General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Penny Bateman

Question for March 2006

Why did the Aztecs worship maize? Asked by The Ralph Sadleir Middle School. Chosen and answered by Penny Bateman.

(Pic 1) Ripe Mexican corn
(Pic 1) Ripe Mexican corn (Click on image to enlarge)

This is an excellent question as maize has been an essential food for people in the Mexican region for thousands of years. If you went to rural communities in Mexico today, you would soon realize that maize is still very important.

(Pic 2) Freshly cooked tortillas
(Pic 2) Freshly cooked tortillas (Click on image to enlarge)

Maize is eaten at almost every meal and in a variety of ways, but the most important is the tortilla [tor-TE-ya], a flat pancake made of maize flour. Another well-known maize dish is the tamale [ta-MA-le] - maize dough inserted with meat or other flavourings, wrapped in a maize husk and steamed. These and other Mexican foods are now popular worldwide.

(Pic 3) Mechanised tortilla production
(Pic 3) Mechanised tortilla production (Click on image to enlarge)

Many Mexicans buy their tortillas at small tortilla making shops and others buy them from the supermarket.

(Pic 4) Making tortillas the traditional way
(Pic 4) Making tortillas the traditional way (Click on image to enlarge)

In the countryside, however, many people grind their own maize into flour on stone tables using stone rollers, called metates [me-TA-tes] and manos [MA-nos]. They then pat the moist dough into flat tortillas for baking on iron griddles.

(Pic 5) Steamed ‘elotes’ (corn cobs) sold today on sticks
(Pic 5) Steamed ‘elotes’ (corn cobs) sold today on sticks (Click on image to enlarge)

Normally a diet almost entirely of maize would not be healthy, but in Mexico and other American countries, people in ancient times discovered ways of making a nourishing diet based on maize. Usually a meal consisted of both maize and beans and together they provided the necessary nutrients. Maize was also mixed with lime (calcium carbonate) or ashes to allow it to release more protein and vitamins. The lime also caused the outer hull of the maize kernel to separate from the grain making it easier to grind.

(Pic 6) From the Florentine Codex, Book 10
(Pic 6) From the Florentine Codex, Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

If you had visited an Aztec home four or five hundred years ago, you would have seen Aztec women mixing maize with lime, grinding their maize flour using manos and metates, and baking their tortillas on pottery griddles.

(Pic 7) Exhibition on the story of corn, Museum of Popular Culture, Mexico City
(Pic 7) Exhibition on the story of corn, Museum of Popular Culture, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

And if you had been around two thousand years earlier, you would also have seen people in different villages, towns and cities all growing and using maize for food. Archaeologists believe that wild maize was domesticated first in Mexico about 6000 yrs ago. That means the people began to select the best maize for eating and planting. As they continued to do this, the maize plant gradually altered physically to become a better food plant.

(Pic 8) Diego Rivera’s mural ‘Cultura Huasteca’, National Palace, Mexico City
(Pic 8) Diego Rivera’s mural ‘Cultura Huasteca’, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

For over 5000 years maize has been one of the most important foods for different people living in Mexico including the Aztecs. It was critical for their survival and when there were floods or droughts that affected the maize crop it was a disaster.

(Pic 9) Traditional wooden storage cages for corn
(Pic 9) Traditional wooden storage cages for corn (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs needed to keep their world in order and in balance to try to avoid such disasters. They did practical things such as terracing their fields to preserve water, bringing in fresh water from afar with aqueducts and fertilizing the soil.

(Pic 10) ‘Cipactli’ (the Aztec earth creature) sprouting ears of corn, based on an image in the Codex Borgia
(Pic 10) ‘Cipactli’ (the Aztec earth creature) sprouting ears of corn, based on an image in the Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

They also believed that all aspects of their world – both human and natural, had spiritual power and needed to be honoured as gods. This included the earth, water and food plants that gave life.

(Pic 11) Exhibit at ‘The Story of Corn’, Museum of Popular Culture, Mexico City
(Pic 11) Exhibit at ‘The Story of Corn’, Museum of Popular Culture, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Because of the importance of maize the Aztecs worshipped and celebrated different stages in the plant’s life with festivals and offerings. They gave these stages names and created images of them in stone and in paintings.

(Pic 12) Illustration of Xilonen by Miguel Covarrubias, based on an image in the Codex Maglabecchiano
(Pic 12) Illustration of Xilonen by Miguel Covarrubias, based on an image in the Codex Maglabecchiano (Click on image to enlarge)

The young maize was called Cinteotl [sin-TE-otl] and was shown as young man. Young fresh maize was also shown as a young woman called Xilonen (shi-LO-nen). Chicomecoatl [chi-co-me-CO-atl] was the name of old corn when the seeds were dried and was also represented as a woman.

(Pic 13) A goddess impersonator at the festival of Ochpaniztli, which honoured Chicomecoatl and the mother goddess; can you spot the corn cobs? (Codex Borbonicus, p.31)
(Pic 13) A goddess impersonator at the festival of Ochpaniztli, which honoured Chicomecoatl and the mother goddess; can you spot the corn cobs? (Codex Borbonicus, p.31) (Click on image to enlarge)

Often these images show the figures carrying maize cobs in their hands. The Aztec thought it was important to create these images, make offerings to the gods and celebrate their life cycle as a way of making sure the maize cycle would continue -

(Pic 14) Corn remains a staple food throughout Mexico today
(Pic 14) Corn remains a staple food throughout Mexico today (Click on image to enlarge)

- that is, new plants would emerge from the seed of dying plant and provide the Aztec people with food and continued life.

Easily available books: 1) Richard F. Townsend, ‘The Aztecs’, Thames and Hudson, London, 2000, 2) David Carrasco, Scott Sessions, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, ‘Moctezuma’s Mexico: Visions of the Aztec World’, University of Colorado, 2002

Illustrations: pix 1,3,7,8,9,11 by Ian Mursell; pix 2,4,5 by Sean Sprague; pic14 by José Lavanderos; pic 6 from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence); pic10 drawing by Luis Gerardo Alonso in ‘Los Días y los Dioses del Códice Borgia’ by Krystyna Magdalena Libura (Ediciones Tecolote 2000); pic12 from ‘The Aztecs: People of the Sun’ by Alfonso Caso (University of Oklahoma 1958); pic 13 from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris)

Learn more about the ‘metate’

Learn more about maize - ‘the most planted food in the world’...

Penny Bateman has answered 2 questions altogether:

Were there any women warriors?

Why did the Aztecs worship maize?

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