Corn

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


CORN


An ear of earn that has been reaped in silence.

Philosophoumena

Sky-father spoke to the Earth-mother and said, 'Yet not alone shalt thon he helpful unto our children, for behold!' and he spread his hand abroad with the palm downward, and into all the wrinkles and crevices thereof he set the semblance of shining yellow corn grains. In the dark of the early world-dawn they gleamed like sparks of fire, and moved as his hand was moved over the bowl, shining up from and also moving in the depths of the water therein. 'See!' said he, pointing to the seven grains clasped by his thumb and four fingers, 'by such shall our children be guided; far behold, when the Sun-father is not nigh and thy terraces are as the dark itself, then shall our children be guided by lights . . . like to these lights of all the six regions turning around the midmost one . . . as in and around the midmost place, where these our children shall abide, lie all the other regions of space! Yea! and even as those grains gleam up from the water, so shall seed-grains like to them, yet numberless, spring up from thy bosom when touched by my waters, to nourish our children.'

Zuni Cosmology

  To the Indians of the New World, spiritual life and the life of flesh were reflecting counterparts of one another in that midmost place. The breath of Spirit breathed in the corn like the Mayan wife who blows on her kernels before grinding them into meal. Wherever corn grew in the Americas it was held by the people to be the symbol of life and fertility. It was the flesh of man and that which sustained him but it was the gift of the Father, and its multicoloured glory was cherished as the endlessly varied expression of his beneficence. It was the spirit of the seed of eternal life, and frequently the umbilical cord of a newborn child was cut over an ear of corn. From the Northeastern woodlands to the tropics of Guatemala and beyond, many tribes observed this practice and saved most of the seed from this sanctified corn for the child's first solid meal. The rest was kept until the little one grew older and could begin to participate in the sacred act of planting, placing the carefully preserved kernels into the small deep holes with his own hand.

 The Hopi believe that the corn plant that grew as a result of these carefully deposited seeds was especially created for mankind and had a body similar to man's in many respects. Do not the people build the flesh of the corn into their own flesh? And is not, therefore, corn their mother, like the living Earth herself? This they believe and also that, while their Father remains on high and is symbolized in the sun, their Mother is revealed in the dual aspects of earth and corn. Thus it is with reverence that they speak of the Corn Mother, and when a child is born, an ear of perfect corn whose tip ends in four full kernels is placed beside it for the twenty days that it lies in darkness within the pueblo, prior to emerging into the world. During this time the little one rests under the protection of its spiritual progenitors, and later, when he grows into the age of understanding, he will learn that though he has human parents, his real parents are the universal entities who created him through his Mother Corn.

Goddess of the seven ears, arise, awake,
For, our mother, thou leavest us.
Arise, awake,
Mother, thou leavest us now.
Thou goest to thy home in Tlalocan.

 The Southwestern tribes say that corn was divinely created in the First, Second, Third and finally the Fourth Worlds. As man emerged in each new world along his evolutionary pathway, so too did corn emerge, taking on a progressively solid shape. Aztecan legends claim that in the time of the great plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl when the gods walked upon the earth, corn grew so large that a man could carry only one ear at a time. In later times, when its size had diminished, the priests at the temple of Chicomecoatl sang to the goddess of the seven ears and begged her to arise and go to that sacred isle where the gods had come to live apart, so that she could give birth to the Lord of Maize. They believed it was this divine offspring who appeared in individual plants which could each, cared for separately, yield enough food to feed a man for one day. When the people celebrated the festival of the goddess, they clustered around her pedestal of seven serpents and looked with reverence upon the broad stone face which mirrored the power of denizens of another world. The virgins of her temple carried seven ears of seed-corn on their shoulders, which they placed before the altar. After receiving the goddess' blessing, the ears were distributed to the houses of the common people where they became "the heart of grain" which protected the body of the harvest. Similarly, in the Eleusinian mysteries, the supreme initiation involved beholding an ear of corn wrought in gold, symbol of the divine intelligent power that fructifies Nature and sustains man. Though personified as Demeter and given its cyclic characterization as her daughter Persephone, corn remained from archaic ages the impersonal yet concrete symbol of the force of life at the heart of cosmic and terrestrial evolution.

