The Aztecs had a traditional drink called pulque, which was a sort of fermented agave juice. It played a very important part in religious rituals for the Aztecs. But it was a drink that was only reserved for the very old. Anyone who was young and found drinking pulque would face severe punishment. For the worst offenders of alcohol consumption before the appropriate age, the punishment was death by strangulation.
The reason for the hatred of alcohol for the young was due to the myth of the 400 drunken rabbits. According to legend, the Goddess of Flower gave some pulque to the King of Tula. The King promptly drank too much and became drunk, at which point he raped the Goddess. It was decided that drinking would only be allowed for men who were old and experienced, and could therefore control themselves.
The Aztecs had a phrase for someone that partook of too much alcohol and that was that they were as “drunk as 400 rabbits.” The phrase comes from the rest of the myth of the Goddess of Flowers. After her rape, she became known the Goddess of Pulque. She had 400 breasts that all produced the fermented drink. She had an infinite number (often represented as 400) of children with her husband Petecatl who was the god of fermentation. Her children were depicted as rabbits and they were referred to as the Gods of Drunkenness.
Some of the rabbits even had specific names. One was known as Straw Mirror (for when you are so drunk your vision is like looking into a mirror made of straw) or Five Rabbit (the god of hangovers). The god of Hanging was also one of the drunken rabbits, because it was not uncommon for drunk Aztecs to accidentally hang themselves.
The Aztecs lived in an area that was very dry and not ideal for farming. They did manage to find a way around that problem through the use of Chinampa. These were essential in getting a range of crops to grow in the dry climate and be able to weather some of the droughts the region experienced.
To create a Chinampa, farmers would stake out an area in a lake bed, typically about thirty by two and a half meters. After they fenced the area off they would fill it with mud, sediment, and compost to rise the ground above the level of the lake. Trees would also be planted in the corners in order to help secure the artificial island. These small islands in the middle of shallow lakes then became areas of rich soil with easy access to water.
The Aztecs also practiced terrace farming in which they would create walls of stone in hillsides. These walls would then be filled in to create areas of deeper soil that could be used to plant crops even in areas were the land was not flat. One problem the Aztecs faced was retaining nutrients in the soil. They had two ways of dealing with that issue. The first thing they did was rely heavily on what they called the “three sisters.” The three sisters referred to maize, squash, and beans, which would be planted together because they would keep the nutrients in the soil. Aztecs farmers would also rotate their fields in order to allow some of the land to lay fallow and regenerate nutrients.
Agriculture was a trade that was taught in school and the knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. In addition to maize, beans, and squash, Aztec farmers also grew avocado, tomatoes, and guava, as well as cotton and rubber trees.
Some Of Their Herbal Remedies Are Still Used Today
The Aztecs were highly devoted to herbalism and learning about the body. Healers were encouraged to spend time in the gardens of the nobles to find cures for common ailments. Some are quite strange by today’s standards, but others have proven to be effective and are still used today.
One of the ways that historians have learned about the Aztec practice of herbs and healing is through the Badianus Manuscript, an illustrated text from 1552 that detailed the use of over 180 trees and plants for treating a variety of illnesses or pains. One treatment detailed in the book told of using gold turquoise, red coral and the burned heart of a stag in order to cure “a pain or heat in the heart” which could have referred to heartburn. The cure for a headache was more likely to make the headache worse than better as it involved cutting into the skull with an obsidian blade.
One Aztec cure that has been substantiated is the use of what they called chicalote, which was used to treat pain. It was later discovered to be a substance found in a plant called Argemone Mexicana, which is closely related to opium poppy. Both plants have analgesic properties.
Healers would also use the sap of the agave plant as a way to clean and treat wounds. It is now known that this sap can be effective in killing staphylococcus aureus and E. Coli bacteria. An herbal remedy that is still used today is passionflower. The Aztecs used it as a sedative and it is used today as a way to fight insomnia and agitation.
Prior to the Spanish conquering the Aztecs, the European world had never been able to dye their fabrics a deep scarlet color. The Europeans up until the early 16th century used a plant extract that was known as madder red, but it made a color that was paler than the red the Aztecs were able to create. Therefore, as soon as the Spaniards saw the rich fabrics they were determined to know how to make it for themselves.
The secret ingredient to the rich scarlet of Aztec cloth was the use of the cochineal beetle. The beetle lives on the prickly pear cacti and one quarter of the bug’s body consists of carminic acid. It is that acid which creates the red dye. The beetles are small, which means creating the dye is incredibly time consuming. It took 70,000 of the beetles to make just one pound of dye.
Once the Spaniards knew the secret, they did everything they could to keep it from the rest of the world and they started exporting the dye immediately. It would then become a staple of the Spanish economy for the next 300 years. Due to the number of insects needed to create the dye, it was only used for the wealthiest people and the most high-quality fabrics.
Redcoat officers in the British army had their uniforms dyed with the cochineal beetle dye, but the regular enlisted men only had madder dyed uniforms. The rich red that Catholic cardinals became known for was due to the dye of the cochineal beetle. Even today, the dye is still used as a completely organic food dye.