Corn


Corn forms the heart of the Americas. The first men were made of corn. The wellspring of song originates in the indigenous world. From the beginning of the Popol Vuh, corn is life, a green tutelary god, father of the ancestral substance: "yellow corn, white corn alone for the flesh, food alone for the human legs and arms, for our first fathers, the four human works. It was staples alone that made up their flesh." From mythological times to the present day, our life has been corn: the power of a fist and the wings of a dream. On the red land beyond Tulán, the four original human foundlings that Grandmother Xmucané molded from corn dough found their place in history, leaving the traces of their passing upon the codices and in our deepest voice.
In the Place of Abundance and in the jungles that covered the ape-men's first huts, deer, pheasants, weasels, raccoons, armadillos, rabbits, tapirs, snakes, squirrels, tortoises, coatis, parrots, coyotes and the emeraldine hummingbird all contemplated the light that was beginning to penetrate by dint of the pyramid-builders' zeal. Yum Kax, the god of corn, is painted with snake's blood, his hooked nose placed amid the leaves of the plant he holds in both hands, venerating it. He is fundamental among the divinities. His kingdom is boundless; his subjects, numerous. None have avoided the deadening effects of the sovereignty of the cross to the extent he has. The foreign gods the Spaniards brought us seek shelter in Yum Kax's shadow. On any given day, one may see them in Chichicastenango, in a thousand towns of the Mayan world, on altars in the woods, on tumuli in the fields, at every market stand, at the six cardinal points, just as in our grandfathers' hearts. The pom, ears of corn, achiote, salt, small wildflowers, honey and copal incense on the altars are the same, whether placed at Christ's feet or at the feet of the gods of rain, fire and earth who are intent on inundating the cornfields with flowers and the corncobs with grain.
Agrarian gods occupy a prominent position in the Mayan pantheon, and appeared with the cultivation of corn, which has been fundamental in America for several millennia. The divinities with the longest ancestral lines were linked to corn. Many holidays were fixed according to the ritual calendar that was elaborated with the sacred plant as its basis. The Aztecs called it "the herb of the gods" and worshipped Xilonen, the god of young corn; Tlazoltéotl, the god of mature corn; Xipe Tótec, the flayed god, patron of the sowing of corn; Chicomecóatl, seven serpents or seven corncobs, goddess of abundance; Centóatl, the beautiful young god of corn. Whatever its origin, corn represents the key event in the civilization of America.
As Dr. Alfonso Caso tells us, Mangelsdorf and Reeves
have indicated the Guatemala-Chiapas region as a second distribution center for corn, and the site where a new variety was developed-the one that spread throughout Europe and Asia from the sixteenth century onward. These researchers do not consider maize to have descended from euclaema or teosintle, which are exclusively wild plants of Mesoamerica, but rather, as a hybrid of primitive maize and Tripsacum. Consequently, teosintle is not corn's ancestor but its descendent.1
Corn made human life possible. It was humanity itself in mythology and in reality: in the Popol Vuh, only with corn could the true man be born. The gods were unsuccessful in their creation until they discovered the divine grain. In all the codices-the Vienna, Borbonic, Magliabeciano Codices, and the Vatican Codex which portrays Tláloc holding a maize plant-and in the murals of Teotihuacan, Chichén Itzá, Monte Albán, Tepantila; on the foliate cross of Palenque; on the Lienzo de Tlaxcala; in legends, sacred books; in the creations of modern masters, corn always represents heritage: Quetzalcóatl, Kukulkán or Gucumatz conquers maize, the key to the universe. Like Prometheus, he wants to give it to his people. In "The Legend of the Suns," humanity is created with his blood and that of other gods. The Tlálocs steal the corn from him. Then, following many magical incidents, Quetzalcóatl transforms himself into a black ant and is guided by another ant until he finds the grain to nourish us. Quetzalcóatl takes the wondrous grain to Tamoanchán and finally, the gods eat it. The legend places these words in the mouths of men: "With corn they made us strong." In the Quiché myth, four animals -the fox, the coyote, the parrot and the crow- brought white corn and yellow corn from Pan Paxil and Pan Cayala.
Corn established the tribes and permitted civilization to develop. To cultivate the plant, people observed the skies, the seasons, the planets. That was the origin of the calendar, of religion and ritual. That was the origin of art, which is the expression of consciousness and of culture. Humanity and corn appeared simultaneously, as the condition sine qua non for life:
And the ingredients could not be found and in the end they were found. Two animals knew that there was food in the place called Broken Place, where those animals named Coyote and Crow were. And in the rubble the (food) was found when the animal Sparrowhawk killed the animal Coyote, who was then dividing his grain, who was trying to knead it into dough. And the blood of the tapir and of the serpent came from beneath the sea by means of Sparrowhawk, and entered into the corn dough. Man's flesh was formed with this dough by the Makers, the Modelers.2
The extinction of fire, narrated in the Annals of the Cakchiquels, illustrates the importance of remembering that fire was taken captive-a Promethean incident comparable only to one other mythical wonder: the invention of corn. The tribes placed their feet on solid ground when they established themselves agriculturally, and on that ground they built their civilization. And when corn became scarce, they abandoned their metropolises and emigrated to other lands.
