By David Hammond
In the weather-beaten Mayan ruins of Tulum on the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, there’s a centuries-old structure referred to as The Temple of the Descending God. On the walls of this crumbling building are barely discernible carvings of a figure turned upside down, as though diving. It’s believed by some that this is a picture of the honey bee god, Ah-Muzen-Cab, dipping into a flower for some nectar.
The Maya frequently imagined that valued consumables in the natural world — such as water, corn and honey — were under the control of specific deities. Honey was a source of sweetness, especially treasured in a culture that didn’t have sugar cane or sugar beets. Honey’s sugar content enabled it to be converted into an even more valuable commodity: booze.
The fermentation of honey was practiced by ancient peoples all over the world. The mead that Beowulf and his Anglo-Saxon warriors drank was made of honey, and the ancient Maya of Central America also prepared beer using a recipe of honey, with corn and chilies.
Henry Bruman, in his 1930 book “Alcohol in Ancient Mexico,” reported upon the widespread consumption of Mexican beverages created from fermented honey.
During the fermentation process of such beverages, alkaloid-bearing ingredients — including hallucinogenic peyote — were sometimes added, making for a potentially psychotropic sip.
In gift shops throughout Yucatan are displays of xtabentun (ish-tah-been-tune), advertised as “liquor of the Maya.” Made only in this region, xtabentun is honey beer to which anise and distilled spirits are usually added.