The Search for the Corn Maidens
by Katharine Berry Judson
Myths and Legends of California and the Old
Zuni (New Mexico)
Then the people in their trouble called the two Master-Priests and said:
"Who, now, think ye, should journey to seek our precious Maidens? Bethink
ye! Who amongst the Beings is even as ye are, strong of will and good of
eyes? There is our great elder brother and father, Eagle, he of the
floating down and of the terraced tail-fan. Surely he is enduring of will
and surpassing of sight."
"Yea. Most surely," said the fathers. "Go ye forth and beseech him."
Then the two sped north to Twin Mountain, where in a grotto high up among
the crags, with his mate and his young, dwelt the Eagle of the White
They climbed the mountain, but behold! Only the eaglets were there. They
screamed lustily and tried to hide themselves in the dark recesses. "Pull
not our feathers, ye of hurtful touch, but wait. When we are older we will
drop them for you even from the clouds."
"Hush," said the warriors. "Wait in peace. We seek not ye but thy father."
Then from afar, with a frown, came old Eagle. "Why disturb ye my
featherlings?" he cried.
"Behold! Father and elder brother, we come seeking only the light of thy
Then they told him of the lost Maidens of the Corn, and begged him to
search for them.
"Be it well with thy wishes," said Eagle. "Go ye before contentedly."
So the warriors returned to the council. But Eagle winged his way high
into the sky. High, high, he rose, until he circled among the clouds,
small-seeming and swift, like seed-down in a whirlwind. Through all the
heights, to the north, to the west, to the south, and to the east, he
circled and sailed. Yet nowhere saw he trace of the Corn Maidens. Then he
flew lower, returning. Before the warriors were rested, people heard the
roar of his wings. As he alighted, the fathers said, "Enter thou and sit,
oh brother, and say to us what thou hast to say." And they offered him the
cigarette of the space relations.
When they had puffed the smoke toward the four points of the compass, and
Eagle had purified his breath with smoke, and had blown smoke over sacred
things, he spoke.
"Far have I journeyed, scanning all the regions. Neither bluebird nor
woodrat can hide from my seeing," he said, snapping his beak. "Neither of
them, unless they hide under bushes. Yet I have failed to see anything of
the Maidens ye seek for. Send for my younger brother, the Falcon. Strong
of flight is he, yet not so strong as I, and nearer the ground he takes
his way ere sunrise."
Then the Eagle spread his wings and flew away to Twin Mountain. The
Warrior-Priests of the Bow sped again fleetly over the plain to the
westward for his younger brother, Falcon.
Sitting on an ant hill, so the warriors found Falcon. He paused as they
approached, crying, "If ye have snare strings, I will be off like the
flight of an arrow well plumed of our feathers!"
"No," said the priests. "Thy elder brother hath bidden us seek thee."
Then they told Falcon what had happened, and how Eagle had failed to find
the Corn Maidens, so white and beautiful.
"Failed!" said Falcon. "Of course he failed. He climbs aloft to the clouds
and thinks he can see under every bush and into every shadow, as sees the
Sunfather who sees not with eyes. Go ye before."
Before the Warrior-Priests had turned toward the town, the Falcon had
spread his sharp wings and was skimming off over the tops of the trees and
bushes as though verily seeking for field mice or birds' nests. And the
Warriors returned to tell the fathers and to await his coming.
But after Falcon had searched over the world, to the north and west, to
the east and south, he too returned and was received as had been Eagle. He
settled on the edge of a tray before the altar, as on the ant hill he
settles today. When he had smoked and had been smoked, as had been Eagle,
he told the sorrowing fathers and mothers that he had looked behind every
copse and cliff shadow, but of the Maidens he had found no trace.
"They are hidden more closely than ever sparrow hid," he said. Then he,
too, flew away to his hills in the west.
"Our beautiful Maiden Mothers," cried the matrons. "Lost, lost as the dead
"Yes," said the others. "Where now shall we seek them? The far-seeing
Eagle and the close-searching Falcon alike have failed to find them."
