Once, years ago, a local Indigenous Elder told me his people were People of the Corn (or maize if you prefer). He went on to explain the statement with information about agricultural and ceremonial traditions to contextualize it culturally. It stuck with me as a teaching.
But while I understood his nation’s relationship with corn and a little about how corn was part of ceremony, I confess, I didn’t truly understood this viscerally as a teaching until this winter. I don’t think it really became a “knowing” for me until I realized that “my” people are also people of corn (in the more broad definition of corn: the Germanic/Dutch root meaning grain. My people (modern and ancestral) are People of the Wheat. And yes, I appreciate the irony in that (white people of European descent often being represented by the wheat emoji). But let me clear: I don’t think that being a person of wheat or corn is about race. I think it’s about ceremony and relationship to land. I think it’s about how you or your ancestors build sacred relationship with harvest, abundance, and security in relation to the land.
Much of western, Eurocentric and settler North American culture, centers around a relationship with wheat. We see it as a symbol of fertility, security, and comfort. Historically we have eaten it, built houses from it, and fed our livestock with it. Wheat has been a source of sustenance and shelter for Europeans for a very long time. Learning to manipulate wheat (and other grains) was one of our earliest ways of ensuring survival through a place-specific relationship with land. Learning to harvest wheat allowed us to settle and become agrarian, to build up a certain amount of safety and prosperity (keeping history in mind here and recognizing that this is all relative and by no means anywhere near what most of us in the western world enjoy now in terms of settled security).
It’s no surprise, when we really dig into the psychological and spiritual roots of this relationship with wheat, that the French protested over bread or that we started baking bread in large numbers during the uncertainty of Covid.
From the elaborate harvest rituals where wheat becomes an honoured guest at the table, to the Brighid crosses and beds; wheat has a deeply embedded place in the folk customs of Europe. And when we look at it more broadly, we see how our relationship with divinity is often quite linked to wheat. From Christian communion wafers to the cakes of some Witch sabbats (note that I am coming from a particular Wiccan inspired lineage in this statement), wheat is consumed as an act of communion and embodiment. The consumption of wheat is implicitly sacred in our rites – even if we don’t realize it.
Here follows the dinner, of what it must consist, and what shall be said and done to consecrate it to Diana. You shall take meal and salt, honey and water, and make this incantation:
The Conjuration of Flour
I conjure thee, O flour! Who are our body, since without thee We could not live, thou who before Becoming flour went in the earth (as a seed), Where all secrets hide, and then when ground Dance like dust in the wind and flee, Carrying with thee your secrets strange!
Aradia – Gospel of the Witches
Is this a hold over from Christianity? Possibly. Did Christianity incorporate it into its liturgy because of a pagan relationship with the land? Possibly. Does it matter in the end? No. Because the chicken and egg both exist and we’re working within a cultural framework (directly or indirectly) that has been influenced by both the egg and the chicken.
Somewhere along the line, studying folk traditions coming from Europe and working with Indigenous communities in Canada, I have come to realize that wheat is sacred to Europeans and by extension, the colonial children of Europeans. This of course comes with huge implications when we think about the dominance of wheat in the world now. What did colonizers do when they came to North America (and perhaps other places – but I can’t speak with authority over this): they sought to establish a crop that represented safety to them. They planted wheat. And with this act, you could argue, created a colonial food system of oppression with huge ramifications. I’m not going to go down the rabbit hole right now to talk about the colonial imposition of wheat – if you want to think more on this one, check out this link. (It’s a thought provoking video conversation about colonial impacts on food systems, particularly in relation to wheat).
But what then does it mean when our relationship with wheat is so broken? What does it mean when our sacred food source has become so heavily modified, industrialized, demonized and painful to ingest by so many?
Dare I say that this is the perfect symbol of our broken relationship with land?
What does it say about that link to security and abundance when one of the first things that Canadians did during the pandemic was start making bread?
What does this all boil down to for me? For me, it means that when I think about my relationship with divinity and land, I need to start thinking about how food, both current and ancestral, actually is a symbol for divinity and a source of knowledge that can be used in practice. Instead of turning to other cultures and practices, I need to be looking at my own cultural threads to find the sacred relationship with land and place through practices we take for granted: like what we eat and see as a symbols of comfort, safety, and abundance. There is so much depth and knowledge in the sacred mundane that we fail to see in our quest for knowledge and inspiration.
I have not fully understood how my ancestral folk traditions have impacted my connection with land, but I think that I cannot fully decolonize my practice without unpacking this particular relationship and how it has implicitly shaped my perception of culture and the sacred. As the child of settlers, as a 1st and 4th generation settler, understanding how my own people define the sacred through their relationship with corn, particularly corns like wheat and oats, is probably fundamental to my own spiritual reconciliation process.