 When cornmeal is offered in prayer it is an offering of the flesh. But being a divinely created food, it is also a sign of spiritual thanksgiving. In the duality of its symbolic nature it unites the male and female principles, just as the tassel drops its pollen upon the 'lifeline' of the silk that leads to the ovule within the ear. Containing all that is necessary for generation, corn was believed to be the very shape taken by the ancestors of man. The Popul Vuh tells that the archetypes of the Quiche Mayas were four perfect men made of maize. The Navajo also speak of human prototypes created from corn, and the corn masks and costumes fashioned out of shredded husks worn by the Algonquian, Iroquois, Cherokee and Pueblo peoples all reveal a widely shared notion regarding the nature of these sacred predecessors. Because of its divine origin people associated corn with their understanding of natural law and they perceived a balance between the male and female powers, which they strove to unite in a code of justice. Just as the male and female paho of the Hopi are tied together with a sack of corn husk containing meal so that it will establish a perfect harmony of powers in ceremonial rites, so the sacred mongko stick which symbolizes the Law of Laws bears a Corn Mother fastened to its side. In ancient Mexico the law permitted a traveller to take seven ears of corn from the state-supplied crops which were planted along the highways. It was thought to be just and natural that all men should be thus provided for. But those who wilfully damaged a cornfield or took more than they needed paid for such sacrilege with their lives. They were publicly hanged and despised by all, a punishment that reflects dramatically, if violently, the sense of religious significance that they attached to the plant as well as the sacred basis upon which they developed their legal code.

 The Ojibwa Indians taught their youth the story of how, long ago, a young vision-seeker made his lonely way into the forest, where he fasted and was visited by vivid dreams during seven successive nights. In these dreams, which were more real than waking life, he was approached by the youthful god Mondamin, who was dressed in brilliant green, with waving plumes adorning his raven hair. The god invited the lad to wrestle, and during six nights he struggled and was sorely weakened and deprived of hope and confidence. Each time he was ultimately pinned to the earth by the dazzling plumed one and he would roll over groaning in the agony of defeat as he awoke. But on the seventh night Mondamin told the boy of his approaching victory and gave instructions for his own burial. The exhausted youth rose again in his dream and struggled with the god, who succumbed beneath his straining arms and fell lifeless at his feet. The youth wept to see the beautifully tasselled head flung back along the hillock where his green and golden body lay, but he carried out the instructions given him and buried the god within the softened soil. He placed the three tassels upon the mound where later in the season the first corn plants grew.

 Ojibwa children were taught to dream and they knew the law of sacrifice that governs the manifest world through such legends and through their own strivings when they too would seek a vision. Like the Hindu Purusha, who archetypally sacrificed himself in a thousand pieces so that life in all its fragmented variety might unfold, so Mondamin in a more particularized way sacrificed himself so that men could sustain themselves and flourish. It is only natural for men to strive to imitate this mode of communion between spirit and the flesh when they give of their staff of life to the gods. Among people who base their lives upon the raising of corn it was and is inconceivable that any ceremonial should be conducted without it. Cornmeal is used for incense; it is spread on the ground in magical patterns and its dough is used to model images of the gods. When the famous Captain John Smith was held prisoner in a Powhatan village, a priest performed a twelve-hour ritual, laying a ring of white cornmeal around the fire, followed by rings of red and black cornmeal in patterns of fives, threes and twos. During this ceremony, which was to decide the fate of their captive, the Powhatans fasted and solemnly awaited the outcome, for to them, as well as others, cornmeal provided the path along which the gods could reveal themselves. The Hopi call it the Road of Life, and in their kivas they use the varicoloured meal to provide pathways for the approaching Kachinas, who sanctify their lives by coming forth from the holy San Francisco mountains during different times of the year.

 The magic of corn was not only believed in by natives of the New World but by some of the European settlers as well. Corn graced the table of the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth colony, and many openly applauded the curative powers of its meal in poultices, broths and plasters. One old Massachusetts citizen, commenting on the various infirmities afflicting her neighbours, said, "Efen they was to string some corn onto a thread and wear it round their necks like they was beads, they'd be as pert as a day old chick." Europeans use the term 'corn' in a generic sense and apply it to indicate various types of grain. Their tendency is to speak of maize as Indian corn, while Americans, to further the confusion, discriminate between Indian corn and American corn, meaning by the latter the more recent Anglo-American hybrids. But to most people in the Western hemisphere, corn is corn, even though its most commonly understood name is maize. This delightful little puzzle is most probably nothing more than an echo of the more fundamental confusion of Christopher Columbus when he gave the name 'Indian' to people he felt sure were inhabitants of India. However it may be, the name 'maize' derives from an Arawak term which was widely used by tribes in the Caribbean area. This name was recorded in his ship's log on November 6, 1492, and eventually made its way to Europe, where it received its Latin stamp of approval (maizium) in 1516. Maize seeds reached Europe in 1494, and from there found their way to North and West Africa. The Portuguese took maize from Brazil to India, and Magellan took a Mexican variety to the Philippines and the East Indies. Ancient Chinese records indicate that the grain was introduced into China by sea and overland from the West, while in none of these places outside the Americas is there any evidence of prehistoric varieties.

