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Native American
Goddess Tales

Introduction to Native American Goddess Tales
White Bead Woman [Changing Woman] (Navaho)
The Origin of Corn [Corn Goddess Tale I] (Natchez)
The Origin of Corn [Corn Goddess Tale II] (Ababnaki)
The Hunter and Selu [Corn Goddess Tale III] (Cherokee)
Paíyatuma and the Maidens of the Corn (Zuñi)
Myth of the White Buffalo Woman (Sioux)


Introduction:  Native American Goddess Tales

by K. L. Nichols

In the beginning, Tawa the Sun God and Spider Woman the Earth Goddess--together--sang the world and its beings into existence, according to a Hopi creation tale (for more details, see Creation).  This earth mother is called White Bead Woman or Changing Woman in Navaho tales.  In the Seneca origins myth, she is Falling Woman's daughter and, like many of her other manifestations, is the mother or grandmother of the sacred twins who will later play key roles in preparing the earth for human habitation (for more details, see The Jicarilla Genesis ).  After the humans arrive on the scene, the sacred earth mother often takes the more specific form of Selu, the Corn Goddess of the Cherokee and other southeastern tribes, or the shape-shifting White Buffalo Woman of the plains tribes like the Sioux.

This Native American goddess is more than just a token consort of a dominating male god.  If she is paired with a mate, she is a co-equal.  Tawa may "think" of the mighty idea of creating the earth and the human race, but his thoughts are powerless until Spider Woman completes them by putting them into action and giving them form.

More often, however, she functions autonomously.  White Bead Woman undertakes the long journey, on her own, to the Sun God's home in the West.  Along the way, she creates mountains and other topographical features of the Southwest while her mate is traveling high in the sky shedding his light on the earth.  Since all the plant seeds and animal herds, plus the earth's riches (like turquoise, flint, and white shells), belong to her, she decides for herself where and when to dispense them.  It is her idea to provide the future humans with ceremonies and rituals (like the Sacred Pipe) that will give them access to the spirit world, and she teaches the people practical skills like how to use fire for cooking and warmth, how to make clay pots for eating and storage, how to weave cloth, and how to organize their tribal societies--the necessary practical arts for a new civilization, in other words (for more details, see Grandmother Spider Steals the Fire).

Although the earth mother is sometimes described as being married to the Great Hunter God Kana'tï, she is often the one who actually teaches the human hunter how to improve his hunting skills or she brings the buffalo herds to the starving people.  However, it is in her agricultural role as Selu the Corn Goddess that she is often most respected.  Being the corn itself (also the beans, squash, and tobacco), she is willing to sacrifice her life to save her "children" from starvation.  If they follow her instructions about how to plant/bury her each season, Selu (the corn seed) will be re-born annually as the harvest crop.

More generally, as Changing Woman, the earth mother is the perpetually renewing natural cycle of the changing seasons (summer/winter), while the Sun God represents the cosmic cycle (daylight/darkness).  However, it is the life-infusing energy of the earth goddess and the Corn Maidens that unites the spiritual and natural worlds.  As a result, her "children" consider her to be a beautiful and dynamic spirit being whose fertility sustains and annually renews the earth and tribal society.



White Bead Woman (Navaho)

[Changing Woman]

from In the Beginning:  A Navaho Creation Myth, told by Frank Goldtooth
and recorded by Stanley A. Fishler (1953, copyright not renewed)

The Sun said to the two War Twins, "Go to your mother and get her to go to the west to the ocean. This is so I can see my wife,White Bead Woman, from now on." The Sun had asked her himself, but White Bead Woman had said, "I will be lonesome there all by myself, and I will become homesick." This is why the Sun said to the Twins, "I will give all my things, all you want, all my possessions, if you get her to go there, I have done many things for you; now repay me for my kindness. Go tell your mother to go to the west."

This is what the Sun said to his sons. The Sun had many wives besides her, but White Bead Woman was jealous. That is why she did not want to go. The Sun was not coming to see [her] every day, but only once a week. The Twins went to see their mother, but still White Bead Woman did not want to go to the west, even then. All of the rest of the gods tried to help the Twins have their mother go to the west. Still she refused to go.

There was one man that did not know all of this excitement was taking place. This god was very strong so everyone decided to let him try to make White Bead Woman go west. The gods said, “We will have him try.” This god was . . . the Black Flint or Fire God. None of the people had fire, only this [Black Flint], for he was the Fire God. He would rub a stick that had been rubbed in some rocks and make fire. . . .

