The Mystery of the Cherokee Beloved Woman
Was the Beloved Woman of the Cherokee Nation a descendant of the Corn Goddess?
The last few months I’ve written about European fairy tales and folklore as they translate into contemporary stories. During the last few weeks, I’ve been in the old Cherokee Nation in southeast Tennessee, studying Native American culture mainly the stories of the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles. This has a special meaning for me, as my ancestor married the granddaughter of the last Beloved Woman of the Cherokees. He moved with The Nation to Oklahoma; the Cookson Hills are named for the family. My direct line of ancestry stayed in Tennessee, where we still maintain our farms. Now that you understand where my love of history derives, let’s see what we can discover about Cherokee and Native American folklore, how it differs from European tales and what commonalities they share.
As European stories focus on coming of age and have themes of right and wrong, Native American folklore is as varied as the tribes themselves. Anyone accustomed to European fairy tales will feel that Native American tales are incomplete. Plots have their own logic and defy traditional story telling. An episode itself may be the sole reason a story is being told. Often, the stories are left incomplete so that the next generation of storytellers can add their narrative, thus continuing the tribal experience. The common thread which tie the themes is the concern with issues regarding the human race. The sacred four directions of North, South, East and West; the Above World and Below World are commonalities. You will find images and tokens in language and nuance which explain…how did we get here?…what is the role of the sun, moon and stars? Oral traditions harken back for centuries which explain destruction and recreation; tricksters and heroes.
A goddess of grain, corn, and the harvest has been known since ancient times by different names — Demeter, The First Mother, Cerridwen, Bridget, The Callieach, The Corn Maiden, Mother Corn, Selu and Kahesana Xaskwim. She is always the Goddess of Fertility and Life. She is the guardian of all which grows and blooms; and she is the Goddess of Death and Rebirth. In every culture she sacrifices herself at harvest, and she is reborn at springtime. It is believed that the name of Demeter, the Greek Goddess, translates literally as Corn Mother. She and Selu, the Cherokee Corn Mother, have much in common and both are surrounded by mystery.
Corn was invaluable to the Cherokees. The power given to the harvesters was the highest in the community. Let’s look at of the legends behind the grain. The following information is made available via Cherokee.org:
The first man was Kanati, and the first woman, Selu. (Selu is also called the “Corn Woman.”) She lived with her husband and two sons. Each day she would leave her house and return later with a basket full of corn. The boys wondered where the corn came from, so one day they followed her. They saw her go into a storehouse, and they got where they could peek in and watch her. There they saw her place her basket on the ground before her and begin to shake herself. The corn started falling from her body into the basket.
They then thought that their mother must surely be a witch; and that witches must die! Selu could read the boys’ thoughts. She told them that after they put her to death, they would need to follow her instructions so that they would continue to have corn for nourishment. “After you kill me, you must clear some ground in front of our house. Then drag my body in a circle seven times. Then, you must stay up all night and watch.”
The boys did this, but they got the instructions wrong. They cleared seven areas of ground, and drug her body twice in a circle. Corn began to grow, but only where her blood dropped to the ground. Because the boys were careless in listening to the instructions, corn must now be planted and taken care of in order for it to grow. And to this day, it only grows in certain spots and not the entire earth.
The Cherokee speak an Iroquoian language, and like the Iroquois tribes, they are matrilineal, which means all kinship is traced through the mother’s family, as were the seven clans which the tribal society was based. Tribal life was balanced between males and females, with males being the hunters and warriors, and women controlling the farms and domestic spaces. In this matrilineal and matrifocal society, the power given to these women was immense. They owned the farmlands, dictated when clans would seek blood vengeance, women participated in councils, they determined the fates of war captives, women enjoyed sexual freedom and had autonomy.
Over time, the tribe pushed southward, eventually (violently) overtaking land from the Creek Tribe in present day Tennessee, north Georgia and north Alabama. They shared a language and societal structure much like their distant northern ‘cousins’. Likewise they shared many similarities with the southern tribes. These Southern tribes would become known to history as the Five Civilized Tribes. (Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole which were moved westward on the Trail of Tears in the early 1800s.)
Cherokee tradition is one of the few worldwide which believes that the sun is the female and the male is the moon. “Anglo Saxon and Norse beliefs are that Sunna, the female, is the Sun,”says British shaman Gary Plunkett. A few others cultures which believe the same are the Welsh (Olwen), Slavic (SoIntse), and Japanese (Amaterasu). This gives us an example of how powerful they believed the female to be in maintaining the balance of the world.
All the Southern Tribes granted a Beloved Woman as a woman of great wisdom and power yet the Cherokees were the only tribe to allow the women status as the head of their clans. Generally, the Beloved Woman was a position which was hereditary. Their gifts of dreams, healing and wisdom were believed to be inherited from their female ancestor’s. The Plains Tribes were more apt to give the Beloved Woman title to a woman who had a gift of healing or a special message of prophecy sent in visions and dreams.
So, what did this have to do with the Corn Goddess? Most of the Southern Tribes believed that the blood line of the Beloved Woman was direct descended from the Corn Goddess. As for the Cherokee, their secrets remain their own, sealed by centuries of traditions and rituals.
Worldwide people believe in the Corn Mother, and she plays important roles throughout the year. We see shared folklore patterns. This spring equinox, be thankful for her gifts of food and growth. Now is the time for seeds and bulbs to blossom, when She awakens and is reborn as the cold and rain subside. As Gary Plunkett says, “Spring is really about fertility and energies rising. It’s a slight pause prior to the big fires of summer.”
We also see that, like the Mystery Sects of the Greek Goddess Demeter, the origins of the Cherokee’s Beloved Woman remain shrouded in the mists of time.
- Daughters of the Earth, Carolyn Niethammer, A Touchstone Book, 1977.
- American Indian Myths and Legends, Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, Pantheon Books, 1984.
- Theda Perdue. Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
- Awakening Pagan Spring Forest by Emily Balivet (www.EmilyBalivet.com)
- Michelene E. Pesantubbee. Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World: The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
- Gary Plunkett, British Shaman or Awenyddion, the ancient British word meaning “Bringer of Inspiration”.
- Red Clay State Park, Bradley County, Tennessee, United States.
- Cherokee turtleshell rattle made by Tommy Wildcat.
- Starcatcher by Susan Seddon-Boulet, Archival Prints and Original Art, Turning Point Gallery
- High Priestess Fire by JenaDellaGrottaglia