Maíz and Creation

Solapas principales

The discourse regarding possible parallels between Mayan and Christian accounts of creation have long been a part of Popol Wuj scholarship. As the root of Maya community life, and a root metaphor of the Christian faith, agriculture has become a key site of debate among scholars. Below we gloss some of the major threads of these polemics, and provide sources for additional reading.

The annual first planting of maize fields was quickly incorporated into Catholic rituals in the region soon after the arrival of the Spanish. As Allen J. Christenson notes, there were a number of clear reasons that would have made this syncretism possible: the first planting celebrates rebirth and renewal, is observed through ritual fasting and abstinence, and coincides with the beginning of the rain season in early spring. Thus, the tradition has long been combined with the celebration of the Catholic Holy Week (2016:87). In spite of the potential parallels between the two traditions, it must be remembered that the story of creation in the Popol Wuj is intimately tied to the planting cycles of maize.

In his translation of the Popol Wuj, Christenson points out that many of the words used in describing creation are also related to agriculture and cycles of planting; moreover, the creators’ initial staking out of the earth and sky into four divisions is itself directly related to the planting of corn:

“the Chortí-Maya of Guatemala considered both the squared maize field and the shamanic altars on which traditionalist Maya priests conduct their divination rituals to be the world in miniature…By laying out the maize field, or setting up a ritual table, the Maya transform secular models into sacred space. With regard to the maize field, this charges the ground with power of creation to bear new life” (2003: 65).

For his part, Nathan C. Henne suggests that each translator -- faced with the impossible task of finding equivalencies in languages like English, Spanish, and K'iche' -- creates a vision of creation that is not necessarily contained within the linguistic structures of the source text.

And yet, some patterns of daily life and material facts of Mesoamerican ecological systems may explain the translators' choices. For example, the space of the milpa is, by necessity, one of cyclical regrowth. As individual fields are typically productive for two years, Maya farmers abandon them for new sections of land; after a period of anywhere between 4 to 20 years, depending on the location, the farmer will then return to the original field and begin planting again (Coe 2005: 19). Moreover, there is an inherent system of balance between the crops that are planted in the milpa that also reflects a necessary nutritional balance in the Maya diet. That is, beans are interplanted among maize in the milpa not only because they provide the necessary amino acids that are missing from maize, but also because they dramatically improve the fertility of nitrogen-deficient soils (Morehart 7). 

It is also worth noting here the emphasis that the Creators place on the importance of perfecting humans prior to the approaching sowing season: “hagamos sustenador nuestro, y mantenedor nuestro” (Ximenez, Folio 3 Recto). Thus, the will to create humans was predicated not only on the need for a being capable of invoking the names of the gods, but also for the purpose of providing and sustaining the divine rulers. Creation was subsequently determined by the divinatory ceremony of casting tz’ite beans and grains of maize, which are then interpreted by the counting of days on the K’iche’ calendar (Christenson 2003: 79).

Moreover, as Michael D. Coe observes with regards to the relationship between maize cultivation and the myth of the Hero Twins, “[t]owards the end of the dry season, by planting the seed in the hole made with his digging stick, the Maya farmer symbolically sent it to Xibalba, to its temporary death. Thanks to the intervention of the Maize God’s twin sons, the maize was reborn and rose again to the surface as a young sprout, to be nourished by the coming of the rains” (66). Tedlock makes a clear distinction in his translation that the corn planted by the Hero Twins is green, roasting ears rather than dried kernels; furthermore, the “planting” that will take place is in the attic of the home (1996:271).

Of green maize, which was often boiled or roasted in its husk, Sophie D. Coe notes that the appearance of the crop at this point in development “was often greeted with religious ceremonies of thanks and rejoicing” (13). Thus, there is a deep and persistent exchange between the spiritual and natural world in K’iche’ culture -- one whose traces remain despite levels of Spanish colonial mediation.