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The Story of Agriculture, Corn and the Corn Goddesses who Grew with Them

Part 1: From the Birth of New World Agriculture to the First Corn Goddess

teosinte image

Teteoinnan artist image

The story of corn is a story that grows, from the southern tip of Mexico, along the Gulf Coast, up the Mississippi and its tributaries, through the Deep South, Midwest and part of the Great Plains. It grows up the mountains as well, from the Sierra Madres to the Rockies, then spreads across the Southwest. It's a tale of a small seed plant 6,000 years ago turning into the scrappy maize of the Colonial era, before transforming into the lush corn plant we know today. Along these travels, every step of the way, was the goddess: the B.C.-era fertility figures and Teteoinnan of the original plant, the unnamed earth goddess of the Mississippian moundbuilders in the U.S., maize goddess Chicomecoatl of the natives conquered by the Spanish, and the Native American Corn Mother or Corn Woman.

Teosinte and the Birth of Agriculture

In the New World, the story of agriculture is the story of corn and the core of agriculture is desire — specifically, the desire for more, more food, more free time. Imagine yourself a free-roaming human, 4,000 to 8,000 years ago, a hunter-gatherer at home in the high valley of Mexico, that southern end where the mountains stretching along the east and west coasts of Mexico merged together in a large V. Sierra Madre, the mother mountains, peppered with volcanoes unleashing waves of lava that decayed into rich, fertile, water-retaining soil. It was a place with warm days and cool nights, hardly ever a frost, and lots of sun and rain.

Here women spent hours out in the fields and foothills gathering. We gathered more than just food. We gathered medicinal plants, plants for fiber to weave clothes, plants for making twine or glue or paint. We gathered rocks, shells and wood to make tools. And we often did it all with a baby tied to our back. But what took up most of the time was food — in particular seeds. After gathering, we had to process thousands of individual seeds, removing the outer husks, sifting the chaff from the grain. Often the seeds had to be cracked or soaked before use. It was lots of time-consuming, boring work.

Just as we do now, women back then wanted time to live, to be free of the 9 to 5, except then it was sunrise to sunset. Life was more than just surviving by this point. We had better things to do with our time, like watching and pondering the stars, creating art and music, making better clothes, stronger tools and permanent places to stay. Hunting and gathering was hit or miss. We needed a steady, dependable, storable staple food, one that was efficient to pick, efficient to process.

The high valley of the eastern Sierra Madres is a vibrant and powerful area, one that would later foster an astounding array of sophisticated goddess cultures.

The high valley of the eastern Sierra Madres is a vibrant and powerful area, one that would later foster an astounding array of sophisticated goddess cultures. Tucked into these mountains is the lush Valley of Tehuacán [teh-wuh-cahn]. It was there in the heart of Mesoamerica around 4000 B.C.E. that someone, probably a woman, noticed a wild seed plant consisting of several pithy stalks about two feet tall. The seed bundles extending from the stalks were teeny, only an inch or two long, and very thin, looking like the miniature ears of corn we see today. The bundle was a single row of tightly packed, cube-shaped seeds on a cob-like stem.

The gathering women noticed how unusual the plant was. Many seeds have husks that protect the contents until time to sprout and catch onto the fur of a passing animal. Other seeds fly off the stem at the slightest touch. Both evolutionary measures help the seeds disperse. But this husk covered a whole row of seeds rather than each individual kernel. The tight bundle was easy to pick, easy to process. And it tasted good.

The ancient Mesoamerican woman and her kind had no written language, so we don't know what they called this plant. But the valley's later inhabitants who did write called it teocintli [teh-oh-seent-lee], grain of the gods, teo meaning divine. We now call it teosinte [teh-oh-seent-teh]. It was the beginning of North American agriculture.

But women didn't just grab some seeds, plow some fields and sow some crops. Between the gathering of wild foods and the cultivating of fields was a whole lot of wildscaping. Women out gathering would see that a certain area grew teosinte very well. So they pulled up the other plants competing with it so that teosinte could better flourish. Any trees shading the area were cut down so that the teosinte could get more sunlight. Rocks and tree limbs were used to create borders that helped the teosinte patch retain water and kept out encroaching plants. This was agriculture, 4000 B.C.E. style.

Each fall, seed from the best teosinte plants were scattered and the rest harvested for food. In these deliberately scattered teosinte, the bundle got larger with more rows of seeds, the kernels better and their shells thinner, making them even easier to process and cook. Each year, the cultivated teosinte patch got larger and denser, the plants bigger and stronger. By 2000 B.C.E. agriculture became defined, with fields of teosinte and other crops like beans and squash, and active techniques like fertilization and irrigation.

Over the centuries, women watched for the teosinte plants that started earlier in the spring and lasted longer in the fall, unharmed by the rare cold snap. These seeds were saved, too, and gradually teosinte edged its way northward, out of the tropics, in the belongings of men and women travelers who moved fluidly about the continent, curious about what the next valley, the next vista, would be. For thousands of years, migrating humans ventured all over North America, swirling people, plants and ideas together like the air fronts in the sky, mixing and merging to create weather.

