Acan and balche; alcohol in the ancient Mayan civilization

The ancient civilization of the Mayas was largely built on intoxication, as the relied on alcohol and drugs to communicate with their Gods.

The ancient Mayan civilization (2000 BC – 900 AD) was without a doubt one of the most advanced and interesting ones of it’s time. But don’t expect any praise on their eye-catching temples or refined calendar in this post. The Mayas also had quite the alcohol culture, way before the Spanish conquistadores ever introduced them to wine or grapes. The God Acan, who was basically in charge of alcohol, drinking and intoxication, was one of the most important ones among his divine colleagues. And since the ancient Mayas knew over one hundred Gods, it’s clear that their favorite drink named balche was quite dear to them. Critics might point out that Mayas, like many native American populations, are vulnerable for alcoholism, but their rich culture and great achievements show that they were definitely not a useless bunch of drunkards.

The ancient Mayas
The Mayan population was concentrated in and around contemporary Guatemala (The country of the drunken saint San Simon) and Belize, including large parts of Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador. The oldest finds of their early civilization date back from before 2000 BC and the first real cities appear to be from 750 BC. For centuries the Mayan culture (the political landscape was too complicated to speak of an empire) developed as one of the most advanced civilizations in the world, until it collapsed and fell apart in the 9th century AD. Like in many civilizations religion played a large role in the Mayan culture, but unlike the ancient Greeks or Romans the Mayans believed they could have direct communication with the spirits through intoxication. Basically they got drunk or high trying to understand why things like illness, poor harvests, outcomes of battles and meteorological events were happening.

Intoxicants
To get closer to their Gods the mayans had quite the arsenal of intoxicants, and some of them are still quite popular in this day and age. During official ceremonies people got high on peyote, magic mushrooms, morning glory seeds and tobacco. And then of course there was booze, which was consumed in large quantities. The most popular drink was called balche, which was a fermented mixture that contained honey and bark of the balche tree. Before the Spanish conquistadores arrived to Central America in the 16th century nobody had heard about wine in that area, but the Mayas were quite skilled beekeepers. They used hollowed logs and wooden hives to house their stingless bees in the lowlands. Most of the honey they gained was used to make balche, which they consumed and offered to the Gods during rituals and feasts. During these ceremonies many people went far beyond the state of tipsy. The custom was that people who threw up had to wear bags with their own vomit around their necks for the rest of the night.

Through Spanish eyes
After the Spanish conquistadores had landed the Mayan rituals still continued. Not much to the liking of the strict Catholics from Europe. The Spanish bishop Diego de Landa, who observed the Mayas, wrote: “The Indians consumed alcohol and drugs in immense quantities, which gave rise to many evils, including murders. They made wine from honey, water and the root of a certain tree which they grew just for that purpose. The wine had a very strong flavour and a putrid odor.”

The “Mayan Bacchus”
The Spanish invaders also gave birth to the nickname of Acan, one of the most popular Gods of the Mayans. The God of Alcohol, Drinking and Drunkenness was now baptized as the “Mayan Bacchus”. But his real name is even better, as Acan literally means either “burp” or “groan”. Both pretty suitable names for the God of Intoxication. His best friend was Cacoch, the God of Creation, which shows that the Mayas believed drunkenness and creativity went hand in hand.

Micky Bumbar

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Related articles on Lords of the Drinks:

The Aztec myth of the 400 drunken rabbit Gods

San Simon, the Guatemalan saint who loves drinking

Aegir, the brewer for the Norse Gods

Silenus, the happy drunk that taught Dionyssos how to party

Xenophon’s beer experience in Armenia

 

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