Human effigy pottery gives us something akin to a photo album for the early cultures before European contact.  The subject matter included men, women, and children as well as sports heroes and important political leaders, much as it does today.  The faces reflect both social and religious values, both in the dancers of the Southern Ceremonial Complex and in celebrations like the Corn Dance.


This Jim Maus bowl depicts the Corn goddess and is from Arkansas.

The above Corn god/goddess bottle at the left is from Clinch County, Georgia and is part of the collection of Bruce Butts.  The Corn god/goddess on the right is from the Etowah Mound complex.  Both of these examples date to the Mississippian period.

First grown in Mexico about 5,000 years ago, corn soon became the most important food crop in Central and North America. Throughout the region, Native Americans, Maya, Aztecs, and other Indians worshiped corn gods and developed a variety of myths about the origin, planting, growing, and harvesting of corn (also known as maize).

Corn Gods and Goddesses. The majority of corn deities are female and associated with fertility. They include the Cherokee goddess Selu; Yellow Woman and the Corn Mother goddess Iyatiku of the Keresan people of the American Southwest; and Chicomecoatl, the goddess of maize who was worshiped by the Aztecs of Mexico. The Maya believed that humans had been fashioned out of corn, and they based their calendar on the planting of the cornfield.

Male corn gods do appear in some legends. The Aztecs had a male counterpart to Chicomecoatl, called Centeotl, to whom they offered their blood each year, as well as some minor corn gods known as the Centzon Totochtin, or "the 400 rabbits." The Seminole figure Fas-ta-chee, a dwarf whose hair and body were made of corn, was another male corn god. He carried a bag of corn and taught the Seminoles how to grow, grind, and store corn for food. The Hurons of northeastern North America worshiped Iouskeha, who made corn, gave fire to the Hurons, and brought good weather.

Origins of Corn. A large number of Indian myths deal with the origin of corn and how it came to be grown by humans. Many of the tales center on a "Corn Mother" or other female figure who introduces corn to the people.

In one myth, told by the Creeks and other tribes of the southeastern United States, the Corn Woman is an old woman living with a family that does not know who she is. Every day she feeds the family corn dishes, but the members of the family cannot figure out where she gets the food.

One day, wanting to discover where the old woman gets the corn, the sons spy on her. Depending on the version of the story, the corn is either scabs or sores that she rubs off her body, washings from her feet, nail clippings, or even her feces. In all versions, the origin of the corn is disgusting, and once the family members know its origin, they refuse to eat it.

The Corn Woman solves the problem in one of several ways. In one version, she tells the sons to clear a large piece of ground, kill her, and drag her body around the clearing seven times. However, the sons clear only seven small spaces, cut off her head, and drag it around the seven spots. Wherever her blood fell, corn grew. According to the story, this is why corn only grows in some places and not all over the world.

In another account, the Corn Woman tells the boys to build a corn crib and lock her inside it for four days. At the end of that time, they open the crib and find it filled with corn. The Corn Woman then shows them how to use the corn.

Green Corn Dance

Native Americans of the Southeast hold a Green Corn Dance to celebrate the New Year. This important ceremony, thanking the spirits for the harvest, takes place in July or August. None of the new corn can be eaten before the ceremony, which involves rituals of purification and forgiveness and a variety of dances. Finally, the new corn can be offered to a ceremonial fire, and a great feast follows.

This painting by George Caltin shows the Hidatsa people of the North American Plains celebrating the corn harvest with the Green Corn Dance. The ceremony, held in the middle of the summer, marks the beginning of the New Year.

Some legends state that the Corn gods were responsible for man's creation.  Mud and wood had failed,but the corn people were perfect. However, the gods decided that their new creations were able to see too clearly, so they clouded the people's sight to prevent them from competing with their makers.



Bruce Butts collection, Etowah Burnished Plain

Sports figures were prominent in human effigy figures because the sports they competed in were central to both village life and the interaction between various village groups. The vessel above was recovered with the discoidal that still rests inside it.  The lug handle on the opposite side of the human figure is shaped much like what appears to be a carved steatite throwing cup for just such a discoidal pictured below from Monroe County, Georgia.