The old man was told to go and tell White Bead Woman to go west. He went to her and said, “How come all of your children tell you to go west to your husband, but you still don’t want to go? Why?” He tried his best to try and make her go, but she still would not leave her home. At last he got desperate and said, “If you don’t want to go to the west, all of the earth and gods shall be burned up.” He got angrier and angrier and finally took his weapon out to start the fire (it was a rock torch). This fire was to start all over the world and would be so bad that even the water would catch on fire. Black God struck the two rocks together, or rather ground them, and they began to smoke. After he had done this only twice, the woman stopped him.

If he had done this for four times, everything on earth would have burned up. After this she started to cry and put her arms around the old man and said she would go to the west forever. White Bead Woman gathered all of her property in a white bead basket and prayed to Supreme Sacred Wind for all of the animals and seed plants. The seeds and plants prayed for fell into the basket and the animals gathered outside of her hogan.

At this time White Bead Woman received another name, Receive-Things-in-her-Hand . . ., because of this. Some of the animals she put into her basket and some who were left over had to walk. The cattle had been made out of Mirage Quartz Rock by White Bead Woman. She took Mirage Quartz Rock powder and water and molded them into the right shape and size. When she placed them in water they became alive.

They were told, “You will be dangerous and even your voices will be danger, but you will be used for good. You are to be used by the Earth People.” She had it in her mind to do things this way. The Supreme Sacred Wind did not tell her to do this. These cattle were placed in baskets of white shell. When White Bead Woman traveled west, she took out a male and female cattle and put them in the spring at Fierce Water Spring at Pasture Canyon. No others, not her sons or the Sun or Frog Man had any cattle. These cattle were for all the Earth People.

Besides the animals in the basket she placed inside seeds, nuts, berries and roots. Her basket was made out of shell and had a finish on top of it, just like the marriage basket. These baskets of all five colors are still in the ocean where they were left by White Bead Woman. Some of the animals were left over and could not be carried in the basket, so they followed her to the west. . . . When she started from her New Mexican home, White Bead Woman spent a night at Red Mesa, near where Tuba City, Arizona, is now.

While she was spending the night there with her animals, they moved around in a circle and would not settle down. White Bead Woman made three posts out of black rock. These are the rocks that are found near where Tuba City is, now called Black Butte, another near Navaho Mountain called Wildcat Butte and one in Colorado called Black Post Butte. . . . The animals were thus enclosed by these mountains and the Little and Big Colorado Rivers.

After the animals became calm during the night, she went to the canyon where the water meets from the two great rivers. . . .

White Bead Woman sat there by the bank and then stepped back from the water. She then made a fire and prepared to stay the night. There is a gap down in the canyon where this happened. As she sat there, there appeared a fine young man out of the water called Sea Horse. This man looked like a horse, yet was a man. She spent a night with this man upon ground which was solid or hard. The next morning White Bead Woman had blood coming from her vagina, and this was the first period or menstruation in the world. The animals outside of her basket were later lost because of this infidelity. She left there as a gift to this man, salt, shell, turquoise, jet, white bead, oyster shell and red shell. These things are still there to this day. These gifts were all for this man.

After she had done this, she urinated into the Little Colorado and that is why it is now red as it runs into the Big Colorado. The next morning she went back to the top of the mountain where she had left all of her animals. As she got to the top of the mountain, she found all of her animals gone. On the west of Cedar Ridge is a mountain that was originally the escaped wild sheep from the herds of White Bead Woman. All of the wild sheep and most of the animals who escaped later turned into mountains. All of these animals that did not turn into mountains went into the Kaibab Forest and are still there. That is the reason there are so many game animals there now.

Near the joining of the two rivers is another gap where White Bead Woman went across with the few animals left in the basket. (There were still left the deer, antelope, all of the meat animals, turquoise, berries, corn, squash, etc.)  She ate some of the corn seeds for her lunch on the way to the west. She went on to Mesa Verde and to ch·ōsgī́. There is a pattern of the Sun there—a sand painting. It is still there and people pray to this Sun and no one can go there unless he has the right prayer.

It is important because White Bead Woman made the Sun pattern. It was made on a rock, and planted near there was a plant called Black Medicine . . . and a plant called Big or Large Medicine . . . .  These two medicines are used in many ways and for many things. She brought the plants with her from the east. If anything goes wrong on the earth, the pattern looks old, and if everything is well, the pattern looks new. The location of the pattern is not known. She planted oak trees further on. Near these she piled some rocks for a marker to tell the trail which she called Pile-of-Rocks.

