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The Aztec/Mexica god of pulque wine, Tezcatzoncatl, Florentine Codex Book 1

The origin of ‘pulque’

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Ken Jones: Love your site. I will be referencing it for the article on the gold head ornament worn by the pulque gods. At the same time, I am very much hoping that you can save me some time and trouble. In a science article that I am preparing for publication on the uses of the main Mexican species of Agave of economic and historical importance, I need a reliable source for the origin of “pulque” and all I found have so far is what Wikipedia refers to, which is a Mexican restaurant industry magazine: “The original name of the drink was ‘iztac octli’ (white wine), the term pulque was probably mistakenly derived by the Spanish from ‘octli poliuhqui’ which meant ‘spoiled wine’”. Any help would be most appreciated. Do you know a more authoritative source, even if the origin of pulque remains speculative? Very best regards. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Traditional Mexican ‘tlachiquero’, sucking the sap from the maguey agave: once fermented it will become pulque
Traditional Mexican ‘tlachiquero’, sucking the sap from the maguey agave: once fermented it will become pulque (Click on image to enlarge)

The answer you’ve found is basically right, and is corroborated by several Náhuatl and Spanish dictionaries. One thing most sources agree on - something established by the Jesuit scholar and historian Francisco Javier Clavijero back in the 18th century - is that the word is NOT of Náhuatl origin. No-one disputes the fact that the Mexica called the alcoholic drink made from agave sap octli and that the Spanish called it pulque. There seem to be two general schools of thought on this: one (see for instance Artes de México: Maguey) is that the word derives from a Caribbean language, now lost (this idea has its origins in the writings of Fray Diego Durán, who claimed - without any evidence - that it was one of several words brought from (the Caribbean island of) Hispaniola. The other, more widely supported modern theory - that you found - is that the word is a Spanish corruption of poliuhqui or Náhuatl for spoiled [wine].

A large maguey agave growing today near Xochimilco
A large maguey agave growing today near Xochimilco (Click on image to enlarge)

The scholar responsible for the most detailed study of pulque’s origin is Cecilio A. Robelo (Diccionario de Aztequismos, 1904), in which he devotes six pages to the subject. After debunking both Clavijero’s odd notion that the word was Araucanian (from southern Chile!) and Durán’s that it was Caribbean, he suggests that the Spanish would have heard the Mexica speak constantly of iztac octli (‘white wine’, ie pulque) and also - given that the alcoholic drink only has a ‘shelf’ life of 1-2 days before going off - of octli poliuhqui or spoiled (acidic) pulque. It would be easy to imagine the Spanish dropping the first word and referring to the drink by its ‘spoiled’ past participle octli poliuhqui which they would render as pulque...

So our answer to your question would be: Robelo is the man to quote!

Diccionario de Aztequismos by Cecilio A. Robelo, author’s printing, Cuernavaca, Mexico, 1904
Diccionario del Náhuatl en el Español de México by Carlos Montemayor, UNAM, Mexico, 2008
Artes de México: Maguey, no. 51, Mexico City, 2000
Diccionario de Aztequismos by Luis Cabrera, Ediciones Oasis, Mexico City, 1980
• The Florentine Codex, Book 1, trans/ed by Arthur O.J. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, University of Utah, 1970

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: image of the Mexica pulque god Tezcatzoncatl, Florentine Codex Book 1, scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Mexican tlachiquero farmer, from Appleton’s Guide to Mexico, 1893, scanned with the kind permission of Ruth Forest (private collection)
• Maguey agave: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

“Found! The pulque gods’ ‘golden section’...”

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