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Jumble of maize varietals on cob

Divination by Means of Maize


Many indigenous peoples of Mexico read the future by tossing grains of corn. Many indigenous peoples of Mexico read the future by tossing grains of corn.

The divining arts, essentially the reading of signals, have appealed to peoples all over the world. Each of them have used the resources at hand to predict (or to “pre-see” as Plato would say), the issues of concern to them. It’s logical that maize, the staple food of the Mesoamericans, and one considered even a sacred entity (only men “of the fourth sun” were worthy of eating it) was esteemed enough that it was propitious for predicting health issues and for providing forecasts of future events to the Mexica cosmic vision.

Divination by corn kernels is similar to tarot reading: the grains are cast into a certain pattern, and the results are interpreted according to a symbolic combination of the parts of the “roll.” The method could be called boleomancia (from the Greek, bole, “to throw”). Within Mexica cultures, dozens of techniques for mantic practices with corn are known, and most of this knowledge comes from codices like the Borbonicus, the Tudela and the Magliabechiano.


Sketch of boleomancia

In modern Mexico, multiple indigenous groups still practice divination with corn. These peoples include the Nahua, Huastec, Mazatec, Tzotzil, Tlapanec, and Purepecha peoples to which could be added the Mixe, Zapotec and Yucatecan peoples. The variety of techniques can be explained in that many ethnic groups use grains of different colors, others throw the corn onto a white canvas, and still others will cast the corn into a basin of water. They’ll also often use different numbers of grains: for example, the Mixe people will cast 18, the Zapotecs between four and 100 and the Tlapanecos cast 22 to 40 or 60 seeds. Once selected, the corn kernels acquire a special virtue and are stored in bags for use in therapeutic rituals. Generally, a spell is performed before an altar, and these are performed by soothsayers uttering prayers and supplications.


Varieties of corn (maize)

In a formidable study, Dr. Yolotl González Torres details the varying types of divination with corn kernels and their use throughout Mesoamerican cultures. We learn, for example, that all of the various techniques can be divided into two broad categories:

1. Dry Divination
By counting the kernels, the varying numbers will determine how the divination is carried out, and the corn may also be cast with seeds or even objects like crystals or fragments of archaeological artifacts.

2. Water Divination
Reading here is determined by whether kernels float or sink. Water divination can cover virtually all aspects of life, for finding lost or misplaced objects for example, but it’s especially relied upon for diagnosing diseases and recommending cures or healing processes.

The very selection of the kernels used can be important too. Specific cobs are kept for just that purpose and these may be the most plump, those with a specific number of rows of kernels, or those of specific colors, and so on.

The fascinating thing about these practices, which will apparently never be lost so long as corn grows in the fields, is the important role played by corn not only in the myths, the food and the Mexica identity, but also in the uncertainty that has plagued men since ancient times. To cast the corn is thus to roll the dice, because, according to the Popol Vuh, of corn is made man.

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