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Corn Maidens.

To celebrate a bountiful harvest, American Indians thanked the goddess of grain and prepared themselves for another year.

VIRGO, THE VIRGIN, HAS HER EAR to the ground near the western horizon in our monthly centerfold revealing the stars of the night sky. But that's not a hearing aid that's about to set, for Spica, Virgo's brightest star, has a Latin name that means "ear of grain." The Romans gleaned their grain from the Greeks, who called the star Stachys, a name cut from the same grain. The grain maiden apparently was an international harvester, for the Greeks brought in this celestial sheaf from Mesopotamian star fields, where Virgo, or at least Spica, was known as AB.SIN, a Sumerian word meaning "furrow." It refers to seeding and fertility and appears as early as 700 B.C. in the mul-Apin astronomical texts.

Mesopotamia personified Virgo as a grain goddess. We'll find her engraved, gripping a spike of wheat, and named on a stone from the Seleucid period (311-126 B.C.) now in Berlin. An ancient Babylonian text identifies AB.SIN as "the corn-ear of the goddess Shala." Shala was the wife of the Akkadian storm god, and here "corn" cultivates the British sense of the word--grain, usually wheat. In the late 15th century, the English poet John Skelton had Virgo's wheat subsidy in mind when he wrote,

In Autumn when the sun in Virgine

By radiant heat enripened our corn

In the United States, on the other hand, the word corn refers to the indigenous American grain known elsewhere as maize.

New World agriculture was also ingrained with corn-maiden conventions, but her ear was a ripening cob of corn. The Cherokee, who in the 18th century occupied territory in the southern Appalachian Mountains, gave the goddess Selu credit for the corn. Her name is Cherokee for "corn," and she magically propagated corn by rubbing her abdomen. As a willing sacrifice, she was killed by her sons. Her death transferred the power of agriculture to the Cherokee and guaranteed the annual renewal of life.

Aztec tradition echoes Selu's sacrifice on behalf of seasonal agricultural renewal. A young, virginal girl impersonated Xilonen, the goddess who personified the ripening ear of green corn, and was ritually killed. According to Fray Diego Duran's 16th-century report in the Book of Gods and Rites, Xilonen's name means "She who always walked and remained as fresh and tender as a young ear of corn." The girl wore a green feather in her hair and tasseled ears of corn around her neck for the sacrifice, which took place in early September.

The Cherokee celebrated Selu's seasonal gift in August, when the late corn first ripened. This green corn was ritually acknowledged by most of the peoples of the American Southeast in what is usually called the Green Corn Ceremony. Sometimes it is known as Busk, a name derived from the Creek word--poskita--for the event. This name means "to fast," and the protocol of the four- or eight-day gathering included fasting as part of ritual purification. Although the village was eager for the harvest, no corn could be consumed until after the ceremony. A great feast was prepared at the close, however, and that virginal corn was then touched for the very first time.

Several accounts of the ceremony from the first half of the 18th century confirm that it usually took place in late August and was timed by the Moon. It could not be scheduled until the ears of corn showed the first signs of ripening--full kernels but still green. People then mobilized for the next full Moon. They prepared the central ceremonial plaza. The men swept the temple and removed ashes from its fire pit. New mats were woven. The fire pit in the plaza was cleaned and re-excavated. Women scrubbed the houses, tidied the dishes, and cleaned the hearths. The fast began. Everyone resolved past claims and crimes.

The theme of renewal drove all these initiatives--the activity was targeted on the new season, the new year, and the new life implied by the harvest. Anthropologist Charles M. Hudson described the celebration in The Southeastern Indians (1976) as a combination of "Thanksgiving, New Year's festivities, Yom Kippur, Lent, and Mardi Gras." After the festival grounds were readied, all the old fires in the village were extinguished. The high priest kindled the New Fire with fire-making sticks, transferred it to a special vessel, and summoned the women, who carried flames of the New Fire back to their homes.

