Episode 9 – Maya maize god
Maya maize god (made around 1,300 years ago). Stone
statue, found in Honduras
The sound of worship coming from a Christian Church in
Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, indicates where
the local Indian population are offering their god, not just
their devotion, but also their food – it’s a practice they’ve been
following for thousands of years. Nowadays we like to say ‘we
are what we eat’, but for generations among the faithful, it’s
been equally true to say ‘we worship what we eat’.
This willingness to venerate the food on our plate seems to
arrive at a particular moment in human development – and it
tells us much more about a society than its favourite supper
‘It’s always present in one way or another – either to be eaten,
or to be looked at, or to be worshipped. It is part of the
cultural identity.’ (Restaurateur Santiago Calva)
Some archaeologists argue that food must always have had a
divine role even for our earliest ancestors; just think of the
cow goddess of Egypt, or Bacchus and Ceres of classical
mythology, or Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food. But
there’s a particular time, after the end of the Ice Age, so
between ten and five thousand years ago roughly, when a
range of new foods seems to be accompanied by a range of
new gods. Across the world, people began to identify
particular plants that would provide them with food. In the
Middle East – as we saw in the last programme – it was wheat
and barley; in China millet and rice; in Papua New Guinea
taro; and in Africa sorghum. And, as they did so, everywhere
stories about gods emerged; gods of death and of rebirth,
gods who would guarantee the cycle of the seasons and
ensure the return of the crops, and gods – more importantly –
that represent food itself. Today’s object is myth-made
material; a food god from Central America.
Here, in the heart of the British Museum, we have a god of
maize. He’s a bust, carved of limestone using a stone chisel
and a basalt hammer, and the features are large, symmetrical,
the eyes closed, the lips parted – as though this god is in
communion with a different world, quietly meditating. The
arms are bent, the palms of the hands face outwards – one
raised, one lower – giving an impression of serene power. The
head of the god is covered with an enormous headdress in the
shape of a stylised corn cob, and his hair is like the silky
strands that line the inside of a cob of corn, inside the
Originally this statue would have sat with many other similar
gods high up on a stepped pyramid-style temple in western
Honduras. He was found in Copán, a major Mayan city and
religious centre, whose monumental ruins you can still visit
today. All of the temple’s statues were commissioned by the
Mayan ruler of the day, to adorn the magnificent temple that
he built at Copán around AD 700. Between the head and the
body you can very clearly see the join, and indeed the head
looks rather too big for the body, because when the temple in
Copán (in western Honduras, from which this came) was
destroyed, all the statues fell, and heads and bodies were
pieced together, but whether this head and this body precisely
belong together is actually not the key thing – because all
these gods are about the central power, the central role, of
maize to the local people. Our statue of the maize god is
obviously a comparative new boy; he’s made as late as AD
700. But he comes at the end of a very long tradition; Central
Americans had been worshipping him and his predecessors
for thousands of years, and his mythic story mirrors the
annual planting and harvesting of the corn on which all
Central American civilisation depended. Like the maize plant,
the maize god is decapitated at harvest time, and is then
reborn – fresh, young, and beautiful at the beginning of each
new growing season. John Staller, anthropologist and author
of the book ‘Histories of Maize’ explains why the maize god
was a common choice for rich and powerful patrons:
‘The elite from ancient societies focussed upon corn as having
sacred kinds of properties which they then associated with
themselves. And this is pretty obvious in the young maize god
– the sculpture was apparently a manifestation of
mythological beings resulting from the third Maya creation.
There were eight mythological beings, four women and four
men, who are the ancestors of all the Maya people. The Maya
believed that their ancestors essentially came from corn, and
they were formed of yellow and white maize dough. Maize
was certainly a primary focus of ritual and religious
veneration by ancient Meso-American people, going back all
the way before the Maya and even into the Olmec civilisation.’
