The Corn Mother (Penobscot)

American Indian Myths & LegendsThe following is one of the most beautiful stories from myth that I know, collected American Indian Myths and Legends, edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz.(The book is part of the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library, which is usually hit or miss, but this one remains one of the best anthologies of myth I’ve found.)

There is so much in these two pages: the myth of a vegetation goddess demanding her own sacrifice, the god who retires from his creation, men and women born from the sea or plant life, a central veneration for the sun (and the sacrifice taking place at the sun’s highest point, at midday), the limitations of hunting and a transition to (or its integration with) planting,  and the wonderfully pagan notion where a creator god is introduced, but then a god even higher than that is mentioned only in passing. There is no theology or fixed system here, only an expanding world reflecting actual experience. The line, “Weeping loudly, they went away,” cuts more deeply than nearly every attempt at storytelling, fiction, or poetry, that I encounter nowadays.

***

When Kloskurbeh, the All-maker, lived on earth, there were no people yet. But one day when the sun was high, a youth appeared and called him “Uncle, brother of my mother.” This young man was born from the foam of the waves, foam quickened by the wind and warmed by the sun. It was the motion of the wind, the moistness of the water, and the sun’s warmth which gave him life—warmth above all, because warmth is life. And the young man lived with Kloskurbeh and became his chief helper.

Now, after these two powerful beings had created all manner of things, there came to them, as the sun was shining at high noon, a beautiful girl. She was born of the wonderful earth plant, and of the dew, and of warmth. Because a drop of dew fell on a leaf and was warmed by the sun, and the warming sun is life, this girl came into being—from the green living plant, from moisture, and from warmth.

“I am love,” said the maiden. “I am a strength giver, I am the nourisher, I am the provider of men and animals. They all love me.”

Then Kloskurbeh thanked the Great Mystery Above for having sent them the maiden. The youth, the Great Nephew, married her, and the girl conceived and thus became First Mother. And Kloskurbeh, the Great Uncle, who teaches humans all they need to know, taught their children how to live. Then he went away to dwell in the north, from which he will return sometime when he is needed.

Now the people increased and became numerous. They lived by hunting, and the more people there were, the less game they found. They were hunting it out, and as the animals decreased, starvation came upon the people. And First Mother pitied them.

The little children came to First Mother and said: “We are hungry. Feed us.” But she had nothing to give them, and she wept. She told them: “Be patient. I will make some food. Then your little bellies will be full.” But she kept weeping.

Her husband asked: “How can I make you smile? How can I make you happy?”

“There is only one thing that will stop my tears.”

“What is it?” asked her husband.

“It is this: you must kill me.”

“I could never do that.”

“You must, or I will go on weeping and grieving forever.”

Then the husband traveled far, to the end of the earth, to the north he went, to ask the Great Instructor, his uncle Kloskurbeh, what he should do.

“You must do what she wants. You must kill her,” said Kloskurbeh. Then the young man went back to his home, and it was his turn to weep. But First Mother said: “Tomorrow at high noon you must do it. After you have killed me, let two of our sons take hold of my hair and drag my body over that empty patch of earth. Let them drag me back and forth, back and forth, over every part of the patch, until all my flesh has been torn from my body. Afterwards, take my bones, gather them up, and bury them in the middle of this clearing. Then leave that place.”

She smiled and said, “Wait seven moons and then come back, and you will find my flesh there, flesh given out of love, and it will nourish and strengthen you forever and ever.”

So it was done. The husband slew his wife and her sons, praying, dragged her body to and fro as she had commanded, until her flesh covered all the earth. Then they took up her bones and buried them in the middle of it. Weeping loudly, they went away.

When the husband and his children and his children’s children came back to that place after seven moons had passed, the found the earth covered with tall, green, tasseled plants. The plants’ fruit—corn—was First Mother’s flesh, given so that the people might live and flourish. And they partook of First Mother’s flesh and found it sweet beyond words. Following her instructions, they did not eat all, but put many kernels back into the earth. In this way her flesh and spirit renewed themselves every seven months, generation after generation.

