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A Mayan Myth-Corn and the Red Ants

Many years ago, people grew enough food to meet their needs, which is why they did not realize how important corn is. There was an abundance of everything and even though people kept many domestic animals, food was never scarce. Uneaten food simply rotted, and corn was thrown into the river to avoid treating it as garbage. But there was a time when men forgot to show respect for corn. They mistreated rotting corn and left it lying around.

No one bothered to pick up the grain from the floors of the houses, and so it was trampled underfoot. People threw out tortillas as if they were garbage. Then one day the corn began to cry like a child. Everyone noticed that the corn kernels, the cobs and the tortillas were weeping. People grew afraid and did not know what to do. Their first impulse was to flee the town. They did not even have the desire to get out of bed, much less to eat corn, because it was alive. They thought that if they ate it, they would die.

When they could no longer stand the hunger pangs, some people picked up the cobs and the kernels. Seeing that nothing happened to them, they started eating corn again. When planting season came around the next year, everyone was happy. Having nearly forgotten what had happened, they began planting. A few days later they noticed the corn fields weren’t growing properly. And the harvest yielded very few cobs, very little corn, so they went hungry again. People had to get used to eating banana tree roots with small amounts of ground corn; others ate sweet potatoes and yucca. Men spent two or three years suffering and weeping. They dreamed that the corn had hidden itself away.

Then one day, a man went out to work very early, before dawn. He was carrying a burning piece of ocote pine to light the way. Suddenly he caught Sight of something crossing his path. He stopped to see what it was and discovered two large red ants, each carrying two grains of corn. The man stopped one of them, squashing its belly to hold it captive until dawn broke. Then he began shouting to his companions that he had found a grain of corn. In no time at all a crowd of people had gathered, and between them, they came up with a plan: they would release the ant to see where it went and then follow it. The ant reached a craggy part of the mountain and scurried into a tiny cavity amid the rocks. The men tried in vain to move the large rocks.

Then they got another idea: they would shoot a bolt of lightning to shatter the mountain into pieces. They assigned the job to the red rays. The rays attacked three times and the great rock shattered, exposing an open cave full of grain, but suddenly a gray-haired and very angry old man appeared. Everyone was humbled in his presence. “What do you want? Why did you break down the door to my house?” the old man thundered. Everyone was shaking with fear. They apologized profusely, and told him they were living in a constant state of hunger and begged for corn. Then the lord of the mountain replied, “It was I who had all the corn collected. I stored it here because you mistreated it. I shall give you some back, but only because my house is now full. However, you must bring me a gift and hold a great celebration in my honor. I want the purest of tobacco and strong drink.”

They did his bidding and held a celebration. They brought him pure tobacco and strong liquor, and in exchange, received a pitcher full of seeds to plant anew. And that is how corn reappeared, while the red ants, which were beasts of burden, were left with their squashed bellies, unable to regain their shape because they had been held down for so long.

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