Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Corn entwines with culture (part 2 of 3)

It's a big job to be the sun.  It can never be late nor can it ever take a day off. Worse, it has to put up with the constant chit-chat and gossip of the many other lesser gods joining it for a short while on its unending trips.  It must climb the giant staircase in the sky from sunrise to noon and then travel back down the other side to sunset.  The sun doesn't even get to rest during the night -- it illuminates the realm of the dead in the underworld, journeying down five giant steps to the lowest level of the underworld and then four steep steps back up the other side, ready once again to illuminate the realm of the living during the day. 

It’s a tedious job and every 52 years the sun can opt-out. But the wondrous offerings priests here on earth promise entices the sun to return.  Gifts are offered in such abundance that the sun simply cannot turn them down.  However it's understandable that at the end of a cycle the gifts may not be sufficiently tempting and the sun might just say "I don't want to do this anymore."  It’s happened four times in the past.  That's why we now live under the fifth sun.  It could happen again.

Each time the sun has refused to return humanity has died off.  How could people live in constant darkness?  Each time this has happened the gods have had to come together in council to create a new humanity.  Without the people’s offerings the gods themselves would die of starvation.  A uniquely Mesoamerican religious concept is that gods are as dependent on people as people are on the gods.  Linda Schele recognized the similar relationship that Mesoamericans had with their staple food, corn.  Unlike any other grain, corn cannot exist without people. Mesoamericans realized they could not exist without corn.   

We live under the fifth sun and are also part of the fifth humanity.  From the Quiché Maya of the highlands of Guatemala we learn that the gods first made people out of mud.  Not surprisingly they turned out to be wishy-washy people, didn't worship the gods as they should and were washed away back to mud.  The second time the gods carved people out of wood.  They were mindless mannequins, easily destroyed by fire.  The third humanity was fashioned of flesh. It turned to wickedness.  The fourth was shaped from masa (corn dough). They were ancestors of the Quiché who recorded the history -- the good people. But even their time came to an end and their sun refused to return.  Our fifth humanity is a combination of all the previous: there are wishy-washy people of mud, mindless people of wood, evil people of flesh, and some good people, descendants of the people of corn.  Look around--you’ll probably know who is who.

This story, only one of many mythologies about corn, is loosely based on the Popul Vuh and is an introduction to the importance of corn to the ancient Mesoamericans and even today’s Mexico.

You know of course that beloved god Quetzalcoatl (aka Feathered Serpent) provided corn to people.  Knowing that this fifth humanity would starve without food, he turned himself into an ant and descended into the underworld following an ant carrying a kernel of corn.  Some say Quetzalcoatl stole the corn from the ants.  Others say he talked Sister Ant into telling him the secret of corn and other crops and brought those secrets back to humanity.  Either way, that’s the kind of god Quetzalcoatl is.  He’s always on our side.  You never hear anything bad about Quetzalcoatl.  

Corn played a major role in all aspects of Mesoamerican life.  Mesoamericans did and still do live by and for corn.  Some Indigenous groups cut the umbilical cord of their male child over a corncob.  Then the blood-splattered corncob is smoked. During planting season corn kernels are removed and carefully planted in the child's name -- harvested and planted again and again. Part of this crop is used as an offering. The rest is used to feed the child until he is grown and able to plant his own field with his own corn.  In death many Mesoamerican groups would bury their dead with their mouths stuffed with food -- mainly corn based.

As was mentioned in an earlier column, using highly-efficient farming methods corn had a higher yield than wheat, rice, rye or any other Old World grain. Statistically it may also be the most efficient farming to date.  The peasant farmer not only fed his family but a non-laboring sophisticated elite of nobles, warriors, artists, officials and priests.  Everyone in the system knew their status. Indeed life itself was dependent upon this sacred grain.

The Mesoamerican culture that corn created may have been the grandest in the world at that time. The myths surrounding this wonderful plant are small tribute to the importance of the remarkable symbiosis of man and corn.

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