Benevolent Maize and Ogre-Fart Chilis: Food Origin Myths

According to the Peruvian Yanesha people, plants originally had human forms that went through either “sublime” or “grotesque” transformations

Dried chili pepper wreath
Dried chili pepper wreath Courtesy of Flickr user min_photos

In a society that could conceive of deep-fried sticks of butter and donut burgers, it’s sometimes hard to remember that food’s main purpose is to keep us alive. In other societies, such as among the Yanesha people of the Peruvian Andes, food’s centrality to life is celebrated in myths that describe the origins of their most important food plants.

Ethnobiologist Fernando Santos-Granero, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, recently published a fascinating study of the Yanesha myths, titled “The Virtuous Manioc and the Horny Barbasco: Sublime and Grotesque Modes of Transformation in the Origin of Yanesha Plant Life.”

He explains in The Journal of Ethnobiology that the Yanesha, like other Amazonian peoples, conceive of a primordial time when all plants and animals took human form. Around the time that the present-day sun rose to the heavens, the Yanesha believe, the beings went through one of two kinds of transformation, classified as either “sublime” or “grotesque,” into their current states. The sublime transformations were associated with the upper half of the body and expressions of love and self-sacrifice, while the grotesque were “related to the baser activities of the lower body,” Santos-Granero writes. “Because of their immoral way of life—expressed in extreme forms of genital, oral, and anal incontinence—these primordial humans were separated from humanity and transformed into the plants they are nowadays.”

Santos-Granero concluded, by process of elimination (no pun intended), that the determining factor in which type of transformation a plant went through was the antiquity of its domestication. The oldest domesticated plants, and therefore those most central to the Yanesha diet—including manioc, maize, beans and peanuts—were ascribed to sublime transformations, while more recently domesticated plants—chili peppers and yams, for instance—fell into the grotesque category.

The maize narrative is an example of the sublime transformation (and has some interesting parallels to a more familiar religious story): During a time of famine, the creator god felt pity for humans, so he impregnated a virgin girl. The girl’s father demanded to know who the father was, but the girl refused to tell him—this is an example of the creator god testing the humans to see if they are worthy of his sympathy. The father accepted this child of unknown parentage, proving his worthiness, and the fair-haired grandson grew up to be Maize-Person. Maize-Person sowed pieces of himself in the grandfather’s garden and taught the people how to harvest and prepare the ensuing crop. When there was nothing more of his maize, he ascended to the sky and became a bright star.

Origin myths in the grotesque category, by contrast, center around selfish or immoral beings. For instance, chili peppers are said to be created from the farts of Hua’t~ena’, a gigantic forest ogre with an enormous, toothed penis who raped women and then ate them. And if being a “horny, cannibalistic rapist” wasn’t bad enough, his semen was poisonous to fish. He was somewhat redeemed, however, because when his selfish destruction of fish was discovered, he was ashamed—he cut off his penis and planted it, thus creating the barbasco (a plant used by the Yanesha to temporarily stun and catch fish) and, through his farts, the chili pepper.

Wild stories, indeed, but are they really any more outlandish than deep-fried sticks of butter?

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.