In a field of blue agave the jimadores (agave harvesters) use their coas to separate the heart of the agave from the leaves.
© Don Couch/Alamy Images
 

Tequila is the quintessence of Mexico. It’s a noble spirit, born from the heart of the sacred maguey (metl in the Nahuatl language). Considered a gift from the goddess Mayahuel, it’s a drink whose raw material is clearly Mexican, but it’s made through distillation methods introduced by Spaniards who, in their turn, learned the process from the Arabs. Its complex history of unexpected syncretism is surrounded by fantastic myths and legends. 


For millennia before the arrival of the Spaniards, Nahuas and Aztecs revered the metl (maguey or agave), a sacred plant that according to legend sprang directly from the body of Mayahuel, the goddess of fertility.

The metl was a supremely useful plant. It had practical utility for just about everything. The leaves and stems supplied fuel and thatch for dwellings; its ashes were used as soap, bleach or detergent; its sap as a cure for wounds; thread and strong cords were drawn from its twisted fibers, and they afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured; stalks were employed as beams or used to build corrals; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; its sweet core (the piña), when cooked, produces agave nectar. And most significant, as you scrape or “hurt” the noble heart of metl, out oozes the mead, which when fermented becomes the sacred pulque, the milk of the goddess.

The goddess with 400 breasts
 
Mayahuel and her husband, Patecatl, god of healing and peyote, are the parents the Centzon Totochtin. To the Aztecs, these were the gods of drunkenness. They are known as the Four Hundred and the innumerable rabbits. Their mother Mayahuel has 400 breasts from which pulque springs to feed them all and mankind too.

Each divine rabbit stands for a divine manifestation of drunkenness: inhibition, joy, anger, fighting, crying ... and so on and so on. Inasmuch as inebriation presupposed possession by one of those innumerable deities, the Aztecs did not punish the drunk, so as not to offend the gods. Nevertheless, in pre-Hispanic times, intoxication was strictly outlawed, on pain of death. The punishment therefore came after the person was good and sober. The consequences of a possession were so dire that the consumption of pulque was reserved for gods, nobles, priests, elders and women in labor. Only on certain festivals and religious celebrations was pulque shared with all the people.
 
When the Spaniards arrived, Montezuma II held a pulque banquet in honor of Hernán Cortés, who, to Montezuma’s eternal doom, was not recognized as an invader but mistaken for the return of the god Quetzalcoatl.