hun H’unahpu’s severed head was trapped as a fruit in the underworld, flourishing in the realm of the dead, it came to symbolize death and rebirth at once, and appears on earth as maize; born, growing, dying, and born again, harvest after harvest, the father of the sun and the moon.

The Aztecs had a different interpretation, maintaining, however, the undeniable connection between humanity and maize. In 1558, indigenous Aztecs created a document called the Codex Chimalpopoca, which served to archive Aztec history before the arrival of the Spaniards. In it, the scribes explain that there were four previous suns and worlds before the dawn of the current world and the Fifth Sun created by the gods Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl. It was Quetzalcóatl who was charged with making humans. He journeyed to the underworld to acquire the sacred bones of the ancestors from the god Mictlantecuhtli. He and the other gods ground up the bones, and then Quetzalcóatl sprinkled his own blood upon them to give them life. The gods anxiously watched as the humans began to move, but sadly, after just the first few breaths, they seemed to wither. Quetzalcóatl realized that the people had no food, and while he and his brethren were searching for a solution, he saw the red ant come forth with corn kernels and give them to the humans. He asked the ant where the corn came from, and the ant reluctantly revealed the source, that being Tonacatéptl, known as the Mountain of Our Sustenance. Quetzalcóatl then transformed himself into a black ant, went into the mountain, retrieved corn kernels, and brought them back to the gods’ paradise, Tamoanchan. The gods chewed the corn into a paste and spread it upon the lips of the humans, who instantly became stronger. Quetzalcóatl attempted to tie up the mountain and drag it to paradise, but it wouldn’t budge. It was decided that only Nanáhuatl, the Fifth Sun god, could get the corn out of the mountain, using his great stick to split it open. Nanáhuatl sought the help of the three rain gods, the Tlaloques. The four gods together represented the colors white, yellow, red, and blue. Nanáhuatl split the mountain open with his lightning rod, and the Tlaloques rained on the corn, sweeping it out over the land and giving the kernels their colors. Along with the corn, the gods pulled beans, chia, and amaranth from the mountain and thus fed the humans.

Mural depicting the Inca Empire (Tahuantinsuyu, the Kingdom of the Four
Corners), with Cusco in the center, and the roads (ceques )leading
outward. The circles on the ceques are the huacas (holy places).

Similar myths were prevalent throughout Mesoamerica and were not exclusive to the Maya and the Aztec, and as maize cultivation spread to the north and to the south, it birthed more and more myths. The tribes of North America were particularly prolific in their tales of the origin of corn: the Abenaki and the Penobscot peoples told stories of how the First Mother bestowed corn unto them; the Potawatomi believed that the Corn Spirit was the original father of man, and the Menominee received corn as a gift in a dream. Depending upon the group of people, corn deities were either male or female, and in Aztec folklore, they were both, the male corn god called Centeotl, or “Flower Prince,” and two females: Xilonen, or “Tender Maize,” who was the goddess of sweet corn and tamales and Chicomecoátl, “the Seven Serpents,” who was the goddess of seed corn. Because the Aztecs believed that the origin of human life was intertwined with the discovery of corn, the maize gods took center-stage in Aztec daily life.

Centeotl was the son of Toci, the earth goddess of fertility and childbirth, and was husband to Xochiquetzal, who was the first human woman to give birth. It was believed that Centeotl embodied both the masculine and the feminine, born a goddess and becoming a god later, therefore a representation of both life and reproduction in one entity, the source of all that is sacred and an essential component of the Aztec calendar.

Centeotl — an Aztec maize god

The fourth month of that calendar, which began at the end of April, was called Huei Tozoztli meaning “the Big Sleep,” and was centered on Centeotl and Chicomecoatl. The Aztecs performed ceremonies in honor of green maize and grass that month, which involved blood-letting rituals where people cut themselves and dripped their own blood in their homes. Women wore necklaces of corn, and maize cobs were offered to the gods, hence combined sacrifices of maize and blood to give back to those who used them both to create human life as an act of reciprocity.

During the 11th month of the Aztec calendar, called Ochpaniztli, beginning in late September at the start of the harvest, the Aztecs sacrificed a woman. This, of course, is not shocking. The ritual involved and the manner in which the woman was sacrificed year after year, however, is somewhat unusual and has to do with the dual sexuality of the maize god, Centeotl, son of Toci, who was the Earth Mother, associated with the harvest, with sweeping away dirt to cleanse the land, and with the onset of the season of war. Corn, you see, is ready to harvest, when the liquid in the kernels turns from clear to milky. The Aztecs would have associated this with breast milk, in effect, with the feminine. But the corn is also ready for harvest when the cobs are full grown and have become phallic-looking, hence masculine, empowering the two sexes in one entity, much like the maize god. These concepts melded every year during the festival of Ochpaniztli in a ceremony that most modern people would find gruesome.   A chosen slave woman was killed and then flayed, her skin worn over the skin of a male priest playing the part of Centeotl, thus meshing the flesh of the male and the female.

