Author's Note

Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the traditional Mayas recognize in the maize a vital force with which they strongly identify. This is reflected in their mythological traditions. According to the Popol Vuh, man himself was created from maize. The discovery and opening of the Maize Mountain, the place where the corn seeds were hidden, is one of the most popular of Mayan tales.

Maize, or "corn," a staple of life in both Central and South America, also played a major religious and ritual role in the lives of these ancient peoples.  This page looks at Latin American mythologies surrounding this sacred food; the page also looks at the troubled future of maize in our own time.

Since few of these sites are directly focused on maize (unlike the situation for the Lore & History of Chocolate page), and since references to maize are often buried within a labyrinth of unrelated data, I am going to include long quotes where appropriate.  (FYI: a number of these sites will be cross-listed elsewhere in non-maize contexts.)

Female and Male Maize Deities

In oral tradition, the maize is usually personified as a woman - not unlike the rice in Southeast Asia, or the wheat in ancient Greece and Rome. The acquisition of this woman through bridal capture or bridal service constitutes one of the basic Maya myths. In contrast to this, the pre-Spanish Mayan aristocracy appears to have primarily conceived the maize as male. A male maize deity (labeled God E) is present in the three extant Maya books of undisputed authenticity. The Classic period distinguished two male forms: A Foliated and a Tonsured Maize God (K. Taube). The Foliated Maize God is present in the so-called Maize Tree (Temple of the Foliated Cross, Palenque), its cobs being shaped like the deity's head. Often, the Tonsured Maize God is shown as a ceremonial dancer carrying a specific 'totemic' animal in his backrack. Paradoxically, the ritual representative of the Tonsured Maize God on stelas tends to be a queen rather than a king. The queen thus appears to have become a maize goddess, in accordance with the Mayan narrative traditions mentioned above.

The Tonsured Cacao God

The Tonsured Maize God personified precious substances: maize, jade, and also cacao. The Popol Vuh has Xquic imploring a 'Cacao Woman', but the Classical Mayas preferred to depict the cacao god as a male. The Tonsured Maize God doubled as a Tonsured Cacao God, with cacao pods growing from his body. More directly, the Tonsured Cacao God's body can be shown as a tree, with his head representing the cacao pod growing on its stem. A Classical Mayan vase in the Popol Vuh Museum shows a trophy head suspended in such a personified cacao tree, perhaps to foster the tree's productivity.

Classic Maya Maize Mythology

Many Classic Maya vase paintings testify to the existence of a rich maize mythology centered on the Tonsured Maize God, including his resurrection from the carapace of a turtle (the 'tomb' of the earth). The murals of San Bartolo demonstrate the great antiquity of this tradition. An influential theory makes the resurrected Tonsured Maize God of the Classic Period correspond to the father of the Hero Twins in the Popol Vuh, Hun-Hunahpu. Whatever the truth of this, it must be assumed that, together with the Maya Hero Twins (and also, in certain traditions, the Howler Monkey Gods), the maize deity helped to give the world its present appearance. Such a transformative process is described in an important maize myth shared by many ethnic groups (such as Huaxtecs, Nahuas and Totonacs) inhabiting Mexico's Gulf Coast. Especially the fact that the myth establishes an intimate connection between maize deity and turtle suggests that the Classical Mayas participated in this narrative tradition.

Names and Calendrical Functions

As to the hieroglyphical name of the Tonsured Maize God, various suggestions have been made, of which 'Hun-Nal-Ye' is probably the most popular one. In a speculative context, the Tonsured Maize God (again equated with Hun-Hunahpu) is often nicknamed 'First Father'. The work of the Tonsured Maize God as a culture hero is connected to the base date of the Long Count, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku. Calendrically, the maize is associated with the day Q'an 'Ripe(ness)'; the head of the Foliated Maize God serves to denote the number Eight. The Tonsured Maize God is sometimes found associated with the lunar crescent and may therefore have played a role in the divisions of the lunar count; his head seems to occur in glyph C of the Lunar Series (see also Maya moon goddess).

