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The great temple of Tenochtitlan, illustration by Miguel Covarrubias

Maize and the Aztec farming year

Traditionally, the Mexica/Aztec year has been seen as divided into two halves: the rainy (farming) season ruled by Tlaloc and the dry (war) season, ruled by Huitzilopochtli - depicted symbolically in the ‘twin towers’ atop the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan (see the illustration, right, by Miguel Covarrubias). But things aren’t quite as simple as that... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Corn (maize)  remains a staple food throughout Mesoameric today
Pic 1: Corn (maize) remains a staple food throughout Mesoameric today (Click on image to enlarge)

For a start, as Davíd Carrasco points out, ‘80 percent of their annual rainfall came between the months of June and October, followed by threatening frosts from November through [to] February. Killing frost could come as early as September and as late as May, creating planting and harvesting problems of immense proportions’. Whilst maize, ubiquitous, essential - indeed sacred - staple in the Mesoamerican diet, can grow in virtually any environment and landscape, its Achilles’ heal is its vulnerability to frost. Not surprisingly, the Mexica called on a host of deities or life forces to assist them each year in producing abundant crops.

Pic 2: Exhibition on the story of corn, Museum of Popular Culture, Mexico City
Pic 2: Exhibition on the story of corn, Museum of Popular Culture, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Secondly, in the Mesoamerican region there were and are several (estimates range from 40 to over 60) varieties of maize, each with its own germination period and other properties - and colours (principally red, black, yellow and white (pic 2). There are also some more fertile areas than others, which can support more than one harvest a year. The price for this, however, is two-fold, as Alan Sandstrom explains: ‘The rainy-season planting requires less growing time, is more reliable, and produces more than the dry-season planting. [And] every 2 to 4 years a field must be taken out of use and allowed to lie fallow for about twice the number of years it had been planted.’ In Nahuatl, the dry season is called tonalco (‘heat of the sun’) and the wet season xopan (‘green period’). Warwick Bray takes us through the Aztecs’ maize farming year:-

Pic 3: An Aztec farmer plants maize/corn; Florentine Codex, Book IV
Pic 3: An Aztec farmer plants maize/corn; Florentine Codex, Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

Planting took place from March to early May, late enough to avoid the winter frosts but in time to catch the rains which normally began in May and reached a climax in July and August. The best seed corn from the previous year’s harvest was put aside in the autumn, then at sowing time it was taken to the temple to be blessed at the feast of the maize goddess, Chicomecóatl, which fell in the fourth month of the Aztec year (13 April - 2 May). The seed was then shelled and soaked in water for two or three days to allow it to swell before planting.
In the meantime the farmer prepared the cornfield, breaking up the ground with his digging-stick, and hilling up the earth into little hummocks arranged in rows about a yard apart. A small hole was made in the top of each hill, and at planting time the farmer worked along his rows, carrying the seed corn in a cloth slung over his shoulder and dropping a few grains into each hole which he then closed by pressing down the earth with a sweep of his foot (pic 3). If necessary the seeds were watered, and the soil was turned over two or three times during the growing season.

Pic 4: Mexica farmers harvesting maize; Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 4: Mexica farmers harvesting maize; Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

By mid-July each plant had two or three young ears. All but one of the cobs were removed, and the young tender corn was made into maize cakes which were eaten during the festival of Xilonen, the goddess of young corn and first fruits. By August the cobs had become soft and white, and were ready to ripen. The stalks were bent over just below the ears, and in this position the cobs were left to harden. August and September were critical months, for too much rain during the ripening period could spoil the crop. In the eleventh calendar month (Ochpaniztli, the Month of Brooms) the ceremonies included the sacrifice of a woman impersonating the Goddess of Ripe Corn, and the people performed various other rituals designed to keep the rain away at harvest time. The cobs were yellow and ready for gathering in September, and the farmer returned to his fields to pluck the ears and to tie them up in bundles. Some of the shelled maize was kept in jars around the house, and the rest was stored in great bins made of planks or or wickerwork plastered with mortar.

