Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Corn and Whiskey: Sacredness and Community Borne from the Earth

A significant portion of my family originated along the borderlands between Scotland and England, mostly in Northumberland and the Scottish Border. A number of them were reivers, opportunistic and clannish cattle- and sheep-thieving mafiosos of the Tudor and Stuart periods. When King James I of England (the VI of Scotland) wrestled them into submission, they migrated at his behest with other lowland Scots into Ulster, Ireland, before eventually immigrating to Turtle Island, settling in what we now call Western North Carolina. Once again, they dwelled in a borderland, a liminal space between the lands still freely occupied by Native peoples in the west and the European colonies in the east. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful region, with rolling ancient mountains and fertile valleys, carved through with rivers and creeks and patches of swamps. They lived in this area from the middle of the 18th century to the early 20th century. For much of this time, they were listed as farmers in tax and census records, like many other settlers of the area.

Corn Goddesses, Myths, and Traditions

Maize, what we Americans call corn (in Europe, corn can mean any grain), was a crucial and sacred crop to many Native tribes. As explained on the Native Languages website: “Corn played an important mythological role in many tribes as well-- in some cultures Corn was a respected deity, while in others, corn was a special gift to the people from the Creator or culture hero.” For the Cherokee, the Goddess Selu is the Corn Woman. She was the first woman Who came into being, and She was ultimately killed by Her twin sons, who feared Her power. Yet, as She died, She taught Her boys how to farm corn so that She could be reborn (“Selu, the Cherokee Corn Mother”). The Iroquois Corn Goddess is Onatah, Who with Her two sisters formed the Deohako, the “Life Supporters” -- more familiar to us settlers as the Three Sisters. In an Iroquois agricultural myth, Onatah was kidnapped and hidden underground, which caused a famine that only ended when She was liberated and returned (“Onatah, the Iroquois Spirit of the Corn”). In both myths, there is a theme of descent into the underworld -- through death in one, and being hidden in the other -- and a reemergence, which we see every year in the farming of maize.

 

Polytheist Europeans have similar seasonal grain myths. Persephone is a Goddess of growth, fertility, and vitality of plants on the earth. When She is abducted by Hades into the Underworld, Her mother Demeter causes the earth to become barren. When She returns to Her mother, Demeter allows plants to flourish once again. Cicero wrote that “they think [Persephone] represents the seed of corn, and fable that she was hidden away, and sought for by her mother,” not unlike Onatah and Selu above (qtd. in Theoi.com). Traditions that hint at similar beliefs in a Corn Goddess persist in the northern reaches of Europe as well. In The Goddess Obscured, Berger writes that

 

“The fashioning of female puppets or dolls made out of the last sheaf of corn was particularly prevalent in Germanic areas. In some places, the last sheaves were made into a doll that was dressed in women’s clothing and carried home on a wagon… The figure was known as the wheat mother or rye mother, according to the crop of the region.” (64)

 

The Grimms noted several tales involving the Rye Mother in northern Germany, in which she’s believed to steal children in rye fields, sometimes replacing them with changelings (Ashliman). She reminds me in some ways of the Slavic agricultural Goddess Marzanna/Morana/Mara, of Whom an effigy of straw is built in the spring, paraded around, and then burnt and drowned to revitalize the earth. And, of course, many of us are familiar with the Irish tradition of creating a Brideog out of straw, decorating her and making a bed for her, and honoring her as an icon of the Goddess and Saint Brigid for Imbolc, that liminal holiday celebrating the end of winter.

Corn, Whiskey, and Community

By 1866, my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather and his father were operating a commercial distillery in Trap Hill, NC, according to an IRS record I came across while doing genealogy. The move from farmers to distillers was a natural one. Distilling was originally a cottage industry, done for the use and benefit of the household. Settlers “often shared their distilling knowledge because of its many practical uses, including medicine for colds, consumption, snakebites, wounds, and other ailments” (Lancaster 10). It was also a staple of community gatherings. In Foxfires 2, Florence and Lawton Brooks are recorded describing how farmers would

 

“just pile up their corn in their barnyard, y’know, instead a’puttin’ it in their crib. And they’d always bury a drink right in th’middle a’that pile and pile their born on top a’it. Then we’d have t’shuck all the’corn t’find it. We’d shuck all night t’get t’that half-gallon a’liquor. Then we’d all have a drink and probably have a dancin’ th’rest a’th’night, if we got done in time” (363).

