The Huicholese ethnic group lives in the Sierra Madre Occidental range in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango. The Huichol are subsistence farmers. Their main crop is maize. We look at their agriculture ceremonies.
Every year, the Huicholes have three agricultural ceremonies known as mitotes. A mitote is related to planting crops and the onset of the rainy season, which corresponds to the summer solstice and is, in some communities, considered to be the beginning of the year. The second ritual in the cycle is the mitote of corn or the first fruits, and is celebrated at the end of the rainy season. The third mitote is often called the ritual of toasted or boiled corn, and is related to the grain that has been harvested and stored, as well as to the preparation of the cornfields, which takes place during the dry season.
The most difficult task in the cornfield is known as la roza (‘clearing’), so teamwork takes on particular importance during that phase of the agricultural cycle. La quema (‘burning’) is done when temperatures reach their maximum. After that point, the weather takes an abrupt turn as the rainy season begins.
According to indigenous beliefs, this drastic change of season is inevitable, and comes as a consequence of the extremely hot temperatures. At that time, the solar flame burns itself out and clears the way for the exact opposite: the cool weather that accompanies the torrential rains. The heat brings on the rain, the smoke from the burning fields is transformed into clouds, and the rainwater cools the earth down. This sudden change from the intense heat of the dry period to the relatively cool weather of the rainy season is a key moment in the agricultural calendar, and it is only logical that no other time of year be as ritualized as this one.
The Mexican adage of tlachinolli-teuatl (‘burnt land, divine water’) is based on this millenary experience of the cycle of the cornfield and the fairly violent encounter between antagonistic elements: fire and water.
The rainy season normally begins in late June and lasts until October. Among the Huicholes, Hikuli Neixa and Namawita Neixa are the rituals that mark the beginning of the rainy season. Tatei Neixa is the only ritual celebrated to mark the end of this period.
During Hikuli Neixa (peyote dance) or the ritual of toasted corn held in May, the jicareros (ritual personages) from the ceremonial centre of Tukipa form a serpent of clouds that represents the first rains to reach the desert in the East. A short while later, the ritual of Namawita Neixa is held to celebrate the triumph of the five rain goddesses over fire. This ritual marks the one day each year when the corn ‘rests’, along with all the women. The men are put in charge of cooking the meals inside the great temple of Tuki. But they are only allowed to prepare food using ‘raw’ corn – in other words, corn that has not been treated with lime in a process called nixtamalizar, which makes the grain easier to grind into flour. The focus of the ritual is a large doll stuffed with ears of corn and dressed in the typical costume of Huichol women; it represents the goddess Tatei Niwetsika.
The start of every rainy season represents the arrival of another great flood and at the same time, a return to the world’s aquatic origins. For that reason, the songs of the sowing ritual Namawita Neixa describe how the old goddess of fertility, Takutsi Nakawe, announces the arrival of a flood while Watakame – the first man and the original planter – is clearing his cornfield. The combination of seasonal rites of passage with the rites of initiation corresponding to the life cycle is one of the most interesting aspects of Huichol ritualism. In order to appreciate this relationship, it is important to understand how the rainy period is associated with childhood, and also with the mythical world of the ancestors. The rainy season is a ‘dark time’ or night (tikaripa). This symbolic equivalence is explained by the fact that during the rainy season, there are many dark clouds in the sky, and all the trees are covered in dense foliage. For the Huicholes, this is also the time when ‘we are all children’ or when ‘we are all tender’, like young corn.
September and October are the months when the corn grows and matures, drying out and becoming corncobs. In the eyes of the Huicholes, this is the time of year when the serpent of rain departs and the rainy season comes to an end: ‘the Sun comes out’ and ‘we stop being children’. In mythological terms, this time of year corresponds to the first dawn, when the world became solid. Late October marks the celebration of ‘the dance of our mother’, Tatei Neixa. This ritual process is also known as the ‘drum ritual’ or ‘corn ritual’. During this ceremony, the people bid farewell to the goddesses of rain, who make their departure at this time of year. At the same time, corn and squash are presented to the gods, as well as any children under five years of age.
The children participate in symbolic pilgrimages to Mount Pariteka in the East and to the sea in the West, representing their initiation into the world of pilgrimages required of Huichol adults. Moreover, Tatei Neixa marks the time when the corn dries and becomes corncobs, just as the children cease to be aquatic and soft like the goddesses of the rain to become ‘solid’ like real human beings.
Before taking part in a Tatei Neixa ritual, children under the age of five are not allowed to eat fresh corn. This rule is not as strictly observed among adults. However, holding a corncob ritual is an important prerequisite for harvesting, which takes place a month or two later.
The Huicholes’ identification with corn implies that the annual agricultural cycle is also a metaphor for human lives. However, one might also say that human life plays out like a metaphor of the agricultural cycle and in a broader sense, as a metaphor of the cycle of creation and renewal of the cosmos. Indeed, it seems clear that rather than place humanity at the centre of the natural world, the Huicholes’ environmentally activist viewpoint proposes a matrimonial alliance with nature, one in which respect and proper treatment form the basis for coexistence. (J.N.)