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Corn image from the Codex Borbonicus

The Discovery of Corn

In 1558 a document called the Codex Chimalpopoca was written by indigenous scribes in the Aztec language of Náhuatl. It was based on the history of the Aztecs before the arrival of the Spanish and it contained a very special section called the Legend of the Suns. The Legend recounts the story of four destroyed worlds believed by the Aztecs to have existed before the creation of this world and time (the Fifth Sun). The episodes are full of excitement. In them, the creator gods Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl are given the task of making the Fifth Sun and inhabiting it with different beings. By tearing the earth monster, Tlaltecuhtli, in two, the earth and celestial sky materialise. The task of making humans is then allocated to Quetzalcóatl and he travels into the underworld to ask the Lord of Death, Mictlantecuhtli, for the precious bones that he is guarding... (Written/compiled by Julia Flood /Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Quetzalcóatl (left) and 5 Grass flank a corn plant that symbolises the axis mundi, a sacred point that pierces and connects the heavens, earth and underworld with its leaves, stalk and roots. Codex Borgia.
Pic 1: Quetzalcóatl (left) and 5 Grass flank a corn plant that symbolises the axis mundi, a sacred point that pierces and connects the heavens, earth and underworld with its leaves, stalk and roots. Codex Borgia. (Click on image to enlarge)

After passing many harrowing tests set by Mictlantecuhtli in return for the bones, this lord cheats Quetzalcóatl who is then forced to steal them. To Quetzalcóatl’s dismay, Mictlantecuhtli’s helpers chase him out of the underworld and the bones fall on the ground in the rain, broken. Despite this setback, he picks them up and returns to the gods’ paradise of Tamoanchan. There he sprinkles them with his own blood after the god Quilaztli, or Cihuacóatl, has ground them up. Thus, the first two humans are made. But although they are whole and alive, they immediately start to flounder. As they become weaker, the gods realise that the humans have nothing to eat. What follows is a passage from the Legend of the Suns that describes the discovery of corn, the sustenance of humans...

Pic 2: Corn graphic by John D. Starling based on image in Codex Borbonicus
Pic 2: Corn graphic by John D. Starling based on image in Codex Borbonicus

In the paradise of Tamoanchan, the gods looked at the newly formed, but weak, humans and said to each other, "What shall the humans eat? Everyone must look for food for them". The red ant brought forth some corn kernels from within the Mountain of Our Sustenance, also known as Tonacatépetl. It offered the corn to the humans and Quetzalcóatl saw this. He asked "Where did you get it?" The ant did not want to say and refused to do so for a long time. Nevertheless, it eventually succumbed to pressure and told Quetzalcóatl that Tonacatépetl contained the corn. Quetzalcóatl then became a black ant and went inside this hill, Mountain of Our Sustenance. He collected some corn and returned to Tamoanchan where the gods chewed on it immediately.

Pic 3: Oxomoco and Cipactonal throwing lots with grains of corn, Codex Borbonicus
Pic 3: Oxomoco and Cipactonal throwing lots with grains of corn, Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

The paste from the chewed corn was then placed on the lips of the humans and they began to stir and become stronger. Then the gods said, “What should we do about the Mountain of our Sustenance, Tonacatepetl?” Quetzalcóatl set off, determined to tie up the mountain with ropes and drag it to Tamoanchan, but, try as he might, the mountain would not budge. Then the two gods Oxomoco and Cipactonal threw lots with grains of corn so they could divine what next to do. They said, “Only the god Nanáhuatl can get the grain out of the mountain. He must split it open with his stick.” The gods of the rain, the Tlaloques, helped Nanáhuatl. These four gods were coloured blue, white, yellow and red. As he split open the Mountain of Our Sustenance, the kernels of corn were swept away by the Tlaloques. The corn kernels adopted their colours: blue, white, yellow and red. The Tlaloques also took beans, chía, amaranth and fish amaranth with them. Everything was swept from inside the Mountain of Our Sustenance.

This passage outlines the events that passed in order to give humans nutrition, as well as to detail the discovery of the existence of corn. It’s based on the Legend of the Suns, a 16th century Nahua document.

Pic 5: Mexican corn (maize)
Pic 5: Mexican corn (maize) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Corn Myth in Mesoamerica

The myth that you have just read came from the Nahua region in central Mexico. Many versions of the discovery of corn have cropped up throughout the Mesoamerica, especially the Maya region. These stories are similar and centre on the gods’ search for the ideal food to give to humankind. Alfredo López Austin explains to us that this same myth can be found over such a large geographical area because it is part of a Mesoamerican tradition - not uniquely Aztec nor Maya - that had strong cultural traits from as far north as the modern day states of Baja California and Chihuahua down to El Salvador and Honduras. The immense territory that formed Mesoamerica was a place of constant interaction between cultures and peoples. It became the seat of a strong, wide-placed native tradition.

