Mayahuel, The Aztec Goddess of Maguey

Mayahuel, as illustrated in the Codex Borgia
Mayahuel, as illustrated in the Codex Borgia. Vectorized by Eddo

Mayahuel was the Aztec goddess of maguey or agave (Agave americana), a cactus plant native to Mexico, and the goddess of pulque, an alcoholic drink made from agave juices. She is one of several goddesses who protect and support fertility in its different guises. 

Key Takeaways: Mayahuel

  • Alternate Names: None
  • Equivalents: 11 Serpent (post-classic Mixtec)
  • Epithets: The Woman of 400 Breasts
  • Culture/Country: Aztec, Post-classic Mexico
  • Primary Sources: Bernadino Sahagun, Diego Duran, several codices, especially the Codex Magliabechiano
  • Realms and Powers: Maguey, pulque, drunkenness, fertility, revitalization
  • Family: The Tzitzimime (powerful destructive celestial beings who embodied creative powers), Teteoinan (Mother of the Gods), Toci (Our Grandmother) and the Centzon Totochtin (400 Rabbits, Mayahuel's children)

Mayahuel in Aztec Mythology 

Mayahuel was one of several Aztec gods and goddesses of fertility, each of whom had specific roles. She was the goddess of maguey, and patron of the 13-day festival (trecena) in the Aztec calendar that starts with 1 Malinalli ("grass"), a time of excesses and a lack of moderation. 

Mayahuel was known as “the woman of the 400 breasts,” probably a reference to the many sprouts and leaves of maguey and the milky juice produced by the plant and transformed into pulque. The goddess is often depicted with full breasts or breastfeeding, or with many breasts to feed her many children, the Centzon Totochtin or “the 400 rabbits,” who were the gods associated with the effects of excessive drinking. 

Appearance and Reputation

In the existing Aztec codices, Mayahuel is depicted as a young woman with multiple breasts, emerging from a maguey plant, holding cups with foaming pulque. In the Codex Borbonicus, she wears blue clothing (the color of fertility), and a headdress of spindles and unspun maguey fiber (ixtle). The spindles symbolize the transformation or revitalization of disorder into order. 

The Bilimek Pulque Vessel is a piece of carved dark green phyllite completely covered in complex iconographic signs, and in the collections of the Welt Museum in Vienna, Austria. Made in the early 1500s, the jar has a large head projecting out from the side of the vase that has been interpreted as the day sign Malinalli 1, the first day of Mayahuel's festival. On the reverse side, Mayahuel is illustrated as decapitated with two streams of aquamiel squirting out from her breasts and into a pulque pot below. 

Other associated images include a stele from the great classic period pyramid of Teotihuacan dated between 500–900 CE which shows scenes from a wedding with guests drinking pulque. A rock painting at the postclassic Aztec site of Ixtapantongo illustrates Mayahuel rising from a maguey plant, holding a gourd in either hand. Her head is crowned with the head of a bird and a feathered head-dress. In front of her is a pulque god and Pantecal, the father of her 400 children. 

The Myth of the Invention of Pulque

According to the Aztec myth, the god Quezalcoatl decided to provide humans with a special drink to celebrate and feast and gave them pulque. He sent Mayahuel, goddess of maguey, to the earth and then coupled with her. To avoid the rage of her grandmother and her other ferocious relatives the goddesses Tzitzimime, Quetzalcoatl and Mayahuel transformed themselves into a tree, but they were found out and Mayahuel was killed. Quetzalcoatl collected the bones of the goddess and buried them, and in that place grew the first plant of maguey. For this reason, it was thought that the sweet sap, the aguamiel, collected from the plant was the blood of the goddess.

A different version of the myth tells that Mayahuel was a mortal woman who discovered how to collect aquamiel (the liquid), and her husband Pantecalt discovered how to make pulque.

Sources