General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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God figures made of corn stalk paste

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Lou Revilla: I am doing research on Mexican crucifixes particularly made from corn stalk paste. I learned that the Aztecs brought images of their deities during war and they were able to create [them] from corn stalk paste made of lighter material. Would you have any references of the evolution, the period from the Aztecs to the New World (Spain) and up to the present, how the art of using corn stalk paste was adapted to form other works of art such as the crucifixes? (Answered/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Dough figures made for the Tepeilhuitl ‘Feast of the Mountains’ (mountain glyph at top); Primeros Memoriales (Sahagún), early colonial, fol. 252r (detail)
Pic 1: Dough figures made for the Tepeilhuitl ‘Feast of the Mountains’ (mountain glyph at top); Primeros Memoriales (Sahagún), early colonial, fol. 252r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

An excellent summary of the Mexica practice of making deity figures of maize dough can be found in Esther Pasztory’s classic work Aztec Art, (1983 pp. 78-79):-
Dough, resin and paper had primarily ritual importance. Dough idols made of a paste of various seeds, including the ritually important amaranth, represented many fertility deities and were cut apart and eaten at the end of the ritual. For one festival, dough images were made of all the mountains around the Valley of Mexico in a ritual of ancestor veneration; this was appropriate to Aztec thought because, according to one creation myth, man was made out of corn meal. In the festival of Xocotlhuetzi*, a dough image was placed on top of a pole and youths competed in climbing up and throwing down pieces of it to the crowds below [pic 2]. The significance of dough images is related to eating, an important concept in Mesoamerican thought. The gods, in the form of grain and animals, are the food of men; and men, in the form of blood and hearts, are the food of the gods.

Pic 2: Preparations for the pole-climbing ceremony during the Aztec festival of Xocotl Huetzi; Codex Borbonicus fol. 28 (detail)
Pic 2: Preparations for the pole-climbing ceremony during the Aztec festival of Xocotl Huetzi; Codex Borbonicus fol. 28 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Many important deities had at least three distinct types of image: a permanent representation as an effigy made of stone, wood, or terracotta, which was fed, dressed and scented; a temporary representation in a dough image, which was sacrificed and eaten by the people, representing the gods’ original sacrifice; and another temporary representation in the form of a living victim who was sacrificed and then eaten by the people, standing for the original sacrifice of the deities as well as man’s return of their gift of life. In Aztec thought these perishable and communally ingested deity representations were as important as the permanent statues. The making of dough images may have predated the images made of wood and clay, and perhaps originated in agricultural ritual when plants were domesticated in Mexoamerica in early times.
We do not know the forms of the dough images, but they may have resembled the stone, wood, or clay figures of nature deities. In the Codices Matritenses the illustrations of the dough images that represent mountains show them as deity busts against a temple doorway
(see pic 1).

Pic 3: Calpan. Sculpture of Christ on the cross made from corn husks and corn paste
Pic 3: Calpan. Sculpture of Christ on the cross made from corn husks and corn paste (Click on image to enlarge)

As to the continuation of this tradition today, we can think of no scholar better qualified to answer this than Dr. Jaime Lara (like Esther Pasztory, a member of our Panel of Experts). In his pioneering and beautifully illustrated book Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico (2008, pp. 213-215), Dr. Lara refers specifically to crucifixes made of corn paste (pic 3):-
The use of a light and pliable mixture derived from the pith of the corn had deep significance, for corn was the staple food and had itself been a god in the Aztec pantheon. In a very Hebraic way, maize had been one of the principal “first fruits” offered in the Mesoamerican temples, among the sacrifices to the divine mouth of the earth deity. The Nahuatl word for maize dough is in fact “our sweet sustenance” (toneuhcayotl), which lent itself metaphorically for the flesh of Christ hanging on the cross or eaten at Eucharist. In fact, the Nahuatl verb ‘to sacrifice’ was the same as ‘to knead and spread out’, like the act of preparing the dough of the corn tortilla before roasting...
Dr. Lara goes on to describe the process of making one of these crucifix figures made of corn paste, and to give clues as to how the artistic tradition evolved from pre-Hispanic times:-
Bishop Vasco de Quiroga encouraged the modeling of such images under the direction of an aged Tarascan convert, a former pagan priest who knew the ancient technique. Many of the images now extant were probably manufactured in Michoacán around the mid-sixteenth century. They are vivid in color and extraordinarily lightweight, ideal for the long and exhausting Lenten processions... In their own symbolic way, these effigies linked the Passion of Christ on the cross to his eucharistic body and blood ingested in the powerful “sacred tortilla” of the Mass. (He notes later that in Nahuatl Eucharistic texts, the word tlaxcalli - tortilla - is commonly used for the communion wafer.)

(Also worth consulting: Aztecs by Inga Clendinnen, 1991, pp. 250-253)

Image sources:-
• Pic 1: image from Primeros Memoriales (original in the Palacio Real de Madrid) - public domain
• Pic 2: image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 3: photo courtesy of Jaime Lara.

*Learn more about the pole-climbing ceremony...

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