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Mexicolore contributor Catherine R. DiCesare

Dangers of the ‘fifth cup’: the Aztec approach to alcohol

We are hugely grateful to Dr. Catherine R. DiCesare, Associate Professor and Area Coordinator of Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Colorado State University, for this highly informative and illuminating article, written specially for Mexicolore, on the Mexica (Aztec) approach to the drinking of alcohol. The whole subject was steeped in rules, customs - and warnings of the dangers of excess consumption...

Pic 1: Tezcatzoncatl, an Aztec Pulque God, Florentine Codex Book 1, chapter 22
Pic 1: Tezcatzoncatl, an Aztec Pulque God, Florentine Codex Book 1, chapter 22 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs of central Mexico appear to have been a fairly abstemious lot, issuing stern rules about who could drink the alcoholic beverage known as pulque, how much, and under what circumstances. Pulque, known to the Nahua as octli, was a drink made from the fermented juice of the maguey, or agave, plant. Those who did drink were warned to take only four cups of pulque; drinking a fifth cup, it was believed, would surely result in drunkenness and all manner of bad behavior. Warnings about the perils of drunkenness were rooted in Aztec philosophies about the importance of maintaining a balanced life. The Aztecs had deep concerns about the imbalance, personal danger, and even devastation that could result from drinking too much alcohol.

Pic 2: Quetzalcoatl, Florentine Codex Book 3, chapter 14
Pic 2: Quetzalcoatl, Florentine Codex Book 3, chapter 14 (Click on image to enlarge)

Indeed, colonial Mexican chronicles are filled with cautionary tales about the negative consequences of drinking the “fifth cup” for the individual and the community alike. Even rulers were not immune from the ill effects of overindulgence. For example, the priest-king Quetzalcoatl, ruler of the fabled Toltecs of Tula, was tricked into getting drunk on pulque. According to one story, recounted in the sixteenth-century chronicles of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, a drunken Quetzalcoatl passed out in the middle of the road, as seen here in picture 2. In another version of that story, told in the Mexican chronicle known as the Annals of Cuauhtitlan, after taking the fifth cup of pulque, Quetzalcoatl engaged in behavior that was so shameful that he abandoned his city and his people, wandered off to the sea, and set himself on fire, to be reborn in the sky as the morning star. The Huastec people of the Gulf coast were said to be among the worst offenders, known not only for excessive drinking but also outrageous sexual exploits. The story recounting the invention of pulque describes how the Huastecs’ ruler was among a group invited to sample the new drink; after taking the fifth cup and drinking the pulque to the point of drunkenness, the Huastec leader threw off his clothing and exposed himself in public, for which shame he and his people were expelled.

Pic 3: Drunkard born on 2 Rabbit, Florentine Codex Book 4, chapters 4-5
Pic 3: Drunkard born on 2 Rabbit, Florentine Codex Book 4, chapters 4-5 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs believed that some unfortunate people, those who were born on the day known as “2 Rabbit,” or Ometochtli in Nahuatl, were fated to live a life of uncontrollable drunkenness. According to Sahagún’s informants, the one born on the day 2 Rabbit was destined to become a great drunkard “who required, lusted for, and used wine like a pig,” gorging himself from the time he woke, never sobering up and not even taking time to eat meals. Drunkards were liable to wallow in filth and excrement, wandering around dirty and disheveled with their hair “tangled, uncombed, twisted, and matted,” as depicted in the accompanying illustration, seen here in picture 3, of a drunken man with wild hair. He has gone awry and does not seem to realize he has actually fallen into the water. Such people might become a nuisance, “chattering, jabbering, gibbering, and mumbling” away, as this man appears to do; his mouth hangs open, and an indigenous speech scroll in front of his mouth indicates that he is talking. He was destined for a sad, filthy life. The drunkard thought of nothing but drinking and would drink anything, even the dregs that were “like spoiled clots” or full of dirt or gnats, “full of filth and rubbish.” His hands would shake and his words would be vile, imprudent, and intemperate. The drunk would be reviled, detested, and hated by all he met. The lives of his family could be ruined, too; he was prone to threatening and terrifying his children and to engaging in adultery, “scaling walls to tempt and seduce” women.

