The Aztecs and Alcohol

The Aztec Indians were perfectly well acquainted with alcohol--octli (now called pulque), which is obtained by fermenting the sap of the agaves, and which is quite like cider. The importance of octli is proved by the very important role played in religion by the gods of drink and drunkenness, those who were called the Centzon Totochin, the lunar and terrestrial gods of plenty and of the harvest, as well as Mayauel, the goddess of the agave.

But the ancient Mexicans were perfectly well aware of the danger for them and for their civilization that alcoholic intoxication implied. Perhaps no culture in history has ever set up more rigid barriers against this danger. "That drink which is called octli, "said the emperor in his address to the people after his election, "is the root and the origin of all evil and of all perdition; for octli and drunkenness are the cause of all the discords and of all the dissension, of all revolt and of all troubles in cities and in realms. It is like the whirlwind that destroys and tears down everything. It is like a malignant storm that brings all evil with it. Before adultery, rape, debauching of girls, incest, theft, crime, cursing and bearing false witness, murmuring, calumny, riots, and brawling, there is always drunkenness. All those things are caused by octli and by drunkenness."

One has the feeling that the Indians were very clearly aware of the strong natural inclination to alcoholism, and that they were quite determined to work against this evil, and to control themselves, by practicing an extraordinarily severe policy of repression. "Nobody drank wine (octli) excepting only those who were already aged, and they drank a little in secret, without becoming drunk. If a drunk man showed himself in public or if he were caught drinking, or if he were found speechless in the street, or if he wandered about singing or in the company of other drunkards, he was punished, if he were a plebeian, by being beaten to death, or else he was strangled before the young men (of the district) by way of an example and to make them shun drunkenness. If the drunkard were noble, he was strangled in private."

There were ferocious laws against public drunkenness. The statues of Nezaualcoyotl punished the priest taken in drunkenness with death; and death was the punishment for the drunken dignitary, official or ambassador if he were found in the palace: the dignitary who had got drunk without scandal was still punished, but only by the loss of his office and his titles. The drunken plebeian got off the first time with no more than having his head shaved in public, while the crowd jeered at him; but the backslider was punished with death, as the nobles were for their first offense.

Here we have an exceedingly violent case of socially defensive reaction against an equally violent tendency, whose existence has been historically proved, for when the conquest had destroyed the moral and judicial underpinning of Mexican civilization, alcoholism spread among the Indians to an extraordinary degree.

However, even so severe a system as this had to have some kind of safety valve. Octli was not entirely prohibited. Old men and women were allowed to drink, particularly on certain holidays, and it was even conceded that they might get drunk. For example, when the "baptism" or rather naming-giving of a child was celebrated," at night the old men and old women gathered to drink pulque and to get drunk. In order that they should get drunk, a large jar of pulque was put before them, and the person who served it poured the drink into calabashes (squash) and gave each one a drink in turn…And the server, when he saw that the guest were not yet drunk, began serving them again in the reverse order, beginning at the left side by the lower end. Once they were drunk, they would sing… some did not sing, but held fourth, laughing and making jokes; and when they heard anything funny they would roar with laughter." All this was as though the Mexicans, wishing to cut their losses, allowed the pleasures of drink only to those whose active life was over, while at the same time they set up a barrier of terrible punishments against indulgence by young people or middle-aged men.