The agave, aguamiel and pulque.
- Sahagun expounds upon this (Sahagun, book IV, chapter V. Ed Porrua, I, pp 324. 325). I have included this information at the bottom of this Post.
Plants played a huge role in Aztec culture. Gardens were kept not only for food and medicinal purposes but for pleasure as well. The conquistadors were amazed by the pleasure gardens of Moctezuma (and Tenochtitlan in general) to the point of wondering whether or not they were walking through a dream. The loss of this beauty was lamented by the very same conquistadors who were instrumental in the decimation of the Aztec empire. One plant that played an important role across the whole spectrum of their society (and one could say still does today) is the maguey. Known to the Azteca as “metl” we know this plant today by its name “maguey” or botanically named as “agave”. The agave species of plant is native to México and the southern United States of America. It is in the Asparagaceae family and is not related to either cactuses or the aloe species to which it can bear some resemblance. There are over 300 varieties of this plant although only around 200 are officially recognised. This plant occupied a unique place in Mesoamerican culture. It was used as a food, drink, medicine, fibre for clothing and rope, building material and also played a part in mythology and religious practices.
Mayahuel was the goddess of the agave in both myth and history. In myth Mayahuel was killed by her grandmother for bonding with Quetzalcoatl. It was from her buried bones that the maguey grew (1). Historically speaking Mayahuel was a woman who noticed rabbits drinking the liquid that seeped from a maguey and discovered aguamiel in the process. It was her husband Pantecatl who figured out how to turn this sweet liquid into an alcoholic beverage called “octli” by the Azteca and “pulque” by modern Mexicans.
- Mayahuel lived in the sky with her grandmother who was one of the tzitzimime. She disobeyed her grandmother and descended to the earth after being convinced to do so by Quetzalcoatl. Her grandmother discovered what had happened and sent some of her brethren to fetch her granddaughter. In an attempt to avoid discovery and capture Quetzalcoatl and Mayahuel bonded together to form a tree, each forming half of the tree. The tzitzimime discovered them and in a rage tore Mayahuel to pieces. Quetzalcoatl collected her bones and buried them. It was from these bones that the maguey first grew. (See Post on Xochipilli)
Various incarnations of Tzitzime.
Mayahuel and the moon.
The yacametztli (yacatl – nose : Metztli – moon/crescent) ornament is commonly associated with pulque deities.
This symbol is often shown with a rabbit within it, reinforcing the connection between the moon and rabbits.
Pulque was consecrated to rabbits as a rabbit was integral to the story of the discovery of pulque. The leader of this motley crew was Ome tochtli (Two Rabbit) who was also called Tepoztecatl and drunkenness itself was measured in rabbits with 400 rabbits being the highest level of intoxication (1).
- 15 rabbits makes one good company, the average person is absolutely drunk at about 50 rabbits.
Ometochtli, as the god Two Rabbit, ruled over the centzon totochtin the 400 rabbit gods of drunkenness. Amongst these characters was Pantecatl (1) (he who knew how to mix aguamiel with plant roots – to produce pulque with medicinal or hallucinogenic properties), Cuatlapanqui (the head opener), Papaztac (1) (the nervous one), Macuil totochtli “Five Rabbit” ( associated with excess and hangovers), Techalotl “the Squirrel” ( the god of dance – a maniac on the dance floor), Tezcatzoncatl (3) “Straw Mirror” (essentially the Aztec version of beer goggles), Colhuazincatl (4) (the winged one), Tlilhua (the “owner of the black ink” – a tattooed drunkard?), Acalhua (el dueño de barcas – the boat owner “possessor of canoes”), Teatlahuiani (he who drowns people), Tequechmecauani (the god of hanging), Tomiauhtecutli (Lord of the Maize-Flower) (5) and Atlacoaya (she of the “dark water” or “sad things” (6).
- or Patecatl
- I have also seen it spelled Papaztec
- the drunken state in which you can see as much as when looking in a mirror made of straw.