 Excavations in the New World reveal that wild maize was consumed as part of the diet of people who lived more than seven thousand years ago. There is a wealth of artifactual evidence for grinding going back ten thousand years, and maize was clearly domesticated by at least five thousand years ago. No one is sure of its place of origin, but it was probably in the open grasslands east of the Andes, and the oldest type to develop was what we lovingly call popcorn. Some researchers estimate that archaic popcorn may go back as many as eighty thousand years, but by the time Europeans came along all of the Indians who grew maize had thoroughly domesticated the popcorn variety and popped it regularly in large pottery vessels. They wore it for decoration, used it in ceremonies and ate it for pure enjoyment, sometimes coating it with maple syrup or mixing it with pemmican. Maize, along with tobacco, pumpkins and succoquatash, was a native of the New World, and the early colonists who struggled to stay alive along the coast that would eventually become known as New England were quick to take the cue and adopt the Indian grain.

 Other Europeans were not so open-minded and looked upon Indian corn with the same disdain they accorded to Turkish and Welsh corn, a disdain that intended to include the people of these cultures as well as their foodstuff. They considered both to be coarse and overgrown and not fit for gende companionship or consumption if avoidable. This attitude, especially held by the European upper classes, was to continue and even wax stronger as they observed the rough and tough cultural ways of Yankee expansionists. Europeans gave the maize to cows, pigs and chickens who thrived on it, and aligned their own appetites with the more refined products of Old World grains. The first Englishman to record in scholarly style a genuine appreciation for the American Indian's knowledge and use of maize was Thomas Hariot, who accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh to the Virginia country (now North Carolina) in 1585. He was a young Oxford graduate and an outstanding scholar of his time who tutored Sir Walter in mathematics and took time to study the native way of life. He described in wonderful detail the beautifully planned villages and perfectly tended corn, tobacco and sunflower fields where no weed was ever permitted to grow larger than a sprout and where the science of horticulture had reached perfect balance between population, labour and vegetable husbandry.

 The newcomers were astounded at the profusion of maize harvested by the Iroquois, who grew plants up to eighteen feet tall with golden ears of twenty inches. In the Genesee Valley they had forty villages with granaries that held sixty thousand bushels of corn. The maize of the moist lowlands of Central America reaches twenty feet in height, while that of the Pueblo Indians is very short and grown in squatty clusters wide apart to protect the inner ears from the wind and to allow the long lateral roots to locate every bit of moisture in the dry, sandy soil. In fact, the range of size and form of maize far surpasses other cereals. The largest Cuzco kernel will average fifty times the size of the smallest popcorn grain and the colours and row patterns explode in riots of variation even in the same growing area. The Indians love and respect and see great significance in this variety. When they pick up the ears to husk them, they treat them like surprise packages whose contents no human has ever seen. They may unveil a solid red, white, blue, purple, yellow or brown ear, but it is usually some fantastic combinations of these colours. Most have rows of grains in twos, but some may be spiralled or otherwise patterned or even double-eared. There is a marvellous and endless potential variation that presents itself. The pollen which falls from the male tassel upon the exposed silk of the ear germinates and produces a pollen tube that makes its way down the silk to the ovule. It bears two sperms that fertilize the egg and endosperm cells and thus carry forth the genetic combination from two plants. The variations possible tend to multiply because it is usually the tassel of one plant that fructifies the ovule of another. Of the many variables producing colouration, the density and brilliance of hue in the endosperm is much affected by the optical qualities of the tissue which is determined by the amount of air space in it, causing it to be white, yellow or orange. The aleurone layer may be blue, red, yellow, brown or colourless, the difference between blue and red governed by a single gene. The pericarp colours come from the female parent only, but its translucence and the varieties of colours that may combine in layers beneath its surface can produce myriad colour patterns even in each kernel or such a density of colour as to make the ear appear black. The Navajo breed a variety which they use in ritual and which has only one dot of dark blue colour on the tip of each light grain.

