Today, many social gatherings revolve around alcoholic drinks – whether that’s going out to a bar for beers and cocktails, having a calm wine night at home, or enjoying a boozy brunch at a local restaurant. Modern ceremonies also frequently involve a celebratory alcoholic drink or a champagne toast. However, in what is now present-day Mexico, the Aztecs preferred chocolate, a cacao-based beverage, to their native alcoholic drink of pulque – or octli as known in their Nahuatl language – which is derived from the fermented nectar of the maguey or agave plant (Coe and Coe 2013). This is significant because chocolate and the cacao, itself, not octli or agave, caught the eye of Mesoamerica’s Spanish colonizers and became the catalyst for European obsession and mass, slave-based crop production.
Because the contemporary reader likely goes out for a beer rather than a cup of chocolate, the preference of the Aztecs might seem puzzling, and the reasoning for this preference and the subsequent Spanish adoption of chocolate is also not as straightforward as it appears. Chocolate won out over octli as the Aztec drink of choice and the Spanish likely gravitated towards cacao rather than agave due to not only the Aztecs’ disdain for intoxication, but also the adoption of cacao as currency and the breakdown of who in the Aztec society drank chocolate versus octli.
The People of the Fifth Sun’s Warning against the Fifth Cup of Octli
The simple answer to as to why the Aztecs, known as the People of the Fifth Sun, preferred chocolate to octli is that they strongly disapproved of intoxication. Many ancient Mexican myths warned against the inebriating effects of taking a fifth cup octli because this fifth cup would cause drunkenness, disrupt the balance of life, and lead to dangerous and ill behavior (DiCesare 2018). For instance, the Florentine Codex includes a tale of Quetzalcoatl, a creator deity, who passes out, as see in Figure 1, after being tricked into drinking a fifth cup of octli. The Annals of Cuauhtitlan also describe how the octli led Quetzalcoatl to desert his people, retreat to the sea, and self-immolate – reinforcing the notion that drunkenness leads to unfavorable and often shameful actions (DiCesare 2018).
In the Aztec tradition, drunkenness also led to severe punishments, whether self-inflicted or imposed by leaders. For example, the Codex Mendoza and the Legend of the Suns detail how a group of youths fails to bring the Sun a drink and instead gets drunk off of octli. In turn, the Sun orders them to be executed (DiCesare 2018). Similarly, the Florentine Codex depicts a drunkard falling off of a cliff to his death, emphasizing the physical dangers of intoxication (DiCesare 2018).
Because of the unfavorable nature of drunkenness and the punishments for public inebriation in the Aztec culture, Weinberg and Bealer claim the ancient people prized chocolate over octli because it was a “safe alternative” with its own benefits, such as caffeine for warriors (Weinberg and Bealer 2004). Coe and Coe further explain how chocolate was a “culturally acceptable replacement” for octli and how it was a particularly more desirable beverage for the nobility and warriors – who needed full control over their senses for leadership and battle – as it was a stimulating, but non-alcoholic, drink (Coe and Coe 2013).
A More Complete View: Chocolate and Octli in Ceremonial Rituals
Although the Aztecs disdained drunkenness, Dr. Catherine DiCesare of Colorado State University outlines that there were many instances in which the Aztecs did drink octli, even to the point of intoxication, without punishment. In fact, octli, and alcohol generally, served as a way for the Aztecs to access divine realms and connect with the gods by producing altered states of consciousness (DiCesare 2018). For example, the Codex Mgliabechiano depicts an octli ritual, shown in Figure 2, in which the Aztecs receive drunken visions of the octli god drinking the beverage among them. There are also many other celebrations involving alcoholic consumption such as the octli festival during Quecholli, an annual ceremony (DiCesare 2018).
Therefore, the mere fact that the Aztecs looked unfavorably upon drunkenness does not completely explain why chocolate became the drink of choice since these ritual uses of octli are not unlike the many ceremonial applications of chocolate. The Aztecs used the cacao beverage in installation ceremonies for warriors, including the esteemed Eagle and Jaguar Knights, and healing rites to cure fevers and other illnesses (Coe and Coe 2013). They also referenced chocolate in many depictions of the gods and rituals because the drink represented blood and the cacao pod, itself, symbolized a sacrificial heart (Coe and Coe 2013).
Likewise, even though Coe and Coe assert the Aztecs preferred chocolate to octli due to their notions of intoxication, they concede that not everyone in the Aztec society believed chocolate was acceptable either (Coe and Coe 2013). They outline a parable about Emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, who sends sixty sorcerers to Colhuacan, a hill in which the goddess Coatlicue lived. Once they reach Colhuacan, however, the sorcerers struggle to climb the hill, and the old guard claims this is because the sorcerers’ consumption of chocolate has made them weak, heavy, and tired (Coe and Coe 2013). Tales such as these that warn against chocolate resemble the concerns over octli and suggest there must be another reason as to why chocolate became more popular than the alcoholic beverage.
Chocolate in Relation to Currency and Status
Two factors unrelated to the content of the drinks themselves set chocolate apart from octli in the Aztec society: the use of cacao beans as currency and the breakdown of who drank the two beverages.
The Aztecs used cacao beans, pictured in Figure 3, as commodity money to exchange for other goods given their rare, expensive nature and their special role in making the prized chocolate beverage. The preference of cacao beans as a currency over, say, the leaves of the agave plant, pictured in Figure 3, is also supported by the physical properties of the two. As seen in the images, the cacao beans are much more portable as individual units and can easily be exchanged in various quantities as opposed to the large agave leaves.
Figure 3: Cacao beans (left) and Maguey or Agave plant (right)
Moreover, while octli consumption was typically restricted to only those of “sufficiently mature age” and for specific rituals, chocolate was consumed regularly by three socially elite groups in Aztec society: the royal house, the warriors, and the long-distance merchants, known as pochteca, who brought cacao beans to the Aztecs (Weinberg and Bealer 2004; Coe and Coe 2013). Chocolate was, thus, a much more widespread beverage than octli, especially among the lords and nobility. The merchants, warriors, and social elite were also the main groups Mesoamerica’s Spanish conquistadors likely interacted with, given their externally-facing roles.
Therefore, because the Aztecs disdained drunkenness, used cacao as both a drink and currency, and consumed chocolate among the socially elite, the cacao-based beverage gained preference over the alcoholic octli. This proved significant in the development of history, as the Spanish colonizers saw the importance of cacao in Mesoamerica and were attracted to chocolate, not octli. The colonizers partially adopted cacao as a currency, became obsessed with chocolate and hybridized it to their own tastes, and set up encomiendas to control cacao production. These encomiendas later set the stage for the slave trade and the subsequent mass production of cacao that still exists today.
So, why then do modern, Western social gatherings focus on alcoholic beverages if Spain brought cacao, not octli, back to Europe? There is a wide host of answers – perhaps one of which is due to the invention of the ever-present chocolate bar and the rise of solid chocolate over its beverage form – but this is just the beginning of an interesting discussion for another time.
CaDiCesare, Catherine R. “Dangers of the ‘Fifth Cup’: the Aztec Approach to Alcohol.” Aztecs at Mexicolore. Mexicolore, January 31, 2018. https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/the-aztec-approach-to-alcohol.
Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. “Chapter 3: The Aztecs: People of the Fifth Sun.” In The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Weinberg, Bennett Alan, and Bonnie K Bealer. “3 Cacao: American Origins.” In The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. Routledge, 2004.
Codex images courtesy of Mexicolore https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/.
Cacao beans image courtesy of F. Delventhal via Creative Commons.
Agave plant image courtesy of Christian Córdova via Creative Commons.