A double balche and a toad frog chaser, please

It should come as no surprise to most of us that the ancient Maya were big time drug users, not unlike most cultures on the planet. While it is true that the Maya incorporated drugs into their religious beliefs, there is good evidence that the ingestion of certain chemicals was probably similar to the so-called "recreational" drug use practiced by a number of our citizens today.

It is a well documented fact that the Maya , at least at the time of the Spanish conquest, were not only doing a variety of drugs but were consuming alcoholic beverages as well. Drunkenness was connected with the widespread practice of divination, a ritual act designed to allow direct communication with certain supernatural forces such that an individual could foretell the future or understand the causes for events not otherwise understood. A drunken state was supposed to give one the insight to interpret the reasons for illness, misfortune, adverse weather, and so forth. Does that not sound familiar? I have a couple of friends that get positively brilliant after a few rum and cokes.

The Maya, like most of the other Mesoamerican cultures, produced fermented alcoholic beverages from corn or agave cactus, the precursor to modern tequila. Another drink, specially flavored for ritual purposes, was a rather nasty brew called balche made from fermented honey and the bark of the balche tree. I have tried this delightful cocktail and rate it right up there with really bad cough medicine.

While knocking back a few shooters of balche the Maya had the opportunity to smoke a cigar made from rolled up leaves of the wild tobacco plant (Nicotiana rustica) that was much more potent than today's domestic variety. Wild tobacco and other species of plants were smoked to induce a trance-like state. So between the balche and the mighty cigars, the ancient Maya had happy hour under control.

The Maya also used substances that altered one's state of consciousness. The Maya area of Central America includes the habitats for several varieties of mushrooms that contain hallucinogens. The Spanish recorded the Maya names of several mushroom types shortly after the European intrusion. Some names clearly indicate their use, such as one type called "k'aizalah okox," the "lost judgment mushroom."

There is evidence the Maya used peyote as well as the seeds of the morning glory to achieve a trance-like state connected with divination. Easily the most entertaining device for altering the mind was the large tropical toad frog, Bufo marinus. It seems these frogs have glands under the skin on their backs that will on demand secrete a very powerful alkaloid compound that is not only poisonous, but extremely bitter. Used to deter would-be predators, the compound was extracted by the Maya and taken in measured doses to transport their brains to another level of thinking. The Spanish reported the Maya added tobacco or toad skins to their alcoholic beverages to give it an added kick. Now there's a party in the making!!!

Besides the smoking and drinking of assorted chemicals, the Maya eventually found a way to ingest substances that hastened the effects of the drugs. By the Classic period, the Maya were using an enema apparatus to introduce the alcoholic or hallucinogenic substances into the colon which resulted in immediate absorption by the body. Not unlike today's cocaine users who introduce the drug into the nasal membrane for a quicker "rush."

It is, I think, kind of nice to know that the ancient Maya were not just the cold, impersonal figures we see on the carved stone monuments they left behind, but were real human beings, with the same flaws and fears we share as inhabitants of space-ship earth.

A double balche and a toad frog chaser, please

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