Sitting here at my computer tonight, musing on an important, if not always comfortable, aspect of traditional Aztec thought and its implications. Namely, the concept of “human corn” and the natural humility flowing from that point of view.
“Human Corn” — What Do You Mean?
“Human Corn” — it’s an odd phrase at first glance, especially to those of us raised in a modern, Euro-American society. Boiled down to its essence, it means “people are food.” Food for what? For everything, really. In traditional Aztec thought, humans are food for the gods and food for the Earth.
In his article “Cosmic Jaws,” Dr. David Carrasco notes a saying that survives among some indigenous tribes today in the region, “We eat the Earth, and the Earth eats us.” The Earth was said to have been created from the ever-hungry primordial monster-goddess Cipactli when Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, transformed into great serpents, squeezed her in half and created the land and the sky from her remains. In exchange for housing and feeding us, She eats us when we die. When we eat of the land, we literally eat death and begin racking up a debt to Cipactli (later honored with the name Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Lord) for Her bounty.
Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli isn’t the only deity depicted as eating people. Most famously, Tonatiuh the Sun received the heart sacrifice as food and drink, and Tlacaelel likened Nahua soldiers to tasty warm tortillas, hot from the griddle, destined for the table of the gods. Numerous prayers and songs, some recorded by Sahagun in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, describe the sacrificed warrior entering the jaws of Tlaltecuhtli, and praise his blessed state as he goes to feed the cosmos.
Other prayers and huehuetlatolli (moral speeches) explicitly describe humans as corn. During the festival month of Tititl, young plants and young children were stretched to encourage them to grow tall and healthy — and for the same purpose. Youthful warriors were likened to the corn god Centeotl, and the strong linkage between corn/crop and war imagery in Aztec religion has long fascinated and puzzled scholars. (See works by David Carrasco and Kay Almere Read, for example.) Over and over again, we see the idea of “being food” as a central part of the Aztec conception of what it means to be human.
The Implications of “Human Corn”
So, what does it mean to incorporate “being food” into the human identity? Well… it means a very different outlook on our place in the world from what a lot of us were probably raised with. It means we’re not exempt from the natural cycle of eating and being eaten that the natural world runs on, and that this is the ordinary, proper mode of things. It’s no curse or aberration that we’re subject to birth and death, it’s merely part of our nature. It also means we’re not the center of the universe — if the Earth is a garden, we’re a crop planted in it, not the gardener. There’s no analogue to the story of Eden and the Abrahamic view of the dominance of humanity over the natural world here.
It also means humility. If we’re not the capstone of creation, the reason for the whole show, it means we need to get over ourselves. We’re just a part of the greater whole, sometimes likened to a household in traditional Nahua thought. No part is indispensable, from plants to animals, from humans to gods. Every being has its part to play, and that should be honored and acknowledged, but in its proper measure. Perhaps instead of whispering to ourselves, “Remember, thou art mortal!” as the Romans did, we should think, “Remember, thou art corn!” when we’re tempted to hubris.
Finally, it also imparts a certain amount of meaning and purpose to miquiztli (death). When we die, we nourish life and we pay the debt we owe to the Earth for sustaining us. Depending on your understanding of the gods and how the universe works, this can be interpreted in many, many ways as best suits your metaphysical and theological perspective. Whether interpreted poetically, mystically, or literally, the idea of “human corn” still holds valuable meaning in a modern setting.
As a bonus, if you would like to read a bit more about Aztec funeral practices and thoughts on death, I came across a brief article on the subject by David Iguaz that you might enjoy. Click HERE to read it in html, or HERE to download the PDF.
It’s my opinion that Cipactli and Tlaltecuhtli are connected but not the same. But i am really not that sure. I prefer Tlaltecuhtli myself.
November 12, 2008 at 6:37 PM
Btw I always liked this picture w/ Tlaloc:
But I think the female was identified as Chalchiuhtlicue.
November 12, 2008 at 8:56 PM
Yeah, we’re food. That’s pretty much our place.
The cycle that the modern Mixtec have makes a lot of sense, and is probably similar to what the Aztecs thought about it. For the Mixtec, the first “children” of Earth and Sky is corn. They give us Their children so that we can grow, and then it’s us that, in turn, feeds Them. Earth and Rain are even referred to as “Our Mother, Our Father” respectively. If you look at some of the naming schemes in the Florentine you’ll see very similar things in relation to the earth/sky idea. Monaaghan has a book called “The Covenants of Earth and Rain” that really expounds on the subject, though in a modern context.
Some Aztec deities are tied more closely to the eating of human flesh than others are. You could probably find an example of all of the major deities “drinking” blood from one codex or another, but those that actually eat people tend to fall into another type of category. Xolotl, as a dog, obviously is a devourer of the flesh of the dead but Quetzalcoatl is only related to the consumption of hearts and blood. Tezcatlipoca’s impersonator was sacrificed and then his flesh cooked in an act of ritual cannibalism while the next Tez-to-be was officially indoctrinated. Children in Tlaloc sacrifices were “pieced out”, first drained of blood, then their hearts offered, then their flesh cooked. Mictlan dwellers, deities included, are mentioned eating human flesh. It’s an interesting subject to look at.
November 16, 2008 at 10:41 PM
Yeah it says in the Florentine book 2 that the gods’ statues were offered blood to drink on their mouths. It wasn’t specific. But i got the gist it was about the major deities.
I also recently found this. In which Copal is described as food of the gods as well.
November 18, 2008 at 3:37 PM