And at the spot where they had burned First Mother’s bones, there grew another plant, broad-leafed and fragrant. It was First Mother’s breath, and they heard her spirit talking: “Burn this up and smoke it. It is sacred. It will clear your minds, help your prayers, and gladden your hearts.”

And First Mother’s husband called the first plant Skarmunal, corn, and the second plant utarmur-wayeh, tobacco.

“Remember,” he told the people, “and take good care of First Mother’s flesh, because it is her goodness become substance. Take good of her breath, because it is her love turned into smoke. Remember her and think of her whenever you eat, whenever you smoke this sacred plant, because she has given her life so that you might live. Yet she is not dead, she lives: in undying love she renews herself again and again.” (Retold from three nineteenth-century stories, including Joseph Nicolar) (12-13)

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12 Comments Add yours

  1. johndockus says:

    A poignant story to be sure. Out of unspeakable gruesome sacrifice comes the sacred. I don’t think one could truly understand the sacred without seeing down into the unspeakable horror of the origin. Time passes and that origin is lost touch of and the name “sacred” remains, but corruption enters in and by slow degrees it turns profane. Look at Jesus crucified on the cross, and what the passing of time has done to that religion. Look at what twisted and perverse attempts are made by some to get back in touch with the original event, trying everything to resurrect the “true spirit”, up to an even voluptuous enjoyment in suffering. (Kafka’s A Hunger Artist is intriguing to think of as part of this discussion.) Some think the symbolic is just the husk, and the literal is the kernel. Maybe, just maybe, the sacred is at bottom but barbarity and savagery. One could say this is a story of cannibalism. And smoking causes cancer.

  2. johndockus says:

    Looks like my provocation fell flat. Anyway, I have this book “A Kayak full of Ghosts” of Eskimo Folk Tales. The Eskimos who created these mythic tales have a wonderful off-color sense of humor, very physical and primally direct, taboo-busting one might say. The tales bring me back to my adolescence when I was into dirty jokes and would draw sick and twisted cartoons. There are no elegant and learned lines to distance and conceal from more unpleasant and ugly realities for appeal to bourgeois tastes. They are tales told in the old oral tradition for sparking and creating warmth out in the literal freezing cold where to survive there is no time for refined pastimes and luxuries. I’m positively delighted by them. Here’s one with self-mutilation and incest in it.

    Sun and Moon

    “The Moon slept with many women, but did not get pleasure from any of them. Then he decided to sleep with his pretty little sister, the Sun. He covered his face with ashes and slipped into her sleeping skins. Afterwards she said:

    “Whoever you are, do it again…”

    And so they did it again, all night long.

    In the morning, the Sun learned the identity of her lover. Now she became quite upset. “You will never do this awful thing to me again, Brother,” she said.

    “Oh no? I am stronger.”

    She picked up an ulu and cut off her breasts. Then she mixed her own urine and blood in a dish with the breasts and made akutaq. This she gave to her brother, saying: “Here, eat this if you want to see how I taste!” Then she dashed out of the house. The Moon paused to eat the breasts, and then went after her.

    And still he pursues his sister, even today, to get her for his mate. But she is faster and always keeps well ahead of him. Thus, owing to the Moon’s lust, does night follow day.”

    —————————————————

    Another entitled “Bad Food” (there’s no self-sacrificing MaMa turning into corn to feed her people here):

    “Once a Dead Whale washed up on Disko Island. It was half-buried in the snow by the time anyone found it. As this was the starving times, people were delighted. For weeks they came down and cut off huge chunks of the whale which they brought back to their stewpots. They said it was the best meat they’d ever eaten. Slowly the snow cleared away from the whale. Finally there came a day when people saw underclothes and kamiks on its body. “No whale wears underclothes and kamiks,” said the angakok, “we have been eating a giant…” And one by one people began to die. Indeed, everyone died except for one old man who had no teeth and thus was unable to chew meat: All the while he’d been living off scurvy-grass, ptarmigan droppings, and his own lice.”

