Customs, Food Culture

In the Time of Corn

Mama Sara - Mother Corn (Walter Coraza Morveli)

This month may be more about Mother’s Day in Cuzco than almost anything else (though the windup to Corpus Christi and the Days of Cuzco demand lots of attention). In Inca times, it was different.

If you can imagine the great Inca city, with its massive, stone buildings and thatched roofs, as well as its hills groomed into terraces punctuated with temples, huacas, replete with priests, rituals, and sacrifices.

In May, the city would break into work and feast. It was (and is) the month of the corn harvest. You can imagine people moving through the terraces and in the fields that stippled the broad Watanay Valley, now covered in urban sprawl, lifting ears from corn stalks, snapping them, and placing them on carrying cloths (llicllas).

Others would walk body forward and shoulders pulled back under the weight of the ears in the cloth to places where they would lay the ears out to dry. Patches of jewel like color from drying corn would soon make the valley a feast of bright color.

Throughout the process you would hear pieces of song, and the sound of beating drums and shining flutes fill the air. Work like this was done together and to music. 

There would also be dances to express hope and faith while communicating with the land and, most importantly, the corn. 

Father Bernabé Cobo expresses this in his work accumulated in English as Inca Religion and Customs.

He writes that in May people celebrated Aymoray, which was when they brought the corn from the fields to their houses. The translator Roland Hamilton relates him as saying.

They celebrated it by bringing the maize from the characters and fields to their houses, all the while dancing with certain songs in which they asked that the maize last a long time and not run out before the next harvest.

Sure, they sacrificed llamas and made other offerings which is what really impressed Cobo, but these songs and dances established a social relation with the corn in which they feted it and begged it to be good and not leave them without provisions. 

It can be hard for us from the Western world to grasp this since to us corn, particularly dried corn, is not able to have a social relationship with us, it is inert. To get the Incas, though, we have to think differently.

Even today people will fete their harvest and celebrate it with song and offerings of coca and alcohol. They still beg it not to leave them without.

Cobo continues to  talk about how in Inca times when people would make sacrifices of llamas at the time of the corn harvest, they would offer some of the flesh to the sun, and then the flesh would be passed out so that all could eat. 

Corn Drying (Walter Coraza Morveli)
Corn Drying (Walter Coraza Morveli)

Today there may not be massive sacrifices of llamas, such things are hidden today in slaughterhouses or backstage in communities. However a ritual meal is still part of the event, when people share food with each other and, by implication, with the corn since it is what is being feasted.

Cobo writes that people made ceremonies, each in their homes, to the mamazara, or mother corn. Today we would spell it Mamasara, or Saramama.

Each person would take a certain part of the most unusual [ears of] maize, which would be a small amount, and with certain ceremonies he would put the corn in a storage bin called a pirua.  The maize would be wrapped in the richest mantles that the person had, and there he would watch over it for three nights.  After they had covered the said bin, they worshiped it and held it in high esteem, saying that it was the mother of the maize of their character and by virtue of it [the bin] each year the maize was produced and preserved. At this time each year they made a special sacrifice to the bin.

You will still find people making sacrifices to their bins by giving it alcohol and coca leaves, and divining about it. 

Though Cuzco has changed a lot you will still find the farmers celebrating their harvest and carrying it out with song and dance, feteing the corn, and sharing a communal meal. 

In the city of Cuzco, though, most people are removed from the farm and buy their corn year round in the markets or supermarkets. They will perform dances that have become allegories of this rural (older) way, though they tend to do those in June during the feast of Cuzco. Instead of honoring the harvest and the corn, they honor their city and its culture.

As a result, May is left for Mother’s Day with its balloons, chocolates, flowers, and family meals.  It is still a festive time. Corn will still be harvested and gems of drying color will be seen around, It just does not dominate the mainstream of ritual life as it did even very recently.

Reference:  Father Bernabé Cobo, Inca Religion and Customs (University of Texas Press, 1990) pp 139-141.

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