Corn Mother: Mythical origins of the world's most produced crop

Tim Farrand
Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Corn. Driving through where I live in Pennsylvania—or many locations throughout the U.S—you cannot go any stretch of time without encountering a field of corn.

During this time of year when the stalks are reaching their full height, I am often reminded of the many different corn origin myths that exist within the many diverse Indigenous cultures for whom this plant provided essential sustenance over thousands of years.

The origin of the many different varietals of corn we have today—the ancestors to the abundant crops we see all over the U.S. and throughout the world at this time of year—came from the teosinte plant growing in modern-day Central America and Southern Mexico. Teosinte is a wild grass with very narrow ears of only 5-12 kernels compared to our modern corn crops that can have ears with as many as 500 kernels.

From Fig. 1, The genetic architecture of teosinte catalyzed and constrained maize domestication

Around 8,000 years ago indigenous tribes in Southern Mexico began the cultivation that—over many generations—transformed this small wild grass into a crop that became a staple of the indigenous diet for communities from Mexico to Maine, eventually making its way across the world.

The early cultivation of the teosinte plant began when hunter-gathers started selecting and planting the seeds from the teosintes they found in the wild that were best suited for human consumption. Through time and patience, they continued to select the best of the crop to replant, encouraging the formation of ears that produced dozens and then hundreds of kernels on convenient cobs. [1]

Corn became central to the diets of many Indigenous cultures throughout the Americas and as a result, became part of religious ceremonies and rituals. Origin myths began to be told through generations about how the gift of corn came to a particular community. While every culture has its own variations, there are commonalities between several of them in the story that I will share with you today. This is the first corn origin myth—that of the "Corn Mother"—I encountered and the one my mind always returns to at this time of the year.

The particular story I share below contains a mixture of retellings from various communities in the region of New England. This area would have begun growing corn around 1,000 years ago and used a method of planting oftentimes referred to as the "Three Sisters." This involved the planting of three different crops together, each one providing support and assistance for the other. In small mounds of tilled soil, spaced throughout a field, a corn seed and a bean seed would be planted. As the corn grew, its stalks aided the growing bean vines, giving them something to grow upon to keep off the ground. Around these small mounds were planted squash whose large leaves would cover the soil keeping moisture in as well as keeping weeds from being able to overtake the young corn and bean plants. Also, the beans provided essential fertilizer—in the form of nitrogen—to the soil.

The Three Sisters

Not only do these three plants complement each other perfectly in growing, but they also produced a balanced diet. Corn provides carbohydrates, beans provide proteins and amino acids, and the squash provides more nutrients and minerals than those found in the other two plants. Additionally, all three of these plants could be dried for use throughout the year giving an essential source of sustenance through the long winters.

In many origin myths, corn appears as a gift to hunting societies suffering from starvation. There is often a mother figure who has strong ties to the earth and who gives of herself in a benevolent sacrifice to allow corn to arise from her body as it unites with the energy and power of the earth.

These stories show both a deep sense of gratitude for these crops as well as the essential element of nature's benevolence towards those who have ears attuned to hearing her voice. The Indigenous cultures of the Americas have myths and legends abounding with lessons in the power of having communion with nature, of living in balance with it, of being caretakers of the earth, not pillagers. They show a much more endearing and human way of life than many of our current activities and open up precious spaces for meditation upon the impact of our actions.

Corn Mother

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 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, they 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 care of her breath, because it is her love turned into smoke. Remember her and think of her whenever you eat, whenever you smoke this scared 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." [2]

August 3, 2022

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1. Eleanor Lawrence, "The maize maze," Nature (March 1999),

2. The "Corn Mother" is a retelling taken from three nineteenth-century sources and found in American Indian Myths and Legends, ed. Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (New York: Random House, 1984), 12-13 (WorldCat).