"Stay now your feet with patience," said the fathers. Some of them had
heard Raven, who sought food in the refuse and dirt at the edge of town,
"Look now," they said. "There is Heavy-nose, whose beak never fails to
find the substance of seed itself, however little or well hidden it be. He
surely must know of the Corn Maidens. Let us call him."
So the warriors went to the river side. When they found Raven, they raised
their hands, all weaponless.
"We carry no pricking quills," they called. "Blackbanded father, we seek
your aid. Look now! The Mother-maidens of Seed whose substance is the food
alike of thy people and our people, have fled away. Neither our
grandfather the Eagle, nor his younger brother the Falcon, can trace them.
We beg you to aid us or counsel us."
"Ka! ka!" cried the Raven. "Too hungry am I to go abroad fasting on
business for ye. Ye are stingy! Here have I been since perching time,
trying to find a throatful, but ye pick thy bones and lick thy bowls too
clean for that, be sure."
"Come in, then, poor grandfather. We will give thee food to cat. Yea, and
a cigarette to smoke, with all the ceremony."
"Say ye so?" said the Raven. He ruffled his collar and opened his mouth so
wide with a lusty kaw-la-ka—that he might well have swallowed his
own head. "Go ye before," he said, and followed them into the court of the
He was not ill to look upon. Upon his shoulders were bands of white
cotton, and his back was blue, gleaming like the hair of a maiden dancer
in the sunlight. The Master-Priest greeted Raven, bidding him sit and
"Ha! There is corn in this, else why the stalk of it?" said the Raven,
when he took the cane cigarette of the far spaces and noticed the joint of
it. Then he did as he had seen the Master-Priest do, only more greedily.
He sucked in such a throatful of the smoke, fire and all, that it almost
strangled him. He coughed and grew giddy, and the smoke all hot and
stinging went through every part of him. It filled all his feathers,
making even his brown eyes bluer and blacker, in rings. It is not to be
wondered at, the blueness of flesh, blackness of dress, and skinniness,
yes, and tearfulness of eye which we see in the Raven to-day. And they are
all as greedy of corn food as ever, for behold! No sooner had the old
Raven recovered than he espied one of the ears of corn half hidden under
the mantle-covers of the trays. He leaped from his place laughing. They
always laugh when they find anything, these ravens. Then he caught up the
ear of corn and made off with it over the heads of the people and the tops
of the houses, crying.
"Ha! ha! In this wise and in no other will ye find thy Seed Maidens."
But after a while he came back, saying, "A sharp eye have I for the flesh
of the Maidens. But who might see their breathing-beings, ye dolts, except
by the help of the Father of Dawn-Mist himself, whose breath makes breath
of others seem as itself." Then he flew away cawing.
Then the elders said to each other, "It is our fault, so how dare we
prevail on our father Paiyatuma to aid us? He warned us of this in the old
Suddenly, for the sun was rising, they heard Paiyatuma in his daylight
mood and transformation. Thoughtless and loud, uncouth in speech, he
walked along the outskirts of the village. He joked fearlessly even of
fearful things, for all his words and deeds were the reverse of his sacred
being. He sat down on a heap of vile refuse, saying he would have a feast.
"My poor little children," he said. But he spoke to aged priests and
"Good-night to you all," he said, though it was in full dawning. So he
perplexed them with his speeches.
"We beseech thy favor, oh father, and thy aid, in finding our beautiful
Maidens." So the priests mourned.
"Oh, that is all, is it? But why find that which is not lost, or summon
those who will not come?"
Then he reproached them for not preparing the sacred plumes, and picked up
the very plumes he had said were not there.
Then the wise Pekwinna, the Speaker of the Sun, took two plumes and the
banded wing-tips of the turkey, and approaching Paiyatuma stroked him with
the tips of the feathers and then laid the feathers upon his lips....
Then Paiyatuma became aged and grand and straight, as is a tall tree shorn
by lightning. He said to the father:
"Thou are wise of thought and good of heart. Therefore I will summon from
Summer-land the beautiful Maidens that ye may look upon them once more and
make offering of plumes in sacrifice for them, but they are lost as
dwellers amongst ye."
