Notes from Diane's Garden

Or The Curious Lore and Magical Property of Plants
By Diane Fenster

August 1987: Corn

It may be that I shall fade, fade and die,
I the young com stalk
A green jewel is my heart but I will see gold
I will be content once it has grown ripe;
The warrior chief is born.
--A song of the Aztec God Xipe

Seed Sower
Grain reborn
Homed One
--Chant to call up the God, a Compost original by Arden

The topic for August is the Harvest with a bit of corn, wheat and barley thrown in for good measure. This is in honor of the first harvest and the importance of agriculture both in the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers and in the development of our perception of the Great Goddess as Demeter/Ceres, the Mother of the crops.

August 1st...Lammas/Lughnassad. Lammas is the Saxon Feast of Bread. Here the first grains of the harvest are shaped into ritual loaves and consumed. We eat the body of the God. Lughnassad for Lugh, the Celtic Sun God. This is a fire festival in honor of Lugh's funeral games. Death of the Goddess's Son/Lover.

One representation of Osiris shows the dead God with stalks of corn springing from it. In this way, his body is eaten by his disciples. The story that his mangled remains were scattered throughout the land may be symbolic of the sowing of the seed. Once again we see the community's inner spirituality reflected in the outer events of the great agricultural Wheel of the Year (the death and transformation of the God as symbolized by the staple grain food crops of the early matriarchal societies). Another source tells how the Christian Church used Lammas Day or the Feast of Saint Peter in Chains to replace the earlier Druidic feast of the Gule of August, a celebration of the first harvest.

One derivation of the word Lammas comes from Lamb-mass since it was the custom to present lambs to the church at this time of the year in honor of Saint Peter. Another is from the Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mass for a loaf made from the first ripened grain. An etymological tidbit is that the word hlaf-diga means loaf-giver and the dispenser of bread, hence the mistress of the home. This evolved into the present word, lady.

A harvest ritual is called for. Time to give thanks to the grain which dies and is reborn again and to the Great Mother in whose womb the seed is transformed. Let us use an early custom from Britain and place the first sheaves of corn on our doors. It is also traditional that effigies of the Corn Spirit be carried in procession. These effigies, "corn maidens" or "corn dollies" were fashioned from the last sheaves of the current year's harvest and returned to the field the following Spring to act as protectress to the crops.

I also find that baking is a great ritual. What better a symbol of transformation? When preparing the batter, charge it with thanks for your own personal harvest(whatever you have received this year, materially or spiritually).

Corn Bread
3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup yellow com meal
2 tsp baking powder
1 egg
2 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp melted butter
pinch of salt
3/4 cup milk

Sift the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt and add the com meal. Beat the egg, butter and milk in a separate bowl. Pour the liquid into the dry mixture and combine rapidly. Butter an 8 x 8 inch pan and place in the oven until piping hot. Pour the batter into the hot pan and bake for about 25 minutes at 425 degrees. Pre-heating the pan produces a crisp crust.

There are of course many variations to the above recipe. One of the traditional additions is to add some crumbled crisp bacon. You could also add fresh herbs. Be imaginative!

There is a series of European folk beliefs about the Corn Cat and Corn Horse, both as harvest symbols and as grain protector spirits. Each spirit made the welfare of the all-important corn his or her special domain, guarding the crops until maturity. The spirit then took refuge in a sheaf specially dedicated to its use, where it remained until the next seed sowing. It was then placed in the field to watch over the crop again (like the corn dolly mentioned above. Being extremely partial to cats, I'll describe more about them. (Thanks here to Frank Donnola, whose gift of The Cat in the Mysteries of Magic and Religion by W. Oldfield Howey put me on the track of this avenue of research.

It is believed that the legend of the murder of Osiris is preserved in some of the European harvest rituals with the Corn Cat in the role of Osiris. Sometimes there is merely the imaginary slaying of an invisible corn spirit, designated as "killing the cat." Peasants in the Vosges Mountains describe the finish of their harvest as "catching the cat." The cat is described as fat or lean depending on the quantity of the harvest. The man who cuts the last handful of hay is the hero. He is regarded as the "Catcher of the Corn Cat." He is presented with a nosegay or a small fir tree that has been decorated with colored ribbons. Harvesters around Vesoul (I don't know where this is, does anyone?) who, as they cut the last corn, cry "We have the cat by the tail." At Briancon in France, when reaping begins, a cat is decorated with ribbons, flowers and ears of corn (I don't think Renfield would like this) and is designated "The Cat of the ball-skin." If any reaper is wounded during the harvest, the Cat must be induced to lick the wounds. When the harvest and the subsequent merry-making was finished, the village girls stripped the cat of its decorations and it was allowed to go in peace.