- also Colhuacatzincatl
- This god was connected with the flowering of the maize, on which occasion, during the month iepeilhuitl, octli was drunk and his festival celebrated.
- usually indicated as a female deity although has been noted as male in some stories.
Some names of the Cenzton Totochtin are derivatives of place names and are related to specific areas. Some of these are……
- Yauhtecatl (1)
- This particular rabbit is interesting as one of the indicators (in codices) of the centzon totochtin is a necklace made of the herb malinalli (the word malinalli means “grass”) called tlachayaual-cozcatl which is identified as Yauhtli (Tagetes lucida)(Seler 1904). Yauhtli is also associated with Atlacoaya, an aquatic deity, who carries a cane with yauhtli.
The rabbit plays an interesting role in Mexican myth. When the Mesoamerican’s looked at the moon they saw a rabbit. How the rabbit got there is a matter of speculation. In one story the rabbit is being honoured by the god Quetzalcoatl for offering his flesh to the god during a time of hunger, in another story, this one the creation myth of the Fifth Sun, the rabbit was used to slap a god in the face to dim his light when he dared to shine as brightly as the new sun created when Nanahuatzin (the Poxy one) immolated himself in a bonfire.
Tecciztecatl wanted the job as the new Sun but his cowardice prevented him from sacrificing himself on the fire. When Nanhuatzin fearlessly offered himself to the fire Tecciztecatl, ashamed of his weakness, threw himself on the fire and also began to shine as brightly as the sun. This caused much danger to the earth as the suns refused to move across the sky. Tecciztecatl was shamed by being smacked in the face with a rabbit thus dimming his light and creating the moon. The Aztec practice of human sacrifice (which was required to keep the sun moving through the sky) is also believed (in one story) to have been initiated by Nanahuatzins sacrifice.
Pulque also plays a role in the story of Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was both man and god in México. One of the legends is of Quetzalcoatl Ce Acatl the Toltec king of Tula (Tollan) who was tricked by Tezcatlipoca into drinking too much pulque (1) and he then had a sexual encounter with his sister. The shame of this encounter resulted in his self-exile from México and the birth of the prophecy where he would return in the year One Reed. This would ultimately result in the downfall of the Aztec empire as it was the year one reed in which the Spanish first arrived, and we all know how that turned out.
- The mythical “fifth cup”. The drinking of four cups of pulque was permitted but by drinking a fifth cup the imbiber fell into a state of intoxication. This loss of control and resultant inappropriate behaviour was frowned upon (to say the least). This relates back to a story of the behaviour of a Huaxtec chief who, at a gathering of chiefs drank more than was appropriate (a fifth cup) and then threw off his breechcloth and behaved like a naked, drunken hoon. As a result of this the Huaxtec (Huasteca) peoples gained a reputation for drunkenness and a close association with pulque. (see below)
I wonder who belongs to this rabbit.
Another legend involving the discovery of pulque involves el tlacuache, the Great Opossum.
El tlacuache (or Lord Tlacuache) has very nimble hands which he used to burrow into the heart of a mature maguey so that he could get to the sweet liquid hidden within. He stored this liquid in a gourd for future use and found that it quickly fermented and discovered pulque as a result. During the ensuing celebrations el tlacuache went on a drinking binge and his intoxicated stumblings, as he meandered from place to place, left trails that were instrumental in creating the winding rivers of Mexico (before his drunken wanderings rivers tended to be straight). El tlacuache also used the pulque in his gourd to lull the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli into a deep slumber so that he could, much like Prometheus, steal fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind. El tlacuache lost the fur from his tail while stealing the fire and when the gods came to punish him they found him already dead, lying on his back, his body stiff and his tail cold. Once they left he of course got up, quite pleased with himself for tricking the gods and carried on about his merry way. Lord Tlacuache is also credited with being the first drunkard (el borracho).