    —————————————————

    This brings up another interesting topic: whether it is better for a leader of a people to circulate stories which hold up a shining ideal to them, making promises and kindling hope in them, faith in the Almighty God which will save them from all their misery and troubles, or the Earth Goddess who will provide all the food they need if only they close their eyes and click their heels three times and pray, keeping them all bubbly and smiling and optimistic, or better just to tell them the truth bluntly and straight, raw and unvarnished, down into the ugly reality. Certainly this is a very difficult and complex subject which has no easy answer. One disarms people spiritually and emotionally, disempowering them, by giving to them even the loveliest of lies, sung by the greatest of poets. They might be made to feel wonderful, enchanted, their heads pumped full of beauteous visions, which gives them incredible hope, while at the same time, in reality, they are being led marching toward the cliff’s edge.

  3. nono says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I like myths and legends very much but I have never had a chance to read anything from American Indians mythology. I wonder if I can find this book in my local library 🙂

  4. Alleh says:

    I agree with the notion of mythology being mutated and perverted over time, but there’s no reason to mock a religion or way or life because it’s different than yours.

  5. johndockus says:

    Hi Alleh: I apologize if I gave the impression of mocking. Not my intention. I could’ve been more thoughtful in my wording. I was really trying to get at that link of horror to the sacred, and how indeed through time that origin may be easily lost touch of and perverted into something else, and even beatifically idealized. Kind of doing some “thinking out loud” here. I apologize again if what I wrote rubbed you the wrong way. Sincerely, John

  6. Alleh says:

    Not at all! I enjoy reading sincere thoughts on religion and mythology.

  7. Tim Miller says:

    Thanks for your comments, John & Alleh. I couldn’t tell if John was half playing the Trickster here, but I’ll add my two cents. I’m not sure I believe in “original barbarity/savagery” any more than I buy ideas of “original purity”; both versions seem to certain of themselves. I’m still not sure if religion, at that primal point of original experience, is one of fear or just of the sublime, but I imagine a mixture of the two is unavoidable.

    No doubt most primal myths of beginnings are brutal and savage, though, but as I say elsewhere in the blog, I think the best way to look at religion is actually as the most perfect mirror of reality we have. Despite every attempt of dogmatists & theologians to reduce religions to systems & lists & certainties; & despite every attempt of fundamentalists to oppose the “purity of believers” over & against “the evil outside world,” to where life in the world is condemned entirely, I think that life itself, from many points of view, is largely barbaric & savage & brutal, & apparently indifferent, & that religion merely reflects this truth.

    Taken literally, it is of course abhorrent both that starving humanity, or spiritually empty humanity, should require the sacrifice of anybody or anything, whether of the Corn Mother or of Jesus or any similar stories, but this seems to be the solution the souls of humanity have constantly come up with. On a smaller or larger level the basic example that “life feeds on life” & “resurrection can only occur from death” is the most obvious story there is, anywhere, from nature to human life, & these stories only feel like a cheat, I think, or as if they’re pulling the wool over our eyes, if we take them ulra-literally; taken as metaphors, such stories simply seem to be what we require: that is, full awareness of the brutality of much of life, & making it sacred by any means necessary. Other Native American stories–such as where the buffalo come to offer themselves for sacrifice to humans, & institute the Buffalo Dance to resurrect them, all apparently the result of human guilt for needing them for sustenance–could be dismissed cynically, or just recognized as psychologically & spiritually necessary.

