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.
One of the core cycles of myth belonging to the Aztecs is the multipart epic of how they went from their humble beginning as an obscure band of nomads to the lords of Tenochtitlan and the founders of a great empire, all under Huitzilopochtli’s watchful eye. In honor of the festival months of Quecholli (beginning today) and Panquetzaliztli, the veintanas celebrating the Chichimec past and the god who led them to glory, I will be kicking off a special storytelling event. Over the course of November and first week of December, I will be retelling the highlights of the series of legends that comprise this important saga of the Mexica-Tenochca people.
The basic timeline of the Foundation Cycle starts with the big entrance of Huitzilopochtli onto the scene with the Battle of Coatepec. I’ve already posted that one, and I recommend checking it out if you haven’t read it yet, as it sets the stage for things to come.
Once Huitzilopochtli’s arrived, He picks out the Mexica as His own favorite tribe and calls them to leave their ancestral homelands in the north and begin their migration south, deep into the Anahuac Valley. He promises to guard them and guide them to a new home, a place where they will found a mighty empire. They trust in Him and head out, overcoming both human and divine opponents until they eventually reach the place where the eagle perches on the nopal cactus, eating a heart — the sign that they have finally found their new home… Tenochtitlan.
Funny how things tend to come in clusters. One day I find the full text of Soustelle’s The Daily Life of the Aztecs, today I find a complete English translation of the Anonymous Conqueror’s Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan, México. (In case you’re wondering, Temestitan is an old Spanish corruption of Tenochtitlan.)
This is one of the more obscure Conquest-era histories, allegedly written by one of the Conquistadores under Cortes. We’ve never definitively identified who the author was, but the book seems to be generally accepted as a genuinely early document. The book is an account of the Conquest itself and a concise overview of life in Tenochtitlan at the time, from a recently-arrived European perspective. As usual, such works have to be read carefully, with an awareness of problems of reliability, bias, and cultural misunderstandings/ignorance. With those caveats aside, however, early material like this can still be quite useful.
Go HERE to read Marshall H. Saville’s 1917 English translation of the Anonymous Conqueror’s Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan, México, edited by Alec Christensen and kindly hosted on FAMSI.
I have also updated the First Contact & Conquest Era History page on this site with a permanent link to this work.
Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go crash before I face-plant on my keyboard, as I’ve been awake for almost 24 hours straight now, 13 of which were spent at work… Just had to share this random discovery before catching some sleep.
I was doing some digging online today, and had quite a stroke of good luck — I found a complete copy of Jacques Soustelle’s classic The Daily Life of the Aztecs online! The English edition of the entire book is available to read for free on Questia. Soustelle was a famous French anthropologist who specialized in studying the Aztecs before the Conquest, one of the bright lights in Mesoamerican studies of the mid 20th Century. His Daily Life of the Aztecs is one of his best-known works on this subject, covering a wide variety of details of Mexica life in great Tenochtitlan, ranging from architecture to agriculture, religion, economics, and the conduct of war. Though somewhat dated (written in 1962), most of the information in this book still remains quite useful, and his respectful, non-sensationalistic tone is refreshing. As it predates the rediscovery of the Templo Mayor (Huey Teocalli) in the 1970’s, it sadly doesn’t include much on that famous structure. Still, I strongly recommend giving it a read, as it remains one of the better general histories and anthropological overviews of life in Precolumbian Mexico.
Incidentally, I have now activated the Pre-Conquest History page in the History section of this blog’s static pages and placed an additional permanent link to this book there.