The Snack Food That Once Honored An Aztec God

By Debra Kelly on Friday, June 6, 2014
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“An army marches on its stomach.” —Napoleon I

In A Nutshell

Corn has been a cultivated crop for thousands of years, and popcorn also dates back several millennia. The earliest traces of popcorn indicate that it was used much as it is today, as an occasional snack. But in the Aztec culture, it was an important offering to the gods as a way of ensuring safety for their people and a successful harvest.

The Whole Bushel

Today, popcorn is both a healthy snack option and a must-have when watching movies, preferably slathered in butter of questionable origins and made decidedly less healthy by the movie theater. But what you might not know is that popcorn has an incredibly long history, and one that involves millennia-old trade routes and sacred ceremonies honoring ancient gods.

Corn was first cultivated as a crop in Mexico somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago, and it traveled into South America a few thousand years later. Excavations of archaeological sites in Peru revealed that corn was a part of the Peruvian diet around 6,700 years ago. It wasn’t a huge part of that diet, but ancient cooking sites have yielded the remains of corncobs and corn stalks.

They’ve also found popcorn.

More precisely, they’ve found whole cobs of corn that had been popped. Corn kernels pop because when they’re heated, the water contained in each kernel expands and the pressure causes the shell to burst open. In these ancient sites, the whole cobs were placed over the fire and the kernels were popped on the cob.

At that point, corn wasn’t a main staple in the diet of the people who were eating it. It was thought to be more of a special treat based on the relative handful of corncobs that were found. Much later, though, corn—and popcorn—became extremely important to the cultures of the Aztec.

When Hernan Cortes first came to the New World and encountered the Aztecs, he noted that they had a strange way of decorating the ceremonial dress that was worn during festivals and dances held in the honor of Tlaloc, the rain god. Strings of popcorn would adorn headdresses and costumes, and dancers would wear garlands of popcorn.

Popcorn was also used in an Aztec ceremony to ask the gods to keep their fisherman safe. It was thought that the popcorn looked like hailstones, and they were offered to the gods in the water to attempt to satisfy them.

In the Aztec calendar, the fifth month of the year was the festival of Toxcatl. This time before the rainy season (today, it’s what we know as late April into early May) was a precarious one, and pleasing the gods was absolutely crucial to making sure that there was plenty of rain and a successful harvest. The festival was a long one, full of rites honoring the gods and asking for their blessings. Among those rites was the performance of a few dances. The men would begin by forming a winding procession called the serpent dance, and once the twisting body of the snake was formed by the dancers, young women would perform the popcorn dance. Mingling among the men, they jumped and danced in a way reminiscent of the popping kernels of corn.

In a tragic footnote to the popcorn dance and the other sacred, celebratory rites, it was at the end of this festival, held in 1520, that the Spanish conquistadors massacred the celebrants and began what would be a major step toward the downfall of the civilization.

Show Me The Proof

Photo credit: Andrew Butko
National Geographic: Ancient Popcorn Found
Dancing the New World: Aztecs, Spaniards, and the Choreography of Conquest, by Paul A. Scolieri
Popcorn: History of popcorn