Planet Diversity World Congress on the Future of Food and Agriculture

The Corn Maiden

(Thank you to Akiko, who sent us this legend)

Long ago when the world was young, the people were often hungry. They survived as best they could by hunting animals and gathering wild fruits. There were no farmers and no-one knew how to grow corn. Without corn there was no flour, and without flour there was no bread to eat.

At that time there lived an old, old woman who understood many things. One day she called together all her family, all her neighbours and told them: 'Something wonderful is coming! For ten nights I have heard it singing from the river. Now it is time for you to listen with me, for we must find out who or what it is.'

So when darkness fell, the whole village went down to the river bank. Soon they heard a voice as sweet as a summer wind quivering over the water:

'Fair and fine,
Fine and fair
Are the fields
Where I grow and ripen.'

The villagers peered and strained to see who it was that sang so hauntingly. But they could see nothing, no-one.
Yet trusting in the Great Spirit, they sang back their own chant of peace and welcome.
The strange singing swelled to fill the darkness, until it seemed that a great army of mysteries was washing towards them through the night. Then the youngest children began to whimper with fear.

'Don't worry,' the old, old woman told them. 'You can go home now. Take your mothers and fathers with you. Leave me here. I am not afraid. I shall meet the singer and find out what I must do.'

So the villagers went away and the old, old woman waited, bent and wrinkled, alone.
Many moments of stillness passed; then suddenly the singer called out,

'Grandmother! Bring me ashore!'
'I am coming my child,' replied the old, old woman.
She climbed into her canoe and paddled it out to the centre of the river.

There she saw an enormous beaver. His back was arched out of the water, and on it sat a graceful girl.
The girl jumped into the canoe, and the old, old woman rowed her ashore.
'Thank you Grandmother,' said she, 'Now you must leave me here and go home yourself. But be sure to come and look for me in the morning.'
The old, old woman did as she was bidden. The next day, as soon as dawn had washed the sky, she hurried back to the river bank. There was no-one there; but a single stalk of corn, thick with golden seed, was growing on the spot where the mysterious singer had landed.

The old, old woman smiled and nodded to herself. She plucked the corn and carried it carefully home to her wigwam. There she hung it on a pole by her fireplace and waited to see what would happen next.
That night she had a dream. In it, the corn changed back into the shape of the girl she had rescued.
'Grandmother,' she said, 'it is too hot for me by your fire. Take me outside, I beg you! Then plant my seeds in the ground.'

When she woke, the old, old woman remembered her dream at once. Carefully, she unhooked the corn stalk and shook out the grains into a bowl. Then she carried them outside, laid them in the ground and covered them with a soft sprinkling of soil.
The sun shone and the rain fell. Soon green shoots pushed through the blanket of earth.
Then the old, old woman had another dream about the girl.

'Grandmother,' said she, 'know this: I am Corn. I have come to feed you. Nurse me carefully, protect me from the weeds. When I am ripe, grind me into flour. When that is done, bake me into bread. Eat me. Share me generously with your people. I will make you all strong!'

Once again, the old, old woman did as she was bidden. She looked after the corn. Moons waxed and waned, summer blossomed and faded. The corn grew strong. Its seed ripened.
It was the time of leaf-fall. The old, old woman harvested the corn. She divided it up and gave a handful of seeds to every family in the village.

Then she shared with them the wisdom that the Corn Maiden had taught her.
That night, everyone was happy. Now they had delicious bread to eat. Never again would they be hungry!
They went down to the river bank and chanted their thanks to the Corn Maiden.

For the last time they heard her singing across the water, but now her words were tinged with a strange sadness:
'Take care, take care
Of the good Earth that feeds me!
I am the fruit of the Earth -
Oh I suffer!
Do not waste me,
do not poison me.....
'Whatever can it mean?' asked the villagers.

Tears ran down the old, old, woman's cheeks, for she could see far into the future.

'Corn is sacred, everything that grows is sacred,' she said. 'But I warn you, there will come a time when the sons of your sons will forget this. Then hunger and sorrow will return to the world.' She shook her head. 'It will not end until - unless - their grandchildren learn once more this lesson - the only lesson that is worth remembering: how to love and respect the Earth.'

---Iroquois Indian legend

(From "The Tree in the Moon and Other Legends of Plants and Trees - Cambridge Books for Children)

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