Once banned by Cortez and the Catholic church, amaranth is still a fairly unknown high-protein grain that could easily figure into the solution to world hunger. Instead, amaranth became an outlaw, an illegal alien grain in its own homeland. This was likely triggered by the high esteem in which the plant was held by indigenous people, and rightly so.
For hundreds of years amaranth all but disappeared from the face of the earth except in the highlands of Oaxaca and to the south among the Maya people where its cultivation most probably began some 10,000 years ago. Together with corn, chile and beans, amaranth was a key part of the near-perfect core diet of the the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Diverse varieties were cultivated all the way to the South American Andes where the Inca people live to this day. High in protein and the essential amino acid lysine, today amaranth has found its way to Europe and is even consumed in India where it is known as rajeera, or the king's grain.
Despite its near extinction, the hardy-survivor amaranth can be found in contemporary cooking from granola to pancakes and is once again important despite its illicit past. Yet during the conquest, punishment for the criminalized cultivation of amaranth included cutting off the hands of those who dared to plant it. So why did this beautiful nutritious and mystical plant elicit such savage response from the invaders?
Called huautli in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, it was a primary crop not only important as food, but central to the spiritual and ritual life of the community. Its precious seeds and leaves were nutritious and therapeutic. It was an offering to the gods as well as the ingredient used to bathe newborn babies. It was mixed into a paste and transformed into miniature reproductions of the child's future attributes: a bow, an arrow, the hunter's instruments, or perhaps a flower or an animal spirit-guide. The use of amaranth for healing may also account for its valuation as a sacred plant par excellence.
When the Spanish arrived, their Catholic priests were horrified to find that amaranth was considered a deity and used in religious ceremonial rituals. It was consumed and mixed, according to some sources, with the blood of people who were sacrificed, and was perhaps a tad too close to the religious ceremonial ritual of the holy eucharist, the Catholic ritual that consecrates the body and blood of christ and is also eaten. But that was not savage. That was ok. On the other hand some scholars have said that the eradication of amaranth was really a military strategy intended to weaken the Aztec people to allow for an easier conquest, since amaranth was also an important part of the diet of warriors.
Today from Mesoamerica to East of The L.A. River, from street vendors to neighborhood bakeries you can find amaranth sold as the popular treat called alegría, the Spanish word for happiness or joy. Interesting that this delicious high-protein sweet made from the forbidden toasted amaranth seeds, with peanut and other nuts, mixed and held together by the sweetness of honey, made in a circular form, the shape of the sun and the circle of life, should be called alegría, happiness or joy. No blood this time. Plenty of that ingredient was spilled by the invaders.
© María Elena Gaitán, 2008 All Rights Reserved