Might not the Cakchiquels be the Prometheans (hence the name of this faction)-those who gained possession of fire and were able to extend its use? "'When we reached the port of Tulán, we went to receive a red branch that was our staff, and this is why we were given the name of Cakchiquels, oh, our children!' said Gagavitz and Zactecauh."3
For centuries, the deified plant has represented the life and happiness of a people that has worked every last square inch of our plains and mountains, for a thousand generations. "Albeit one might observe that all they (the Indians) said and did had to do with corn, and that they were only a step from revering it as God, and that their enchantment and fascination with the fields was, and is, so much so that because of them, they forget daughters and wives and any other delight to be had, as if the cornfield were their ultimate goal and bliss."4 No other culture, past or present, has ever had such an all-consuming dependency upon a single grain. Corn is to the Quiché Maya what sunlight is to the cicadas.
When we consider that our exterior is corn, and that our animal interior and mythical interior are also corn, and that with the eyes of fifty centuries we contemplate the corn in the palms of our hands-those white teeth, the small polished red pebbles, or shiny and yellow, or blue and black, all loose grains of corn with their silica tenderness, their soft hidden pulp-and we think about the ritualistically opened earth, united to the birth and cultivation of corn, to its annual existence, then, little by little, its perfection begins to emerge: clay of our own clay, father of our world. Even today, the same Indian we see in the codices tosses the same grains into the hole opened by the same stick burnt by fire, and with his foot, covers them with earth in the same way. To create the Cakchiquel people, tapir blood and serpent blood ebb into the corn-likely an allusion to the great gods, the Great Tapir of the Dawn and Quetzalcóatl. With a curved staff called a coa (cóatl: serpent in Náhuatl), they sow the corn. And just as the process is graphically explained in the codices, they continue to do it today. The Maya call that primitive sowing tool xul. The serpent coils around the corn, a Mayan caduceus. The tiny plant emerges into the light with its pocket-knives of jade. Later, with the rain, they will become the wide blades of peaceful swords, beautiful green flames. And the rain is also god because it gives life to the corn, even on poor mountain ranges depleted by erosion, leading its emerald to see the gold of the grain. Nothing goes to waste in the cornfield: man makes use of every part from the deepest root to the loftiest plume. The plant in which nature has gathered together a thousand virtues-each part brimming with sweetness and grace-possesses a degree of loveliness seen in few plants. Lovely is the vehement root; lovely, the honey-filled stem whose leaves adjust themselves and leap out unfurled and perfect for a thousand uses; lovely, the mineral flower and the ear that sips solidity from the sun.
Across Indian America, it spreads its goodness, it quenches thirst and nourishes the tired body. And it is savory and good in so many forms available from town to town, our daily bread. With its mild flavor, fine and latent, it is like the brother to any kind of food. We clap our hands together so that its solar shape might emerge. It falls onto the griddle made of the very clay that has nourished it, to turn golden with the heat. The smell of moist corn, of cooking corn, delicately permeates every corner of the room. Life is livable and the hardships of the men of corn are more bearable if the silo is full and if the grain does not run scarce until the day its swell returns to the fields.
Corn is sacred: the green central divinity with a slender cut-glass profile, often beaten down by the winds, but stronger than the ceiba trees at the heart of Quiché Maya territory. Wheat and rice do not hold any deeper significance for their massive conglomerations of devotees. The oceans of wheat, the rice paddies that nourish our brothers here who exchanged them for corn, lack its vast material worth and awesome mythic content. The indigenous people wail over Catholic altars in small towns, they bless candles and participate in a thousand rituals, they sing or sob, and dance wearing coyote, monkey, yellow jaguar or tepeu masks, to implore the rains to come and the seed to set, to defend it from the blue-eyed red-headed Santiagos. They often do not know what the root of the ritual is or where the spark of their fervent prayers may land. The blond gods of wheat who assaulted us, speaking Spanish and spitting out death from the barrels of their guns, suffer perpetual defeat and settle for just being there, inevitable and inevitably absent. Over the church vestibules, over the altars, upon the solidity of its honeyed stalks, the corn raises high its invincible swords that recite its sacred, elemental gospel.
It is not the eagle, condor, serpent or quetzal who provide the simplest or most perfect version of the legend. Eagles and condors represent prepotency and dominance. The solar quetzal-the sacred bird of the Maya that feeds on freedom-mates with the Plumed Serpent who has never left off snaking, an unending river whose murmur may be heard beneath our skin, mingling with that of blood. Because the serpent is darkness, phallic and tellurian, intestinal and terraqueous, earth itself reptant, rubbing its belly against itself and fear until it sparks the myth. The quetzal is solar and celestial, the resplendent elliptical feminine labia of the air, ever intangible, flight itself volant, the wing of the freedom to ignite the thunderbolt, the fire of poetry. Kukulkán-Serpent with a Quetzal's feathers-couples earth and sky, turtle and star, it bites the infinite tail. And our eyes-one a serpent's and the other a quetzal's-not only see, but imagine and divine in the dense night. They bore into femurs when they follow the reptant flight of Kukulkán or Gucumatz, and we contemplate ourselves emerging from the land, dripping unsubmissive stars. The Supreme Creator demonstrated his affection for us with grains of corn. He scattered them everywhere, over frigid peaks and warm plains, like a blessing. In the jade of the cornfield, the Mayan Olympus, gods of wind and rain, gods of fire and earth, gods of sky and sea, combine their zeal and relish their epiphany: from their celestial agrarian dream sprouts the ear of corn, and in it, the Indian finally smiles. In the center of Guatemala, where the navel's tellurian star shines, there is an immense corn plant that sheds its pliant, murmuring shadow upon us.