Benjamin Hawkins witnessed the Creek version of the Green Corn Ceremony in 1798-99 and subsequently wrote about it. According to Hawkins, the high priest ignited the New Fire in a setting of four logs arranged in a cross with each log pointing toward a cardinal bearing. This directional symbolism integrated the rites with cosmic order and linked the New Fire to the beginning of time, when world order emerged with the first dawn kindled out of the primordial watery darkness. That initial dawn was recapitulated in the New Fire, which activated the seasonal restoration of world order.

For this August ceremony, the people brewed a special beverage from cassina (Ilex vomitoria), a native holly, which functioned as an emetic. Ritual purging intensified the impact of fasting and was part of the purification process. The Europeans named the tonic "black drink," which described its dark color. The Indians actually called it "white drink" because white symbolized purity and social cohesion. Black drink was also charged with caffeine and sometimes amplified with other ingredients and left to ferment. Its consumption not only cleansed through nausea; it also induced sharply focused thought, high energy, and even trances and visions.

The Natchez, another Southeastern tribe, performed a New Fire celebration infused with the same themes of purification and renewal and also linked to the green corn. The Natchez attract additional interest as descendants of the prehistoric Mississippian mound builders responsible for towns dominated by earthen platforms that supported temples and high-status residences as well as hosted burials. The largest of these settlements, Cahokia in southern Illinois, east of St. Louis, was actually the major metropolis that set the economic, political, and ideological pace in the 11th-century Midwest.

Evidence of prehistoric Green Corn ceremonialism seems to survive at Cahokia and other Mississippian sites in ritual ceramics probably intended for black drink, in New Fire and directional iconography, and perhaps in astronomical alignments. Archaeologist Melvin L. Fowler, coauthor of Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis (2000), unearthed remains of another post circle, or "woodhenge," with astronomical potential at Cahokia. It intersects Mound 72, in which Fowler had discovered rich burials. One of the posts that once defined the northeast quarter of the ring installs a line from the circle's center toward a mid-August sunrise, a date reasonably associated with the start of the green-corn season at Cahokia.

The August sunrise radius in Woodhenge 72 is similar to another alignment discovered by archaeologist James M. Heilman and planetarium director Roger R. Hoefer at what is now called Sun-Watch Prehistoric Indian Village, in Dayton, Ohio. This site was occupied by a Fort Ancient Mississippian group in the 12th century A.D., and extensive deposits of burnt corncobs there may be an indication of the Green Corn Ceremony. In addition, a tall post in the village plaza, framed by a parallelogram of four posts, established a line to sunrise on August 20th, a date that also suggests the Green Corn Ceremony.

The largest building in the village completed this line as the back site for the August sunrise. As first aligned with the post, the rising Sun would soon shed light through the doorway of the house on the west side of the plaza and into its hearth. It's the only building at the site with an off-center hearth, perhaps deliberately askew to accommodate the light from the rising Sun as part of the New Fire ritual. Although the use of a solar alignment in ancient Mississippian Green Corn ritual cannot be independently confirmed, the central posts that historically stood in some plazas used by Southeastern tribes for the Green Corn Ceremony are suggestive of the ritual.

The Old World also acknowledged the approach of the harvest in August, and the Lammas tradition in Britain reflects this (S&T: August 1994, page 64). Although Virgo's agricultural symbolism did not include purgative cleansing with a ritual beverage, Virgo was not just another corn maiden but a wine steward as well. The Greeks called Epsilon Virginis, the star on her right arm or right wing, Protrygeter, or "grape gatherer." Its first appearance in the August dawn signaled the grape harvest that just precedes the crush. Virgo's influence was obviously intoxicating.

E. C. KRUPP stalks the sky at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
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Title Annotation:discussion of the constellation of Virgo, the Virgin; rambling through the skies; To celebrate a bountiful harvest, American Indians thanked the goddess of grain and prepared themselves for another year
Author:Krupp. E.C.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Aug 1, 2002
Words:1461
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