Pic 5: (Top to bottom:) Ehécatl, lightning, Tlaloc, rainbow, Itzlacoliuhqui; Tepepulco Manuscript fol. 282v (detail)
Pic 5: (Top to bottom:) Ehécatl, lightning, Tlaloc, rainbow, Itzlacoliuhqui; Tepepulco Manuscript fol. 282v (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

So far we’ve related the maize farming cycle largely to our (Western) calendar. How did/does the indigenous solar calendar tie in? The seasonal significance of the 18 Aztec Feasts in the Mexica year are spelt out boldly in the document known as Sahagún’s Primeros Memoriales or the Tepepulco Manuscript. Gordon Brotherston was the first scholar to draw attention to this source in this context - as ‘an astounding resource for understanding the Feast cycle and its primordial place and role in the Mexica calendar.’ We cannot do justice here to Brotherston’s richly masterful study, but central to his analysis is the division of the year not into halves but into thirds, ‘that is, the six Feasts when there is no planting, followed by the 12 when there safely may be’. Chief (opposing) protagonists on the stage, following all-important wind god Ehécatl, are Tlaloc, bringer of warm, life-giving rain and Itzlacoliuhqui, bringer of cold, destructive frost (pic 5).
The Florentine Codex sets the scene (Book VII):-
’Frost is called Itzlacoliuhqui. Cold comes once a year, in Ochpaniztli... and for six Feasts, six score days, the cold lasts. And then it ends, finishes in Tititl. When that happened, they said: “The frost has gone, now there will be sowing, it’s sowing time, now earth will be planted, it’s planting time; it’s warm, mild, calm; the hour is good, right, at hand, imminent, here. They hurried and pressed on, restless, anxious, busy, worried, there was no let up; days would fly by. Anew they worked the fields and the soil...”’

Pic 6: The Feast of Tititl, depicting goddess of chinampa agriculture Cihuacóatl; Codex Borbonicus, plate 36
Pic 6: The Feast of Tititl, depicting goddess of chinampa agriculture Cihuacóatl; Codex Borbonicus, plate 36 (Click on image to enlarge)

Only in the Feast of Tititl (pic 6, beginning in our own New Year), then, ‘can planted life be reliably renewed’ - as Brotherston explains, ‘In terms of human activity as opposed to just weather, Tititl becomes, then, the hinge of agronomy and the agricultural year, the time when a great range of vulnerable crops were and are seeded and planted’. Tititl signalled too the start of the chinampa planting season, for which there was already no lack of moisture thanks to the highly productive lake water systems fed by mountain springs. In Tititl earth goddess Cihuacóatl (Snake Woman) is venerated, depicted on two platforms in Codex Borbonicus. ‘This goddess’s chief function was to preside over the distribution of seeds and the eagerly-awaited start of planting in Tititl, when there were races up the pyramid steps to the temple that housed the grain bin out of which the year’s seeds and seed corn were distributed.’

Pic 7: Nahua women today dancing with sacred corn bundles
Pic 7: Nahua women today dancing with sacred corn bundles (Click on image to enlarge)

In (Catholic) Mexico today, four dates in our calendar host festivals with roots going far back in history, all connected in the past to key moments in the maize/agricultural cycle:-
• February 2nd. (La Candelaria or Candemas) - the start of the farming year (and end of the holiday season), arrival of Spring; offering of tamales to Tlaloc
• May 3rd. (La Santa Cruz or Holy Cross) - blessing of seeds before planting, petitioning for rain
• August 15th. (Asunción de la Virgen or Assumption) - praying for growth, abundance and protection
• October 30th. (Día de Todos Santos and Días de Muertos, All Saints/Days of the Dead) - harvest thanksgiving and offerings for the Days of the Dead.

Daily Life of the Aztecs by David Carrasco and Scott Sessions, The Greenwood Press, London, 1998
Everyday Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, 1987
• ‘Cultivos Mesoamericanos’, Arqueología Mexicana Special Edition no. 84, Editorial Raíces, Mexico City
Corn is Our Blood by Alan R. Sandstrom, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1991
Feather Crown: The Eighteen Feasts of the Mexica Year by Gordon Brotherston, British Museum Research Publication no. 154, 2005.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: illustration scanned from The Aztecs: People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, University of Oklahoma Press, 1978
• Pic 1: photo by José Lavanderos/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 3 & 4: images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 5: Image scanned from our own copy of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Facsimile Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1993
• Pic 6: image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Borbonicus (ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974)
• Pic 7: photo by, courtesy of and © Alan R. Sandstrom.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 22nd 2020

emoticon Q. Why was rain ‘music to the ears’ for Aztec farmers?
A. The wet season was called xopan, pronounced exactly like the name of the great composer Chopin!

‘Why did the Aztecs worship maize?’

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