Octli also played a role in the culture of the Maya and there is some suggestion that it may have originated with the Maya. Pulque and its associated pantheon of deities were understood by the Aztecs to have originated in the lands of the Huasteca. The Huastecs were an isolated group of Mayan speakers who lived along the central Gulf coast of Mexico. Seler (1963) has stated that “In Ceuxtlan, the land of the Huaxtecs, the pulque gods had their home” and to the Mexica the Cuaxteca were the “prototypes of excess, of the drunkard”. This goes to show how, in the minds of the Mexica (and the Azteca by default) how closely the Huastecs were associated with pulque.
One method of Maya pulque consumption that the Mexica did not adopt was the use of enemas in drinking ceremonies. The Huastecs and their use of enemas was noted (rather unflatteringly) by Bernal Diaz de Castillo. He mentioned that, in the province of Panuco, “they make an injection by the anus with some reeds and distend the intestines with wine in the same way as among us an enema is applied”. The use of the alcoholic enema appears to have continued uninterrupted from the Classic period Maya through to the conquest era Huastecs (Henderson 2008).
Drinking ceremonies were taken seriously and some of them encouraged the participants to become blind, spastic drunk. During these ceremonies it was forbidden to insult or beat those who were intoxicated as they were considered to be under the protection of the pulque gods.(Hollander 2012)
Alcohol was well known in Aztec society and there were rather harsh rules regarding its consumption as the problems that over consumption of alcohol can have on a society were also very well known. The last statement however could be a reflection of colonial thought regarding the consumption of alcohol and may be representative of a form of cultural racism.
Pulque (or octli) was an alcoholic beverage that carried considerable cultural and ritual importance in Aztec (and Maya) culture. Its use was not considered immoral or sinful. Its association with sin was a construct of the Spanish. There were however concerns over the loss of self control when drinking. This is reflected in the story of the corruption of Ce Acatl with octli that had been infused with mushrooms and intoxicating herbs and another involving the embarrassment of a tribal chieftain who over indulged in “agave wine” at an important meeting. This however did not prevent prehispanic peoples from creating a wide variety of fermented alcoholic drinks.
White pulque (yztac octli or pulque blanco) and aguamiel were considered medicinal (even by the Spanish) but when it was blended with other ingredients it became pulque mezclado (mixed pulque) and engendered a “threat to political stability” (Nemser 2011). It was thought that by mixing pulque with these additives that it fundamentally altered the nature of the liquid, potentially even transubstantiating it into something completely different. The Spanish thought this particularly nefarious as this mixing also symbolised the production of “mixed racial subjectivities through social, cultural and biological mixing”. This was simply another example of the racist and classist attitudes held towards the mestizo or the “mixed classes” of México. The Spaniards held these peoples to be inferior.
The ingredients added to produce a pulque mezclado are somewhat of a mystery. There is no doubt that other herbs and roots were added to either make the pulque more medicinal or to increase its powers of intoxication but exactly what these ingredients were remains a matter of speculation (or a well-guarded secret). Additives may have included chile, fruits or fruit peels, intoxicating fungi, ocpatli, pipiltzintzintli, tlapatl and even inorganic ingredients such as tezontle and mineral lime (cal). In later years pulque was accused of being a filthy product which used animal (or even human) excrement in its manufacturing. This accusation is generally believed to have been started by beer manufacturers to destroy the reputation of pulque and to encourage the consumption of the new imported beverage and is an example of malinchismo.
See previous Posts……
- Pulque as a Cooking Ingredient
- Medicinal Qualities of Pulque
- The Frapulcurado. A Mexican Take on the Frappé
- Malinche (for an expansion of the term malinchismo)
- Baquedano, Elizabeth (editor) (2014)Tezcatlipoca “Trickster and Supreme Deity : UNIVERSITY PRESS OF COLORADO, ISBN: 978-1-60732-287-0
- Kroger, J., & Granziera, P. (2012). Aztec goddesses and Christian Madonnas: Images of the divine feminine in Mexico. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate.
