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Traditional Maya folk tales

RESOURCE: The Story of the Finding of Corn

This story, called simply ‘The Finding of Corn’, comes from The Bright Feather and Other Maya Tales by Dorothy Rhoads (Doubleday, Doran & Co, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1932). The illustrations, in the style of Jean Charlot, were drawn by Lowell Houser. The collection of stories were told in Guatemala and Mexico to the author, to her sister Sylvanus G. Morley and to J. Eric Thompson (both famous Maya scholars), who published them originally in Field Museum Publication Vol. XVII no. 2.

‘Man had cut down the vegetable tree...’
‘Man had cut down the vegetable tree...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

It happened like this...
Man had discovered the vegetables. He had cut down the vegetable tree and had planted papaya, squash, sapote, and the other vegetables and fruits. But he did not have corn. All the corn in the world was hidden under a big rock at the edge of the world, and only the leaf-cutting ants knew were it was.
Once a week the leaf-cutting ants marched in an army to the edge of the world and crawled under a crack in the rock. And when they marched home again, each ant carried on its head a grain of maize. The leaf-cutting ants guarded their secret carefully. Always before they left their home, they sent out scouts to see if the trail was clear. And again the scouts went out before the ants left the rock.
It happened, however, in spite of the scouts, that one day the fox discovered the ants as they were leaving the rock. And he frightened them and took their grains of corn.
That night, when the rest of the animals were gathered about eating their supper, the fox refused to eat. The other animals said nothing, but each one thought to himself: ‘This fox is a sly creature. He has found something new to eat and does not want us to know what it is. Tomorrow I shall follow him and find out for myself.’

‘The leaf-cutting ants marched to the rock...’
‘The leaf-cutting ants marched to the rock...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

And the next day the animals followed the fox. And the next day. And the next. And nothing happened. The fox always went to the edge of the world and sat there, hidden in the bushes, watching the rock.
The following week the leaf-cutting ants marched to the rock. They marched in an army through the crack, and when they marched out again, each ant balanced on its head a grain of maize. As soon as he saw them, the fox pounced on the ants, and the animals pounced on the fox. And there were not nearly enough grains to go round.
So the animals discovered where the corn was hidden. But they could not get under the rock. The jaguar tried, and the wild pig, and the monkey, and the armadillo. And the ocelot tried, and the rabbit, and the squirrel. But they could not get under the rock. Even the red ants were too large to crawl through the crack to where the corn was hidden.
’We will have to get Man to help us,’ said the animals.
Man came, and he picked at the crack with his machete. But he could not get under the rock. And he pushed against the rock with his shoulder and strained and shoved. But he could not get under the rock. And he pounded against the rock with his fists and swore great oaths to the gods. But the rock did not move or yield.

‘Chac, the Thunder God, came with his lightning and thunder...’
‘Chac, the Thunder God, came with his lightning and thunder...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Woman suggested:
’Let us ask the help of the Balams.’
’The Balams!’ scoffed Man. ‘The mightiest of the giants! Do you think the Balams will trouble themselves about a rock?’
Woman did not answer. But she dug a bit of resin from one of the trees. And she set fire to the resin. And the perfume of copal ascended into the skies.
And the Balams were pleased. They came with their thunderbolts and their arrows of lightning and loosed them against the rock. Again and again they hurled their bolts against the rock. And the rock did not yield.
The the Balams called Chac, who was the mightiest of the Balams. And Chac, the Thunder God, came with his lightning and thunder. But before he loosed them, he called to him the woodpecker.

‘Man hurried away to plant the seed...’
‘Man hurried away to plant the seed...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Woodpecker,’ said the Chac, ‘go to the rock at the edge of the world. Tap over the entire surface of the rock, and come and tell me which is the weakest point.’
The woodpecker hastened to do the Chac’s bidding. He flew to the end of the world, and for a day and a night and a night and a day he tapped the surface of the rock. And he flew to tell Balam which was the weakest point.
Then Chac hurled his thunderbolt against the weakest point.
But the rock did not yield.
Again he hurled his thunderbolt, and the rock began to tremble.
Once more Chac hurled his bolt. And this time with a roar the rock was splintered, and a river of maize grains rushed out.
The animals pounced on the new food and ate it greedily. But Man hurried away to plant the seed.

Detail from a traditional Huichol yarn weaving celebrating the worship of corn/maize
Detail from a traditional Huichol yarn weaving celebrating the worship of corn/maize (Click on image to enlarge)

From that day to this, when he eats his tortillas and his tamales, Man remembers the Balam. And when he plants his milpa (cornfield), he always offers his prayers to the Chac.
That is how it happened.

NOTE: Compare this story with a similar one involving brave ants from Central Mexico, in our Aztec Stories section - link below...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 28th 2015

‘The Discovery of Corn’

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