Arte-Factual: Aztec Maize Goddess

When I first played Tomb Raider 1 back in 1996, I never realized how many real-life Pre-Columbian artefacts could be spotted throughout the Peru sections of the game. Some of these were already familiar to me – such as the Chimú bird carving – as I had done some research on Peruvian art and archaeology for a GCSE Art project just a year earlier.

But it wasn’t until I started working on this site and replayed this 1996 classic that I began to notice how the game’s graphics artists had also – and perhaps unwittingly – incorporated Maya and Aztec motifs and artefacts in the design of their lost Inca city.** One such example of a misplaced artefact is the statue show below, which depicts the Aztec maize goddess, Chicomecoatl, and can be found in one of the side chambers of Qualopec’s tomb.

Statue of Aztec maize goddess seen in Tomb Raider 1
Statue of Aztec maize goddess seen in Tomb Raider 1. Image credit: Kelly M.

Chicomecoatl’s name means “Seven Snakes” in Nahuatl and was associated with agriculture and maize in particular. Maize was a crop that was central to the Aztec diet. Some considered her to be the female counterpart and possibly consort of Centeotl, the god of maize and subsistence. Chicomecoatl normally represented mature maize and the seeds collected for cultivating future crops while younger, unripe maize was represented by the deity Xilonen. The latter may have been an alternate name for the god Centeotl but it was most likely a younger form of the maize goddess herself.

Both forms of the goddess were normally depicted wearing a towering headdress known as an amacalli or “paper house”. These headdresses were often decorated with flower rosettes, plumes, and twisted cords, representing ears of maize and symbolizing fertility. The maize goddess would be typically dressed in red, wearing a long skirt (cueitl) and a triangular cape (quechquemitl) similar to a poncho or shawl, and would normally be shown clutching ears of corn in each hand. Statues like this one would have been carved from slabs of basalt and placed in communal temples or plazas as a focus of worship during religious festivals.

Statue of Chicomecoatl
Statue of Chicomecoatl. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

And here’s where things get a little grisly. In the lead-up to the autumn equinox, a number of dances and sacred rituals would be performed to ensure a bountiful harvest and maintain balance between the human world and the world of the teotl (divine spirits).

One of these rituals involved the sacrifice of a young woman, often a slave or captive, who would be chosen to personify the maize goddess during the week-long festivities. The young woman would be dressed in red garments and wear a paper headdress of red bark paper and ears of maize. She would have her cheeks painted red and be decked out in glittering gold jewellery.

For a few days, the young woman would have been treated like a goddess and would have carried around imitation ears of corn crafted from gold and feathers. However, on the last night of the festivities, it was game over for her. The poor woman would be led off by the priests, decapitated, flayed, and have her blood poured over a statue of Chicomecoatl, thus honouring the Aztec maize goddess and ensuring the very survival of the community. When you consider how dependent the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures were on agriculture, particularly in a region largely devoid of large mammals, the woman’s sacrifice would be an entirely justifiable course of action. Not that that would have been any real consolation to the woman being sacrificed.

Human sacrifice is a difficult concept for many of us to accept or fully understand due to our own cultural or religious beliefs. However, it played an important – though perhaps slightly overstated – role in Aztec culture. Blood was considered a life force. Many of the Aztec’s chief gods had sacrificed themselves so that mankind could live, so the Aztecs believed that they owed their gods a blood-debt. In their worldview, failure to pay these debts would have dire consequences, ranging from earthquakes and floods to failed harvests.

So, next time you saunter past that statue in Qualopec’s tomb, just be glad that Lara wasn’t the poor victim of a ritual sacrifice.

** This mishmash of Pre-Columbian art has been dubbed “Mayaincatec” by the folks over at TV Tropes

Sources & Further Reading:

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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