    I rather think we need these seemingly, or actually, barbaric & brutal & beyond the pale stories, since like life, there are no answers to them at all. I prefaced the Corn Mother story by saying it was “beautiful,” by which I meant bottomless, uneasy, unsolvable, enduring, sublime. The sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 is another story that, taken literally, is utterly revolting, as is that of Job, & so many others. If we believe literally that gods or God or human beings acted this way in the past, it’s abhorrent; but if we see it as a reflection of the ineffable, we might see its virtue. After all, we take solace in the ineffable when it is positively experienced, whether in love or nature or any feeling, come upon us undeserved, or beauty or compassion, or a feeling of being guided or given something; & in the same way I don’t think we should avoid the experience of the ineffable in its darker aspect.

  8. johndockus says:

    Thanks for stepping in, Tim. I think we may be in fundamental agreement. I don’t want to split hairs. I think over-intellectualization of these matters is a trap. In religion the heart and soul leads, to the light-filled heights and even into the darkest depths. One should never fear being cast out of an artificial paradise. I’m being misread by anyone who thinks I’m not actually delighted by all these old myths and fables. I can test myself in them and be as savage and barbaric as I please. As you wrote, I will find something which mirrors what I express back to me, and deepens and enriches my understanding in a way where I feel more in touch with the living substance.

    I do play Trickster sometimes, it is true, or rather the Trickster gets into me. If the soul is like a mansion with many rooms, the Trickster sometimes comes and plops down on the couch, and farts to disrupt the music, or hangs upside-down from the rafters, mirroring us in reverse and making things topsy-turvy, to remind us that behind every angel is a devil, and a Daimon always threatening to swallow up every Muse like a shish-kabob.

    If there is that which is Sacred, it does not exist in display cases in a museum. Many people seem to treat it that way. (Read the placard, don’t touch the wares. Stand back behind the line and be respectful, etc.)

    I guzzle down the holy water and spray a thousand pardons into the air.

    The truly sacred is always under threat, ratcheted up into high tension, and if it has any power, real power, not only in name, those strings are plucked and charm like the lyre of Orpheus.

  9. susanpots says:

    On a totally different note, I notice that most of your posts are about men. Okay, you are a man. This is a post about the female. Very interesting.

  10. johndockus says:

    There you go! I snickered at how you worded it, Susanpots, with what comes across to the like of me as deadpan glee. I imagine you pausing for effect with a slight smirk and one lifted eyebrow, and a hand on your hip, tapping your toe waiting for a response. The most obvious things are often the most taken for granted or the most overlooked.

    Come to think of it, to pick up a thread of your remark, pulling at it and seeing where it leads, Why must “the Muse” always be feminine? I’d agree there’s a whole world of whys and what-the-hells here to explore.

    I wonder how this rubs Tim. He strikes me in many ways as deeply traditionalist. There’s something very solid and true about him, his foundation squarely on what has preceded. He not only has genuine poetic feeling and talent but he’d also be a very good biographer and historian. He checks his sources and doesn’t abuse or go too off the beaten path of original or intended meaning. His voice is informative and reassuring. I myself open onto oblivion and dance around the rim, always on the verge of losing my balance and falling in. I must be careful of my footing and often keep my mouth shut because I’m capable of saying some crazy things.

  11. Tim Miller says:

    Yeah, I’m not too sure that I like all these authors because they belong to the same male club as me, a club I never really feel a part of anyway. Human pages are all I’m about, no matter who it comes from. Like the Corn Mother story, the more & more polytheistic stuff I post will inevitably involve the goddesses; and at some point anecdotes from Toni Morrison, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, etc. etc. will all find their way here… but not because they’re women.

  12. johndockus says:

    I absolutely get that, Tim. There’s nothing at all exclusionary in your spirit. Another trap in all this is cornering ourselves with political correctness, speaking for an “agenda”. Oh Goodness, how that disgusts me. I don’t know how I’m coming across: the kind of irreverence I practice is precisely aimed toward accomplishing the same end as you. Blasting through obstacles which narrow and corner or subversively undermining them and reestablishing The Human, the whole human. Gender is but one aspect. Every human has in them both the masculine and the feminine. I’m for that way of thinking. I’m your friend and ally, Tim.

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