Sculpture mosaic of Mayan Maize god
© BarbaraW. Fash 1996 (see directly below)
This Harvard site (cross-listed under Meso-America) is about a modern replica of an inaccessible Mayan temple in Copan (Honduras) dating from the time of Copán's tenth ruler, Moon-Jaguar (reigned A.D. 553 to 578).  A major deity in the original temple is the Mayan maize god:
As a whole, the temple represents a deified mountain - a place of creation, a source of life-giving water (such as a cave, spring, stream, or waterfall), and birthplace of the sacred maize plant.  The head of this mountain deity, which combines the attributes of both mother and father, is depicted on the lower central part of the roof crest, with a cleft in its forehead from which maize sprouts. Draped over the sacred mountain images and framing the image of a cave in the upper story are two-headed celestial dragons. Mythical creatures that combine attributes of snakes and crocodiles, they are depicted like smoke emanating from the skeletal-head censer in the center.
Representations of the Sun God adorn the lower parts of the temple. The sun's daily journey and the life cycle of maize were linked together in veneration of the process of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

Dancing Mayan Maize God
c. 700AD
[Source unknown]
This site is entitled "Precolumbian Antecedents for Modern Highland Mayan Ceremonialism" by Allen J. Christenson from the Department of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin.  The ritual data is detailed and vivid -- and woven into it is excellent information on the Mayan Maize God -- I'm quoting the relevant passages in full [for footnotes and figures, see the site itself]:
The best source for ancient highland Maya cosmology is the Popol Vuh which describes the creation of the world and the role of the gods in maintaining life.  The text relates the history of a god named Hun Hunahpu, likely a manifestation of the Precolumbian Maya god of maize, who descended beneath a great mountain into the underworld realm of Xibalba, there to confront the twin lords of death.  After a number of trials, the maize god was ultimately defeated and sacrificed.  The victorious underworld lords then took his head and placed it in the branches of a dead tree.  The instant the head touched the tree, it miraculously came to life with abundant foliage and fruits which resembled the godís skull.  In ancient Maya art, this was the sacred World Tree which represented the ability of life to spring forth from the realm of the dead.  Like the maize god, the dead seed of corn is planted beneath the earth in the underworld.  With time, the grain of maize germinates and sprouts new life from its dry, bony husk.  Ancient art often depicts the maize god rising out of a cleft in the earth with his arms outstretched, a symbol of his rebirth from death as a maize plant.  In the central panel from the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque, the World Tree appears as a fruitful stalk of maize, each ear bearing the head of the maize god.  [Section 7]
Ancient Maya inscriptions on carved stone stelae and architecture continue the story.  After he rose from the dead, the maize god was paddled in a canoe to the center of the sky..., located at the base of the Milky Way near the constellation of Gemini, which the Maya represented as a pair of copulating peccaries.   There the maize god oversaw the setting of three great stones in the constellation of Orion.  This was the great hearth of the universe.  Fire was kindled there, quickening the cosmos and allowing life to emerge.  Today the Maya still have three-stone hearths in the center of their houses.  It is around this hearth that the family spends much of its indoor time, gathered at the place where maize, still the main staple of the Maya diet, is prepared and cooked to sustain life.   After the foundations of the hearth were set, the maize god erected a great World Tree to support the vault of the heavens, and to serve as the axis point around which the world would be created.  Its roots extended down into the underworld, while its branches stretched out to the four cardinal directions. [Section 8]

...There the [shaman] rises as if from death with his arms outstretched, the same posture assumed by the maize god in ancient Maya artistic convention....  Members of the confraternity confirmed to me that this stance represents the outstretched arms of the great World Tree which the Maya worship as the center of the cosmos and a symbolic token of renewed life.... [An excerpt from Section 13]

