This time of year, the first of November, the people of Cuzco give and receive babies and horses of bread both to children and each other. The bread and the horse are sweet, misk’iy. They help transform the focus from the dead onto the living, especially children.
However, many people hold an idea that the dead can circulate through the world of the dead and return as babies. You will hear people speak of new borns as sharing qualities of the dead. Unlike the Anglo world, where people also look to see who has grandpa’s eyes or grandma’s nose, in Cuzco and elsewhere in Peru and Bolivia, people look to see if the dead loved one has returned in the child.
This is all made more complex by the idea of the self as being composed of multiple souls and multiple parts. But I have never heard anyone go to that level of discussion or analysis, even though it lies right at the edge of conversation.
We can argue that the focus on bread babies is more than just a shifting of attention from the dead to the living, and more than a questioning about something that in the Anglo world goes by the too rough term “reincarnation”. Instead there is something fundamentally the same about the dead and the babies.
We should not spend too much time worrying about the dead in their cemetery niches, as slowly decomposing bodies. Instead we should note that they have moved inside. They have gone to the world within. Babies also come from the world within.
In other worlds, this November feast celebrates not just the human dead but that womb of the earth, its inside where the dead, babies, tubers, and all kinds of seeds germinate.
A popular image of the cross and the Andean Christians drawn by the Chronicler Guaman Poma de Ayala illustrates this. Although it refers explicitly in formal Christianity to Golgotha and the crucifixion and hence the role of a dying God to bring about rebirth and salvation, in the frame we are discussing there are other–related–meanings.
The picture shows a cross arising, like a tree, from a garden of skulls and bones underground. Here is portrayed a visual image of what is understood to happen in field after field, or in main plaza after main plaza where trees arise from the same ground where some dead are buried.
This idea is also related to the tree with gifts that will be festively “cut down” in Cuzco’s neighborhoods during Carnival, some four or five months from now. Six months from now Cuzco, half a year, the people of Cuzco will also sit all night with the cross, celebrating it and giving it company during the night before its feast. This important Cuzco rite is called Cruz Velacuy.
In any case, the bread carries that relationship of the living coming from the dead.
The livingness of the bread gets emphasized in another custom in Cuzco and other parts of the Peruvian highlands. People will come together to “baptize” a bread baby.
Besides being an excuse for a good party, the baptism carries much meaning. Babies are not the only things baptized in Cuzco that to us English speakers do not seem either human or alive. The use of the word seems mocking or an overly extended metaphor.
I do not think that the metaphor part is completely accurate. The “mocking” in the sense of satire in a much more complex sense of representing fertility, or of heightened imitation may be accurate. Its English, or non-Andean Spanish, sense of disrespect is not the case.
Groups, such as businesses, university programs, unions, schools, or more get together and purchase a large bread baby (or something that suggests it such as a long cake or a long causa (a concoction of mashed potatoes in a loaf with a filling).
They name a priest, usually a person with a great sense of humor and verbal ability, specifically the talent to speak with sexual double meanings though on the surface the meanings seem something else. They also name a couple to be the parents of the baby, especially two people who in life are very unlikely to be paired. Finally godparents for the child are named.
The bread baby is set up, as a result with the kinds of social relations that people also create for a human baby. Yet, these kinds of institutions are not the kind that produce children; they are not a couple with children. Nevertheless, within them one finds social relationships that include hierarchy, solidarity, and productivity. The baptism of a bread baby, it seems to me, within these organizations lets the image of a family be a model.
But the model is inverted. It is not the same. It is turned around. The couple is an unlikely pair. Their child is bread. And during the baptism, instead of speaking the holy words, the priest engages in sexual joking, asking when and where the child was conceived and supposing all kinds of things about the couples intimate life.
This use of humor shows the break in the ordinary order of the family, even though the society is very important. However, the situation is also a lot like those portrayed in the Huarochiri tales.
In one important story (Chapter 5) the Baked Potato Son of the Thunder and Mountain hero Paria Caca is very poor and looking for a wife and family. In contrast Tamta Ñamca, whose first name may well mean bread–although in this case it would be bread made like a tamale of corn, is rich and has an unmarried daughter, though he is ill.
The myth tells how is world is all upside down. His wife toasts corn and a kernal pops from the pan and enters her vagina, the wrong place. There is a contrasting tale embedded in the story briefly, of a death-causing penis.
The stone on which the corn is ground also creates illness instead of health because a two headed toad lives under it and in the eaves of Tamta Ñamca’s beautiful, well feathered house, lives two snakes and they “eat up” Tamta Ñamca. The vagina and the penis find their pairs in the grinding stone and the snakes.
The solution is to kill the improperly placed animals–and hence repurpose the mis-used genitals, in order to for life to appear; Tamta Ñamca is cured and the Baked Potato gets married.
This strange world is like that of the baptism of bread babies. Unlikely people are paired and their genitals and sexuality are on display in the back meanings of ordinary language. It is a world of miss applied use.
Furthermore, people eat the bread baby. They eat the product of this humorous sexuality and strange couple, even if they socialize it through baptism. In the Huarochiri tale, the corn that popped into the vagina, when ate, led to improper sex and the placing of a snake in the roof, where it does not belong, and a toad under the grinding stone. It led to sickness. In the case of the baptism of the baby, it is expected that eating the baby lead to health and social success.
Eating the baby is reminiscent of another of the Huarochiri tales (Chapter 1) where, before the birth of Paria Caca an earlier Apu (mountain hero), Huallallo Carhuincho would require people have two children. He would eat one and they could raise the other. This suggests that eating the bread baby might be a way of replacing the living baby with one of bread to be devoured, so that the other, the living child, might be raised to adult hood. The dangerous hungers of the mountain hero are met and people can reproduce and develop a family.
One can certainly see this as a possible way of understanding why it is that boys and girls eat the sweet bread. It assuages their cannibalistic, natural (and hence anti-social) desires to devour and lets them become fully socialized and reach productive adulthood.
This idea of eating is also important in another way. Catherine J. Allen begins her book Foxboy with a story of how a “tricky little child”, in this case the infant Manuel, would spin the finest wool possible. He would shear his sheep and then eat the wool. What came out his other end was finely spun an ready to be woven into amazing cloth.
Eating, then, is a way of transforming things, akin to spinning and cooking. Just as I need to finish Allen’s book, so too the idea of eating needs more thought and more observation.
The bread babies of Cuzco will be consumed. From that act of eating will come another season of good social relationships and fertility. Children will be born and they and others will grow.
In this inevitability and the constant struggle, hunger and demand for food, I am reminded of an image from the facade of the Cathedral in near by Puno, where an Angel is shown fighting a two headed serpent.
As Teresa Gisbert makes clear, neither the Angel nor the serpent, the vagina nor the penis, the woman or the man, the world within or this world will beat the other. They are locked in endless struggle and so we eat. This time of the year, in Cuzco we eat bread babies, as well as lechón (roast pork) and tamales. But they must be saved for thinking until another blog post appears.