The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Among Earth’s many Corn Mothers
Ergot, The Corn Mother, and The Rye Wolf
In a Canaanite myth, Baal, Spirit of Rain, Lord of Grain, is the brother and consort of Anat, fierce goddess of war, sex, and fertility. During a drought, Baal becomes weak and depleted. Mot, Lord of Death, takes advantage of his condition and kills Baal. He hasn’t reckoned on Anat: in a fury, Anat cleaves Mot with her sickle. She scorches him, winnows him in her sieve, personally grinds him up in a mill, and scatters what’s left over Earth.
In some legends, Baba Yaga lives in Russian rye fields while they ripen. Because she is fierce, unpredictable, and dangerous, her very presence protects the fields: she’ll eat anyone who dares damage her grain. However, during the harvest, in order to even have a harvest, she must be driven into an unharvested area or away into the forest. Sometimes, a small patch at the very end of the field was braided, ornamented, and left uncut as an offering—or resting place—for Baba Yaga. (See DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga.)
The word “cereal” derives from her name. This Etruscan goddess has now become almost completely identified with Demeter but was originally an independent deity closely allied with Tellus, the Earth Mother. Tellus is the Earth herself; Ceres, her closest companion, is the Spirit of Grain and Cultivation. They shared a festival, the Sementivae, from January 24th through 26th, during which they were petitioned to protect seeds and their sowers.
Ceres had a temple on Rome’s Aventine Hill not far from that of Diana. She was originally associated with women’s mysteries. By the third century BCE, her worship in Roman territory was heavily influenced by Demeter and the Eleusinian Rites, and she was identified as the mother of Proserpina.
Priestesses originally led her rites, but in the Roman republic few women were allowed positions of spiritual authority. Eventually the official Roman state cult of Ceres would be supervised by the male flamen cerealis. Perhaps in protest, the names of paternal relatives were never pronounced in the precincts of Ceres, unusual in intensely patriarchal Rome.
Ceres’ attributes include a scepter and a basket overflowing with flowers and fruits. She is adorned with garlands of grain. Her sacred animal is the pig. Pigs were kept in grottoes beneath her Italian temples, and sleeping among these pigs was a sacred method of incubating dreams. (See ANIMALS: Pigs.)
The Arikara Corn Mother, from North America’s Great Plains, emerged through Earth in order to teach people how to cultivate corn/maize. In addition, she taught them astronomy, astrology, and the mysteries of sacred medicine bundles. She charged humans with the obligation of making regular offerings to the deities.
The Corn Mother
In Austria, the Corn Mother is an old witch who sits in the cornfields. She’s black, naked, and has red-hot iron fingers with which she will prick, sting, and hurt children if she can. These fingers may be ergot. Given the opportunity, she’ll roast and eat children, too, just like ears of corn. Parents invoke her presence to keep children from entering cornfields.
The fiercely devoted single mother of the Vodou pantheon, Ezili Dantor has a dangerous, unpredictable temper and is skilled with knives. Like Demeter, she has one daughter. Although not an ancient grain goddess, she is often identified as a Corn Mother as she epitomizes the effects of the traditional Corn Mother who, in the act of destruction (slashing at the corn with her daggers), simultaneously transforms death into nourishment (grain is ground into meal).
Corn is also a conduit to the sacred: in Vodou tradition, vèvès, the sigils created to celebrate the lwa and communicate with them, are often drawn with corn meal.
Ezili Dantor’s sacred animal is the black Haitian pig. Her traditional offerings include fried pork, corn sprinkled with gunpowder, and omelets filled with corn and peppers. Ezili Dantor is syncretized to Black Madonnas, especially Our Lady of Czestochowa, although Ezili’s devotees perceive the child in the traditional image of the Madonna and child as a daughter.
See also ANIMALS: Pigs; DICTIONARY: Lwa, Vodou; MAGICAL ARTS: Sigils.
The Iron Woman
This old hag who lives in the grain fields of Ukraine is sometimes explicitly identified as a witch. She has pendulous iron breasts. With her iron hook, she captures children who wander into the fields and throws them into her iron mortar to grind them up and eat them. She bears a strong resemblance to Baba Yaga; if they are not one and the same, they are cut from the same cloth.
Isis has so many facets that she transcends classification, however at the very root and basis of her myth she is identified as a Corn Mother.
Isis, according to legend, was the first to discover wild barley and wheat. At her festival, stalks of these grains were carried in procession.
After Isis’ discovery of grain, her brother/lover Osiris traveled around Egypt (and eventually the ancient world) introducing the concept of its cultivation. Because of these actions, Osiris is credited in Egyptian mythology as the founder of civilization.
