Corn mazes connect us to ancient rituals


Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.At the beginning of the pandemic, my family started a weekly Sunday night Zoom call where we check in from across the country. Because my mother and I both live in Iowa, we frequently report in on what is happening here. Recently, our talk turned to corn — of course, because it was harvest season.

“Remember when we went to the haunted corn maze when I was in junior high?” asked my stepson, who was Zooming in from Salt Lake City, “That was so much fun.”

“How could I forget?” I said, recalling the combination of joy and terror I felt as a new stepmother accompanying a rowdy group of gangly teens through dark, unmarked paths in a field of dried corn stalks. I mean, what could go wrong?

My brother, who left the state in the late 1980s and now lives in Michigan, asked: “What is the difference between a corn maze and just getting lost in a cornfield?”

“Um, with a corn maze, you pay good money to get lost in a cornfield,” I said, and my stepson added, “With a corn maze, they send someone to look for you if you don’t come back.”

For those in metro areas, or who – like my brother and sister – left the state before corn mazes became popular, a corn maze (or a maize maze, as they’re known in the U.K.) is a bit of entertainment during harvest season. Before combining all the corn, the farmer cuts a maze out of a corn field. You find your way by walking the rails that are cut into the cornfield, winding here and there, navigating blind alleys, intricate passageways, and looping circles.

Corn mazes are a booming industry, with more than 500 across America, according to USA Today. In reading that paper’s annual reader poll, I was a little embarrassed to learn Iowa does not even appear in the top 10 of maze rankings. (However, many of those with high rankings featured mazes in the shapes of Disney characters, so I felt better; we may not be #1, but we at least we aren’t wandering through Donald Duck.)

While the first corn maze in the U.S. allegedly popped up in Annville, Pennsylvania in the 1930s, labyrinths and mazes have existed throughout history. A maze has many paths, but a labyrinth has only one, winding but without branches, leading from the entrance to the center; both generally represent spiritual discovery or wholeness.

The first labyrinth recorded was a two-story stone building in Egypt, according to writing by the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived over 4,000 years ago. Anyone who loves Greek mythology knows about King Minos of Crete, who created a labyrinth beneath his palace to hold captive the Minotaur, a ferocious monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The Greek hero Theseus slew the Minotaur and found his way out of the maze with the help of a ball of thread given to him by King Minos’ daughter Ariadne.

Ancient Romans also designed labyrinths and mazes, which appear in artwork, flooring, pavement, and the earth. Historians believe that these mazes were used for rituals and processions. Throughout Europe, mazes are seen in artwork and architecture, as well as in cathedrals and courts. Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles features an elaborate maze, supposedly inspired by Aesop’s fables.

From the 13th century onward, the Celts and Scandinavians also had labyrinths of stone and in churches. These were used in rituals, often by fishermen who would walk the labyrinths before going to sea; this process was said to ensure favorable winds, abundant catches and to confuse the trolls. Labyrinths have been found in India for centuries as well. In the Hindu tradition, it is believed that walking a labyrinth is following in the steps of Shiva Nataraja, the Divine Transformer, Lord of the Dance.

By the 18th century, hedge mazes became increasingly popular in England and Europe. Some time passed before the concept came to America, and we apparently used the materials we had at hand: corn fields. They became popular in the late 1980s, and now, complicated patterns can be carved into fields with sophisticated equipment. Aerial photos showcase the designs.

A maze in San Francisco. (Photo by Suzanne de Baca)

All labyrinths are a kind of game, but that does not negate their significance or gravity. Whether those entering a corn maze realize it or not, voluntarily getting lost in a field during harvest season, a time ripe with symbolism, is connecting us to ancient rituals. While on the surface, corn mazes are intended for entertainment – especially the haunted ones – those who go through them are on a journey into a void, not knowing the way, on a path of exploration and back again out into the world. When we go through such a journey alone, with friends, or with family, we build a stronger sense of connection to that group and to ourselves.

I remember the first time I walked a labyrinth. It was a flat succulent garden with a simple trail of stones set at a retreat center in the piney woods of Texas. I was 23, fresh off the farm crisis in Iowa, searching for direction in my own life. The process of walking through the spare, circular labyrinth was profound: a path inward, a path back out. In the corn maze with the teenagers many years ago, their gleeful quest was not so meditative, but they screeched and laughed as they made the journey together in the cool, crisp autumn evening. A path in, a path back out.

With those memories in mind, I googled a local corn maze. The following rules were posted on their website:

No smoking in maze

You must stay on the paths

Do not pick or throw corn

Do not break down corn stalks

Do not scare young children

Other than staying strictly on the paths, not bad rules for life, I reflected. Especially here in Iowa.

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