Historical Cultural and Religious References to Alcohol in Ancient Maya Civilization

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Chocolate Meso American Aphrodisiac (Image Source)

One of the most developed and fascinating civilizations of its day was without a doubt the ancient Mayan civilization (2000 BC–900 AD).[1] Even before the Spanish conquistadores introduced them to wine or grapes, the Mayas had a strong alcohol culture. The most significant of his divine companions was the God Acan, who was essentially in charge of alcohol, drinking, and intoxication.

The fact that the ancient Mayas knew over one hundred Gods also suggests that their preferred beverage, balche, was very important to them. Although critics may point out that Mayas, like many Native American populations, are prone to drinking, their rich culture and outstanding accomplishments demonstrate that they were most certainly not a useless group of inebriated people.

Ancient Mayas

Large portions of modern Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, as well as Guatemala (the nation of the famous saint San Simon), Belize, and other nearby countries, were home to the majority of the Mayan people. The earliest artifacts from their prehistoric era date to before 2000 BC. The Mayan civilisation flourished as one of the most evolved civilizations in the world for many centuries before collapsing and disintegrating in the ninth century AD.

Religion played a significant role in Mayan society, as it did in many other civilizations, but unlike the ancient Greeks or Romans, who believed they could communicate directly with the spirits through intoxication, the Mayans did not. In order to comprehend why things like illness, poor harvests, conflict outcomes, and weather phenomena occurred, they essentially got drunk or high.

The popular intoxications 

The Mayans had a wide variety of intoxicants at their disposal to become closer to their gods, some of which are still widely used today. They used peyote, magic mushrooms, morning glory seeds, and tobacco to get high during official ceremonies. Of course, there was also alcohol, which was also consumed in huge amounts. The most well-liked beverage was a fermented concoction called balche, which contained honey and balche tree bark.

Although no one had ever heard of wine in that region before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in Central America in the 16th century, the Mayas were very skilled beekeepers. In March 1501, Rodrigo de Bastidas sailed down the coast of Darién to assert Spain’s claim to the isthmus.[2]

On the lowlands, they kept their stingless bees in wooden hives and hollowed-out logs. They made balche with the majority of the honey they collected, which they devoured and presented to the Gods during ceremonies and feasts. Many participants in these rituals went much beyond the point of inebriation. It was customary for those who puked to spend the rest of the evening wearing sacks containing their own poop around their necks.

After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores

The Mayan ceremonies persisted even after the European conquistadors arrived though not very appealing to strict European Catholics. Upon seeing the Mayas, the Catholic bishop Diego de Landa noted that the Indians used alcohol and drugs in enormous quantities, which led to numerous evils, including murders.[3] They created wine using honey, water, and a certain tree root that they had grown just for the purpose. The wine had an overpowering flavour and an unpleasant smell. 

Another creation of the Spanish invaders was the moniker for Acan, one of the most well-liked Mayan deities. The “Mayan Bacchus” was the new name given to the god of alcohol, alcoholism, and drunkenness. Nevertheless, the meaning of his real name, Acan, which is either “burp” or “groan,” is even better. These names are rather appropriate for the God of Intoxication.[4] The Maya thought that intoxication and creativity went hand in hand, and Cacoch, the God of Creation, was his best buddy.

Pulque and its Mythology

In ancient Mesoamerica, the Maya, Aztecs, Huastecs, and other tribes initially drank pulque, an alcoholic beverage. It is created from the fermented juice or sap of the maguey plant, much like beer (Agave americana). It was known as octli to the Aztecs and chih to the Maya in the language of Nahuatl.

The beverage was mentioned in several tales of Mesoamerican mythology and had its own personified goddess. Served in greater quantities at significant religious festivals and celebrations like weddings, fertility rites (especially those involving the Aztec god of Summer Xochipilli), and agricultural ceremonies, it was consumed moderately throughout the region on a regular basis.

The maguey plant, which was significant for both pulque and as a source of fibres for weaving, had its own personified deity, known to the Post-classic Mixtecs as 11 Serpent. The goddess, known as Mayahuel in central Mexico, was typically portrayed as a stunning young lady. She was regarded as a symbol of fertility and was referred to as “the woman of 400 breasts,” probably in allusion to the plant’s milk-like secretion. Another way that Pulque was represented as a goddess was as 2 Flower. Moreover, the beverage had a strong connection to the god 3 Alligator.

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Ancient Mayas Drinking Alcohol (Image Source)

Hence, the usage of pulque dates back to mythological origins, and its invention was unavoidably the subject of a myth. One day, while studying humanity, the great god Quetzalcoatl saw that instead of dancing and singing at the end of the workday, people appeared to be somewhat depressed. Quetzalcoatl made the decision to give them something upbeat in order to make their lives more enjoyable. When Quetzalcoatl fell in love with the stunning goddess Mayahuel, he whisked her away to Mesoamerica, where they cuddled and transformed into a tree with two branches.

Now, Mayahuel’s grandmother was not happy with this change of events, so she attacked the tree and split it in half while being supported by a group of other demons (tzitzimime). The horrible monsters then tore Mayahuel to pieces and devoured him. Quetzalcoatl, who was devastated, gathered the fragments of his sweetheart and carefully buried them. These ruins eventually developed into the first maguey plant, which people then used to produce pulque. Quetzalcoatl’s desire that humans would gain from a beverage that raised their level of happiness eventually came true.

Art and Alcohol 

The famous city of Teotihuacan, which reached its apex between 300 and 550 CE, is where the earliest representations of pulque appear in Mesoamerican art. Stone relief carvings in this location depict masked people with milky droplets dripping from their mouths; the background of one mask is made up of maguey leaves. 

Also read: Vitis Vinifera And Rome: How Wine Helped Forge a Civilization

This Day in Wine History

March 1501: In this month, When Rodrigo de Bastidas sailed down the coast of Darién to assert Spain’s claim to the isthmus, no resolution was reached. The following year, Christopher Columbus, on his fourth expedition, travelled from the Bay of Honduras to Panama along the Caribbean coast, gathering a great deal of knowledge and some gold but once more he did not establish any settlements.

12th November 1524: On this day, bishop Diego de Landa Calderón was born. As a Spanish Franciscan bishop, Diego de Landa Calderón served the Yucatán Roman Catholic Archdiocese. His battle against idolatry is criticized by many historians. He specifically destroyed almost all of the Maya codices, which would have been essential for understanding Maya script, learning about the Maya religion and civilisation, and learning about the continent’s history.

Want To Read More? Try These Books!

Mesoamerican Mythology- A Captivating Guide to Maya Mythology, Aztec Mythology, Inca Mythology, and Central American Myths (World Mythologies) Mayan Civilization- The True And Surprising History and Mystery of the Mayan Calendar, Ruins, Religion & Gods (History Books)

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: August 30, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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