Myth Monday: Corn Mother (Penobscot Myth)

By Kara Newcastle


metropolitan museum of art mother and child doll Seneca doll wood sculpture 1870-80

Among many Native American tribes, corn is not only a staple of their diet but is also considered a holy gift. Corn can be grown in abundance and keeps well when stored so that families had plenty to eat during the winter when it became too difficult to hunt. The Native Americans had many different stories about how they were given the gift of corn, but I like the one from the Penobscot tribe of Maine because it tells of that the creation of corn was made by a mother who gave the ultimate sacrifice for her children.

In the beginning, when the world was new, Kloskurbeh the All Maker walked across the land creating new plants and animals. At first, he was alone, but in time he was joined by a young man, the son of the wind and the ocean waves, born from the warmth of the noontime sun. The young man called Kloskurbeh “Uncle,” and the All Maker was happy to keep the youth by his side, teaching him how to create.

One day as Kloskurbeh and his nephew journeyed, they came across a beautiful young woman. She was born from a dewdrop that had fallen on the leaf of a plant and was warmed by the noontime sun. She smiled radiantly as the men approached her and said to them, “I am love. I am the giver of strength. I nourish all people and animals, and they will all love me.”


Kloskurbeh the All Maker was overjoyed at discovering this new woman and welcomed her. The Young Man fell instantly in love with the woman, and with Kloskurbeh heartfelt encouragement, his nephew and the new woman married. The pair were passionately in love, and the woman soon gave birth to all the humans that peopled the world. They called her First Mother, and the Young Man became the First Father, and Kloskurbeh taught them all how to live as people. When he was finished, Kloskurbeh then retired to his home in the north.

The new humans were expert hunters, and with their supplies of meat they lived well and their numbers grew rapidly. In time though, the number of people outpaced the amount of meat they could gather to eat, and it was not long before the people began to suffer. Without enough meat to sustain them, the people began to starve to death.

First Mother was devastated to see her children waste away from starvation. The littlest ones would stagger and crawl to her as much as their strength would allow. “First Mother, help us!” they would beg. “Please, feed us!”

First Mother wept. She promised that she would find them more food, but she would cry even harder after they departed. She sobbed so bitterly that her husband, First Father, became frightened.

“My heart,” he said to her, “You weep so much. I worry for you.”

First Mother nodded. “I weep for my dying children. They must have food, or they will vanish from this earth.”

“We will find a way to feed them, beloved. But what can I do to keep you happy now?”

Swallowing hard, the First Mother took a deep breath, working to slow her tears. When she found her voice, she raised her sad eyes to her precious husband and said, “What would make me happy is to see our children fed. You must kill me.”

First Father was horrified by his wife’s request and immediately refused. First Mother begged and begged First Father to kill her and, distressed, First Father went to the house of his uncle, Kloskurbeh the All Maker, and asked for his guidance.

Kloskurbeh was saddened to hear of First Mother’s wish, but he was wise and understood. He embraced his nephew and said gently, “You must do as you are asked.”

First Father’s heart was shattered and he returned home, weeping as bitterly as First Mother wept. He told his dear wife that he would honor her wish, and First Mother thanked him. She told First Father that he must kill her in the noontime sun, and then have two of their sons drag her dead body by her hair over the earth until all of her flesh had been scraped away. Then they should bury her bones in a clearing, but visit the site again in seven moons. There they would find food, and that they should take much of it, but save some to return to the earth.

The First Father agreed and slew his wife. Two of their sons took First Mother’s body and dragged it all across the earth by her hair until all of her flesh was scraped away. Then First Father and all of his surviving children gathered First Mother’s bones and buried them in a clearing. They departed, lamenting terribly for their lost mother.

Seven moons passed, and First Father and his children went back to the clearing where they had buried First Mother. To their astonishment, they saw a field of tall green plants, plants they had never seen before. Each of these plants bore a pod tipped with golden threads as silky as their mother’s hair. When the leaves were stripped back, they found the kernels of the fruit within to be incredibly sweet. This was corn, born of their mother’s flesh, created to keep them fed.

Corn harvest in Montgomery County, Alabama.

Grateful beyond all measure for the First Mother’s sacrifice and gift, her children did as they were told; they took some of the corn and replanted the rest so that it would return every seven months to feed them again and again. It was also at this time they discovered a sweet-smelling plant that had grown from their mother’s breath. This was tobacco, and as her children picked it, the First Mother’s voice whispered to them, “The leaves of this plant are sacred. Burn them to make your hearts happy, to clear your minds, and to strengthen your prayers.”

Understanding now why the First Mother had made her choice, the First Father instructed his children to never forget why they now had corn and tobacco, never forget that their mother had loved them all so much that she willingly gave up her life to feed them.

And that is the story of Corn Mother.



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