Not overly strong alcoholic beverages were certainly a part of pre-contact Mesoamerica and had their undeniable presence in people’s lives. In Central Mexico it was a fermented sap of agave/maguey plant that provided local populations with a slightly bitter-tasting and not overly strong, milky beverage called pulque (or octli – its original name).
There seemed to be no special rules or regulations concerning consumption of octli/pulque throughout the countryside, in villages and provincial towns. However, in Tenochtitlan and other prominent altepetls/city-states to consume such a drink freely, in public and with no special official occasion could have had severe repercussions. In fact, public appearance in an obviously intoxicated state could cost one a heavy fine, a humiliation resulting in a publicly shaved head and more, unless one was old or sick. Elders were permitted to get drunk as much as they wanted, publicly or otherwise (according mostly to Codex Mendoza). And of course, on certain official state celebrations pulque, being a part of some rituals, could flow like rivers.
In addition to its intoxicating qualities when let to ferment, maguey sap had rich nutritional value, with vitamins B and C, protein and more present there aplenty. Along with the main ingredient of the corn diet it was an important dietary supplement for the dwellers of the Central Mexico countryside, often used as a medicine against diarrhea and other stomach ailments as well.
All in all, the meaty maguey leafs offered food, clothing and working material, shredded for thread and fiber woven into ropes, sandals and blankets, their sharp tips serving as needles. Huge maguey fields were cultivated lovingly all over Central Mexico, helping some of the especially terraced soil against the erosion. The intoxicating qualities of its sap when let to ferment were not at the top list priorities, but of course they were welcomed quite gladly. Reports of the vastness of maguey fields and the heave taxation imposed on those documented at the time of the conquest indicate an extensive export of pulque to the major cities of the Triple Alliance rather than the rest of the maguey products made for local consumption. Codex Mendoza records more than half twenty towns producing “maguey syrup” to be sent to Tenochtitlan as its main tribute contribution.
It took to one maguey plant up to ten years to mature (more so in the higher altitudes of Central Mexico highlands), but then it would be producing generous amounts of sap, close to a hundred gallons in just a few months. The collectors working on extracting the juice would cut central leaves and pierce the heard of the plant with sharp knife, scrap the bowl around the hole to collect the accumulating juice then gather it by sucking through the long gourd devices with a hole at each end. Twice a day the process was repeated, the juice taken to large vats made from animal skins or wood, and left in those to ferment for a few days. This way a frothy brew of about 4% alcohol was achieved, to which various roots and herbs could be added to strengthen its intoxicating qualities or to preserve the beverage itself (cuapatle or ocpatli/Prairie acacia‘s bark, for one, was mentioned in the early post-conquest sources as the pre-hispanic medicine or cure to cause fermentation in pulque; even though another source claim that this bark was rather “giving strength” to the beverage instead of causing fermentation).
Of course there was a rich thousands-old-years ancient lore surrounding such a popular national beverage. According to various versions of the legend, octli/pulque has been given to people by celestial deities, to use cautiously and with great care.
In one version, Quetzalcoatl, who once observed the fact that people were not singing and dancing after coming back from the fields in the evenings, thought they might be cheered up by an intoxicating drink to lighten their evenings. On his wanderings through the worlds that are not ours, he meets a lovely female deity Mayahuel, with whom he falls in love and persuades her to run away with him. They do so, joining together by turning into a tree with two trunks in order to conceal themselves from her celestial but jealous grandmother, who finds them shortly thereafter all the same, accompanied by terrible tzitzimime – very powerful and destructive celestial beings/stars. They find the tree and tear it apart, destroying the side that had hidden Mayahuel piece by piece. Saddened, Quetzalcoatl buries the remnants of his beloved in the ground, from where maguey plants spring up soon. And so Mayahuel becomes a greatly revered deity connected with fertility in its different guises, and, more directly, with production of pulque/octli.
In some codices she appears as a mother earth with four hundred breasts bursting with milk and a headdress that links her with the worship of Tlaloc. Her ready-to-breastfeed four hundred breasts might be referring to many sprouts and leaves of the maguey plant and the milky juice those produce. In other codices she is depicted more distinctly as a young woman, still with multiple breasts, emerging from a maguey plant and holding gourd cups with foaming beverage, wearing a blue cloth which is the color of fertility and a headdress of spindles and un-span maguey fiber.
All legends agree that her children were notoriously known Centzon Totochtli – Four Hundred Divine Rabbits, the deities of pulque and drunkenness, representing infinite degrees of intoxication one can attain when consuming alcohol with no moderation. Not all of those four hundred partying bunnies had names or particular responsibilities. The most known ones are Ometochtli, Tepoztecatl and Tezcatzontecatl, sometimes thought to be not separate three but one deity going under different names.
All Centzon Totochtli – “centzontli” means “400” in Nahuatl, and “totochtli” are rabbits in plural (tochtli=rabbit in a singular form) – are responsible for drunkenness in its different forms as well as fertility, which in some way can associate with irresponsible consumption of alcohol and rabbits as animals as well. Related to the earth deities, festivals in their honor were carried out after each crop season, and if a person died of intoxication his or her relatives were to offer to Centzon Totochtli as well.
According to Sahagun, Tezcatzoncatl (one of the more known rabbits among his 400 divine brothers) “… was one of the chief gods of the native inebriating liquor, the pulque. Its effects were recognized as most disastrous, as is seen from his other names, Tequechmecaniani, “he who hangs people,” and Teatlahuiani, “he who drowns people … they always regarded the pulque as a bad and dangerous article…“
Generally depicted with faces painted in red and black, those deities usually wore yaca-metztli-a crescent shaped nose ornament, special earrings, and a special shield ometoch-chimalli. It was said that the more rabbits were to materialize in the physical realm while a relevant festival was progressing the more severe the intoxication of the party-goers would be.
In some figurines recovered from ceremonial temples and common households, Centzon Totochtli are represented as a rabbit atop of a human warrior, probably to indicate that even the fiercest warrior is vulnerable to the delights of the alcoholic drink. Sahagun reports that “… the Aztecs called pulque centzonttotochtli or “four hundred rabbits,” because of its almost infinite variety of effect on the behavior of those who drunk it…”
Even with a special hymn the drunken bunnies were honored: Hymn to Tezcatzoncatl Totochtin (from collection of “SACRED SONGS OF THE ANCIENT MEXICANS” with a gloss in Nahuatl by Daniel G. Brinton )
Yyaha, yya yya, yya ayya, ayya ouiya, yya yya yye.
Coliuacan mauizpan atlacatl ichana, yya ayya, yyayyo.
Tezcatzonco tecpan teutl, macoc: ye chocaya, auia, macaiui, macayui teutl, macoc yye chocaya.
Auia axalaco, tecpanteutl, macoc yye chocaya, macayui, macayui teutl macoc yye chocaya.
Alas! alas! alas!
In the home of our ancestors this creature was a fearful thing.
In the temple of Tezcatzoncatl he aids those who cry to him, he gives them to drink; the god gives to drink to those who cry to him.
In the temple by the water-reeds the god aids those who call upon him, he gives them to drink; the god aids those who cry unto him.