The Rescue of the Nectar
of the Gods
By Jessica Chilián
Photography & Cinema by Roberto Ruizgomar
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Pulque is the drink obtained from the maguey leaves, when the plant is mature. To do this, the bud or heart is removed and its walls are scraped until a cavity is obtained from which, days later, the mead will sprout from the leaves for a period of three to six months. The tlachiquero (person who extracts the mead from the magueys with the acocote) is in charge of extracting the liquid by means of suction with an acocote (gourd or elongated gourd that is up to a meter long; it is drilled at both ends and, once the pulp and seeds have been emptied, it is left to dry to become the container that serves to suck agave nectar), two or three times a day, and depositing it in a jug or pellejo (pulque leather), or in a chestnut, previously made of wood and in the fiberglass present, then emptied into the tinacal, where it is fermented and is ready to drink alone or combined with fruit pulp and sweetened with honey, the famous “cured”.
Pulque is slow food (a concept that refers to the pleasure of eating slowly, valuing the quality of natural products), par excellence in Mexico, its value lies in its fermentation process of freshly harvested sweet mead (agave nectar) in a complex and sparkling drink that offers joy to those who consume it.
It is believed that the origin of pulque occurs within the territory of Mesoamerica, which was composed of the ancestors of the Mexica and other ancient peoples of the Anahuac region, its main link was their language, Nahuatl or Nahuat, in addition to great similarities in their religion and worldview, these pre-Hispanic peoples were Texcoco, Tlaxcala, Chalco, Cholula, Azcapotzalco, Acolhuacan and the Mexicas among others, the latter stand out for the founding of Tenochtitlan and their influence on other peoples of the region and with the states of Morelos, Michoacán and Hidalgo.
His worldview includes stories, myths and legends around pulque, this intoxicating drink that was highly appreciated in pre-Hispanic times, dedicated to the gods and their representatives on earth, mainly to priests and warriors. Throughout the Mexican territory, legends are known about this elixir, depending on the areas where you are.
The Aztecs said that Princess Xochitl used to walk through the countryside one day, she was a friend of animals and enjoyed nature a lot, she played with deer, rabbits and opossums, but one day, she discovered that among the magueys there were many badgers gathered, crowded on they scratched and scraped the root of the plant from a hole from which a whitish liquid came out, which they drank incessantly, “the mead”, and then they came out very excited. Curious Xochitl approached and took a little of this liquid and she loved it! so that she rushed to bring a clay pot and collected some of the juice that came out of the maguey to take it as a gift to her father Papantzin, who expressed the wonders of the drink.
Over the days Papantzin noticed that that juice changed color, texture, smell and of course the flavor, it had fermented a little and when tasting it, he felt even more joyful, the man’s experience was so placid that he decided to offer it to his King Tepalcatzin, in the company of his wife and daughter Xochitl.
This episode of our Aztec ancestors has been captured by José María Obregón in the painting “El descubrimiento del pulque” (1869) that portrays this mythical passage that took place in the splendor of Tula – Tolteca (the current state of Hidalgo) around the AD 900.
The monarch liked the gift so much that he asked Papantzin that his daughter would stay to teach the women of the palace how to prepare such a unique drink. When Xochitl was in the palace the king expressed his desire to make her his wife and they did, from this union a son was born who was baptized with the name of Meconantin, which means “the son of the maguey”, the christening party was full of great delicacies and as the main drink was the mead that Xochitl prepared, which they called “pulque”.
The Mixtecs believed that Mayahuel, the Goddess of Maguey (whom they represented as a blue woman who looks out from an agave stalk) lived in the heavens under the custody of her grandmother Tzitzimitl (a celestial demon who sought to prevent dawn) who he jealously cared for the girl and prevented her from leaving without his permission, risking his life if he disobeyed her.
One day, the gods of the Mexica pantheon felt sorry for the men, because they had water and food, but nothing to cheer their hearts, so they discussed what they could give the man to make him happier and it was Quetzalcoatl who remembered Mayahuel, who in addition to her beauty, she was the possessor of a magical plant that would surely offer joy to men; Upon hearing this, the gods entrusted Quetzalcoatl to convince the young woman to give the man a gift.
