The Corn Mother and Her Lack of Parallels

Published March 5, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

In researching for April A-to-Z, I’ve been spending some of my free time researching myths from all corners of the globe.  (Okay, technically, there are still parts of the world I haven’t gotten to, but I still have a month to go before it starts.  Still, I need to move faster!  I was supposed to already be writing the posts by now!  Ack!)  But I was taken aback when I came to the Cherokee myth of the Corn Mother, which ended up as an etiological story to explain why corn requires constant care and only produces a crop once a year, unlike other food plants.

I was immediately struck by the fact that it was a myth to explain why corn — a plant so altered in the process of domestication that people still argue about what plant(s) it originally came from — required so much work to grow.

It took me a little while to realize the most striking part of that, though:  I couldn’t think of a single other myth explaining why food crops required humans to work to grow them.  (That doesn’t mean there aren’t any others out there, but it does mean that they’re either from the regions I haven’t gotten to yet, or they’re very obscure.)

There are Greek myths about gods (or divinely inspired mortals) teaching humans how to raise various foodstuffs, but not about why the foodstuffs require that care.  And I don’t recall seeing any such myths in the Asian section of my so-called World Mythology book about why rice requires so much work to raise.  (Admittedly, it wasn’t as thorough in cataloging Asian myths as it was in cataloging European and Middle Eastern ones.  And it left out the rest of the world entirely.)  So why is there a myth like that for corn (or maize, if you happen to be British) but not for wheat, millet, rice, barley, et cetera?

I’ve been trying to think of a reason that would be the case, and all I can come up with is relative time of domestication.  In the Middle East, the cradle of Western civilization, the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture was about…wait, was it 10,000 years ago, or 10,000 BC(E)?  Ack.  I can’t believe I’ve forgotten that.  Well, either way, a very long time ago.  And it spread north and west into Europe pretty quickly, within a couple of centuries, I think.  I admit to ignorance of when rice was first cultivated in Asia, but I think I recall reading that it was around the same time that agriculture was beginning in Mesopotamia and Egypt.  Again, a very long time ago.

Corn, on the other hand…well, actually, the precise time of when corn was domesticated was still a subject of hot debate the last time I studied American archaeology, about 6 years ago.  That’s a lot of time for discoveries, but debates that heated tend to take decades to cool down, so I suspect it’s still a subject of some contention.  And given that it was so long ago that I read about it, I don’t precisely remember the dates being tossed around any longer, but I think it was around 2ooo BC(E).  A long time ago, yes, but nowhere near as long ago as when agriculture was developed in the Old World.  (Though I’m sure there was already agriculture in the New World before corn was bred.  In fact, the process of breeding corn out of possibly two or three different plants would have required that there was already an agricultural settlement.)

So, one theory, fairly plausible on the surface of it, could be that, because it likely took a while for corn to travel from its origin in Mexico to the North Carolina/Virginia region where the Cherokee lived, corn was recently enough arrived that there were still stories to explain it, whereas the various products of agriculture had been with the Europeans and other groups so long that there was no longer a need to explain them.

Considering that it would have been at least 2000 years since corn arrived with the ancestors of the Cherokee, that doesn’t sound so plausible after all.

Another theory could be that there was no cultural change between when corn arrived and when the stories were written down.

But that would mean that the Cherokee tribe was unchanged for at least 2000 years.  I find that exceptionally unlikely.  (I could be wrong, of course.  Even when I was studying Native American archaeology, this was not my area of expertise; I’ve only studied the Moche and the Mississippians in any detail.)

Another theory might be that corn is so much more complex to take care of than other domesticated plants that it required explaining.

Well, again, that both works and it doesn’t work.  I’m sure it is much more complex than any other plant that Native Americans raised.  But I’m also sure it doesn’t hold a candle in complexity to the raising of rice.

Then there’s also the fact that so far (and I’m not through with the section on North American myths, and I haven’t even gotten to the section on South American ones) I haven’t come across any other Native American stories of this nature.  (And I realize, belatedly, that I probably should have waited to write this post until I’d finished with the book on Native American beliefs…)

So I suppose the reason there are no other myths about why domestic plants need to be raised so carefully has less to do with timing or the nature of nurturing corn than it has to do with the Cherokee themselves.  There must be something about their culture that prompted the existence of a traditional story explaining why corn needed to be carefully tended.  I’ve got no idea what that would be, of course, but…

…this whole post has been me putting my foot in my mouth, hasn’t it?


It seemed like a good idea for a post when I first thought of it…


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