As the preeminent native grain of the Americas, the importance of corn to the
cosmology of Native Americans is inestimable. In most instances, corn alone
initiated the evolution from nomadic life to sustained farming life; changed
only by the Northward rumbling of wild horses in the 16th Century. Just as the
nursing mother and hungry baby need each other, corn needed the people to
replicate it: its seeds are too closely packed to self germinate. Likewise,
the people needed the corn as a dependable food source, and so experience
settled village life.
To the Maya, the cosmic world family tree is a corn plant in the shape of a
cross: at each stalk grows an ear of corn, on each cob grows a human head. The
Maya Maize God is akin to the European Green Man in that he is a foliate deity,
whose thoughts germinate the corn, whose blood nourishes it. His hair is made
of corn silk and it sprouts cobs and leaves, his hands are made of waving
leaves, and his eyes are always closed as he dreams to life the grains. Maya
hieroglyphs of “growth,” “finding” and “beginning” are all interrelated with
symbols for maize. Even now, Mayan descendants save their best grains of maize
to pass on to relatives when they are near death. They especially save the red
pearls for, as Betty Fussell writes in her comprehensive The Story of
Corn(1992), in it the “Maya see not only the cosmic globe but a drop of blood
that condenses all human history into a single germ of life.”
For Zuni people, their legendary seven maidens of the corn actually define
Earth’s elements. Oldest yellow corn daughter comes from the North and cold.
Blue corn maiden hails from the rainy and wet fertile West. Red sister comes
from the hot South. From Eastern daybreak of light, comes White corn maiden.
Speckled corn maiden comes from the clouds above, the spirit world. Black corn
sister grows in the womb cave of the Earth Mother. Littlest baby sister is
sweet corn. After they perform their “Beautiful Corn Wands” Dance, the
mischievous and fertile flute players, whose humpbacks contain seeds for all
that grows–the Kokopelli, make love with them. Instantly they disappear to the
Summerland, but are brought back by the God of Dew. Like Persephone of Greece,
they may only return to the world for part of the year, and so took care to tell
the people to love their bodies in the Spring, then bury their flesh in the
dying time of Autumn.
The Hopi creation myth revolves around an Earth Mother who gives birth to a corn
plant baby who is presented to its Sky Father at dawn, and is then sown into the
sky. Hopi real life birth rituals are intimately intertwined with corn. A
grandmother presents mama and baby-sized corn dolls to the newborn, whose face
is rubbed with white cornmeal, the symbol of new beginnings. Babies’ first
taste of maize comes from a tiny blessing of this gift from the Earth Mother
placed in its’ mouth with the whisper that it will be so nourished lifelong.
Before marriage, the young woman offers cornmeal and bread to the groom; then
she spends four days in meditative grinding of meal within his house, as his
womenfolk daily bring gifts of corn in a rainbow of colors. Village women
prepare cornmeal for the feast, while men weave the bride’s dress from pure
white cotton. The ceremonial wedding cake is made of blue corn. Likewise, at
death, one enters the spirit world with a face dusted with cornmeal.
Just as the Inuit of the Arctic have hundreds of different words for snow, so
too have the Central and Southwestern American tribes hundreds of ways to
prepare corn. The Hopi make a thin, wafer like bread called piki made from
powder-fine, silkily fine cornmeal. Betty Fussell claims that some kinds taste
salty from fermented lime, some rich and milky as biscuits, some red, sweet and
delicate; and that this labor-intensive piki-making skill is undergoing a
revival among young Hopi women. Powdered corn can become an instant drink
called pinole or atole lately flavored with maple, cinnamon and sugar or cocoa
when mixed with milk or water. Fussell describes a Peruvian/Spanish hybrid sweet
soup recipe of dried purple corn revived with water, cooked with dried fruit and
sweet potato flour and spices. Mexicans in the time of Montezuma used cornmeal
to make all manner and shape of tamales: some sweet, some savory, with meat,
turkey eggs, honey or beeswax, and fruit. Eastern and Midwestern tribes dried,
grilled, roasted corn, and scraped the kernels and sweet milk for stews. Hidatsa
tribal life (formerly located in North Dakota) centered on rhythms of corn
farming. Before Autumn frost they usually ate corn roasted with the husks on,
later storing their corn and squash underground in uterus-shaped cellars winter
long. Most tribes parched corn: popping it dry in sand then grinding it fine to
make light “journeying corn” to be taken on travels and reconstituted with water
to make a paste. For the Seneca tribe, corn was so central to life that their
vocabulary contains nearly thirty words defining various stages of corn growth
It is raining up there under the mountain.
The corn tassels are shaking under the mountain.
The horns of the child corn are glistening.
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