The ancient Aztec riddle asked “What points its finger at the sky?” and the riddle’s answer “the Maguey Thorn” illustrates perfectly that essential aspect of Aztec thought and culture—Duality. For the maguey or agave cactus is the source of tequila, mescal, and pulque, world-famous intoxicants which, it can be posited, contain the possibilities of both heaven and hell, illumination and inebriation, creation and destruction. Your mileage may vary.

In the right light, say at dawn after a night of intense communion with mortals and gods alike, the maguey cactus more nearly resembles that man-eating plant from The Little Shop of Horrors than it does a traditional and dependable source of Mexican revenue. It’s an enormous thing— easily eight to ten feet tall and wide, all spiky thorny leaves issuing from a common point on the ground, rather like a huge lazy skeletal artichoke viewed through a distorted pane of LSD.

There are numerous types of maguey or agave plants in Mexico, all members of the botanical family Agavaceae. The specifics of tequila, mescal, and pulque production will remain outside the scope of this writeup. Suffice it to say that tequila is distilled maguey from the Tequila region of Mexico. Anything else distilled from cooked maguey anywhere else is mescal. And the fermented product of the gigantic cartoon cactus is known as pulque.

Pulque, it may be said, is beer, the foamy, somewhat viscous milky sap of a cactus that looks like you hallucinated it after drinking too much. Pulque is the last thing ritual Aztec sacrificial victims tasted before death itself. And thus the Aztec riddle takes on a decidedly sinister aspect.

For the pre-Columbian natives of Mesoamerica, the sturdy, spiny leaves of the giant cactus had dozens of uses. They were used for roofing material. Fibrous, they were also woven into clothes and blankets. At least thirty different foods were collected and created from the plant’s leaves, roots, and core. But it is pulque (or octlí in the Nahuatl language) that reigned supreme in Aztec ritual life.

It was drunk by priests, the better to commune with the gods; consumed by warriors in celebration of triumphs on the battlefield; given and taken by lovers as an aphrodisiac; drunk especially by men desirous of making sons. Aztec women drank pulque during menstruation and in order to produce healthier breast milk.

Pulque, it was believed by the Aztecs in their dualistic fashion, was both sacred and subversive—and thus never to be trifled with.

It was associated with too many deities to mention but, typically for the Aztecs, it was said that the plant originally sprung from the bones of a beautiful princess, Mayahuel, who was a consort of the ever-resilient Quetzacoatl, the befeathered flying snake who was also a man. A rabbit was said to have nibbled at the plant soon after its appearance on earth, and it is the imagery of many rabbits, 400 to be exact, that was uncovered at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, which is at the center of modern day Mexico City. Modern scholars believe this multitude of deities represented the infinite forms intoxication can take, depending—of course—upon set and setting.

A particular deity known as Two Rabbit (which is also a date-name on the Aztec calendar) was associated with the Emperor Motecuhzoma (or Montezuma), the Aztec leader whose murder at the hands of Hernan Cortes marked the beginning of the end game in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.

Cortes’s conquistadores assumed Two Rabbit was the Aztec “Demon of Intoxication” and went to extreme lengths to destroy the deity’s image wherever it appeared.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the best-known first person Aztec historian, wrote in what came to be known as The Florentine Codex that even though

the god (Two Rabbit) was wine, he was considered to be full of sin. For the god hurled people off crags, he strangled people, he drowned people, he killed them. He was an awesome being, one not to be affronted, one not to be abused.

Aztec law underscored the cautious regard with which the intoxicant was considered. Its sale was closely regulated: only the sick, the nobility, clergy and those over fifty-two years of age had regular access to it.

Three cups a day were allowed. Adults who were found drunk were dealt with severely: upon the first offense, their hair would be cut off. The second time their houses would be demolished, and if they were caught drunk a third time they were put to death.

And it is in the matter of death, perhaps, that the divine intoxicant was most useful: Aztec prisoners, known ironically as the children of the sun were force-fed pulque (or octlí) and then made to dance and sing as they marched to their ritual deaths atop the Aztec temple of the sun.

Feathered Serpent, Ruth Karen, Four Winds Press, New York, 1979.
Aztec Thought and Culture, Miquel León-Portilla, University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
Everyday Life of the Aztecs, Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, New York, 1987.
Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, Miguel León-Portilla, University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

On Mexico and the Aztecs:

An Aztec father advises his son
Bernardino de Sahagun
Human Sacrifice and the Aztecs
Ometeotl, beyond time and space
Talk like an Aztec
Tlazolteotl, the Filth Eater
What points its finger at the sky?
Xipe Totec

Below the Line