Pic 6: Grinding corn on a stone ‘metate’ in a Mixtec codex: learn more about the metate using the link below
Pic 6: Grinding corn on a stone ‘metate’ in a Mixtec codex: learn more about the metate using the link below (Click on image to enlarge)

As López Austin tells us in his book, "Tamoanchan, Tlalocan", the story presented on the previous page serves to illustrate a certain, special type of creation myth, one where a vital element is hidden from the gods and they are set the task of revealing it. Here they do no creating of their own but discover an element which enriches the human world (Austin 1991:93-95). The origin of corn once revealed, sets the scene for the beginning of the human era...

Pic 7: Traditional hand made Mexican corn tortillas
Pic 7: Traditional hand made Mexican corn tortillas (Click on image to enlarge)

The Tlaloques, rain gods who took all the grain from Tonacatépetl, became responsible for determining sustenance to humans. They could either bring forth a good harvest or a terrible famine. In order to eat tortillas and tamales, much loved staples in Mesoamerica, a process needed to be carried out before corn dough or flour was made: it needed to be boiled with lime (calcium oxide) in order to free it of toxins and increase calcium content, a process called (in Spanish) “Nixtamalización”. The next story integrates this method into the corn myth....

Pic 8: Traditional Huichol yarn weaving celebrating the worship of corn/maize
Pic 8: Traditional Huichol yarn weaving celebrating the worship of corn/maize (Click on image to enlarge)

A 20th century version...
(This Tojolabal myth from Las Margaritas in Chiapas was recovered by Antonio Hernández Jiménez.) The discovery of corn and why the ant has a small waist...

Pic 9: A pair of corn tortilla rolled ‘tacos’, as consumed by millions of Mexicans every day; these are at the original ‘Tacos Beatriz’, central Mexico City
Pic 9: A pair of corn tortilla rolled ‘tacos’, as consumed by millions of Mexicans every day; these are at the original ‘Tacos Beatriz’, central Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The Virgin Mary was sitting on a stone suckling her baby, Jesus Christ. She was thoughtful, worrying about how she would sustain herself and her son. All of a sudden she noticed a movement under her stone. She saw that there were ants carrying something that neither she, nor any human, had seen before. She asked herself what it could be, and soon discovered it was corn.

She caught one of the ants and asked it to tell her from whence it had obtained the corn, but the ant would not obey her and refused to say. Consequently, the Virgin Mary announced that the ant would be sentenced to death if it did not obey her, but even then it would not say where it found the corn. She took a piece of twine and tied it around the ant’s waist and tightened it little by little but it still refused to tell her. Finally, when it felt death was imminent, it revealed its secret: the corn could be found through the fissure in a mountain that nobody but ants could fit into.

When the Virgin ate the corn she felt queasy, it didn’t do her any good. She sat on her stone once more and a thought occurred: “What if I use this stone to make lime to cook the corn with? Then it will be better for me”. She did this. As for the twine with which the ant was suffocated, it is now used as material to make nets for collecting corn cobs during harvest.

Sources:-
• Del Paso y Troncoso, Francisco (translator), Leyenda de los Soles: continuada con otras leyendas y noticias. Relación anónima Escrita en Lengua Mexicana el año 1558. Biblioteca Náhuatl Vol.V - Tradiciones Migraciones (cuaderno 1), 1903, Florence, Italy.
• López Austin, Alfredo. The Rabbit on the Face of the Moon: Mythology in the Mesoamerican Tradition. Translated by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. University of UTAH Press, 1996, Utah, USA
• López Austin, Alfredo. Tamoanchan Tlalocan: Places of Mist. Translated by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano, University Press of Colorado, 1994, Colorado, USA.
Articles:-
• ‘Del elemento creador a sustento vital: el maíz en los mitos mesoamericanos’. Tomás Pérez Suárez, Arqueología Mexicana Vol. V, Number 25, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico.

Picture sources:-

• Pic 1: scanned from ‘The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript’ by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, New York, 1993 (Plate 53)
• Pic 3: Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris); scanned with permission from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pix 5, 8 and 9: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: Scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Borgia, Graz, Austria
• Pic 7: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore.

Our feature on the ‘metate’ grinding stone

Read about ‘Why did the Aztecs worship maize?’

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Mexicolore replies: This article was uploaded to the site on January 15th. 2008. Hope this helps.