Corn Mother: The History of Corn

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Photo courtesy
Elder Donna Corn Silk of Red Hawk Lodge, Medicine Woman. Keeper of the Sacred Corn blessed by the Jemez Reservation in New Mexico.

First grown about 5,000 years ago in Mexico, corn became the most important food crop in Central and North America. It was sacred to Native Americans and not only provided food, but also symbolized sacred wisdom and their relationship with the divine. It represented generations of ancestors carefully choosing the best. Corn was used in ceremonies and in part of the three sisters planting. The Maya even based their calendar on the planting of the cornfield.

Zea Mays is the botanical name for corn, “zea” meaning to live and “mays” meaning mother. It was the mother of life for the people—containing protein, vitamins and minerals. Even the corn silk (or tassel) is traditionally used for calming inflammation and for the heart.

There are many Native American legends that tell the origins of corn. In some, like that of the Lakota Plains Indians, it was brought by a white buffalo. In others, like the Mayan tradition, an ant or some other small creature is given the credit. In many, however, there is the tale of a woman, the Corn Mother, who is credited with the origins of corn. 

The Corn Mother folklore can generally be broken into two basic versions, the “immolation version” in which she is killed and the “flight version” in which she escapes. The stories vary widely in details, such as how she and her husband are created, why this new food was needed, how the corn was created, how old she is, whether she is killed or kidnapped and, if killed, how that happens. The common themes are of a mother figure providing life-giving corn in a time of need and of a garden being created with important new plants. The type of plants in the stories also vary, but some included are corn, beans, squash, potatoes, and tobacco. The celebrations, ceremonies and poetry revolving around the traditional accounts of the creation of corn also vary in many beautiful ways

For more information:

Jamie Jackson, Butterfly Medicine Woman, is astaff member of Heirloom Gardener. She is also the owner of, an organic permaculture-based farm focused on growing medicinal plants that are then crafted using traditional methods into herbal products.

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