White Bead Woman continued on to Hopi Towers and on to Gray Mountain and on to the south side of Grand Canyon. She went right on until she arrived at the sea near the highest mountain in California, Mount Whitney. All of the people gathered around her when she arrived. All of the gods living near this area gathered and some even came from the home of White Bead Woman to the east. On top of this mountain was a hogan. If you look there now, it is still there. If you should look at this hogan when things are going bad, then it will look old. If it looks new, then affairs in the world are going to be good.

There are many things on the top of this mountain such as turquoise, flints, black shining dirt, pollen, white bead, horses of stone and many other things. All things that the medicine men made use of then and now can be found there. One of the gods picked up a boy and girl when they came from the east. He took them so that these children could be taught all the songs of the gods before they [the gods] left the earth. White Bead Woman knew all of the songs which the rest of the gods did not. These children were to learn everything from her.

The gods did not have soapweed in the west where they were, so they had a talk to decide what to use for soap in the ceremonies. . . . The gods finally decided to bury jet, flint, white bead, oyster shell and turquoise so that a plant of soap would grow. They planted these things in the evening and the sing was held over the boy and girl all during the night.

The sing was held because these children had learned all from the White Bead Woman. They now could instruct the rest of the people while White Bead Woman was gone to the west. The dance was held now and the gods danced over the side of these seed materials. These seeds soon began to grow. In the morning they dug up the yucca and were now ready to make soap. During the ceremony they put plants underneath a basket which were pinyon, cedar, evergreen, fir, spruce and kinds of plants, but no pine. The basket was made of white bead like before and was about the size of a marriage basket.

At the time of the sing over the children, the War Twins did not know that it was taking place, but they heard a rumor about it. The First Twin started off with a friend, God-Water-Carrier. The First Twin had gone to this friend and told him to go on a journey with him. . . .

Inside the hogan, the First Twin asked his mother. “Why didn’t you tell me you were here and that this ceremony was going on? Am I the wrong kind of a god? Why didn’t you notify me? Aren’t I entitled to be notified?” White Bead Woman answered her son saying, “I know you have nothing to do or say about what is going on out here. That is why we did not notify you.”

Then the Twin said. “Have these children learned all the power that they are going to learn?” These children were still Earth People and not yet gods. “Is there any more for them to learn?” White Bead Woman said, “No, this is why we have picked these children. The people did not learn all of my power. I am going away with all the power, but now all of your Earth People will know everything.” The Twins were gods and there were also many gods all over the world. The War Gods and the other gods at times were bad, disobedient, and not right. That is why she was “so stingy” with her knowledge. No one knew as much as she did about the ways of the world.

After White Bead Woman had answered her son, he said, “It is fine that these children know all and have all the power.” He asked another question, “Did they learn the Good Way Song? Did they learn all the songs of the Five Night Sings? Did they learn the War Songs? Did they learn the Yeibache Songs? Did they learn all the other songs?” She answered saying, “It is all complete. All of these things have been learned. Now I do not have to worry about anything.” They had all the power gained from knowing these things for they were not gods, but humans. That night the people finished the singing. In the morning the gods decided to send the children back with the Navaho—after they were to create them.

White Bead Woman in the morning took dirt from her chest and made the figures of two people. From her back she took more dirt and molded two more figures. From her right palm she molded two more figures. From the left palm she took dirt and once again molded two small figures. From the right foot dirt was taken and from the left more dirt and molded into figures. At last there were twelve small figures of humans—half of the figures women and half men. . . .

The people who were created were Navaho. The dirt had been taken and molded into figures like us, but very tiny. All of them were laid on the ground with a Never-Been-Shot-Buckskin put over the top and with one on the bottom. These figures were prayed and sung over by the White Bead Woman, Talking God and all of the other gods. After this was done, these small figures came to life and grew to full size. These people were to be called Created-Navaho, diné ’alya·ígí. These twelve people were then sent along with the two children to the east where the gods had been in the beginning.

After all this had happened, White Bead Woman continued to the west. . . . White Bead Woman started off, and the gods went to places where they were to stay forever. Some of the gods went into the earth, some into the heavens, some into the mountains and some into the water. These gods became settled and said, “From now on no person shall see us again.”

. . . .

White Bead Woman went out to the Sun’s house that was in the sea. Some medicine men say she traveled on foot to the west, but she is a god and does not travel in this way. The house of the Sun was sitting on the ocean, but was not an island. Sometimes people see it, but not all of the time. It was made of turquoise, white bead, jet and oyster shell. White Bead Woman looked at the house and blew a rainbow spectrum to the house. She got on it and rode to the house on the ocean. . . . White Bead Woman reached the Sun’s house in the evening.

