Corn: Deity and Source of Life

Friday Folklore

We call it “corn”, which comes from an Old English word that referred to any cereal seed. But it is also called maize, which, by way of Spanish, is from the Taino word for the plant, maiz.1 For most Americans, corn is a normal sight and is synonymous with butter, movies, and Iowa. For the native peoples of North America, however, corn is so much more.

Deity or Gift

fodder-maize-421948_640Corn appears in a great many Native American tales and beliefs. In some, it’s a deity, like Selu of the Cherokee, Chicomecoatl of the Aztecs, or (my personal favorite) Fas-ta-chee of the Seminoles. Fas-ta-chee was a dwarf whose hair and body were made of corn and he taught the Seminoles how to plant and grow it. Another example of a corn deity comes from the Hurons of the northeast: Iouskeha, who not only made corn but gave them fire and brought good weather.2

A notable example of corn deity comes from the legend of the three sisters. The three sisters are corn, squash, and beans. These three vegetables assist each other in their growing: corn and beans giving shade to the squash and corn providing a lattice on which beans can grow.3 Among the Ottowa, is a slightly different variation, where corn is considered to be male and was lonely until he found companionship in beans.4

Sometimes, though, corn is a gift, either from the Creator or from a hero figure. One example of this comes from the Sioux in their story about a hermit who, after being disturbed three nights in a row by a mysterious figure, discovers not only corn but also a cache of other goods.5 The natives from the Southern New England area described corn as a gift from the god of the southeastern direction, Cautantowwit, and was brought by a crow or black bird.6

Whether seen as deity or gift, religious ceremonies, such as dances, are still performed by Native Americans to ensure a good crop and the continued well-being for the tribe.

Obviously, from the prevalence of stories and belief systems, corn is considered to be highly important by native peoples. Why? Because it’s a source of life. Being a nutritious food source that can be used to make bread or eaten on its own, it gives life because of its cultivation. Therefore, it was either personified as a deity or was considered a gift from a benevolent god.

I always try to share a story on Friday Folklore. This week, though, I had a big task ahead of me. There are a lot of stories and each one is fascinating. It took a while but I settled on one from the Cheyenne about the old woman of the spring.7

The Old Woman of the Spring; A Cheyenne Legend

Postcard depicting the Green Corn Dance in the American Southwest
Postcard depicting the Green Corn Dance in the American Southwest

When the Cheyenne were still in the north, they camped in a large circle at whose entrance a deep, rapid spring flowed from a hillside. The spring provided the camp with water, but food was harder to find. The buffalo had disappeared, and many people went hungry.

One bright day some men were playing the game of ring and javelin in the center of the camp circle. They used a red and black hoop and four long sticks, two red and two black, which they threw at the hoop as it rolled along. In order to win, a player had to throw his stick through the hoop while it was still moving. A large audience had already gathered when a young man came from the south side of the camp circle to join them. He wore a buffalo robe with the hair turned outward. His body was painted yellow, and a yellow painted eagle breach-feather was fastened to his head. Soon another young man dressed exactly like the first came from the north side of the circle to watch the game.

They were unacquainted, but when the two caught sight of each other they moved through the crowd to talk. “My friend,” said the man from the south side, “you’re imitating my dress. Why are you doing it?” The other man said, “It’s you who are imitating me. Why?” In their explanations, both men told the same story.

They had entered the spring that flowed out from the hillside, and there they were instructed how to dress. By now the crowd had stopped watching the game and gathered around to listen, and the young men told the people that they would go into the spring again and come out soon. As the crowd watched, the two approached the spring. The man from the south covered his head with this buffalo robe and entered. The other did the same thing. The young men splashed through the water and soon found themselves in a large cave.

Near the entrance sat an old woman cooking some buffalo meat and corn in two separate earthen pots. She welcomed them: “Grandchildren, you have come. Her,e sit beside me.”

three sisters
The three sisters: corn, beans, and squash

They sat down, one on each side of her, and told her that the people were hungry and that they had come to her for food. She gave them corn from one pot and meat from the other. They ate until they had had enough, and when they were through the pots were still full. Then she told them to look toward the south, and they saw that the land in that direction was covered with buffalo. She told them to look to the west, and they saw all kinds of animals, large and small, including ponies, through they knew nothing of ponies in those days. She told them to look toward the north, and they saw corn growing everywhere.

The old woman said to them, “All this that you have seen shall be yours in the future. Tonight I cause the buffalo to be restored to you. When you leave this place, the buffalo will follow you, and your people will see them coming before sunset. Take this uncooked corn in your robes, and plant it every spring in low, moist ground. After it matures, you can feed upon it. Take also this meat and corn that I have cooked,” she said, and when you have returned to your people, ask them to sit down to eat in the following order: First, all males from the youngest to the oldest, with the exception of one orphan boy; second, all females, from the oldest to the youngest, with the exception of one orphan girl. When all are through eating, the rest of the food in the pots is to be eaten by the orphan boy and the orphan girl.”

The two men obeyed the old woman. When they passed out of the spring, they saw that their entire bodies had turned red. They went to their people who ate as directed of the corn and meat. There was enough for all, and the contents of the pots remained full until they were passed to the orphan children, who ate all the rest of the food.

Toward sunset the people went to their lodges and began watching the spring closely, and in a short time they saw a buffalo leap out. The creature jumped and played and rolled, then returned to the spring. In a little while another buffalo jumped out, then another and another and finally they came so fast that the Cheyenne were no longer able to count them. The buffalo continued to emerge all night, and the following day the whole country out in the bison-883520_640distance was covered with buffalo. The buffalo scented the great camp.

The next day the Cheyenne surrounded them, for though men hunted on foot, they ran very fast. For a time the people had an abundance of buffalo meat. In the spring they moved their camp to low, swampy land, where they planted the corn they had received from the medicine stream. It grew rapidly and every grain they planted brought forth strong stalks bearing two to four ears of corn. The people planted corn every year after this.

One spring after planting corn, the Cheyenne went on a buffalo hunt. When they had enough meat to last for a long time, they returned to their fields. To there surprise, they found that the corn had been stolen by some neighboring tribe. Nothing but stalks remained–not even a kernel for seed.

Though the theft had occurred about a moon before, the Cheyenne trailed the enemy’s footprints for several days. They even fought with two or three tribes, but never succeeded in tracing the robbers or recovering the stolen crop. It was a long time before the Cheyenne planted any more corn.


1“Native American Corn (Maize) Mythology”, Native-Languages, http://www.native-languages.org/legends-corn.htm

2“Corn”, Myths Encyclopedia, http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/Ca-Cr/Corn.html

3“The Three Sisters”, Bird Clan of the East, http://www.birdclan.org/threesisters.htm

4“The Union of Corn and Bean”, Native-Languages, http://www.native-languages.org/ottawastory.htm

5“The Hermit, or, The Gift of Corn”, http://www.ilhawaii.net/~stony/lore139.html

6“Native American History of Corn”, Native Tech, http://www.nativetech.org/cornhusk/cornhusk.html

7“The Old Woman of the Spring”, Archiver, http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/CHEROKEE/2004-02/1077534081

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