For some Mesoamerican cultures, Chicomecóatl was one of the most important agrarian goddesses. She is considered one of the oldest deities and is counted as one of several maize divinities, though Her reach was much farther. She is the Goddess of all nourishment, seen as the protector of all food and drink. She is credited with being the first to make tortillas and other delicious and exquisite dishes and stews. At the time of the conquest, She was honored with temples in Central Mexico.
Her name means “Seven Snake,” and she is also called, “Seven Ears of Maize.” Typically She is shown with a headdress called an amacalli, a paper house; Her priestesses also wore these headdresses. She is often depicted carrying ears of corn. Her face, body, clothes, and sandals are ochre-colored, possibly as a reminder of the blood sacrifice that is the genesis of life in the Mesoamerican creation stories. She wears a necklace of green stone, probably jade. This, along with the waterflowers often painted on her huipil link her to Tláloc, the rain deity, as well as Chalchihuitlicue, the Goddess of terrestrial waters. Chicomecóatl wears bells and rattles on her legs, no doubt to evoke the rain, the rattle of the snake, and the joy of dance in celebration of the fecundity of the earth.
In Her iconography, Chicomecóatl is often shown with maize tassels. These tassels, which form on the top of the ear of maize, are likened to human hair. The Mayan carving commonly referred to as “The Foliated Cross” from Palenque clearly shows the relationship between human and maize — the ears of maize are human heads, and the maize tassels are human hair.
Her name, a combination of the number seven (chicome) and snake (coatl) resonates on numerous levels. For the Mesoamericans, snakes were multivalent symbols, unifying many interrelated pieces. In rituals, snakes symbolized the life-force intrinsic in the foods and other gifts offered to deities. Snakes formed the connection between the material and the spiritual realms.
Snakes are associated with Goddesses who present an offering or libation. Chicomecóatl holds a cup in her right hand, expressing her connections to water and rain. In her left hand, she carries a shield with a painted sun, honoring the life-giving properties of the sun. With these accoutrements, She expresses the connection between earthly and feminine fecundity.
Snakes also signify regeneration; they are an image of the synthesis of the generative power of the cosmos. On an even more practical, agrarian level, snakes predate upon many of the small animals that eat seeds and grain stores. This may be connected to Chicomecóatl in Her guise as the guardian of foodstuffs.
The number seven carries significance as well, especially in its connection to the lunar cycle. There are 28 (the product of 7×4) days in each lunar cycle. The lunar cycle is connected both to the gestation cycle and to the ritual/divinatory calendar, theTonálpohualli, which consists of 280 (the product of 28×10) days. The calendar date named chicomecóatl, or seven-snake, occurs on the seventh day of the seventh trecenaof the Tonálpohualli. These various intertwinings of Her name link and re-link Her to fecundity.
One of the most interesting depictions of Chicomecóatl is on the Lápida de Aparicio, a carved stone found in Aparicio, Veracruz, dating from the Classic Era (2500-900 BCE). In the carving, we can see a ball-player in full gear, including the yugo around the waist. From the player’s neck spring seven snakes in place of the head. There are numerous interpretations of this piece. It may represent a sacrificed ball-player, graphically linking the sacrifice of life with the continued fecundity of the earth. The carving may also represent Chicomecóatl Herself, as both Goddess and ball player, participating in a grand ritual game of fertility.
Across Mesoamerica, ball courts are found within ceremonial centers. These courts hosted ball games that held sacred significance. The ball game resembled soccer; however, players were only allowed to use their hips or thighs and upper arms to control the ball. A number of feminine figures representing ball-players have been found in the Veracruz area. At many of the ball courts, commemorative stelae show female personages.
The ball game began with the earliest of the Mesoamericans, the Olmecs, “the people of rubber country,” as the Aztecs named them. Rubber was considered a sacred substance, made from the the “blood” (sap) of the rubber tree, and the great ball games throughout Mesoamerica were played with rubber balls. Rubber was also taken medicinally, to treat various ailments. It was frequently used in ritual adoration; traces are found around the mouths of the statues of the Goddess Tlazolteotl, and bits were used for pegging paper offerings and copal to deity statues. Though the specifics of the ball game remain hypothetical, it is certain that the game was connected to fecundity, regeneration, and the continuance of life itself. Chicomecóatl is a corporeal manifestation of these themes.
Chicomecóatl was venerated especially during the festival called Huei Tozoztli, held during the fourth month (in today’s calendar, mid-April to May). This festival was one of the 18 agrarian festivals celebrated annually, pegged to the 365-day solar/agrarian calendar called the Xiuhpohualli. This was the time of year when the maize stalks began breaking the surface of the earth. Aptly named, the festival Huei Tozoztli is also called “the great perforation.” For the Mesoamericans, this was a time of both growth and sacrifice, for maize was one of their primary foods for sustenance.
Chicomecóatl is the embodiment of maize even in Her name, Seven Snake: the number seven is synonymous with “seeds,” and the snake, among other things, protects grain stores from vermin. Exemplifying the Mesoamerican concept of the reciprocal relationship of humans and deities is the reciprocal relationship of humans to maize. Maize was domesticated, by either accident or intent, thousands of years BCE.
Wild maize has not only a tiny cob but also a thin husk over small hard kernels; in contrast, domesticated maize has thick husks that protect the large, plump, and juicy kernels, excellent for human consumption. However, the thick husks hinder self-seeding, as they must disintegrate for the maize seeds to be released. As well, the domesticated maize plant is not adapted for self-propagation because the tassel, the male part, is placed much higher than the cob, the female part.