The Sun was glad to see her and he laughed and kissed her because of his happiness. Everything was in the house that she needed. The house was made as follows: The floor of the middle room was made of oyster shell polished like marble. The walls were also of oyster shell. To the east room the floor and walls were of polished white bead. To the south were floors and walls of turquoise. To the west there was again a room of oyster shell. In the last room, to the north, were black jet walls and floor. This house was like the Sun’s house to the east.

This house also had clouds on all of the walls. In the middle room was a white male and female cloud on the wall. To the south was a blue male and female cloud. To the west was a yellow male and female cloud. Upon the north wall was a black male and female cloud. In this house were also seen the mortar and pestle in the floor and the many flints on the walls. After White Bead Woman had been there four days, she began getting old age (about 400 years old). If White Bead Woman had not gotten old at this time, it would not have been possible for old age to come about now.

After these four days had passed, she went into the east room, and when she came out, she was younger. After going into each of the rooms and finally coming out of the last one to the north, she was again a young girl. Even today she gets very old every four years, and she has to go through this procedure. Because of the four rooms, she will get young every four years, too. First Man and First Woman live at the east in the Sun’s house, and they, too, get old every four years. They, too must do the same as the White Bead Woman.

All the other gods became old every twelve years, and when this happens, they all come together. There is a meeting place which is at another Black Mountain on the other side of Holbrook called Woodruff Buttes . . . . These gods have a meeting there every night to talk matters over. Anyone who wants to can hear these gods. These gods, unlike the others talked about, become young every twelve years. They, too, have a house so that when they get old, they can go through it and become young again.

The Sun also gets old like the other gods and has to go through his house so that he will get young again. White Bead Woman spent most of her time in the middle or center room. It was at this time that she got the name of Changing Woman, or Woman-Who-Changes. The house to the east is made the same as the one to the west. The Sun’s other wife lives there.


The Origin of Corn (Natchez)

[Corn Goddess Tale I]

from John R. Swanton, Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians (1929)

Corn-woman lived at a certain place in company with twin girls. When the corn was all gone, she went into the corn house, taking two baskets, and came out with the baskets full. They lived on the hominy which she made from this.

One time the girls looked into this corn house and saw nothing there. They said to each other, "Where does she get it? Next time she goes in there we will creep up and watch her."

When the corn was all gone, she started to go in and they saw her. So they crept after her and when she entered and closed the door, they peeped through a crack. They saw her set down the basket, stand astride of it and rub and shake herself, and there was a noise, tsågak, as if something fell off. In this way she filled one basket with corn. Then she stood over the other, rubbed herself  and shook, the noise tsågak was heard and that basket was full of beans. After that the girls ran away.

"Let us not eat it," they said. "She defecates and then feeds us with the excrement." So when the hominy was cooked they did not eat it, and from that she knew they had seen her. "Since you think it is filthy, you will have to help yourselves from now on. Kill me and burn my body. When summer comes things will spring up on the place where it was burned and you must cultivate them, and when they are matured they will be your food."

They killed Corn-woman and burned her body and when summer came corn, beans, and pumpkins sprang up. They kept cultivating these and every day, when they stopped, stuck their hoes up in the ground and went away. But on their return more ground would be hoed and the hoes would be sticking up in different places.

They said, "Let us creep up and find out who is hoeing for us," and they did so. When they looked they saw that the hoes were doing it of themselves and they laughed. Immediately the hoes fell down and did not work for them any more. They did not know that it was just those two hoes which were helping them and they themselves spoiled it.

Origin of Corn (Ababnaki)

[Corn Goddess Tale II]

from Stith Thompson, Tales of the North American Indians (1929)

A long time ago, when Indians were first made, there lived one alone, far, far from any others. He knew not of fire, and subsisted on roots, barks, and nuts. This Indian became very lonesome for company. He grew tired of digging roots, lost his appetite, and for several days lay dreaming in the sunshine; when he awoke he saw something standing near, at which, at first, he was very much frightened. But when it spoke, his heart was glad, for it was a beautiful woman with long light hair, very unlike any Indian. He asked her to come to him, but she would not, and if he tried to approach her she seemed to go farther away; he sang to her of his loneliness and besought her not to leave him; at last she told him, if he would do just as she should say, he would always have her with him. He promised that he would.