Other rituals are more ominous. In Silesia, children are warned about going into a cornfield by being told "The Cat sits there" or that "the Corn Cat will come and fetch them." In other localities, a cat is actually sacrificed to insure next year's harvest shades of the Wicker Man). This gets even more symbolic in some parts of France, where a living cat is placed in the last bundle of com to be thrashed and is struck dead by the flails. It is then roasted and eaten as a holy day dish. This harks back again to Osiris.

There is a fairytale that tells of Night, the cruel stepmother or witch who forces the maiden Aurora to separate the luminous wheat from the tares of darkness. The maiden weeps over her impossible task until the Cat Moon appears as the Good Fairy and separates the wheat from the darkening sky. But when the night is moonless, a demoniacal black cat, representing the gloom, threatens the hapless maiden Aurora.

As far as the tale of the Com Horse, it is supposed that this custom began in Greece. It is here that in the cave of Phigalia in Arcadia, Demeter, the Goddess of All Agriculture, whose name means "the Corn Mother" is pictured as a woman with a horse's head and mane. She assumed the shape of a horse in order to avoid the attentions of Poiseidon and came to hide in will this cave. As in the Demeter/Kore myth, of which this seems to be a later patriarchal version, all plant life dies while the Goddess is in hiding and she must be persuaded to make the crops grow again.

Romans traditionally sacrificed a horse representing the com spirit. The severed head was decorated with a string of loaves. This was considered necessary to insure the fertility of the earth. Again, this may be a rite that evolved from an earlier human sacrifice of the king to provide for the continued potency of the tribe or, in the case of the sacrificial remains being spread over the fields, a handy supply of organic fertilizer.

Early British coins from the time of Boadicea have pictures of a mare on them. This was the symbol of Cerridwen, the Celtic agricultural Goddess, referred to by the bards as The White Mare, whose form she is said to have assumed.

Peasants in Germany say "there runs the Horse," when they see the shadow made by the wind passing over the bending corn. Also, the last sheaf of oats to be tied was named the Oat Stallion and was supposed to house the spirit that had lived in the crops.

Corn was particularly sacred and powerful in Southwest American Indian religions. Their strains of com developed into six colors: yellow, white, blue, red, black and speckled representing the six directions: east, north, west, south, up and down. This food was thought to be a gift of the supernatural. Hopis believed it came from the god of vegetation, while Zunis thought it came from the six Corn Maidens whose leader was Yellow Com, the earliest known strain. With both tribes, a perfect ear of corn was the emblem of a ceremonial leader. A corn ear kept a house safe after a death and protected a newborn child. Cornmeal was used to anoint sacred objects. Sprinkled across a path, it barred an enemy's approach. And it was carried by the kachinas, the spirits of rain and fertility, and was sprinkled before them to "make their road."

"In the summertime we will come again. We will come as clouds from the west, the south, the east and the north to bless the Hopi people and to water their fields and crops. Then the Hopis will see their corn plants majestically growing. They will be so happy they will joyfully sing praises to the spiritual beings who brought moisture. At the edge of the cornfield a bird will sing with them in the oneness of their happiness. So they will sing together in tune with the universal power, in harmony with the one Creator of all things. And the bird song, and the people's song and the song of life will become one.
--Song of the Long Hair Kachinas from The Book of the Hopi by Frank Waters.

These rituals, begun perhaps as early as the first time seeds were put in the ground to grow, were developed out of a need to protect the crops, insure a harvest and provide enough seeds for the following year. It was imperative to survival that the crops did not fail. People were closer to the land and felt the seasons more acutely. We who are receiving our food secondhand from agribusiness easily forget the life-and-death dramas that our ancestors went through in order to survive.


The Prime Mover of the Universe