 Maize is thus a highly mutable plant whose multitudinous expressions are referred to by botanists as races. Thus it is that the Mexican popcorn race can be traced to Sikkim, and various races of Peru, Argentina, Arizona or Yucatan all have their names and can be found in different areas, having migrated with the movements and needs of the people who handled them. Racial and colour variations cross and blend, and Indian breeders often worked with nature to produce a reliable supply of various sizes and colours for sometimes very serious purposes. The Zuni gave an annual tribute to the seven holy regions through the agency of six priests and one priestess-mother who symbolized a synthesis of them all. They wore robes of different hues sacred to the gods they personified and maize of appropriate colour was placed before them. White ears were given to the east, yellow to the north, red to the south, blue to the west, black to the netherworld, all colours to the upper world and a particular speckled variety to the priestess-mother which signified all races, past, present and future. This richly symbolic ceremony bore a special meaning for the Zuni, who had a profoundly intuitive appreciation of the forces linked with direction, colour and levels of manifestation and how they expressed themselves in relation to the races of plants, animals and human beings. But there is a further significance in the fact that the land where corn grew and diversified was destined to be the place where the greatest amalgamation of races that the world has ever known was to occur.

 As with human races, there is a wide gap between cultured maize and any known uncultivated ancestor. Cultivated corn is critically dependent upon human protection, for even the hardiest varieties will survive only a few generations if uncared for. Biologically, an ear of corn is a monstrosity. Its seeds, if allowed to, will fall in such a crowded cluster as to render the development of any one normal plant a near impossibility. It needs a human hand to collect and disperse the seeds in such a way as to ensure adequate soil nourishment for each plant, while at the same time enabling cross-fertilization to take place. The maize plant beautifully fitted the needs and the knowledge of the native people, for of all the cereal plants it is the best suited to hand cultivation. Because of the relative ease of its husbandry and harvest, women have often been its prime cultivators. It is interesting to note that most of the egalitarian tribes that relied upon corn as their main food supply were matrilineal. The Iroquois, Cherokee, Hopi and Zuni were all such and women in these cultures were owners of property and had a certain political as well as economic influence. In the hierarchical societies of Central and South America, where maize culture predominated, the farmers were men as well as women and influence was in the hands of the upper classes. Among the tribes it was generally believed that women worked the fields because their powers of reproduction would enhance the fertility of the crop. But women settlers of European origin cultivated corn because they could manage the planting, hoeing and harvesting by themselves. In the early days most of them did not have servants, and their ability to bring in a crop freed their menfolk to ply the seas and investigate new avenues of trade and commerce. It could be argued that corn enabled men to take to the sea but it also enabled the development of some very independent-minded women.

 One observer once commented that "most of the 'movements' in America began in some New England parlour" and probably many were inspired by women who were not in the least shy about voicing their opinions or putting their ideas into action. Societies of all sorts dedicated to the improvement of everything from higher education to morals were inaugurated by women who were used to taking things into their own hands if no one else was around to do the job. This same independent spirit spread with the advancing frontier into the future corn belt states and helped to develop the character of the American way of life which was reflected in the relationships between its men and women and the sorts of families and institutions they evolved. But the central phenomenon to be reckoned with was the fact of continual possible expansion. Pioneers moved into the woods away from the seaboard and always climbed the next ridge to see the valley beyond. They planted corn in the valley, formed villages and townships and moved on.

 Men like Abraham Lincoln's grandfather, who took 'corn title' for seventeen hundred acres in Kentucky, would move into an unsettled area, slash their name, the date and the number of acres claimed on a tree and settle down to plant corn. Old man Lincoln was shot by a Cherokee but his sons held the land, and it was there that Abraham was taught to hoe corn. While the whole expansionist fever pressed along supported by corn, the southern part of the nation had experienced its own development, which was based upon a syndrome wherein corn enabled the purchase of slaves, whose presence made possible large tobacco crops that brought in the great wealth which enabled plantation owners to emulate the class system of eighteenth century England. They thus had the means to provide an Oxford or Cambridge education for their sons, presentations at court and all the accoutrements of gentle living while the rough and tumble frontiersmen stomped along to homely jibs like "Old Daddy Flicker, likes corn likker. He picks up his feet, quicker 'n quicker." Worlds apart though they may have seemed, both bluebloods and Yankee commoners achieved the means to realize their ambitions through the cultivation of that coarse and overgrown grain called corn.