She led him to where there was some very dry grass, told him to get two very dry sticks, rub them together quickly, holding them in the grass. Soon a spark flew out; the grass caught it, and quick as an arrow the ground was burned over. Then she said, "When the sun sets, take me by the hair and drag me over the burned ground." He did not like to do this, but she told him that wherever he dragged her something like grass would spring up, and he would see her hair coming from between the leaves; then the seeds would be ready for his use. He did as she said, and to this day, when they see the silk (hair) on the cornstalk, the Indians know she has not forgotten them.


The Hunter and Selu (Cherokee)

[Corn Goddess Tale III]

from James Mooney, Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau
of American Ethnology 1897-98, Part I. (1900)

A hunter had been tramping over the mountains all day long without finding any game and when the sun went down, he built a fire in a hollow stump, swallowed a few mouthfuls of corn gruel and lay down to sleep, tired out and completely discouraged. About the middle of the night he dreamed and seemed to hear the sound of beautiful singing, which continued until near daybreak and then appeared to die away into the upper air.

All next day he hunted with the same poor success, and at night made his lonely camp again, in the woods. He slept and the strange dream came to him again, but so vividly that it seemed to him like an actual happening. Rousing himself before daylight, he still heard the song, and feeling sure now that it was real, he went in the direction of the sound and found that it came from a single green stalk of corn (selu). The plant spoke to him, and told him to cut off some of its roots and take them to his home in the settlement, and the next morning to chew them and "go to water" before anyone else was awake, and then to go out again into the woods, and he would kill many deer and from that time on would always be successful in the hunt. The corn plant continued to talk, teaching him hunting secrets and telling him always to be generous with the game he took, until it was noon and the sun was high, when it suddenly took the form of a woman and rose gracefully into the air and was gone from sight, leaving the hunter alone in the woods.

He returned home and told his story, and all the people knew that he had seen Selu, the wife of Kana'tï. He did as the spirit had directed, and from that time was noted as the most successful of all the hunters in the settlement.


Paíyatuma and the Maidens of the Corn (Zuñi)

from Padraic Colum, Orpheus: Myths of the World (1930, copyright not renewed)

Whence came they, the Maidens who are told of in the stories and sung of in the songs of our Fathers, the seven Maidens with their magic wands and plumes who were lovelier than the seven bright stars that are above us now? Paíyatuma the Flute-player, the God of Dew and of the Dawn, brought them to our Fathers; they were his foster-children. And when he had brought them to where our Fathers were, he sang a song that warned all who were there that these were virgins and must be forever held as sacred beings. Paíyatuma sang:

The corn that ye see growing upward
Is the gift of my seven bright maidens:
Look well that ye nourish their persons,
Nor change ye the gift of their being
As fertile of flesh for all men
To the bearing of children for men,
Lest ye lose them, and seek them in vain.

The mists of the morning were clearing away. Even as his voice had already gone into them, Paíyatuma the Flute-playing God went into the mists. Seven plants of corn he had left before our Fathers; seven Maidens he had left who would cause the corn to grow. "Thanks, thanks to thee, O Paíyatuma," our Fathers cried into the mists that closed round him. "Verily we will cherish the Maidens and the substance of their flesh."

Thereafter, as the season came round, our Fathers would build for the Maidens a bower of cedar-wood that was roofed with timbers brought from beyond the mountains. They would light a fire before the bower. All night, backwards and forwards, the Corn Maidens would dance to the music of drum and rattle and the songs sung by the elders. They would dance by the side of the seven growing plants of the corn, motioning them upward with their magic wands and plumes.

Then the first Maiden would embrace the first growing plant. As she did this the fire would leap up, throwing out a yellow light. The second Maiden would embrace the second growing plant, and the fire would burn smokily with a fuller grasping of the brands; blue would be the light the fire would throw out. The third Maiden would embrace the third of the growing plants, and at this the fire would reach to the fulness of its mastery, and the light it would throw out would be red. Then the fourth Maiden would embrace the fourth growing plant, and the fire, flameless now, would throw out a white light. As the fifth Maiden embraced the fifth growing plant the fire would give up its breath in clouds of sparks and its light would be streaked with many colours. The sixth Maiden would embrace the sixth growing plant; the fire would be sleeping then, giving out less light than heat. And as the seventh Maiden embraced the seventh growing plant the fire would waken afresh in the wind of the morning, and, as the fire of the wanderer stays glowing with many colours, it would stay glowing. Beautiful the dance of the seven Maidens, delightful the music they would dance to. And when the mists of the morning came they would go within the bower and lay down their magic wands and plumes, and their soft and shining dresses, and thereafter they would mingle with the people.