 

The authors underscored how “people took a dull, arduous task and turned it into a time for fun and warm fellowship… [It became] a time for neighbors to pitch in and have the best times of their lives while working with and helping each other” (362). It was a communal activity, a time for building and strengthening bonds. And the liquor, which was both the prize and the product of all that corn shucking, was often corn whiskey.

 

Whiskey’s economic value to the Appalachian region isn’t hard to understand. As Rowley explains,

 

“If a packhorse could carry 240 pounds of grain (four bushels) to market, it was at little, if any, profit to the farmer. When he converted that grain to whiskey, however, the horse’s payload increased substantially because it could carry the equivalent of eight to nearly elevel bushels in eight- or ten-gallon kegs. The farmer who shrewdly concentrated his acres of cumbersome grains to more portable whiskey transformed the journey to market from a bust to a profitable venture” (30).

 

Whiskey was (and is) a valuable product, something to be enjoyed and shared with others. Farmers who distilled their grains into whiskey stood a much better chance at thriving economically than those who didn’t. And they could keep and store some of that fruit of the land for their own use, to enjoy with their families and friends, flavor their foods, and fend off illness and disease.

Sacred Grains, Sacred Drink

We know that grains have been considered sacred by the peoples who planted, tended, harvested, and consumed them across the world. They have been gifted to Gods as sacrifices, understood to be the incarnations of spirits and deities themselves, celebrated in harvest rituals and festivals, and transformed into sacred drinks. The invention of distillation is believed to have begun ca. 3500 BC in Mesopotamia, in what is now Turkey, Kuwait, Syria, and Iraq. From there, it spread in all directions. The first evidence of Scots producing whiskey is in the late 15th century, although it’s likely that whiskey distilling in Scotland is much older.

 

Celticist Noemie Beck dedicates an entire chapter in her thesis, Goddesses in Celtic Religion Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul, to Goddesses of intoxication. She writes about the religious and cultural value of mead and beer, but the same can be applied to later products like whiskey. She explains that

 

“Intoxication allowed human beings to establish a connection with the otherworld, ensuring a dialogue with the deities and dead ancestors. Archeology, ancient literature and ethnology prove that the rites of intoxication, be they connected with medicine, war, society, life or death, date from very ancient times and have, throughout the world and civilizations, always born a relation to the divine, for human beings have always required the help, answers and advice of the gods in every domain.” (Chapter 5, I:A)

 

Liquor also has the ability to loosen personal boundaries, which holds dangers but also allows for the possibility of securing and strengthening bonds between people. We see this in texts like Beowulf, in which a victory feast is held to celebrate Beowulf overcoming Grendel:

"Wealtheow went forth,

Hrothgar's wife, mindful of courtesy,

gold-adorned, greeted the men in the hall;

and the noble woman gave the cup first

to the guardian of the Danes,

beloved of the people, bade him be glad at the beer-drinking;

 in joy he took part

in the feast and the hall-cup, victorious king.

 then the woman of the Helmings went around

to each one, young and old warriors, served them

the precious cup, until the time came

that she carried the mead-cup to Beowulf,

the ring-adorned queen, excellent of mind." (lines 615-624)

 

Sharing a drink with those whom we seek to know better and build relationships is an ancient tradition that is still carried out today. In Military Brats, Vol. I: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, Wertsch quotes Lt. Col. Larry H. I Graham: "Soldiering and alcohol have been almost synonymous since the invention of armies… Alcohol use has been encouraged as a means of promoting camaraderie, cohesion, and group solidarity" (57). It is also a feature of many business meetings, weddings, funerals, holiday celebrations, and other social events. For each, different cultures have their own rituals and traditions involving alcohol to confer power, affection, and luck, as we’ve seen above. This extends to spiritual relationships with our Gods and other spirits, as well.

