The American southwest can be a very lonely place, given its harsh climate of mountains, deserts, and flatlands. Anyone who has spent any amount of time out in the southwestern environment will tell you that strange things are often seen, heard, or just felt, particularly during the winter and at night. Although many shrug off such encounters or feelings, there are those who have tried providing explanations for them, and it is from these explanations that over the years have arisen so many myths and legends.
One interesting myth revolves around cornfields. Corn is an important food in the southwest and in Central America. First grown in Mexico approximately 5,000 years ago, corn played an important role for the Maya, Aztec, and other indigenous people who worshipped corn gods and developed various myths about the grain’s origin.
In southwest North America, the Zuni tell a story about eight corn maidens. Invisible to the naked eye, the corn maidens can be seen in cornfields, where their beautiful dancing movements touch the stalks much like wind during the spring and fall. It is said that a careful observer can discern the forms of the maidens as they dance through the fields.
One story about the corn maidens begins with the god Paiyatemu, who created butterflies by simply playing his magical flute. It is said that Paiyatemu fell in love with the maidens from afar and one day tried to approach them. The maidens, however, fled from him. As a result of their flight, a great famine spread across the land and the people suffered horribly.
Dismayed at what he had done, Paiyatemu begged the maidens to return. Realizing his purity of heart, the maidens returned to the Zuni and once again began to dance in the fields, bringing back a bountiful harvest of corn.
Corn maidens are often depicted in Zuni artwork. Figurines of women with crisscross patterns on the body pay homage to the corn maidens, who unlike most ghost-like creatures represent life rather than death.