Huichol Maize Mother and her Five Daughters
Mexico, undated
(See directly below)
This is a Huichol myth about the origins of maize.  The website from the Chemistry Laboratory of Natural Resources of the Universidad Michoacana tries to make the myth fit genetic theory too tightly for my taste so I'm just excerpting the myth.  (The science is fascinating, however, so you might wish to take a look -- see below for a direct link.)
 ...The Mother of Maize changed her dove appearance to a human one; She introduced to the young man her 5 daughters, who symbolize the five maize sacred colors: white, red, yellow, spotted and blue. As the young man was hungry The Mother of Maize gave him a kettle filled with tortillas and a pot filled with atole; he didn't belive that those could satiate his hunger, but the tortillas and atole were renewed magicaly, in a way that he couldn't finish them.  The Mother of Maize asked him to choose one of her daughters and he took the Girl of Blue Maize, the most beauty and sacred of them all...
[The site took the legend from the book "Mitos y arte huicoles," published by Sep/Setentas and written by Peter T. Furst and Salomón Nahmad.]
This is another page from the above site and gives a very brief overview of research into the origins of maize.  The site's argument is that maize originated in Mexico's Tehuacán Puebla directly out of a wild strain known as teocinte.  The interesting argument involves heavy metals from nearby volcanoes leaching into local waters and creating a mutant.
This site by Vicente Goyzueta (cross-listed on my Andean Peoples page) suggests that maize originated in South America 1000 years earlier than in Meso America:
"It is a really difficult task to do an inventory of all the cultivated and consumed vegetable products in ancient Peru. Modern world recognizes that approximately 60% of the vegetables consumed today all over the world are native from this part of the earth. That is, adapted, domesticated, acclimatized and even hybridized by our ancient cultures. The most important products in the Tawantinsuyo's daily diet were the " Sara" - Maize or Corn- (Zea Mays) and " Papa" - Potato- (Solanum tuberosum). Maize in its primitive form began being cultivated over here since the year 6,275 B.C. (Verified by Earle Smith Jr., N.Y. 1980, based in some samples gathered in the "Guitarrero" cave, Ancash), while that in Mexico (samples of the "El Riego" cave, Tehuacan) since the year 5,200 B.C. approximately."
This is a very brief promotion for a summer 1999 book, Corn In Clay: Maize Paleoethnobotany In Precolumbian Art, written by Mary W. Eubanks.  The title suggests a fascinating work.

From the Codex Fejervary-Mayer:
Aztec Farmers and their changing fortunes in growing maize
(Courtesy of City College of New York)

Author's Note:

Aztec farmers offered various sacrifices to the Corn God.  The ancient Maya did the same.  The Huichol of today still "feed" their newly planted corn with blood from a sacred deer, whose spirit is said to guide the Huichol shamen to the flesh-and-blood deer willing to make this sacrifice.  The Hopi continue to offer ritual dances to the powerful corn spirits.
We Westerners are different.  We offer nothing.  Instead, we genetically modify ("GM") our corn in order to force the plant to give us more.

Many of us are increasingly troubled by this situation.  It isn't about returning to the tradition of offering blood from another creature (no matter how hallowed, such a sacrifice always saddens me) -- it is about returning to the tradition of showing respect to the natural world, whose vast powers we cannot begin to fathom.  When I came across this disturbing report from Jody Miller, I had yet another reason for concern......
This page is about the threat to monarch butterflies from genetically modified corn as well (as from logging operations in Mexico).  Miller writes:
A new threat has been identified in the United States.  Researchers have found that wind-borne pollen from genetically altered corn can kill monarch butterflies. This Bt corn protects itself with a toxin it produces in its tissues. When researches fed monarch catepillars leaves that were dusted with Bt pollen, half died in four days.
The data is sobering and clear.  The page also includes good links to newspapers and other sources.
This is another page on genetically modified corn and the danger it poses to the monarch butterfly.  The page begins with the following statement:
Monarch butterlies may be threatened by pollen from genetically modified maize.  That's the conclusion of a new Monarch Butterfly survival study by Cornell University published in Nature (21 May 1999).
The page offers background on the survival study as well as links to groups trying to protect monarch butterflies in the high-altitude oyamel fir forests in central Mexico where they winter.

Moche Maize-Cob Mother and Children
Peru, 450-550AD
I scanned this unique artwork from TIME-LIFE Books' MYTH AND MANKIND  Series / Lost Realms of Gold: South American Myth; 1998:31.
Because maize has been anthropomorphized by this unknown Moche artist, the Time-Life authors suggest that this "links humans to agriculture and also suggests the mountains that overlooked the fields."

It is a brilliant image for the interconnectedness of humanity with the natural world......and a fitting place to end this page.