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21.7.12

El Diablo del Maiz

Migrant workers in the Southern portion of Illinois have been whispering for two decades about a monster called the "Corn Demon" or "Corn Devil", commonly referred to as el Diablo del Maiz. This is purported to be a creature largely reptilian in form, likely a serpent. Some accounts claim it has at least two arm-like appendages about three feet down the body from the head. These are said to end in three claws, about 5-6" in length, colored glossy black or a tan fading to deep brown. The details are usually sketchy beyond this; encounters with this creature are generally fatal for at least some individuals.  Witnesses tend to be few and far between, usually claiming to be sole survivors of parties of migrant workers virtually wiped out when crossing corn fields in the dark. Some disappearances are said to even occur in broad daylight, during field work.

Such a disappearance was noted as recently as last year 1. Migrant legal aid interns and NCFH (National Center for Farmworker Health) personnel have identified, albeit off-record (for obvious reasons) that migrants have a number of theories about these sorts of disappearances. One is that INS seizes individuals without warning. Another is that workers are sometimes taken by government agencies for use in experiments or other nefarious activities, possibly including organ harvesting; conspiracy theories are no less prevalent amongst migrants than among natural born Americans, it seems. A third category falls into the supernatural or at least the cryptozoological, and it is here that we hear about the so-called "Corn Demon".

The matter was brought to my attention here at the Lamp by a young man who works with migrants in a social services role. He is a practitioner of the Noble Arts (yes, magic) but since he lives in the "real world" his experience and skills are limited. He indicated to me via email that he needed some sort of powerful ward or other protection - a service I have been known to provide. In short, he believes whole-heartedly what his clientele are telling him, and is concerned that this entity exists and can prey upon people at will, without regard for their legal or immigration status. He further indicated that the current drought conditions were identified by the migrants in his region as a factor in a recent spate of attacks. Here is an excerpt from his email, with identifying information of course removed or changed to protect anonymity:

Mr. _____ is the county's courtroom interpreter and an independent interpreter. He responded that he would come and interpret the situation as there were no Spanish-speaking deputies on duty that night. I was able to make out from the general situation that a child had gone missing in the cornfield bordering the street. It was apparent that the concerned "Ruiz" family has trampled through part of the field looking for their son, and found a disturbance in the soil about a foot around. At approximately 11:00 p.m., "Mr. Lynn" arrived at the scene and began interpreting for the father. We questioned all parties separately in an investigator's cruiser and it appeared that "Mr. Ruiz's" 6 year old son, "Angel", had been playing in the corn field with the other children.  The corn was just above their heads.  While the other children returned for supper, "Angel" had apparently refused to come in and stayed out in the cornfield, hiding...
This creature is said to be from 7' to 12' in length and a burrowing predator of uncertain origin. It is reportedly responsible for the disappearance of dozens if not hundreds of migrant laborers throughout southern and central Illinois, and the phenomenon may be more widespread. The initial reports of this cryptozoological myth - or mystery - date back to the early 1990s, but these reports reference even older events. A few reports were sent to Illinois state migrant worker legal aid offices that identify a history of the belief in this creature since at least the early 1970s. There are anecdotes that indicate the Corn Demon is thought to exist throughout Mexico and Southern Central America.



The creature is generally described as snake or lizard-like in the body, with the face neither wholly reptilian nor other identifiable species; it is sometimes described as having an owl-like appearance, with reptilian eyes but no feathers. The body is said to be brownish-green and overall darkly shaded, with the face and throat a ghostly yellow or white. It is said to lurk in the soil beneath corn or bean fields mainly in the bottom lands. It can rapidly rise from the dirt and seize prey when it feels the vibrations generated by animals passing overhead.