All rejoiced in the dance of the white-robed Corn Maidens. But a time came when certain of the young men of the village began to speak of a music they heard sounding from Thunder Mountain. This music was more wonderful than the music we had for the dance of the Maidens. And the young men declared that the dance that went to it, the dance they had not seen, must be more wonderful than the dance that our Maidens were praised for. They spoke of these things so often that they made our dance seem a thing that was of little worth. Then the Fathers summoned two messengers and bade them take the trail that went up the mountain. They were to find out about the music and the dance. Perchance they might be joined with ours, and a music and a dance that would seem wonderful to all might be given between the bower and the fire.

The messengers took the trail that went up Thunder Mountain. As they climbed they heard the sound of flutes. They went within the cavern that the music was being played in--the Cavern of the Rainbow. Mists surrounded them as they went within; but they knew what being was there, and they made reverence to him. Here was Paíyatuma the Flute-player, the God of Dew and of the Dawn.

They heard the music and they saw the dance that was being given in the Cavern of the Rainbow. The music was not as our music, for the musicians were flute-players. The Maidens who danced were as beautiful as our Corn Maidens; seven were they also. They carried in their hands wands of cottonwood: from the branchlets and buds of these wands streamlets flowed. "They are like your Maidens as the House of the Seven Stars seen in water is like the House of the Seven Stars as it is in the sky. They are fertile, not of seed, but of the Water of Life wherein the seed is quickened." So said Paíyatuma, the God of Dew and of the Dawn. And when the messengers looked upon them they saw that the Maidens were taller than ours were, and that their colour was fainter.

Then did Paíyatuma lift up his flute and play upon it. A drum sounded also, and the cavern shook as with thunder. And as the music was played a white mist came from the flutes of the players. "Athirst are men ever for that which they have not," said Paíyatuma the Flute-player through the mist. "It is well that ye have come, and it shall be as ye wish," said he to the messengers. They knew then that he was aware of what errand they had been sent upon.

They went back and told the elders of the village that Paíyatuma's flute-players would come amongst them and make music for the dance of the Corn Maidens. The flute-players came down to the dancing-ground. Out of their bower came our white-clad, beautiful Corn Maidens. The flute-players lifted up their flutes and made music for the dance. And as the Maidens danced in the light of the fire, they who played the flutes looked on them in such wise that they [the maidens] were fain to let their hair fall down and cast down their eyes. Seeing the players of the flutes look on the Maidens amorously, our own youths looked on them amorously also. They plucked at their garments as they, in their dancing, came near them. Then the players of the flutes and our own youths sprang up and followed them, shouting and laying unseemly hands upon the beautiful, white-clad maidens.

Yet they finished their dance, and the seventh Maiden embraced the seventh growing plant. The mists came down, and unseen, the Maidens went into their bower. They laid their magic wands and their plumes upon the ground; they laid their white robes down also. Then they stole away. They were gone when Paíyatuma appeared. He came forth from the mists and stood amongst the assembled people. The flute-players, waving their flutes over the people who were there, followed Paíyatuma as he strode, wordless, through the mists that were rolling up the mountain.

The drum was beaten, the rattles were shaken, but still the Maidens did not come forth from their bower. The Elders went within and they found nought there but the wands and plumes and the garments that had been laid away. Then it was known that the Corn Maidens had gone. Grief and dismay filled the hearts of the people. "We must seek for and find our Maidens," they all cried, "for lacking them the corn-seed, which is the life of the flesh, cannot flourish." But where could one go seeking? The Maidens had left no trail behind them. . . .

[The people ask for help from the Eagle, the Falcon, and the Raven, but the corn maidens cannot be found.]

Our Fathers . . . knew now that neither the Eagle, the Falcon, nor the Raven could find and bring back to them their Maidens white and beautiful, the Maidens who could make grow the plants without which life of flesh cannot flourish. Only Paíyatuma could find them and bring them back. They came upon him outside the village. . . .

And Paíyatuma was in his daylight mood. His dress was soiled and torn, his eyes were bleared, and with uncouth mouth he was muttering uncouth words. He laughed at and joked with our Fathers when they came up to where he lolled--like a clown he laughed at and jested with them. And when they begged him to come with them he rose up and went with them as to some boys' performance. He strode rudely into where the Council was being held, and he greeted all who were there noisily and without dignity or shame. And when our Fathers, lamenting, begged him to find for them and bring back to them the Corn Maidens whom he had once brought to them, he shouted, "Why find that which is not lost nor summon those who will not come?"