So our maize god is not just a hauntingly beautiful statue, he
gives us a real insight into the way ancient American society
thought about itself and its environment. The maize god
represents both the fact of the agricultural cycle of planting,
harvesting and replanting, and the faith in a parallel human
cycle of birth, death and rebirth – but more, he is the very
stuff of which the Central Americans are made. Where the
Hebrew god made Adam out of dust, the Mayan gods used
maize to make their humans. The mythical story is told in the
most famous epic in the whole of the Americas, the ‘Popol
Vuh’. For generations, this was passed on through oral
traditions before finally being written down in the
seventeenth century. Here’s a taste of it:
‘And here is the beginning of the conception of humans and of
the search for the ingredients of the human body … So they
spoke; the bearer, begetter, the makers, modellers – and a
sovereign plumed serpent – they sought and discovered what
was needed for human flesh. It was only a short while before
the sun, moon and stars were to appear above the makers and
modellers. Split place, bitter water place, is the name, the
yellow corn, white corn, came from there. And this was when
they found the staple foods, and then the yellow corn and
white corn were ground. After that they put into words the
making, the modelling of our first mother-father, with yellow
corn, white corn alone for the flesh, food alone for the human
legs and arms for our first fathers, the four human works.’
But why did maize become the favoured food and the revered
grain of the Americas? Why not wheat or a certain type of
meat? The answer lies not in maize’s divine connections, but
in the environment that Central America offered. In this part
of the world at this time around nine thousand years ago,
other food resources were very thin on the ground. There
were no easily domesticated animals – as you would find pigs,
sheep or cattle elsewhere – and the staples were a trinity of
plants that were slowly cultivated and tamed: squashes, beans
and maize. But beans and squashes don’t become gods – why
Well, the plant from which maize derives, the teosinte, is
wonderfully adaptable. It’s able to grow in both the lush wet
lowlands and the dry mountainous regions, which means that
farmers can plant crops in any of their seasonal dwellings. On
top of that, constant harvesting of the grain encourages the
plants to grow larger and more abundantly, so maize quickly
became plentiful – farmers got a healthy return for investing
their labour. But crucially, maize is a rich carbohydrate that
gives you a rapid energy hit. But it is, let’s face it, pretty
stodgy, and so from very early on, farmers also cultivated an
ingenious – and tasty – accompaniment; the indigenous chilli.
It has virtually no nutritional value but, as we all know, it’s
uniquely able to liven up dull carbohydrates – and it shows
that we’ve been foodies for as long as we’ve been farmers.
By AD 1000, maize had spread north and south, virtually
through the whole length of the Americas; which is perhaps
surprising – because, in its earliest form, not only did maize
have little taste, it was practically inedible. It couldn’t just be
boiled and eaten straight away as it is today. Nine thousand
years ago, the maize cob was very hard, and eating it raw
would have made you very ill. It needed to be cooked in a
mixture of water and white lime. This elaborate process of
boiling the raw kernel in lime and water was essential.
Without it, the two key nutrients in the vegetable – the amino
acids and vitamin B – would not be released. After all that, it
had to be ground into a paste and then made into an
unleavened dough. The god of maize expected his disciples to
work hard for their supper. Even today, maize still dominates
much of Mexican cuisine, and it still carries a surprisingly
powerful religious and metaphorical charge, as restaurateur
Santiago Calva knows only too well:
‘The continuous spin-offs of maize into daily life is vast and
complex. At some stage there will always be maize around,
and it jumps any class barrier or identity. Everybody eats it
and drinks it, from the richest to the poorest, from the most
indigenous to the least indigenous, and that’s one thing that
unites more than anything else.
‘Maize culture faces two new problems, one being the use of
maize as a bio-fuel and the increment of prices, where it
directly affects the Mexican population. The other problem
being the genetically-modified maize, it’s almost personally
offensive – and religiously – that you are playing God, as it
were … it’s just very sensitive. Especially when you take corn
to be used for other purposes other than to be eaten or be
worshipped, but rather to be put into a car – it becomes a
highly controversial issue.’
So even today for some people it’s unthinkable that maize, the
divine food, should end up in a petrol tank. Well beyond
Mexico, the idea of genetic modification of crops still causes
deep unease, as much religious as scientific – a sense that the
natural order is being disturbed, that humans are trespassing
on territory that’s properly reserved for the gods. In a very
real sense, the Mexican maize god is still alive, and he’s not to
be trifled with.
In our next programme, we’ll be turning from the food of the
gods to the vessels that it’s cooked in. We’ll be in Japan, with
some of the oldest pottery in the world, and the birth of the
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