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Corn Central to Ancient Mesoamerica’s Divination, Spells, and Chanters

By Tim Hazell

 

“Ya que seamos hispanos, mexicanos; semos mas indios (more than Hispanics or Mexicans, we are Indians).” —Agueda Martinez

 

The practices of ancient México survive today in the oral traditions and homeopathic remedies still around today.

Hernando Ruiz de Alarcon’s sixteenth-century book on the customs of the native peoples in New Spain, Tratado de las supersticiones y costumbres gentilicias que hoy viven entre los indios naturales de esta Nueva España (Treatise on the Beliefs and Tribal Customs Existing Today among the Native Indians of New Spain) documented and preserved for modernity evidence of ancient Aztec prescriptions, including ones to counter illness or negative emotions.

To read de Alarcon’s book is to travel back in time, as we watch a native healer administer a ritual against anger that uses kernels from the base of an ear of corn. These kernels point in a different direction than the rest of the ear. According to ancient Aztec beliefs, the healer’s incantation has a contrary effect against anger and on this backward growth pattern. The corn is then ground and administered orally, along with the following spell, as a cure.

 

Against Anger

Come forth Tlazopilli, Centeotl.

You will calm down the yellow heart,

The green anger, the yellow anger will come out.

I shall make it leave, I shall chase it away—I, Spirit in Flesh!

 

In 1930s Arizona, ethnographic documenters Franc Newcomb and Gladys Reichard were able to spend five consecutive summers with Miguelito, a Navajo “chanter.” In order to perform the “Shooting Chant,” part of the complex Navajo religion, Miguelito relied on large paintings that were poured by artists in very deliberate ways with colored sand on an appointed spot. His responsibility was to check the developing paintings for accuracy. Several artists took part in the design, taking breaks in between, along with assistants who ground mineral pigments of various colors for them to use. Here is a description of the process:

“As he works, the painter completes his design in all the colors necessary and runs his hand through a small portion of natural sand when he wishes to change color. The center may represent water, in which case a bowl of water is actually sunk in the sand, or the painting may be created around a small fire. The medium of the painter allows him to use one color over another, as many as six or eight layers of sand. If long straight lines are indicated, the artist and his assistant will snap a chord dipped in colored sand over the spot where this line is to be drawn. When the design seems complete, it is carefully inspected by the head chanter, who must give final approval.”

Corn is the enduring staple in traditional Navajo and other native recipes and is featured in this modern variation.

Fresh Corn Salad

Ingredients:

5 ears of corn

1/2 cup finely diced red onion

3 tbsp cider vinegar

3 tbsp olive oil

1/2 tsp salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup julienned fresh basil leaves

Directions:

Cook corn for 3 minutes in boiling salted water. Remove and immerse in cold water to stop the cooking. When cool, cut the kernels off the cob and combine in a large bowl with the red onions, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss in the fresh basil just before serving. Taste for seasonings. Serve cold or at room temperature.

 

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