Therefore, domesticated maize either needs to grow in a field dense with maize or rely on human pollination. It will not thrive if sparsely populated in the wild. The Mesoamericans well understood the role of humans in this cycle; they were responsible for the plants’ survival, and they depended on the plants for their own survival. For Mesoamericans, reciprocity was a central tenet of both agricultural and religious practice.
During the festival of Huei Tozoztli, home altars were decorated with maize plants, and in temples its seeds were blessed. Bulrushes were piled beside the deity statues, their white stems bloodied with self-sacrificial offerings. A culminating part of the festival was the procession of the maize. Flanked by elder priestesses, the young priestesses each carried seven ears of rubber-anointed maize from last year’s crop, to be presented at the temple of Chicomecóatl. As the procession wound through the streets, everyone was silent.
As a prescribed part of the ritual, some of the young men broke the silence with noisy chatter. In answer to them, the elder priestesses severely lambasted them, saying: “And you, coward, think about this great heroic deed. You, still with your tassel a youth …you have nothing to say here, for every woman is like I am.” The young men answered the elder priestesses respectfully, giving honor to their lineage and begging their patience, as they were only youth. This exchange may have been part of a complex series of rites of adulthood rituals for the young men, in which the elder priestesses played an important role. After the exchange of repartee, the procession continued to the temple for the rituals.
All of the deities honored at this festival were presented daily with flowers and different offerings, including toasted maize, tamales, quail, candles and copal. After being offered to Chicomecóatl, the food was shared and eaten. The seeds from the young priestesses’ ears of maize were taken out to sow the next year.
Elder priestesses were featured in rites of fertility. Because they had completed their obligations as agents of fecundity on earth, post-menopausal women were considered to be “donors,” committing their life-giving energies to the deities. De la Garza notes a similarity between the function of the elder priestesses and the snake, as links between the material and spiritual worlds, transferring the life-energy of the offerings: “And like the reptile (i.e. the snake), the vital energy of the sacrificial blood coils at the heads of these ancient women (or elder priestesses) giving the offerings” (318).
The festival of Huei Tozoztli was also called “the great awakening,” as Chicomecóatl was awakened from Her winter sleep. One of Her praise-songs for this festival speaks to this:
Seven Maize Ears, rise up;
Wake up! You are our mother.
Do not make us orphans.
You are already on your way to your house in Tlalocan.
After the ceremonies, much dancing ensued, welcoming the new shoots and the newly awakened Chicomecóatl, Seven Snake, the Goddess of all Sustenance.
**EDITOR NOTE: Anne Key and Veronica Iglesias are leading a Sacred Tour of Mexico City focused on the MesoAmerican Goddesses in June 2016 – Click here for more information and for early bird rates!
- All translations from the Spanish are mine.
- See “Sister Stories”, an informative and interactive website, for a piece on Chicomecóatl. 30 January 2009.
- Chicomolotzin is the Nahuatl word for Seven Ears of Maize.
- A huipil is a typical top worn by Mesoamerican women, often embroidered and sometimes triangular.
- See de la Garza pg. 268-269.
- It has been suggested that this 280-day ritual cycle follows the human gestation period from the first sign of life to birth (covering 9 lunations) and is intricately associated with female cycles and lunar cycles. See Tate for further information.
- A trecena is a period of time in the Tonálpohualli, which consists of 20 “months” of 13 days each. The name comes from “Trece,” which is Spanish for thirteen.
- A yugo is a piece of ball-playing equipment. It is U-shaped and worn around the waist, presumably to help hit the ball.
- The solar/agrarian calendar was composed of eighteen 20-day months called veintenas with a festival at each month.
- This solar calendar of 18 months of 20 days (18×20=360) also had a five-day period added at the end to complete the solar year.
- Xiuhpohualli literally means: year (xiuhitl) count (pohualli).
- For a thorough and thought-provoking discussion on the history of maize, see Coe.
- The literal translation is “ancient women,” meaning elderly women. As they are obviously leading a ritual, I call them by the title “priestesses.” The term “ancient” most likely means that these women were post-menopausal.
- This is a reference to the tassel on the top of young corn, emphasizing their youth.
- See Sahagún, pg. 106. The description I give of the ritual is not an exact translation but rather a shortened interpretation.
- Copal is often an offering for Tláloc, the rain God. When it burns, the copal produces copious smoke, mimicking rain clouds.
- See Báez Jorge, pg. 118. Tlalocan is the paradise of Tláloc, the rain deity. Chicomecóatl is often paired with him in ritual and veneration.
- This reminds me of the modern Beltane celebrations.
- Báez-Jorge, F. (1988). Los oficios de las diosas [The offices of the goddesses]. Xalapa, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana.
- Coe, M. D. (1997). Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson
- Garza, M. de la. (1998). El universo sagrado de la serpiente entre los Mayas [The sacred universe of the serpent according to the Mayas]. Mexico City, Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
- Sahagún, B. (1999). Historia general de las cosas de nueva España [General history of things of New Spain] (A. M. Garibay K., Trans.). Mexico City, Mexico: Editorial Porrúa. (Original work published 1829; written in the 16th century)
- Tate, Carolyn. “Writing on the Face of the Moon”. Manifesting Power: Gender and the Interpretation of Power. Ed. Tracy Sweely. New York: Routledge, 1999. 81-102.
- Chicomecóatl, Museum of Anthropology, Xalapa, Veracruz. Photo © 2001 Anne Key. All rights reserved.
- Chicomecóatl, Museum of Anthropology, Xalapa, Veracruz. Photo © 2001 Anne Key. All rights reserved.
- Chicomecóatl, from The Codex Maglabecchiano, 15th century . Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.