Pic 4: Drunkard born on 2 Rabbit falls off a cliff, Florentine Codex Book 4, chapters 4-5
Pic 4: Drunkard born on 2 Rabbit falls off a cliff, Florentine Codex Book 4, chapters 4-5 (Click on image to enlarge)

There was also the very real risk of physical - even deadly - harm, since the excessive drinker might end up collapsing or passing out somewhere alone or sleeping in the streets, leaving him vulnerable to robbery or murder. The wandering drunk might fall down on his face, skin his knees, or break his hand or foot. Worse, he might even fall over a cliff or into a chasm, as in this image (picture 4) of an unfortunate soul with a broken, bloody head who has fallen from a cliff; he tumbles down the mountainside, blood streaming from his head.

Pic 5: Youths executed for drunkenness, Codex Mendoza, folio 71r
Pic 5: Youths executed for drunkenness, Codex Mendoza, folio 71r (Click on image to enlarge)

Some accounts suggest that the penalties for drinking too much could be quite severe. A mythical story recorded in the sixteenth-century Mexican history known as the Legend of the Suns describes how the group known as the Mimixcoa got completely drunk on pulque and failed to carry out their duties. In this state, rather than following orders to bring the Sun a drink, the Mimixcoa lolled around in a drunken stupor, feathering themselves and having sex with women, for which transgressions the Sun ordered them to be executed. That penalty of execution may have been borne out in daily life. The Dominican friar Diego Durán writes about the “severe prohibitions and penalties” that had existed “under the old law,” and an image in the sixteenth-century illustrated chronicle of Mexican life known as the Codex Mendoza (picture 5) depicts several dead figures with bowls of pulque next to their mouths, their lifeless bodies accompanied by glosses explaining that drunkenness could be punished by death.

Pic 6: Old woman drinking pulque, Codex Mendoza, folio 71r
Pic 6: Old woman drinking pulque, Codex Mendoza, folio 71r (Click on image to enlarge)

But while these early accounts suggest that there were strict rules about drinking pulque, there were nevertheless plenty of circumstances in which people could and did drink freely, even to excess, both in the course of daily life and in ritual circumstances. Nobles were allowed to drink, as were the priests. The elderly, specifically those who had reached the age of 70 and had raised families, could drink as much as they liked, with provisions made to keep them safe and protect them from danger. For example, the Codex Mendoza explains that the old woman in picture 6, who is seated in front of a large vessel filled to the brim with pulque and drinking pulque from a bowl, was allowed to drink to the point of intoxication. She is attended by children responsible for looking after the drunken grandparents. Durán explains that the children were charged with delivering the elderly home safely, keeping the intoxicated grandparents covered up, and “restraining and guiding” them so they would not get into any trouble by “committing excesses and transgressions,” fall “into a river or a hole,” or end up in a “mortal accident” of the kind the drunkard, above, had suffered in falling into the chasm.

Pic 7: Aztec pulque ritual, Codex Magliabechiano, folio 85r
Pic 7: Aztec pulque ritual, Codex Magliabechiano, folio 85r (Click on image to enlarge)

What is more, many recurring Aztec ceremonial rituals involved drinking pulque as a routine and even prescribed part of events. While habitual, uncontrolled drunkenness could be detrimental to one’s health and well-being over the long term, the powerful effects of alcohol within prescribed ritual contexts were revered by the Aztecs, and they viewed it as a means to access sacred realms and entities. Indeed, pulque was one of a number of substances ritually ingested across Mesoamerica in order to bring on altered states of consciousness, to access other realms, or to induce visions of the divine. Durán reports that among the Aztecs pulque was not only given to the gods as a special offering, it was itself “a god to be revered …[,] a divine thing, considering its effects and power to intoxicate.” The illustration of a pulque ceremony from the sixteenth-century Codex Magliabechiano (picture 7), for example, depicts a sacred gathering of drinkers whose activities invoked the pulque god who appears in their midst, who is identifiable from his accoutrements and drinks pulque through a long straw.