Then he told them of the song lines and the sacred speeches and of the
offering of the sacred plume wands, and then turned him about and sped
away so fleetly that none saw him.
Beyond the first valley of the high plain to the southward Paiyatuma
planted the four plume wands. First he planted the yellow, bending over it
and watching it. When it ceased to flutter, the soft down on it leaned
northward but moved not. Then he set the blue wand and watched it; then
the white wand. The eagle down on them leaned to right and left and still
northward, yet moved not. Then farther on he planted the red wand, and
bending low, without breathing, watched it closely. The soft down plumes
began to wave as though blown by the breath of some small creature.
Backward and forward, northward and southward they swayed, as if in time
to the breath of one resting.
"'T is the breath of my Maidens in Summer-land, for the plumes of the
southland sway soft to their gentle breathing. So shall it ever be. When I
set the down of my mists on the plains and scatter my bright beads in the
northland(7), summer shall go thither from afar, borne on the breath of
the Seed Maidens. Where they breathe, warmth, showers, and fertility shall
follow with the birds of Summer-land, and the butterflies, northward over
Then Paiyatuma arose and sped by the magic of his knowledge into the
countries of Summer-land,—fled swiftly and silently as the soft
breath he sought for, bearing his painted flute before him. And when he
paused to rest, he played on his painted flute and the butterflies and
birds sought him. So he sent them to seek the Maidens, following swiftly,
and long before he found them he greeted them with the music of his
songsound, even as the People of the Seed now greet them in the song of
When the Maidens heard his music and saw his tall form in their great
fields of corn, they plucked ears, each of her own kind, and with them
filled their colored trays and over all spread embroidered mantles,—embroidered
in all the bright colors and with the creature-songs of Summer-land. So
they sallied forth to meet him and welcome him. Then he greeted them, each
with the touch of his hands and the breath of his flute, and bade them
follow him to the northland home of their deserted children.
So by the magic of their knowledge they sped back as the stars speed over
the world at night time, toward the home of our ancients. Only at night
and dawn they journeyed, as the dead do, and the stars also. So they came
at evening in the full of the last moon to the Place of the Middle,
bearing their trays of seed.
Glorious was Paiyatuma, as he walked into the courts of the dancers in the
dusk of the evening and stood with folded arms at the foot of the
bow-fringed ladder of priestly council, he and his follower Shutsukya. He
was tall and beautiful and banded with his own mists, and carried the
banded wings of the turkeys with which he had winged his flight from afar,
leading the Maidens, and followed as by his own shadow by the black being
of the corn-soot, Shutsukya, who cries with the voice of the frost wind
when the corn has grown aged and the harvest is taken away.
And surpassingly beautiful were the Maidens clothed in the white cotton
and embroidered garments of Summer-land.
Then after long praying and chanting by the priests, the fathers of the
people, and those of the Seed and Water, and the keepers of sacred things,
the Maiden-mother of the North advanced to the foot of the ladder. She
lifted from her head the beautiful tray of yellow corn and Paiyatama took
it. He pointed it to the regions, each in turn, and the Priest of the
North came and received the tray of sacred seed.
Then the Maiden of the West advanced and gave up her tray of blue corn. So
each in turn the Maidens gave up their trays of precious seed. The Maiden
of the South, the red seed; the Maiden of the East, the white seed; then
the Maiden with the black seed, and lastly, the tray of all-color seed
which the Priestess of Seed-and-All herself received.
And now, behold! The Maidens stood as before, she of the North at the
northern end, but with her face southward far looking; she of the West,
next, and lo! so all of them, with the seventh and last, looking
southward. And standing thus, the darkness of the night fell around them.
As shadows in deep night, so these Maidens of the Seed of Corn, the
beloved and beautiful, were seen no more of men. And Paiyatuma stood
alone, for Shutsukya walked now behind the Maidens, whistling shrilly, as
the frost wind whistles when the corn is gathered away, among the lone
canes and dry leaves of a gleaned field.
(7) Dew drops.