When the Spanish invaded Mesoamerica in the early 1500s, they discovered the grain, looking like a shorter version of the plant we know today. They dubbed it with a Spanish word, maize, that sounded like what some of the natives called it. When the plant was taken back to Europe, it was renamed once more: corn, from the Latin word meaning "a round swelling," since its plump yellow kernels looked so unlike the hard, thin grains Europeans were used to.

That, in a kernel, is the story of corn.

The Continental Venus

From teosinte came leisure time and from leisure time came art and spirit. The ancient people of Mesoamerica had always held nature in awe. But this sense of being in partnership with nature fostered a special devotion. They tried to make tangible the spiritual essence that they had such an intimate relationship with, the fertile power that created such a thing as teosinte. And the form they gave to it was woman, woman as goddess, the great goddess, the Earth goddess, the mother goddess, the force beyond all words.

The Venus of Zohapilco — standing strong with firm round breasts and belly, she is the very genesis of North American spirituality in a one-inch slip of rock.

It was in the very tip of the Valley of Mexico, in the complex system of lakes that filled its southern end, that archeologists uncovered the Venus of Zohapilco [zo-ha-peel-coh], barely more than an inch of carved stone. Created sometime around 2300 B.C.E. on the island of Zohapilco in Lake Chalco, epochs of erosion that rubbed away much of her body had left just hints of a face. But her diminutive form, now resting in Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology, is a stunning sight: standing strong with firm round breasts and belly, the very genesis of North American spirituality in a one-inch slip of rock.

The Venus of Zohapilco is the oldest piece of representative art on the continent, the first time that a human sculpted a creation to represent something else. Reduced to her essentials with no hands or feet or hair, naked with prominent sexual organs and broad hips, she was a symbol, a symbol of the Earth's fertile divine-feminine essence. By a thousand or so years later, she would become larger, more ornate, with real facial features, hairstyles, ornaments and clothes.

Teteoinnan: Mother of All

Around 900 C.E., or Common Era (what archeologists use instead of A.D.), the climate began to get very hot. Societies became unstable. Along with the Mayan empire, the great city of Teotihuacan [tee-oh-teh-wuh-cahn] collapsed. With its gigantic Pyramid of the Sun and other spectacular stone temples, Teotihuacan had been the dominant culture, very centralized and focused, with most Valley of Mexico inhabitants living there or nearby. A great diaspora of ancient Mesoamericans went north, taking the new teosinte and its goddess with them. By 1200, the bigger, bolder teosinte had become the bedrock of pre-Native American agricultural peoples called the Basketmakers in Arizona-New Mexico and the Moundbuilders the South and Midwest. In the Valley of Mexico, the Nahua [nah-wah] who arose consisted of many small tribes, each very unique, even eccentric, yet sophisticated, the first on the continent to have a written language. Their villages were scattered around the Valley of Mexico, tucked away in the mountain folds or high on the northern plains, safe from the floods that plagued the southern valley floor.

In the eastern foothills of the valley, where teosinte first arose, a dazzling array of Nahua goddesses came to be. Toci [toh-cee], grandmother of the sweat lodge; Itzpaplotl [eetz-pahp-ah-low-tuhl], magical obsidian butterfly; Tlazolteotl [tah-la-zoh-tee-oh-tuhl], birthing mother and eater of sins; Tonantzin [toe-naht-zeen], essence of the Earth; and Xochiquetzal [zoh-she-ket-zahl], goddess of the spring. But before them all was Teteoinnan [tet-ee-oh-eh-nan], teo, meaning divine, and innan, giving birth, making her mother of the gods and goddesses and the mother of teosinte, the divine seed. Though Teteoinnan was her Nahua identity, she existed for at least a thousand years before her naming.

Teteoinnan was so grand as goddesses go that she was almost beyond comprehension, beyond imagining. Reduced to her essence, she was the portal, the gateway, where life arose. She was the vulva and she was the dark, the dark humus of the soil, the dark sleep of the night, the dark belly of the mother, all darkness where life is nurtured and released. Teteoinnan was the goddess of death and rebirth, like the teosinte seed buried in the dark earth and sprouted, like the human body buried into the dark earth and reborn.

But a few more elaborate imaginings of Teteoinnan have been found, of a goddess quite serious and severe, with a shield emblazoned with the Sun. Various sources state that her skirt was trimmed in white feathers, flowers or shells, evoking the white shell-trimmed skirt of the goddess Chalchiutlique [shal-she-ooht-lee-kway] who ruled the great fallen city of Teotihuacan before, and the White Shell Woman of the Navaho centuries later. The Sun image on her shield would become central to Chicomecoatl [chee-koh-meh-kwat-tuhl], the great maize goddess of post-Teotihuacan cultures, and also travel north to the Zuni tribe of the Southwest and end up on the New Mexico flag. The red circles on the face of Teteoinnan would figure prominently in the Hopi and Pueblo images of Spider. She was truly the mother of goddesses.

Check the next issue for the second half of the corn story ranging from the great unknown corn-serpent goddess of the Midwest; to the corn goddess of Mesoamerica who spread to the Southwest; to Corn Woman of current Native Americans.

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