This creature is reportedly connected with the Maya Corn God, since some Guatemalan migrants have been known to refer to it as Huna or Ah-Hun which are diminutives of Hun-Hunapu, the name of the God of Corn in the Mayan pantheon 2. In some versions of the Maya and Aztec mythic cycles describing how people learned to plant corn, this creature exists as a bridge between life-giving corn and the death-dealing underworld. Where there is life, there must be death. Other Native American tribal traditions discuss the process of learning to plant corn from the gods; such tales often feature the ritual sacrifice of an individual and their burial in the earth which in turn yields the bountiful crop 3.

While this is obviously a reference to what human beings do with seeds, blood and the dismemberment of a human body do not fit the metaphor as well 4. One has to wonder if this sacrifice motif is a reference instead to an early human memory of some sort of burrowing predator that takes advantage of the human practice of farming.

This behavior, evocative of Herbert's Dune and the more absurd Tremors films is not as ridiculous as it might seem on the surface. Humans and many other predators take advantage of watering holes and salt licks to catch their prey unawares. The fact that human beings cultivate fields means that we can be expected to work those agricultural sites, and that we will be less than wary under these conditions. A skilled predator might well have adapted to hunt us in our own farms. A burrowing ambush predator that had adapted thus would be extremely hard to identify or track down. This is doubly true if people assume the evidence for an attack is instead a sinkhole or other common soil subduction phenomenon.

The people perhaps best placed to encounter --- and be victimized --- by such a thing are probably migrant laborers, of whom some 3 million work in the U.S. annually 5. There are other scattered accounts of disappearances throughout American history, but these are almost universally in dispute. Ambrose Bierce capitalized - supposedly - on the tale of Oren Williamson, who was said to have disappeared in full view of his family while walking across his field 6. This was and is still widely regarded as a tall tale or a yarn, albeit one that refuses to entirely die.


It is probably worth noting that this notion of a serpent-like creature, associated with cultivation, is not limited to the New World. Kekrops, pictured above, is the legendary founder of civilization in the Athenian chthonic and origin myths. Kekrops was said to be half-man, half-serpent, and to have taught the early Greeks the arts of cultivation and the practice of burying their dead.

This is an interesting detail, since the reptilian "Corn Demon" is associated with cultivation and it is thought to burrow beneath the earth. Reports indicate there are migrant workers who claim the Corn Demon will lurk in higher elevations during the winter, moving up out of the bottom lands where the fields would of course lie fallow. Under these circumstances, this predator would need to seek sustenance elsewhere, perhaps by feeding upon the newly buried dead, as some claim. How this would be possible following the invention of concrete burial vaults is anyone's guess. But a connection exists between Kekrops teaching the Greeks to bury their dead, and a burrowing predator that turns to carrion secretly stolen from graveyards in the winters. 

This particular urban legend or cryptozoological mystery is on the surface an unlikely one. But the various connections to be found in the myths of the Native Americans, including the Maya and the Aztecs as well as the mythology of ancient Greece is suggestive. Perhaps this is a phenomenon with deep roots. From the standpoint of a Jacques Vallee, for example, the whole matter might be seen as turning upon our food supply as a species. Something or someone knows that we will pay particular attention where our food is concerned. Perhaps the same agency responsible for this newly emerging tale of a burrowing predator with the unlikely name, "El Diablo del Maiz" is behind crop circles and more ancient fairy rings. Perhaps the disappearances now enshrined in legend, derided by skeptics, are in fact examples of the Gods at work - whatever it turns out in the long run that these Gods actually are.

In closing, it would be a mistake not to note that another Greek myth prominently links agriculture with death and things of the underworld. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, stolen from the waking world at the close of Summer by the Lord of the Underworld, Hades. How did he do this, precisely? He opened up the earth, rode up out of the resulting chasm in his chariot, and dragged her down into the depths. There seems to be a running theme in these tales, strangely linking death and cultivation. A further analysis of Mayan and Aztec myths demonstrates this same conceptual linkage. And let us not leave aside the Celtic myths involving fairies who dwell in the earth, as well as Norse gnomes and the Egyptian god Osiris.

For now, we researchers of the unknown and the officially rejected might do well to brush up on our Spanish... and stay out of the corn fields.