Like a clown Paíyatuma behaved at the Council, and like a clown he would have gone on behaving if a certain priest who was there had not gone to him, and put his hand between his lips, and stroked away what was on his lips. "Thou hast drawn from me the breath of reversal," said Paíyatuma. “Purify yourselves now and I shall speak to you as it is becoming in me to speak to you." No longer was he a clown, talking thoughtlessly, speaking words that shamed his own sacred being. No, Paíyatuma stood before the Fathers, tall and grand as a great tree that has been shorn by lightning. Verily, again they knew him for the God of Dew and of the Dawn.

In his presence they purified themselves, putting away from them all that disgraced them in his eyes. From the youths in the village they chose four who had not sinned in their flesh. These four youths they brought to Paíyatuma.

And with the four youths he set out for Summerland. Where he paused he played upon his flute, and butterflies and birds came around him and fed upon the dew that was breathed forth from his flute. In a little while he came to Summerland. The seven Maidens of the Corn were there. They heard his flute-playing, and when they saw his tall form coming through the fields of corn that was already quickened they went to meet him. The butterflies and the birds came and fluttered over them--over the seven Maidens of the Corn, over the four youths from the village, over Paíyatuma, as he played upon his flute.

Back to the village they went, the Maidens, the four youths, and Paíyatuma. O greatly did the people rejoice at having their Maidens back once more amongst them. The bower was built and the fire was lighted as before. All night, backwards and forwards, the Corn Maidens danced to music and to songs sung by the elders. They danced by the side of the seven growing plants, motioning them upwards. And as each Maiden embraced the plant that was hers, the fire threw out its yellow light, its blue light, its red light, its white light, its streaked light, its dim light, its light of many colours.

Ah, but as each Maiden embraced her growing plant, she put into the corn and, by a mystery, the substance of her flesh. Then, as that light of many colours was thrown from the fire, the Maidens went forth as shadows. Into the deep night they went, and they were seen no more of men. The dawn came and the Fathers saw Paíyatuma standing with folded arms before the fire. Solemnly he spoke to them all; well have the solemn words he uttered then been remembered. The corn would grow because of the substance of their flesh that the Corn Maidens had put in it; in future seasons maidens chosen from amongst our own daughters would dance backwards and forwards to the music of the flute as well as the drum, and would embrace the seven growing plants in the light of the fire. And all would be well for the growth of the corn. But as for the Maidens white and beautiful whom he had twice brought to us, they were gone from us forever. "They have departed since the children of men would seek to change the sustaining blessedness of their flesh into humanity which sustains not, but is sustained. In the loving of men and the cherishing of men's children, they--even they--would forget the cherishing of their beautiful seed-growing. The Mother-maidens have gone, but their substance is in the plants of corn."

For that reason the corn that is for seed is held by us as a thing sacred. Through the nights and days of the Moon Nameless, of the Moon of Sacred Fire and Earth, of the Moon of Earth Whitening, of the Moon of Snow-broken Boughs, of the Moon of Snowless Pathways, of the Moon of Lesser Sand-driving Storms, the seed of the corn is held. Then it is put in the earth reverently; it is buried as a tribe might bury its beloved dead. The seed which has in it the substance of our Maiden-mothers becomes quick beneath the earth. Paíyatuma, the God of Dew and of the Dawn, freshens the growth with his breath; then Ténatsali, the God of Time and of the Seasons, brings the plants to maturity; then Kwélele, the God of Heat, ripens them with the touch of his Fire-brother's torch, giving them their full vitality. And our own maidens dance beside the corn-plants in the light of the fire, motioning them upwards--upwards.


Myth of the White Buffalo Woman (Sioux)

from Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, Vol. 3 (1908), pp. 56-60

Many generations ago, when the Lakota still dwelt beside the lake far away in the east, they experienced a winter of terrible severity. The snow lay deep on the ground, and the streams were frozen to their very beds. Every day could be heard the sharp crack of trees as the frost gnawed at their hearts; and at night the piles of skins and the blazing fires in the tipis scarcely sufficed to keep the blood coursing through the veins. Game seemed to have deserted the country, for though the hunters often faced the hardships of the winter chase, they returned empty-handed, and the wail of hungry women and children joined with the moan of the forest. When finally a tardy spring arrived, it was decided to leave a country so exposed to the anger of Wazíya, Spirit of the North, and seek a better homeland in the direction of the sunset, where ruled the Wing Flappers, who existed from the beginning.

There was little enough to pack besides tipis and fur robes, and what few dogs had not been eaten were soon harnessed to the laden travaux. Two young men were sent in advance. No pair could have been more different in their nature than these two, for while one was brave, chivalrous, unselfish, and kind, the other's heart was bad, and he thought only of the sensuous and vicious.