Pic 8: Codex Borbonicus, Quecholli scene: detail of pulque festival, page 33
Pic 8: Codex Borbonicus, Quecholli scene: detail of pulque festival, page 33 (Click on image to enlarge)

Pulque was an important part of several ceremonial periods that took place during the Aztec solar year, the 365-day calendar known as the xiuhpohualli. During the month of Panquetzaliztli, which celebrated the birth of the supreme Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, virtually everyone was given access to pulque. The Codex Borbonicus (picture 8) depicts an elaborate pulque festival that took place during the annual ceremony known as Quecholli, held in honor of the god Mixcoatl, whose image is seen here atop his temple pyramid. Dancers circumambulate the temple, in front of which is a large vat of pulque. Celebrants include women holding baskets of tamales, loincloth-clad men bearing spitted rabbits, and a figure holding a vessel filled with pulque. They dance to the beat of the seated drummer seen in the lower-right corner of the image.

Pic 9: Annual Aztec ceremony of Hueypachtli, “Pilahuana” ceremony, Codex Magliabechiano, folio 41r
Pic 9: Annual Aztec ceremony of Hueypachtli, “Pilahuana” ceremony, Codex Magliabechiano, folio 41r (Click on image to enlarge)

Several monthly ceremonies appear to have involved particular social groups. For example, the festival of Tecuilhuitontli, which fell in July, was a special time for celebrating the salt merchants, who engaged in extensive drinking. Elderly men and women as well as “the salt people, the salt makers, the salt preparers, ... the salt merchants, the salt traffickers, the people of the salt marshes” freely drank pulque, to the point of wallowing around in drunkenness and exhaustion. Children were given pulque during certain periods, including the month known as Hueypachtli, when boys and girls aged 9 or 10 drank pulque in a rite called Pilahuana, “drunkenness of the children” (picture 9). Children were also given pulque during the summertime festival of Tozoztontli, and in the ceremonial period known as Izcalli, the children received their pulque in extra-small-sized vessels, tiny pots that had been specially made for the young drinkers.

Pic 10: The day 2 Rabbit, Florentine Codex Book 4, chapters 4-5
Pic 10: The day 2 Rabbit, Florentine Codex Book 4, chapters 4-5 (Click on image to enlarge)

Interestingly, the day 2 Rabbit was among the ritual times most closely associated with drinking pulque. We have already seen that the Aztecs believed that those born on that day were fated to a life of excessive drinking, but 2 Rabbit was also a special day set aside for venerating the pulque gods, “all the gods of wine, who were many,” and drinking lots of pulque. Ceremonial drinking rites that took place on that day were coordinated and sponsored by the wine merchants. One account by Sahagún describes the chief priest of “Ometochtzin,” or 2 Rabbit, bringing together a group of other pulque priests and organizing a kind of game in which 260 reed tubes were put into the sacred pulque vessel. The participants all shoved and pushed each other in an effort to find the one reed in the bunch of 260 that was actually hollow, and only the one who eventually discovered the hollow straw was allowed to drink freely from the pulque vessel.