 With the extraordinary level of production achieved in the United States as a result of controlled hybridization and mechanized farming, corn has become a huge and specialized business. The process of hybridization itself necessitates a wide degree of commerical exchange. Because the seed of only the first generation hybrid provides maximum vigour, farmers desiring high yield cannot save their own double-crossed seeds for the next year's planting but must buy first generation seeds from someone else every year. There has developed, since the times of the early colonists who adopted the Indian's crop, a shift away from local variation due to natural selection where corn was gently husbanded by man, to a very deliberate development and rigid control of new races for specific economic purposes. This one example serves to illustrate some of the dramatic philosophical and social differences that exist between the native tribes and European settlers. Man's conscious counteraction of the forces of natural selection, genetic drift and mutation became intensified a thousandfold, and the delight and sacred significance which the Indian attached to variety have been steadily replaced with a satisfaction derived from a sense of quantitative maximization and control. The difference in perspective is borne out in the fact that in areas such as Guatemala, the greatest variety in races of maize are found wherever Indians predominate.

 When a race of maize passes beyond the limit of the range of its adoptive area, it can do so only by infiltration into races already adapted to the new ecological environment. When men of various European backgrounds came to the New World they dreamt of freeing themselves from the rigid controls of class, religion and race that had oppressed them in the Old World. If they were really to have succeeded in this they would have done well to imitate the highly mutable corn which infiltrates and adapts. As new races of men came from other parts of the world, the stock would have waxed stronger with continued crossing and adaptation and with a persistent delight in the resultant variety. That this has happened in the New World, despite enormous pressure to conform on all levels to certain control standards, is testimony to the magnitude of the deeper forces operating to bring about a great new astral and physical amalgamation and a spiritual enlivening that can only take place through Buddhic and manasic cross-fertilization. For a time there was an age of innocence and childhood when people remembered the cornfields and their first love, the secret forts of dried corn stalks and the wonderful long summer days. But for many today this has been left far behind, and the hybrid culture that has evolved out of the New World dream has revealed an intolerance and a tearfulness of variation which bear the signs of an ungraceful and hardening middle age.

 If corn is a symbol of life both in spirit and in flesh, and if its multihued kernels represent all the six regions of the cosmos, one can interpret its powers of mutability and adaptation as being expressions of the breath of Spirit as it moves through evolution, creating an ever more universal form. The retrogressive tendencies to establish narrow or conformist standards regarding relations between men and women, between races, between labourers, managers, the young and the old, do not reflect the spirit of immigrants who dreamt of a new land, a fresh chance to build a new world. They do not reflect the spirit in which the Indians taught the early settlers to plant corn grains or the gratitude expressed in the first Thanksgiving. The breath of Spirit moves freely where people do not cling to forms or ideas out of a sense of fear or self-preservation. It moves where there is openness and mutability, where things can combine and recombine and express numberless permutations. It is in this environment of tolerance and adaptability that the real nature of hidden Truth can be glimpsed and it is from these glimpses that a new world can slowly germinate and eventually flower.

 Corn served as the first staff of life for all the races that made the New World their home. It thus provided a symbolic and biological keynote for the spiritual and physical evolution that has subsequently taken place and that can take place in the future. As the Zuni knew, the Earth Mother shall not alone provide, but the Spirit which breathes through the forms of life and spreads the seeds in infinite variety shows the way. A realization of the great potential that lies ahead requires vision-seekers who are taught, like the Ojibwa, to dream and interpret dreams and who can recognize the universal sacrifice that is ever made by Spirit so that the world-seed may grow. Such visionaries will intuitively perceive the importance of a correct balance between the powers of the male and female forces operating in human life so that true justice can be served and a sense of balance in harmony with nature can emerge. Vision and tolerance and adaptability belong to all races and both sexes, and visionaries see only the sacrificial nature of Spirit flowing through the changing forms of life. All the colours and shapes of corn offered by the Zuni to the six regions of the universe were combined in the ear of infinite colour which synthesized every race and realm and world. It was this ear of corn that was offered to the priestess who stood at the midmost place and represented all races, past, present and future. As the Sixth Sub-Race evolves, let us welcome its variations and look to perceive the Spirit working within them. Let us see within the coarse and overgrown commonness of ourselves or our fellow man the pure breath of sacrifice that nourishes and strengthens and reveals the divine Purusha who is, was and ever shall be.

I remember the cornfields,
And a dream of oneness with all mankind,
That was stretched out across the land,
Like rustling links in a golden chain.