El Tepozteco – The Aztec Temple Dedicated to the Drunken Rabbit God
On a lonely peak of the Sierra de Tepoztelan in the state of Morelos in Mexico stands the Aztec temple of El Tepozteco. The temple is dedicated to an unusual deity, Ometochtli - Tepoztecatl, one of the Centzon Totochtin, a group of 400 rabbit siblings, who presided over drunken revelries.
Apart from drunkenness and taking pulque, the traditional alcoholic beverage of the Aztecs, Ometochtli (two rabbits) - Tepoztecatl, the chief of the 400 divine rabbits, was also the Aztec god associated with fertility rites and the Moon. He is normally depicted in drawings with his nose pointing upward and his face colored half red and half black.
A drawing from the Florentine Codex which depicts the female goddess Mayahuel, and the making of pulque. ( Public domain )
The 400 Rabbits and the Stages of Drunkenness
For a culture that had strict laws governing the intake of alcohol, the Aztecs had an abundance of gods of the drinks — 400 to be precise! They were all the offspring of the goddess of alcohol, Mayahuel, and Petecatl, the god of medicine. While Mayahuel embodied the agave or maguey plant which gave the sap for pulque, Petecatl was said to have discovered the fermentation process that gave it its punch.
Pulque played an important part in the religious rituals of the Aztecs but it couldn’t be freely imbibed by everyone. While the elderly had the license to drink as much as they liked, the young if caught drinking were severely punished. So much so, they could even face the ultimate penalty of death by strangling.
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El Tepozteco temple in Mexico. (Armando Serralde / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
This strict regulation of drinking was attributed to the myth of Mayahuel once having offered some pulque to the king of Tula. It so intoxicated him that he ended up raping her. From then on, drinking was said to have become the preserve of old and experienced men who could control themselves.
Mayahuel had 400 (the Aztec equivalent of infinity) children with her husband Petecatl. And she had an equal number of breasts, all of which gave quality fermented maguey sap to nurse them with. These infinite children of Mayahuel were depicted as rabbits. Having so many mouths to feed, Mayahuel was also the goddess of fertility and nourishment.
The Aztec name for the children of Mayahuel was Centzon Totochtin , literally 400 rabbits. But they were often referred to as the Aztec gods of drunkenness. Although most of these rabbit siblings were referred to only by numbers, some did have names. Strangely, there was no one rabbit but two rabbits or Ometochtli, their chief, was also called Tepoztecatl.
The myth goes that they met regularly for drunken revelry. And the Aztecs referred to the degrees of drunkenness as so many rabbits. If someone was only mildly tipsy, he could range anywhere between 1 and 20 rabbits. If someone was hopelessly drunk, on the other hand, he was said to be as drunk as 400 rabbits.
A drawing of Mayahuel, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgia. ( Public domain )
The Archaeological Site of El Tepozteco
Dating to somewhere around the middle of Postclassic period (AD 950-1521), the archaeological site of El Tepozteco consists of a series of terraces and a small pyramid. The temple is built to the west of the site at a height of 2,310 meters (7, 579 ft) above sea level. The temple was an important pilgrimage center, attracting visitors from as far away as the Chiapas and Guatemala, although the cult of Tepoztecatl was local to the site.
A 6.4-meter (20.99 ft)-high platform supports a 3.3-meter (10.82 ft)-high temple base. The remains of the temple building, which now stand 2.7 meters (8.8 ft) tall, are perched upon this base. The temple consisted of two rooms. The first room opened onto the temple stairs, with two pillars flanking the entrance.
There was a small hollow in the centre of this room where traces of charcoal and copal, the aromatic resin burnt ceremonially as incense in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, were found. It was in the second room, the small inner sanctum, where the statue of Tepoztecatl was probably placed. The entrance to this room also had a pillar on either side.
Later modifications to the temple site included the addition of stone benches and a small projecting cornice. The cornice has bas reliefs of glyphs of the 20 days of the sacred tonalpohuilli calendar. Other additions were houses built for the resident priests and their assistants on the eastern side.
The archaeological site of El Tepozteco. (PetrohsW / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Learning from the Glyphs of El Tepozteco
Inside the temple ruins two fallen stones with glyphs have been discovered. One mentions the name of the eighth Aztec emperor Ahuizotl, the other the calendrical date “10 rabbit.” This date corresponds with 1502 AD of the Gregorian calendar, the year emperor Ahuizotl died. Some archaeologists have interpreted these glyphs to mean that this was the year in which the temple was built. Others have concluded that the stones were installed later to commemorate the emperor’s death.
Other glyphs include a turquoise crown and a shield with arrows, symbolic of the Triple Alliance between the Nahua altepetl city states of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco and Tlacopan. The accord formed the basis of the Aztec empire that ruled central Mexico and eventually most of pre-Spanish Mesoamerica.
Carved stones within El Tepozteco. ( Arthur Verea / Adobe Stock)
The glyphs bearing the symbols of the Triple Alliance suggest that parts of the temple, in particular the stone benches, were added somewhere after 1452 AD, when the Alliance conquered the town of Tepoztlan, overlooking which the temple was built. El Tepozteco temple was likely abandoned somewhere between 1519 and 1521, when the Spanish under Hernan Cortes sacked Tepoztlan and burnt it to the ground.
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The remote ruins of El Tepozteco today recall the remarkable cult of the drunken rabbit god, which, contrary to the pictures of quirky drunkenness the name conjures up, advocated strict oversight of the intake of alcohol, especially among the young.
“In Aztec ritual life, celebrants were permitted to drink alcohol during certain feasting events governed by the calendars, but even then quantities were limited and taken under clearly prescribed conditions,” says Catherine DiCesare an associate professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Art and Art History who has written and lectured extensively on Aztec art and festivals. “Among the Aztecs, excessive consumption of alcohol was a marker of uncivilized status,” she adds.
Top image: El Tepozteco temple in Mexico. Source: Tolo / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
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