Pic 11: Drinking rituals and the “2-Rabbit Basin,” Florentine Codex Book 4, chapters 4-5
Pic 11: Drinking rituals and the “2-Rabbit Basin,” Florentine Codex Book 4, chapters 4-5 (Click on image to enlarge)

According to another account from Sahagún, when the day 2 Rabbit fell, priests of the various pulque gods came together in a lavish celebration. They set up and adorned an image of a pulque deity known as Izquitecatl. Celebrants brought him offerings of gifts and laid out food, and sang and played musical instruments in celebration. In the courtyard of his temple they placed a large stone pulque container that was called the “2-rabbit basin.” This is illustrated in the image accompanying Sahagún’s passages as a wide-mouthed vessel adorned with the image of a rabbit (picture 11). The wine sellers filled the basin full, to the brim, until it was overflowing with pulque. The drinkers dipped long, hollow reed tubes into the pulque and anyone who wished was allowed to drink. The day continued on in this way, and for the rest of the ceremony the wine merchants and wine makers made sure to keep feeding the large jar so that it always remained full.

Pic 12: Women drinking pulque, Codex Tudela p.70
Pic 12: Women drinking pulque, Codex Tudela p.70 (Click on image to enlarge)

In conclusion, while cautionary tales speak to the anxieties that the Aztecs expressed about the potentially dangerous and even devastating effects of drinking too much alcohol, there were many circumstances in which the Aztecs could drink alcohol and engage in drunken revelry without fear of punishment. Indeed, it seems that the pulque itself was held as something essentially sacred, not only as a special offering to the gods but also in recognition of its powers to open one up to other realms. What appear to us to be ambivalent and even paradoxical attitudes toward drinking might be better understood in Aztec terms as a deep reverence and respect for the power of alcohol to make one vulnerable, to induce altered states of consciousness, and to manifest the realm of the divine.

Pic 13: Maguey agave growing near Xochimilco today
Pic 13: Maguey agave growing near Xochimilco today (Click on image to enlarge)

References and further reading:-
• Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. “Rabbits, Pulque, and Drunkenness: A Study of Ambivalence in Aztec Society.” In Current Topics in Aztec Studies: Essays in Honor of Dr. H.B. Nicholson, edited by Alana Cordy-Collins and Douglas Sharon, 17-38. San Diego: San Diego Museum Papers, 1993
• Boone, Elizabeth Hill Boone. The Codex Magliabechiano and the Lost Prototype of the Magliabechiano Group and facsimile edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983
Códice borbónico (Codex Borbonicus). Edited by Ferdinand Anders; Maarten E. R. G. N Jansen, and Luis Reyes García. Graz, Austria : Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt ; México : Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1991
• Cordova, James. “Drinking the Fifth Cup: Notes on the Drunken Indian Image in Colonial Mexico.” Word & Image, 31:1 (2015): 1-18
• Durán, Fr. Diego. The Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar. Translated by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971
The Essential Codex Mendoza. Translated and edited by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Anawalt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992
• Henderson, Lucia. “Blood, Water, Vomit, and Wine: Pulque in Maya and Aztec Belief.” Mesoamerican Voices 2 (2008): 53-76
• Nicholson, H.B. “The Octli Cult in Late Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico.” In To Change Place: Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes. Edited by Davíd Carrasco, 158-87. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1991
• Sahagún, Fr. Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (Book 2 and Book 4). Translated and edited by Arthur Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950-1982
• Sahagún, Fr. Bernardino de. Primeros Memoriales: Paleography of Nahuatl Text and English Translation, Translated by Thelma D. Sullivan, and edited by H. B. Nicholson, Arthur J. O. Anderson, Charles E. Dibble, Eloise Quiñones Keber, and Wayne Ruwet. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Image sources:-
• All images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• All images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, Waterlow, 1938
• All images from the Codex Magliabechiano scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA 1970 facsimile edition, Graz, Austria
• Image from the Codex Borbonicus scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Image from the Codex Tudela scanned from our own copy of the Colección Thesaurus Americae 2002 facsimile edition, Madrid
• Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 31st 2018

emoticon Q. What did prohibitionist Aztec campaigners use to chant on street demos?
A. ‘Maguey, maguey, maguey, out, out, out!’
(Sorry, only UK readers of a certain age and political persuasion will get this...!)

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