Then Quetzalcoatl, in the form of Ehecatl (wind), traveled to where Mayahuel lived and convinced her to go down to earth with him to share his magic plant with men, although the risk was high (since he would have to face the fury of his grandmother and of the powerful and vengeful tzitzimime), the maiden fled to earth. But, on the way they both fell in love and vowed eternal love, upon reaching the earthly world, the lovers transformed into a tree with two branches Quetzalhuexotl (the root of Ehecatl) and Xochicuahuitl (the root of Mayahuel), but the love end because when the grandmother noticed his absence, she sent the tzitzimime to look for the couple and kill Mayahuel.
When the old woman Tzitzimitl recognized her granddaughter inside the tree, she took her, broke her into pieces and gave her to the tzitzimime so that they would devour her little by little with their great jaws. Quetzalcoatl was devastated by the death of his beloved, so he gathered the bones and buried them in the earth where a short time later the “metl” (maguey) grew “octli ” (pulque) that awakens the delight of men.
But, there are not only stories about the creation of pulque but also around it, such as the legend of the Centzon Totochtin or “four hundred rabbits” deities related to drunkenness, guardian gods of this drink.
From Mayahuel were born the 400 rabbits that she feeds with her 400 breasts, a symbol of fertility, each one represents the level of fermentation of pulque and a different state of intoxication.
The Centzon Totochtin symbolize the different personalities that a drunk can take: from joy to euphoria, through aggressiveness or sleepiness, to sadness or crying. The pre-Hispanic inhabitants believed that each individual contained the personality of one of these gods, which came out when they got drunk with pulque, they were possessed and guided during alcoholization.
Another myth is that of the lunar phases, since the association of the moon with the pulque gods is very strong. The rabbit is the lunar animal par excellence since it was thrown by Papaztac (one of the gods of pulque). History tells us that the moon is the pot, the eager rabbit, extracts the mead to fill the pot with the bright pulque, forming thus the crescent moon and the full moon. But, the opossum likes to annoy the rabbit and for that he drinks the soft elixir and like an ingenious thief he pierces the pot causing the waning and new phases.
David Daniel Álvarez, in his book “Noche antigua”, does a careful job of compiling various narratives and myths of ancient Mexico, including that of the rabbit and the opossum.
A very similar myth is the one that says that every time man looks at the sky and observes the Moon, he asks himself: what will its consistency be? What is the Moon made of? Why does it change shape every night? Mesoamericans thought that it was a great pot of pulque and as the days passed, it poured its liquid over the earth, fertilizing it, exerting great influence on plants, tides and the earth itself. That is why they closely followed the lunar phases, to know the exact moment to obtain the mead; this knowledge is carried out to this day because the moon is considered for the cultivation and production of pulque and other crops.
Despite the fact that pulque was considered worthy of the gods and was the main drink in religious and political festivals, the determination that the restriction of its consumption to the nobility implies is a myth. However, the moral and legal codes on drunkenness were rigid and punished with stoning anyone who did not respect them, especially if they developed an addiction.
There are modern studies that describe that its first consumption dates from the 4th century b.C. in the Tehuantepec Valley or in the Apan Valley, where scrapers were discovered in the archaeological zone of Huapalcalco, Hidalgo. Some pre-Hispanic instruments for medical use have been found with traces of pulque in Xochipala, Guerrero, and have been dated between 1,200 to 900 b.C. However, during La Colonia the exploitation of the maguey flourished for the production of pulque, especially in the states that now make up Hidalgo, Puebla, Tlaxcala and the State of Mexico. During Porfiriato there was a great boom in pulque production and the shops were part of the urban landscape of the Mexican capital; It became linked to the national cultural identity, but with the triumph of the Mexican Revolution and the disappearance of many haciendas, its decline came and pulque was affected due to its perishable character in contrast to the tequila that gained strength.
As the years passed, it lost followers and boom, even false myths arose around it that discredited it and it was considered an unhygienic drink (it was claimed that to achieve better fermentation, excrement was thrown into a sock) but pulque is known to offer benefits for health helps with gastrointestinal disorders, loss of appetite, weakness and certain kidney ailments. It is recommended to women who breastfeed to increase the secretion of milk and improve its quality; There is even the saying “It only takes one degree to be meat.” The truth is, it is not absolute, it is about taste and joy, personally the one who writes prefers mead and pulque only without flavor, it is a traditional drink that you must try to make your own judgment.