 

Of course, we all know the dark side of alcohol: it can also loosen us up to behave in harmful ways, do things we normally wouldn't, and become an object of addiction. Beck notes that the word "intoxication connotes death in French, while in English it refers to the state of having one's mind blurred after consuming alcoholic drinks, drugs or hallucinatory plants," and points out how the two languages highlight the "dual qualities of intoxicating substances" (Chapter 5, Introduction). It can bond us together, or destroy us. Like any power, there's danger in it. Gods of alcohol and the grains that produce them can strengthen us or curse us, and what They choose to do can depend on our attitudes and behaviors toward Them.

Prohibition and Moonshine

This ruinous aspect is what led to the prohibition of alcohol across Europe and North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But, of course, it didn’t stop everyone. Earlier this year, my dad asked me, “What’s the difference between whiskey and moonshine?” The look in his eyes told me it was a test.

 

“Whether it’s legal or not,” I answered, and Dad smiled and nodded.

 

While Prohibition was at its strongest in the 1920s, it began earlier than that, during the last 20 years of the 19th century. Lancaster writes that “On May 26, 1908, 62 percent of North Carolinians voted in favor of statewide prohibition” (33). It’s little surprise to me that my 2nd-great-grandparents left North Carolina around this time, probably having lost their major source of income to Prohibition, and started over in the new frontier of the Mountain West, once again to farm. My family has lived there for five generations now, and my relatives still own the farmland that belonged to my great-grandfather. But, like many of my ancestors, my immediate family has been restless. My dad joined the Army when I was two, and we moved around throughout my childhood until we settled on the east coast.

 

Now, as an adult, I’ve put down roots in South Central Appalachia, the place where my ancestors farmed corn and distilled whiskey for around 150 years, give or take. Farms abound here, and many of them grow corn. Every year, I take my children to one particular farm twenty minutes from where I live for their Harvest Festival. We meander through the enormous corn maze, and I collect fallen sheaves of corn that critters have already gotten to. With these, I fashion a corn husk doll to keep on my hearth shrine throughout the winter. When spring comes, I set fire to it, or bury it, or toss it into a creek, to return the icon to the earth in the hopes that the Mother of the Corn will enrich the soil and return to life as fields of living corn stalks. I’ve also begun offering whiskey to my ancestors, giving them that fiery taste of home, that liquor distilled from the fruits of the earth on which they worked and lived and, eventually, were laid to rest within.




References

 

Ashliman, D.L. “The Rye Mother.” German Changeling Legends. University of Pittsburgh. https://sites.pitt.edu/~dash/gerchange.html

 

Atsma, Aaron. “Persephone Goddess Of.” Theoi.com. 2017. https://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/PersephoneGoddess.html#Plants

 

Beck, Noemie. Goddesses in Celtic Religion Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul. Lumiere Lyon 2 University, 2009. http://theses.univ-lyon2.fr/documents/lyon2/2009/beck_n#p=0&q=Latis&a=title

 

Beowulf.http://www.as.wvu.edu/english/oeoe/english311/990.html.

 

Lancaster, Aaron. Chasing The Good Ol’ Boys And Girls Of Wilkes County, North Carolina. Center for Appalachian Studies, 2013. https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/asu/f/Lancaster,%20Aaron_2013_Thesis.pdf.

 

“Onatah, the Iroquois Spirit of the Corn.” Native Languages of the Americas. 2010. http://www.native-languages.org/morelegends/onatah.htm

 

Rowley, Matthew B. Moonshine! Affordable Distillery Equipment LLC, 2017.

 

“Selu, the Cherokee Corn Mother.” Native Languages of the Americas. 2010. http://www.native-languages.org/selu.htm.

 

Sullivan, Maireid. “The Enduring Traditions of St. Brigid’s Day.” Irish Central. 2021. https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/st-brigids-day-traditions

Wertsch, Mary Edwards. Military Brats: Volume 1: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress. Brightwell, 2006.

Photo by Christophe Maertens on Unsplash

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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