- Seler, Eduard, (1904) Temple Pyramid of Tepoxtlan : Congressional Serial Set : U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904 : Original from Harvard University : Digitized 4 Jun 2008 : (last accessed 11/12/20)
- Spence, L.. (1923) “The gods of Mexico.”
- Spence, Lewis. (1945). The religion of ancient Mexico. London : Watts & Co
2.- A algunos borrachos, por razón del signo en que nacieron el vino no les es perjudicial o contrario; emborrachándose luego cáense dormidos o cabizbajos, asentados y recogidos, ninguna travesura hacen o dicen.
3.- Y otros borrachos comienzan a llorar tristemente y a sollozar; y córrenles las lágrimas por los ojos, como arroyos de agua; y otros borrachos luego comienzan a cantar y no quieren parlar ni oír cosas de burlas, más solamente reciben consolación en cantar.
4.- Y otros borrachos no cantan, sino luego comienzan a parlar, y a hablar consigo mismos, o a infamar a otros y decir algunas sinvergüenzas contra otros; y a entonarse y decirse ser uno de los principales, honrados y menosprecian a otros y dicen afrentosas palabras y álzanse, y mueven la cabeza diciendo ser ricos y reprendiendo a otros de pobreza, y estimándose mucho, como soberbios y rebeldes en sus palabras, y hablando recia y ásperamente moviendo las piernas y dando coces; y cuando están en su juicio, son como mudos y temen a todos, y son temerosos, y excúsanse con decir, “estaba borracho” y no sé lo que me dije, estaba tomado del vino.
5.- Y otros borrachos sospechan mal, hacénse sospechosos y mal acondicionados y entienden las cosas el revés y levantan falsos testimonios a sus mujeres, diciendo que son malas mujeres, y luego comienzan a enojarse con cualquiera que hable a su mujer, etc; y si alguno habla, piensa que murmura de él, y si alguno ríe, piensa que se ríe de él, y así riñe con todos sin razón y sin por qué, esto hacen por estar trastornados del vino.
6.- Y si es mujer la que se emborracha, luego se cae sentada en el suelo y recogidas las piernas y algunas veces extiende las piernas en el suelo y si está muy borracha desgreñase los cabellos, y si está toda descabellada y duérmese, revueltos todos los cabellos; etc.
and the translation…
2.- For some drunks, by reason of the sign in which they were born, the wine is not harmful or contrary to them; getting drunk then fall asleep or crestfallen, seated and collected, no mischief they do or say.
3.- And other drunks begin to cry sadly and sob; and tears run down their eyes, like streams of water; and other drunks then begin to sing and do not want to talk or hear mocking things, but they only receive consolation in singing.
4.- And other drunks do not sing, but then begin to talk, and talk to themselves, or to infamous others and say some scoundrels against others; and to be intoned and say to be one of the main ones, honoured and despise others and say shameful words and rise up, and shake their heads saying they are rich and rebuking others of poverty, and esteeming themselves highly, as arrogant and rebellious in their words, and speaking hard and roughly moving legs and kicking; and when they are in their judgment, they are like mute and fear everyone, and they are fearful, and they excuse themselves with saying, “I was drunk” and I don’t know what I said to myself, I was drinking wine.
5.- And other drunks suspect badly, become suspicious and poorly conditioned and understand things the other way around and raise false testimonies to their women, saying that they are bad women, and then they begin to get angry with anyone who talks to their wife, etc; and if anyone speaks, he thinks that he murmurs about him, and if someone laughs, he thinks that he laughs at him, and thus he quarrels with everyone without reason and without why, this they do because they are upset with the wine.
6.- And if it is a woman who gets drunk, then she falls down sitting on the floor with her legs gathered up and sometimes spreads her legs on the floor and if she is very drunk she shakes her hair, and if she is all crazy and falls asleep, scrambled all hair; etc.