Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Totonacan Fragrant Art

My grandfather was from Veracruz, Mexico. I remember that while traveling there many years ago I saw several curious little crafts created by local artesans. Straw-like figurines shaped like crosses, hearts, animals and flowers were actually created with woven vanilla beans! The most amazing one I remember was shaped like a very realistic scorpion with many slender legs. Here's some simple examples of this tradition, from the blog vida surrealista. This blog narrates (in Spanish) more about the culture of Veracruz.

Terms like "French Vanilla" may lead folks to believe that this popular spice originated in Europe. Vanilla beans were first cultivated by the native habitants of Veracruz, the Totonacans. The name "Vanilla" is actually a derivative of the Spanish word "Vaina" or sheath, yet the original name was "Caxixanath", or hidden flower. According to this legend, the blood of a Totonacan princess originated the delicate orchid flower that produces vanilla.

The image above features fresh vanilla beans and a figurine with a rosary made out of woven vanilla beans. It comes from lidiosa's photo stream on flickr (gracias lidiosa). Maybe this is evidence of syncretism, a clue that the little vanilla sculptures were once used as ritual objects by the Totonacans? Whatever the reason, I just remember that the smell of these little figurines was wonderful! I really hope that this tradition doesn't disappear in modern times.

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