They used to cut the Mayan child's umbilical cord with an obsidian blade. They would anoint the ears of corn with the blood and then sow the seeds, until the time came that the child was able to do it himself; then he would enjoy a long and strong life. "When they died," says Landa, "they were laid out after stuffing their mouths full of the ground maize which is their food, and the drink they call koyem, and together with that, a few of the stones they use as coin, so they would not be wanting for food in the next life."5
In their stories, children drop grains of corn so the hero will not lose his way. In the forests, it is not possible to use fireflies to light the way, nor to take one's bearings, because their constellation is variable and momentary. And if the night is blind, like the ebony night when witches are afoot, it is the task of corn, and corn alone, to show the way home. The grains of corn, and they alone, preserve their Milky Way, their constellation, along the narrow black trail of the child who, sleeping, sleeps.
The night sky is populated with corn. Itzamná lavishly scatters grain to the six cardinal points. None of the heroes have ever gotten lost and they always return home. There is always a dog howling in the little villages bathed in cold, dim moonlight that look like they have been whitewashed. The stubble fields set their metallic branches on fire at dusk, but they cease burning with the full moon. Sometimes on the lunar snow, after the fields have been harvested, the stubble burns, and the deer and coyotes ignite their wide, round eyes as-terrified-they pass through the narrow streets of the town.
The granaries are chock-full. Over eighty percent of the Indian's diet is corn.6 Tobacco wrapped in a white corn husk that has been deveined by polishing on a whetstone burns cheerfully in the man of corn's hut, which he has made of corn stalks. In the stable, the bullock chews its corn fodder. Around the dog's neck, a collar of corncobs protects it from disease. In folk tales, corn kernels are dropped to keep from taking the wrong path. In the sky, Itzamná plants corn each night with his staff, burying three to six grains of corn every two paces as the men of corn did yesterday and as they will do tomorrow, on plains, in gullies and atop mountains. Earth and sky mingle in the grain or in the star. In the dreams of children, gods and men. They all eat their own flesh. They consume themselves like fire until, at last, every two paces, every two paces, they sink into the earth and go off singing in the iridescent feathers of Kukulkán.
I sometimes think I hear the roaring of my skull, as if I had taken a shell from the earth, or a vessel discovered many meters beneath the asphalt, in the grave of a remote being who, in a grotto of Atlantis, perforated the firewood. I realize it is not imagination I am letting run away with me but memory. The things I can remember are those that make sense here, things that glimmer suddenly in the night, like sudden fishes. The rest is so recent that either I do not remember it or it is not worth talking about. That is why I have barely touched on the nightmare of Tonatiuh's arrival. And right now, at this very instant, I retain only what I saw as a child and what I found a quarter of a century later on my return from a thousand trails: when I contemplate Guatemala, it is with one eye that of a little boy in Antigua and the other, that of a cosmopolitan adult. But, I see best with my eyes empty, listening to my earth shell that has already turned into silica and feldspar: in the endless obsidian, I remember and begin to narrate. Beads of corn pass through my hands. I mumble my prayer and stammer my song. I say things I only partly understand. And that is how these things must remain. Who can translate the murmur of the cornfields for me?
And when I feel more lost than ever I return home, guided by the kernels of corn. Sometimes I feel like a starfish on a mirror in the crater of a volcano. Then, homesick and dispatriated, I remember. By turning back, I am sure of advancing: the path marked by my corn always takes me forward, even if I go the route that begins behind me. I swim against the current to reach the sea.



1. Alfonso Caso, "Contribución de las culturas indígenas de México a la cultura mundial," México y la cultura (Mexico City, Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1946), pp. 51-80.
2.   Prologue, Francisco Monterde, Anales de los Xahil, Biblioteca del Estudiante Universitario, translated and annotated by Georges Raynaud, Miguel Ángel Asturias and J. M. González de Mendoza (Mexico City: Ediciones de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1946) p. 4, parr. 5.
3.  Red branch, byrsonia-cakchiquel. Fire emerging (by friction) from wood.
4. Crónica de la S. Provincia del Santísimo Nombre de Jesús de Guatemala (sixteenth century manuscript), chapter VII.
5. Quoted by Frans Blom in La vida de los mayas, Biblioteca de Cultura Popular, 20 de octubre (Guatemala City: Ministerio de Educación Pública, 1950) p. 19.
6.  Felix Webster McBride, Cultural and Historical Geography of Southwest Guatemala (Smithsonian Institute, Institute of Social Anthropology, 1945) Publication Nº 4.

 


 

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