On the day of celebration, as part of the rituals, representations of the God were made from masa (corn dough). They were broken into bits and eaten by the general populace. Decorated and festooned with maize, he would ascend to the summit of a temple where "he was seized and held down by the priests on his back upon a block of stone, while one of them cut open his breast, thrust his hand into the wound, and wrenching out his heart, held it up in sacrifice to the sun." The body was then decapitated, the head set upon a pike. The limbs would be eaten by people, the trunk tossed to caged beasts.
A young woman might also be identified with the Maize-god. Like her male counterpart, she was reverenced in the time preceding the ritual. She was killed in a similar manner, but unlike the male, she was skinned after killing and one of the priests would squeeze himself into her skin. This priest had, in effect, become the corn goddess.
Mayan Maize or Corn Agriculture
The Mayans developed a system called Milpa agriculture, the word taken from the Aztec word for cornfield. Making a cornfield was the most important activity for Mayan men. No plow animals were used in their planting, and the work fell to the people themselves.They had a slash and burn system, not environmentally friendly, but one that produced successful cornfields. They felled the forest, burned the dried trees and bush and planted the cornfield. The corn was planted in holes made by an iron-pointed stick. Recent studies indicate that the Mayans may also have practiced such sophisticated farming methods as soil improvement, terracing, irrigation canals, and raised fields.
There were many types of corn, not all of which crossed the border to the US. One that is still grown in the west of Mexico from Sonora to Jalisco, is called maiz reventador, literally, “exploder corn.” It was used for popping. Garlands of popped corn were worn at the various rituals of the early peoples.
Daily Life and Maize
A 16th century eyewitness account of the Mayan eating habits illustrates how central maize was to their existence. "As to the meals which they ate in the time of their antiquity, they eat the same today. This is corn boiled in water and crushed. When made into dough, they dissolve it in water for a drink [pozole] and this is that they ordinarily drink and eat. An hour before sunset it was their custom to make certain tortillas of the said dough. On these they supped, dipping them into certain dishes of crushed peppers, diluted with a little water and salt. Alternately with this they ate certain boiled bean so fthe land, which are black. They call them buul, and the Spanish, frijoles. This was the only time they ate during the day, for at other times,they drank the dissolved dough mentioned above."
Though we are primarily informed by the Mayans, Bernardino Sahagun reports in The Florentine Coddex that "the Toltecs did no in fact lack anything no one was poor or had a shabby house and the smaller maize ears they used as fuel to heat therir steam baths."
Cooking Corn: Nixtamalization - The Art of Nixtamal
To the Europeans wheat converted to bread was the staff of life. To the Mesoarmicans, corn was the staff of life, and the methods they devised for using corn can only be called extraordinary. Corn can be pounded into a dough, but that is a crude and inefficient method that process an unrefined product, not a light tortilla. The primary method of treating corn in Mexico is called wet-milling or nixtamalization. Tortillas, tamales and corn chips begin their long journey into existence undergoing the wet-milling process. The process of Nixtamalization is as long as the name itself, its purpose to soften the hard walls of the kernel so they can be separated from the sweet, moist interior, then tossed away.
First the corn is cooked in a an alkali solution, generally lime and water or wood-ash and water. The kernels are brought to the boil, then left in the solution to steep and cool. During this resting and steeping period, the hulls soften and can then be washed away. The kernels are then ground on a metlapil, a three-legged stone, with a stone rolling pin, producing masa. In the southern states of the US, corn was prepared in a similar fashion to produce hominy. Today they are used to produce pozole and menudo.
What is most extraordinary about this process is that, unknown to the ancients, this process affects the protein structure of the corn. Once it has undergone nixtamalization, niacin is released in corn. When eaten in combination with beans the the vitamin-rich peppers and tomatoes, the nutrition is quite sound. In places where corn was introduced, this method of preparation was often ignored. The result was pellagra.
Masa and masa harina
Masa simply means dough in Spanish. Once formed into masa, the dough is patted by hand into the familiar tortilla shape that we know and love or used as a dough to be shaped around other foods. Tamales are made by wrapping banana leaves around such a filled dough. This was once the job of the average Mexican woman, but the arrival of molinos de nixtamal eliminated this very tedious chore.
In The Ancient Maya, Sylvanus Morley tells us, "A section of plantain leaf is heated on the griddle (xamach). When it became soft and pliable, it was placed over ashes. The women would pat the pieces of masa into tortillas. They placed the dough on the fire, and when it puffed would pick it up and flatten it with a blow against the table."
Masa is fragile, and spoils after two days. It can, however, be dried and ground into a dry powder which we call masa harina. Masa harina is the flour produced by flash-drying this masa. It is found in most supermarkets today, though rarely produced by the process of nixtamalization.