Maya maize god

Maya maize god
Fig. 1: Tonsured Maize God as a patron of the scribal arts, Classic period

Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the traditional Mayas recognize in their staple crop, the maize, a vital force with which they strongly identify. This is clearly shown by their mythological traditions. According to the 16th-century Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins have maize plants for alter egos and man himself is created from maize. The discovery and opening of the Maize Mountain - the place where the corn seeds are hidden - is still one of the most popular of Mayan tales. In the Classic period (200-900 AD), the maize deity shows aspects of a culture hero.


Female and male maize deities

In Maya oral tradition, the maize is usually personified as a woman[1] - not unlike the rice in Southeast Asia, or the wheat in ancient Greece and Rome. The acquisition of this woman through bridal capture or bridal service constitutes one of the basic Maya myths. In contrast to this, the pre-Spanish Mayan aristocracy appears to have primarily conceived the maize as male. The Classic period distinguished two male forms: a Foliated and a Tonsured Maize God.[2] The Foliated Maize God is present in the so-called Maize Tree (Temple of the Foliated Cross, Palenque), its cobs being shaped like the deity's head. Whereas the Foliated Maize God is a one-dimensional vegetative spirit, the Tonsured Maize God's functions are much more diverse. On stelas, the ritual representative of the Tonsured Maize God tends to be a queen rather than a king. The queen thus appears to have become a maize goddess, in accordance with the Mayan narrative traditions mentioned above. A male maize deity representing the foliated type and labeled god E is present in the three extant Maya books of undisputed authenticity; the codical god H has been claimed to represent the Tonsured Maize God.[3]

Functions of the Tonsured Maize God

Iconographically, various functions can be discerned:

  • The Tonsured Maize God personifies precious substances: maize, jade, and also cacao. The Popol Vuh has Xquic imploring a 'Cacao Woman', but the Classical Mayas preferred to depict the cacao god as a male. The Tonsured Maize God doubles as a Tonsured Cacao God, with cacao pods growing from his body.[4] More directly, the Tonsured Cacao God's body can be shown as a tree, with his head representing the cacao pod growing on its stem. A Classical Mayan vase in the Popol Vuh Museum seems to show a trophy head suspended in such a personified cacao tree.
  • In addition to being the deity of maize and cacao, the Tonsured Maize God is also a patron of dancing [5] and feasting. As a ceremonial dancer, he often carries a specific 'totemic' animal in his backrack.[6]
  • Along with the Howler Monkey Gods, he is a patron of the scribal arts (see fig. 1). In this, as in some other respects, the Tonsured Maize God is a juvenile form of the upper god, God D (Itzamna).
  • In his life as in his death and resurrection, the Tonsured Maize God serves as a model for the king.[7]
  • In the San Bartolo murals, the Maize God is connected to a fifth world tree probably representing the central tree of life; in Palenque, a maize tree serves as such a tree of life.

Late-Preclassic and Classic Maya maize mythology

Fig. 2: San Francisco Capstone depicting the Tonsured Maize God residing in a well.

Many Classic Maya paintings, particularly on vases, testify to the existence of a rich mythology centered on the Tonsured Maize God. The Late-Preclassic murals of San Bartolo demonstrate its great antiquity.[8] Several theories, with varying degrees of ethnographic support, have been formulated to account for episodes such as the maize deity's resurrection from a turtle, his canoe voyage, and his transformation into a cacao tree.

Popol Vuh Twin myth extension

The Tonsured Maize God is often accompanied by the Hero Twins. Following Karl Taube, many scholars (such as Michael D. Coe) believe that the resurrected Tonsured Maize God of the Classic Period corresponds to the father of the Hero Twins in the Popol Vuh, Hun-Hunahpu.[2] This generally accepted identification has recently been contested.[9]

Cosmological creation myth

Linda Schele's emphasis on creation has led to a series of interconnected hypotheses all involving the cosmological centrality of the Tonsured Maize God (or 'First Father'), to wit: his establishment of the so-called 'three-stone hearth' (assumed to represent a constellation);[10] his raising of the World Tree;[11] his 'dance of creation';[12] and his stance as an acrobat, which (more or less coinciding with representations of a crocodile tree) seems to evoke the central World Tree.[13] The maize god's presence in the San Bartolo arrangement of five world trees has been interpreted as his establishment of the world.[14]

Seasonal myth

Another theory, formulated by Simon Martin,[4] focuses on the Tonsured Maize God's interaction with an aged jaguar deity of trade, god L. This interaction is related to the hero's transformation into a cacao tree conceived as a 'trophy tree' and to the cacao trade. God L is assumed to have presided over the dry season dedicated to long-distance trade, warfare, and the cacao harvest, and the Tonsured Maize God over the wet season and the growth of the maize. The onset of the two seasons is thought to be symbolized by the defeat of the maize deity and of god L, respectively.

Gulf Coast maize myth

In many scenes, an aquatic environment strongly comes to the fore (see fig. 2), most famously in the maize deity's resurrection from the carapace of a turtle that is floating on the waters. Braakhuis[9] pointed out that such an environment also characterizes an important maize myth shared by many ethnic groups (such as Huaxtecs, Totonacs, Nahuas and Zoques) inhabiting Mexico's Gulf Coast. The fact that this myth focuses on a male, rather than a female maize deity, while at the same time establishing an intimate connection between the maize god and the turtle, is adduced in support of the idea that the Classic Mayas once formed part of the same narrative tradition. More in particular, it is argued that the Preclassic San Bartolo Maya maize deity dancing with a turtle drum amidst aquatic deities can be explained by a Zoque (Popoluca) version of the Gulf Coast myth.[15]

Names and calendrical functions

Several designations for the pre-Spanish maize god occur in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel. They include ah mun 'tender green shoot' [16] and zac uac nal 'white-six-new corn' (or uac chuaac nal 'six-tall-new corn').[17] In the wake of Schele, the Tonsured Maize God (equated with Hun-Hunahpu) has often been nicknamed 'First Father'. The Classic name of the Tonsured Maize God (which usually includes the numeral 'One') is not known, although various suggestions have been made ('Hun-Nal-Ye', 'Ixim').

The appearance of the Tonsured Maize God is connected to the base date of the Long Count, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku. Calendrically, the maize is associated with the day Q'an 'Ripe(ness)'; the head of the Foliated Maize God serves to denote the number Eight. The Tonsured Maize God is sometimes found associated with the lunar crescent and may therefore have played a role in the divisions of the lunar count; his head seems to occur in glyph C of the Lunar Series (see also Maya moon goddess).


  1. ^ Bassie 2002
  2. ^ a b Taube 1985
  3. ^ Braakhuis 2009:22
  4. ^ a b Martin 2006
  5. ^ Taube 2009
  6. ^ Reents-Budet 1991
  7. ^ Taube 2009: 48-49
  8. ^ Saturno, Stuart, Taube 2005
  9. ^ a b Braakhuis 2009
  10. ^ Freidel, Schele, Parker 1993: 66-67; Taube 1998: 443-445
  11. ^ Freidel, Schele, Parker 1993: 71, 75
  12. ^ Freidel, Schele, Parker 1993: 276-279; Looper 2009: 116; Taube 2009
  13. ^ Taube 2005: 25-28
  14. ^ Saturno, Taube, Stuart 2004
  15. ^ Braakhuis 2009: 12, 23, 30; cf. Taube 2009: 50
  16. ^ Roys 1967: 112
  17. ^ Thompson 1970: 289


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