Centeotl

The Aztec Corn God (or Goddess)

Page from Codex Tezcatlipoca, Illustrating Centeotl
Pages from the Codex Tezcatlipoca (Fejérváry-Mayer) illustrating Centeotl. Aztec civilization. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Centeotl (sometimes spelled Cinteotl or Tzinteotl and sometimes called Xochipilli or "Flower Prince") was the main Aztec god of American corn, known as maize. Centeotl's name (pronounced something like Zin-tay-AH-tul) means “Maize Cob Lord” or “the Dried Ear of the Maize God”. Other Aztec gods associated with this all-important crop included the goddess of sweet corn and tamales Xilonen (Tender Maize), the goddess of seed corn Chicomecoátl (Seven Serpent), and Xipe Totec, the fierce god of fertility and agriculture.

Centeotl represents the Aztec version of a more ancient, pan-Mesoamerican deity. Earlier Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmec and Maya, worshiped the maize god as one of the most important sources of life and reproduction. Several figurines found at Teotihuacán were representations of a maize goddess, with a coiffure resembling a tasseled ear of maize. In many Mesoamerican cultures, the idea of kingship was associated with the maize god.

Origin of the Maize God

Centeotl was the son of Tlazolteotl or Toci, the goddess of fertility and childbirth, and as Xochipilli he was the husband of Xochiquetzal, the first woman to give birth. Like many Aztec deities, the maize god had a dual aspect, both masculine and feminine. Many Nahua (Aztec language) sources report that the Maize god was born a goddess, and only in later times became a male god named Centeotl, with a feminine counterpart, the goddess Chicomecoátl. Centeotl and Chicomecoátl oversaw different stages in maize growth and maturation.

Aztec mythology holds that the god Quetzalcoatl gave maize to humans. The myth reports that during the 5th Sun, Quetzalcoatl spotted a red ant carrying a maize kernel. He followed the ant and reached the place where maize grew, the “Mountain of Sustenance”, or Tonacatepetl (Ton-ah-cah-TEP-eh-tel) in Nahua. There Quetzalcoatl turned himself into a black ant and stole a kernel of corn to bring back to the humans to plant.

According to a story collected by the Spanish colonial period Franciscan friar and scholar Bernardino de Sahagún, Centeotl made a journey into the underworld and returned with cotton, sweet potatoes, huauzontle (chenopodium), and the intoxicating drink made from agave called octli or pulque, all of which he gave to humans. For this resurrection story, Centeotl is sometimes associated with Venus, the morning star. According to Sahagun, there was a temple dedicated to Centeotl in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlán.

Maize God Festivities

The fourth month of the Aztec calendar is called Huei Tozoztli ("The Big Sleep"), and it was dedicated to the maize gods Centeotl and Chicomecoátl. Different ceremonies dedicated to green maize and grass took place in this month, which began around April 30th. To honor the maize gods, people carried out self-sacrifices, performing blood-letting rituals, and sprinkling the blood throughout their houses. Young women adorned themselves with necklaces of corn seeds. Maize ears and seeds were brought back from the field, the former placed in front of the gods' images, whereas the latter were stored for planting in the next season.

The cult of Centeotl overlapped that of Tlaloc and embraced various deities of solar warmth, flowers, feasting, and pleasure. As the son of the earth goddess Toci, Centeotl was worshipped alongside Chicomecoati and Xilonen during the 11th month of Ochpaniztli, which begins September 27th on our calendar. During this month, a woman was sacrificed and her skin was used to make a mask for Centeotl's priest.

Maize God Images

Centeotl is often represented in Aztec codices as a young man, with maize cobs and ears sprouting from his head, handling a scepter with green cob’s ears. In the Florentine Codex, Centeotl is illustrated as the god of harvest and crop production.

As Xochipilli Centeotl, the god is sometimes represented as the monkey god Oçomàtli, the god of sports, dancing, amusements and good luck in games. A carved paddle-shaped "palmate" stone in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts (Cavallo 1949) may illustrate Centeotl receiving or attending a human sacrifice. The head of the deity resembles a monkey and he has a tail; the figure is standing on or floating above the chest of a prone figure. A large headdress accounting for over half of the length of the stone rises above Centeotl's head and is made up of either maize plants or possibly agave.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

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