Unencumbered as they were, the scouts were soon far ahead of the wearily dragging line of haggard men, women bent under burdens that dogs should have been drawing, straggling children, and a few gaunt dogs tugging at the overladen travaux. Late in the day the scouts succeeded in shooting a deer, and thinking their people would reach that point for the night's camp, they left it where it had fallen and were turning away to seek other game when one of them felt a sudden impulse to look back. Wonderful sight! There in a mist that rose above a little hill appeared the outline of a woman. As they gazed in astonishment, the cloud slowly lifted, and the young men saw that she was a maiden fair and beautiful. Her only dress was a short skirt, wristlets, and anklets, all of sage. In the crook of her left arm she carried a bundle wrapped closely in a red buffalo-skin; on her back was a quiver, and in her left hand she held a bunch of herbs. Straightway the young man whose heart was evil was overpowered by a desire to possess the beautiful woman, but his companion endeavored to dissuade him with the caution that she might be . . .  a messenger from the Great Mystery.

“No, no!” he cried vehemently, “she is not holy, but a woman, human like ourselves, and I will have her!”

Without waiting he ran toward the woman, who forthwith warned him that she was a sacred being. When he persisted and went closer, she commanded him sternly to stop, for his heart was evil and he was unworthy to come near to the holy things she bore. As he still advanced, she retreated, laid her burden on the ground, and then came toward him. Suddenly it appeared to the waiting youth that the mist descended and enveloped the mysterious woman and his companion. Then followed a fearful sound of rattling and hissing as of thousands of angered rattlesnakes. The terrified observer was about to flee from the dreadful place when the cloud lifted as suddenly as it had descended, disclosing the bleached bones of his former comrade, and the beautiful virgin standing calmly beside them. She spoke to him gently, bidding him have no fear, for he was chosen to be priest of his nation.

“I have many things to impart to your people,” she said. “Go now to the place where they are encamped, and bid them prepare for my coming. Build a great circle of green boughs, leaving an opening at the east. In the centre erect a council tipi, and over the ground inside spread sage thickly. In the morning I shall come.”

Filled with awe, the young man hastened back and delivered to his people the message of the holy woman. Under his direction her commands were reverently obeyed, for were they not a message from the Great Mystery? In the morning, gathered within the circle of green boughs, they waited in great expectancy, looking for the messenger of the Mystery to enter through the opening left at the east. Suddenly, obeying a common impulse, they turned and looked in the opposite direction, and behold! she stood before them.

Entering the tipi with a number of just and upright men selected by the youth whom she had chosen to receive the sacred rites, she at once spread open the red buffalo-skin, exposing its contents--tobacco, the feather of a spotted eagle, the skin of a red-headed woodpecker, a roll of buffalo-hair, a few braids of sweet-grass, and, chief of all, a red stone pipe with the carved image of a buffalo calf surmounting its wooden stem. At the same time she explained that the Great Mystery had sent her to reveal to them his laws, and teach them how to worship, that they might become a great and powerful people.

During the four days she remained with them in the tipi she instructed them in the customs they were to observe--how the man who would have great [spiritual] power should go into the high places and fast for many days, when he would see visions and obtain strength from the Mysteries; how to punish him of evil heart who sinned against the rights of his brother; how to instruct girls at maturity, and to care for the sick. She taught them also how to worship the Great Mystery. . . .

Then she taught them carefully the five great ceremonies they were to observe: . . . the Foster-parent Chant, the Sun Dance, the Vision Cry, the Buffalo Chant, and the Ghost Keeper. The sacred pipe she gave into the keeping of the chosen young man, with the admonition that its wrapping should be removed only in cases of direst tribal necessity. From the quiver on her back she took six bows and six arrows, and distributed them among as many young men, renowned for their bravery, hospitality, and truthfulness. These weapons she bade them take, after her departure, to the summit of a certain hill, where they would find a herd of six hundred buffalo, all of which they were to kill. In the midst of the herd would be found six men. These also they were to kill, then cut off their ears and attach them to the stem of the sacred pipe. Her last words were these:

“So long as you believe in this pipe and worship the Mystery as I have taught you, so long will you prosper; you will have food in plenty; you will increase and be powerful as a nation. But when you, as a people, cease to reverence the pipe, then will you cease to be a nation.”

With these words she left the tipi and went to the opening at the eastern side of the camp-circle. Suddenly she disappeared, and the people, crowding forward to see what had become of her, beheld only a white buffalo cow trotting over the prairie.


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