Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Doves and Hail: Secret Meanings of Popcorn

During the Mexican conquest, Spanish historian Fray Bernardino de Sahagun described a curious dance performed by young women on the Mexica month of Toxcatl:

"....Young maidens dance shaven, with arms and legs covered in red feathers, wearing capillejos composed of toasted corn called momochitli, that was a grain resembling a very white flower. These capillejos were made in the same manner as the ones created out of flowers, [worn] by young Castillian maidens during the month of May..."

Those capillejos (a type of bonnet) mentioned by Sahagun were actually made out of popcorn. To the Mexica ("Aztecs"), corn was an important grain that held important socio-religious significance, much like chia and amaranth, that I have mentioned on previous posts. Corn was central to the native culture of the Americas, but only Zea Mays Averta had the ability to pop when heated.

Tlaloc, God of Rain, from the Codex Rios

In other writings, Sahagun mentions that momochitli was also offered to Tlaloc, the Rain God, due to its resemblance to hail, that was also attributed to this deity. To this day, some Mexicans say "Tlaloc must be angry" every time it hails. Other writings by Sahagun allude that popcorn was an important offering due to its resemblance to stars - it was a divine reminder of the constellations, that helped the ancient Americans develop the calendar.

Indigenous communities like the Mazahua in central Mexico create simple offerings for religious ceremonies composed of strands made out of popcorn, small biscuits and marshmallows. Thanks to El Bable, you can see the following image showing a Mazahua altar adorned with fruit and popcorn garlands. Mazahua women also create long popcorn garlands that are strung around crosses and images of saints, at times completely covering them. Some times a piece of bread is hung in the middle of the popcorn strand, symbolic of the holy spirit.

The word for popcorn in Mexico is "palomitas" - a word that literally means "little doves", maybe because the popped grain resembles tiny white doves. The name could also be an attempt to scyncretize religious beliefs associated with popcorn. An offering to Tlaloc, the god of rain could be sincretized as an offering to the holy spirit, also symbolized as a white dove in Catholic belief. According to Genesis 8:11, a dove released by Noah flew back to the ark carrying back an olive branch after the flood, a sign of peace and divine reconciliation.

Noah releasing a dove.
Mosaic, Basilica de San Marco, Venice Italy

It is impossible to decipher the exact meaning and associations hidden behind a certain food, but popcorn offers a few clues. Popcorn could be seen as one of the basic miracles of nature: Life trapped inside a seed, just waiting to pop out. It is energy flying in all directions, in the shape of tiny white doves. It sounds like furious hail that destroys crops, both a gift and a warning from divine forces. It could also be a representation of the stars above us - a reminder that we are small among the planets, like a grain of corn. Such are the mysteries of food mythology and syncretism, and some things to ponder next time you to to the movies..! Enjoy the following recipe for Colorful Popcorn.

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