To complicate matters, Osiris does not just teach about grain: he is the grain and thus is eventually cut down in his prime, his body is chopped up and scattered throughout Egypt. Although Isis mourns him, she is also actively involved in the process of the harvest: she unearths each piece of Osiris’ body, collecting it in her winnowing sieve. Isis’ actions may have served as role models for later harvest rituals. Harvesting was a solemn occasion; one mourned for the grain even though it was necessary to cut it down, winnow, and grind it. At harvest-time, when ancient Egyptian reapers cut their first stalks, they beat their breasts in lamentation while calling upon Isis.
These Andean Corn Mothers, Spirits of Fertility, transmit generative powers to women, their descendants. They are perceived as the ultimate female ancestors—the first, primordial female ancestor, founder of the female (or matrilineal) line.
Descriptions of rituals conducted for the Mamayutas may be found in witchcraft and idolatry trial transcripts of the Spanish Inquisition, operating in the Department of Arequipa, now Peru. Women presented the Mamayutas with offerings of their aborted fetuses and still births. Inquisitors were horrified by what they labeled witchcraft, unable or unwilling to comprehend the emotional resonance of this spiritual transaction.
The Virgin Mary is often interpreted as a Corn Mother with Jesus as her fruit, cut down in his prime, sacrificed, and then resurrected. In votive imagery, Mary is often depicted holding her infant in the same manner that ancient Corn Mothers hold stalks of wheat.
This relationship is also insinuated through the sacrament of Holy Communion, wherein Jesus’ body is consumed in a wafer made from wheat. (And the Vatican is adamant that communion wafers be made from wheat; attempts by the family of an American girl with wheat allergies to obtain a wheat-free communion wafer have been consistently rejected.)
Despite the Inquisition’s perception of this practice as intentionally and malevolently sacrilegious, use of communion wafers in Roman Catholic folk spells are almost always intended for purposes of agricultural benefit or healing—the equivalent of scattering a sacrificed Pagan grain god’s ashes over the land. The desire was not to further injure Christ, as the Inquisition charged, but to benefit from the power of his body.
Mary, too, is associated with the astrological sign Virgo, although obviously the concept of the virgin is understood in its modern, literal, physical sense.
See also Anat, Isis; CREATIVE ARTS: Literature: Hammer of the Witches.
Among her guises, Perchta also serves as the guardian of cornfields. If they are left unattended, she afflicts humans and/or their livestock with plagues.
Masked dancers known as Perchten dance in the fields of the farmers providing the harvest field. Presumably once upon a time these were genuine devotees of the goddess Perchta. Some dancers impersonate beautiful Perchten; others represent hag-like, ugly ones. Their goal is to drive off any lingering malevolent spirits.
Perchta also supervises and guards barns that store grain.
See CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Perchtentanz; DIVINE WITCH: Perchta.
Poludnica, The Noon Woman
This Russian Corn Mother (known as Psezpolnica in Serbia) resides in rye fields. She may appear as an adolescent girl, a beautiful woman or an old hag but she only makes appearances at noon. She wields a scythe, steals children, and tickles people to death. She leads children astray in the fields.
Poludnica makes appearances in the fields where she stops people to ask questions or engage them in conversation. If they are impolite or perhaps give the wrong answers, they are immediately struck with illness, cut down as if with a scythe. The Wends are familiar with her as well but say she carries shears, an emblem of death. (The Fates use shears to cut the thread of life.)
She is responsible for the heat stroke that strikes healthy people down at noon, when the sun is most powerful. Archeologist Marija Gimbutas describes her as the personification of sunstroke.
“Grandma Rye” is the Baltic Corn Mother. She is present in the last sheaf of the harvest. Her breasts may be filled with poisoned milk, dangerous to children (see page 426, Ergot).
This Rice Mother from Sumatra is so closely identified with rice that it is sometimes called by her name. Rituals dedicated to her are performed at planting and harvest.
Before sowing, in this community, rice is traditionally germinated and allowed to sprout. The finest sprouts are identified as Saning Sari and are then planted in the very center of the paddy. Rice grows around her and so when it’s time for harvest, she must be located once more. (She may not have stayed in one spot; the spirit of the Rice Mother may have moved around.)
A witch is traditionally sent to find her; alternately the eldest woman of the family searches. The unharvested rice is observed: the first stalks seen to bend in the wind identify the Rice Mother. These stalks are carefully tied together and left uncut until after the first fruits of the harvest have been served as a festive meal for people and animals alike, because Saning Sari wishes animals to enjoy her bounty too. Finally that last sheaf is cut and carried carefully under an umbrella and accompanied by an honor guard to the barn where it will be kept in order to protect and enhance stored crops.
This Andean Corn Mother (also spelled Zaramama) is the daughter of Pachamama, “Earth.” Images of Saramama in the shape of an ear of corn were carved from stone. She was also adored in the form of a doll (huantay-sara) made from stalks of corn following the harvest.