The scene must have been awe-inspiring and fearsome, and it clearly served to perpetuate the undeniable authority of the emperor, sitting above blood-stained stone steps and streets, presiding over a ruthless reminder of the fragility of human life in the face of the gods’ whimsy. Similarly, but farther to the south, the Inca were busy with maize rituals of their own, also carefully orchestrated to maintain order.

The cultivation of maize was essential to the Inca and only overshadowed by potato crops in the highest elevations of their lands. Their society was divided into family groups called allyu, and each allyu owned large portions of land. When two people got married, the ayllu gifted them a small plot of land called a tupu to use for their own maize cultivation, followed by a second smaller plot to celebrate the birth of their first child. The Inca fashioned maize cob replicas of gold and silver and even created a garden of the precious metals inside the walls of the Coricancha (the great Inca temple to the sun god Inti). The Inca Empire contained roughly 328 holy places called huacas that were arranged on routes called ceques that led outward from Cusco, as it was Cusco that was thought to be the center of all things, the “navel of the universe.” The third huaca was a maize field called Sausero. Here, at the start of every planting season, Inca nobles gathered together to break the earth. The breaking of the ground was as much symbolic as it was functional, and it was part of a much larger concept for the Inca, dating back to the first male and female Inca, Manco Capac and Mamá Ocllo, who founded Cusco. It was their father Inti, the sun god, who gave them a golden stick and told them that wherever the stick sank easily into the ground was the Promised Land. The stick is an obvious reference to a plow. So it was the first Inca who broke the fertile, soft ground of Cusco, and all Inca nobles descended from him. The Inca believed that in breaking the earth, it was in a sense defeated, that it had yielded itself to man to allow him to sow crops. Since civilization began with the first Inca royal breaking ground, so must tradition be perpetuated year after year, with the nobles the first to till the soil before the commoners could follow suit, a ceremony that would have ensured hierarchy and order throughout the empire. The Inca (the King)himself was even seen plowing on the first day of planting season, as he played his part in the maize rituals, which involved singing and dancing as well. The songs, called haylli, were songs of military triumph, as the earth had been symbolically defeated as an enemy is defeated in battle. Sacrifices of sacred sheep belonging to Inti were made, as corn beer (chicha) was poured in copious amounts onto the field of Sausero by priestesses as an offering to the Sun, the Wind, and the Frost. Local priests ate nothing but maize and drank nothing but chicha for as long as the planting continued and then sacrificed more animals, llamas and guinea pigs, as the sowing of the seeds came to an end. This scene at the holy place of Sausero would have been repeated throughout the empire. Sausero was believed to have been the exact location where Manco Capac’s golden stick sank into the ground, hence the cradle of civilization, where the very first maize was sown.

Months later, the corn harvest at Sausero was performed by young Inca nobles as part of their initiation into manhood, from boys to well-dressed warriors as they pulled the maize from the earth, placing it into sacks, all the while singing aravi songs, the songs of the harvest, along with the haylli songs of victory. The ceremony ended with a last aravi that was a particularly sorrowful love song, sung by the young male and female nobles alike, the lyrics of which warned of broken hearts and the coming of the end of the world as they knew it.   And so in the minds of the Inca, as in the minds of the Maya and the Aztecs, maize was connected to humanity in every way imaginable; it was the source of sustenance, omnipotent, both in the creation of life and in impending death.

Sources: Maya Religion Mesoamerican Civilization The Discovery of Corn Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9000 Years Centeotl- The Aztec Corn God (or Goddess)

Aztecs, an Interpretation by Inga Clendinnen. Cambridge University Press,
An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage. Bloomsbury,
The Sacred Landscape of the Inca: The Cusco Ceque System by Brian S. Bauer. University of Texas Press,
Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru by Sabine MacCormick. Princeton University Press

Michelle Bakeman has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Spanish and Latin American Studies. She is also a graduate of the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana. She has been a chef for twenty-two years, has owned and operated several restaurants, and has been a teacher for sixteen years. She moved to Cuenca in 2013.

Susan Burke March

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