Maya maize god statue

Contributed by British Museum

Statue of the Maya maize god from Copán in Honduras. © Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 4

The statue is of the Mayan maize god. He was found in a pyramid-style temple in Copan in modern-day Honduras surrounded by many other maize gods. In Mayan mythology, the maize god was decapitated at harvest time but reborn again at the beginning of a new growing season. Myths about the death and rebirth of gods helped explain the cycle of the seasons and the return of maize, on which Mayan civilisation depended.

Why did the Mayans worship maize?

The myth of the maize god is just one example of how the development of agriculture led to major changes in how people across the world conceived their gods. For thousands of years the Mayans worshiped the maize god and believed that their ancestors were made from maize dough. Maize was the Mayan's most important food source. Today maize still forms a large part of the Central American diet in the form of tortillas.

Early farmers in Mexico grew chilli to make their maize taste better

Cooking with the Maya

Corn had a mythical status in Mexico, being an ancient and nutritious crop full of vital minerals like niacin, calcium and riboflavin. Under the Mexica ruler, Moctezuma, corn became a symbol of life and fertility and was offered to the Gods as sacrifice.

Corn is different from other cereals: its nutrients are encapsulated in solid particles that do not crack with heat or water. The Mesoamerican cultures discovered more than 5,000 years ago that cooking corn with lime allows the solid particles to crack, releasing the minerals for the body to absorb.

Grains of corn boiled with lime and water are easily milled to obtain a nutritionally rich dough or ‘masa’. From the masa tortillas, tostadas, totopos, sopes, tlacoyos, chalupas and other Mexican streetfoods are baked.

The Spanish conquistadores did not understand the need for lime. For them, lime was synonymous with death, as they used lime to disintegrate organic matter. So the European colonisers in Mexico did not eat tortillas or other masa products. Instead they imported wheat and with it they baked bread.

Bread became a symbol of wealth and power, tortillas of ignorance and poverty.

The Spanish brought corn to Europe where it easily adapted to the local conditions. It became a staple for poor rural European populations since its yield was much higher than wheat. By the seventeenth century around 60% of the diet of southern Europe consisted of untreated corn. But then disaster struck.

From the 1730s symptoms of digestive disturbances, dementia and death were recorded. The disease was later named pellagra. It killed thousands. It was not until 1930 that it was discovered that pellagra was due to a deficiency in niacin (a mineral that transforms fat and proteins into readily usable body energy). The disease occurred because the Europeans were not able to digest the corn’s nutrients. The culinary secrets of the ancient Mesoamerican cultures had not been learned.

The white corn masa so loved and revered today in Mexico and amongst Mexican communities abroad is still largely unknown to bakers across the world. But the culinary secrets of the ancient Mesoamerican cultures have been preserved for centuries.

Thomasina Miers, Owner, Wahaca Mexican Market Eating

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  • 1 comment
  • 1. At 13:40 on 25 October 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Just as Necessity has been called the mother of invention I have heard it said that had there been no gods it would have been necessary to invent them. And no doubt the idea sprang from the recognition of genius and for its protection. After all, people have been stealing from one another from the dawn of time. Genius is a commodity every bit as valuable as gold or silver and for this reason alone the God myth was probably created.
    It must have taken genius to figure out that the humble maize forebear had the most enormous potential for sustenance and further genius to experiment until its nutritional value had been fully exploited.
    Such a man or school whose discovery gave the world a food for ever would have been worthy of remembrance and after the fashion of the ancient world deified.
    This figure has not got his eyes closed as you say Ian. If you are looking from below, as you should be, you would be looking up directly into his open compassionate gaze. And his gestures, assuming they belong to the head, would undoubtedly have acted as prompts of some kind in any normal oral tradition of learning.
    The Spanish wouldn?t have missed a trick like this if they had realised what problems they would be foisting upon themselves in their greed lust. So it might be argued that the withholding of information by the conquered Mayan peoples was an act of sabotage which along with similar acts by other American indigenous peoples such as with tobacco and potato appear to be working quite nicely to this day.
    Given that we are Homo sapiens sapiens (of very little genius) most likely our slavish greed lust for the precious woods from the dwindling forests of the world will bring a similar price for our children to bear in the absence of any amazingly joined-up genius of our own.
    And since we don't even have a proper democracy who is to care anyway?

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