Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mayan Symbols

As a botanist and a trained anthropologist I am very interested in the way various cultures have depicted plants. One of the great examples is corn (Zea mays). Corn emerged as a cultivated crop thousands of years ago in Mesoamerica and as a premier food crop it became prominent in the religion and iconography of the Mayans.

One of my favorite corn symbols shows the corn god emerging from the shell of a tortoise. This detail from a bowl found in present-day Guatemala shows the corn god as a germinating seed. The "face" is the crinkled corn seed, which seems utterly dry and devoid of life. The "headdress" depicts the young leaves of a new corn plant.

Resurrection of the Maize god

I have spent a good amount of time traveling in the Yucatan and it seems that wherever I travel, whichever archeological site I visit, there are depictions of corn. Compare this more recent, highly abstracted carving from the Pu'uc region to the older, more "literal representation" we observed in the Guatamalen bowl.

Kabah tree of life

Here is a similar symbol from Mayapan, not far from Kabah. It's interesting that here the symbol, which is nearly identical, seems to be upside-down. Was this a mistake that contemporary restorers made?

Mayan Symbol at Mayapan

I am struck by the unmistakable identity of a cob of corn from this stone carving on display at Palenque, one of the major Mayan sites, which sits deep in the rainforest.

Palenque Corn

It is similar to other more literal interpretations such as this one from Ek Ba'alam.

Ek Ba'alam maize symbols

Elsewhere at Ek Ba'alam corn is depicted as part of a mask.

Maize mask Ek Ba'alam

This is common in the Yucatan and in other parts of Mexico as well.

Corn deity

Fertility goddess

After Europeans settled in Mexico, the maize symbol continued, perhaps as an expression of indigenous autonomy. Here is an example from a colonial-era building in Mexico City.

Baroque corn decoration

One of the most amazing depictions of corn I have ever seen is very tiny. It is only a few millimeters tall. It is found on the back of a larger-than-life Catholic saint's reliquary that is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Perhaps the corn symbol was put there by an indigenous metal worker who was putting the signature of his religion onto this object that was valued by the conquerers.

Maize depiction

Zea mays continues as a symbol throughout contemporary Mexico, a living icon of the grain that continues to nourish most of the people in this amazing country.

Modern use of corn


And just for the record...the world's first corn dog.

Corn dog

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