We Came All the Way from Guatemala for This? Thoughts on El Tepozteco

Tepoztecatl, god of drunkenness and fertility. Not sure if the prominent incisors are meant to allude to his rabbit-y inclinations. Illustration credit: Wikipedia.

Tepoztecatl, god of drunkenness and fertility. Not sure if the prominent incisors are meant to allude to his rabbit-y inclinations. Illustration credit: Wikipedia.

The online Mythology Encyclopedia known as Godchecker has probably one of the best Pre-Columbian-inspired puns out there: in reference to the minor god Tepoztecatl, they say, “[h]e certainly wasn’t Teetotl”. It’s funny because Tepoztecatl is the god of drink and drunkenness. Get it??

Sometimes, Tepoztecatl took the shape of a rabbit. Not just any rabbit: he would be one of the four-hundred rabbits known as Centzontotochtin (Nahuatl for, er, “four-hundred rabbits”). These rabbits were the children of the agave goddess Mayahuel, which means they just couldn’t get enough of pulque, a delicious alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant’s fermented sap. As wikipedia dryly informs us, the four-hundred rabbits “[met] for frequent parties”, at which lavish quantities of this very Mesoamerican alcohol (remember the Huastecs?) were consumed.

Perhaps because he was rabbit-y, or perhaps because, as Godchecker puts it, “even the most hideously ugly people will begin to seem alluring and delightful” after a few drinks, Tepoztecatl was also a fertility god.

El Tepozteco, complete with tourists resting their legs after the long climb. Photo mine.

El Tepozteco, complete with tourists resting their legs after the long climb. Photo mine.

In July 2011, the day after seeing some amazing Xochicalco sculptures at Cuernavaca’s Palacio Cortes (read the full post here), I visited El Tepozteco, a hilltop shrine dedicated to Tepoztecatl, near the charming town of Tepoztlan, in the Mexican state of Morelos. It’s a 45-minute up-hill walk from Tepoztlan to El Tepoztteco, and, once we got there, I must admit that I was underwhelmed. For one thing, the shrine was swarming with tourists. But, most importantly, El Tepozteco is tiny, and almost entirely devoid of any sort of decoration–barring, if I remember correctly, a couple of stone blocks carved with very simple geometric patterns.

And yet, according to the Internet, pilgrims from as far as Guatemala would come all the way to El Tepozteco in the Post-Classic period (900-1521 AD, so between the fall of places like Xochicalco and the Spanish invasion). Google Maps says the quickest route from Guatemala to Tepoztlan today would take a bit more than eleven days on foot (265 hours). Assuming that Google is not taking into account rest periods, we can estimate that it took a bit less than a month to get there. Counting the return journey as well, and perhaps a few days at Tepoztlan itself, that’s two months away from home–two month not spent farming, or producing crafts you can trade at the market or offer your overlords as tribute. All for a pretty uninspiring little shrine.

Granted, it would probably have been more impressive in the past–for example, there used to be a statue of the god inside. But El Tepozteco remains very small, and with little space for elaborate ritual display inside or just outside it.

We had to climb all the way up there to get to El Tepozteco--took about 45 minutes. Photo mine.

We had to climb all the way up there to get to El Tepozteco–took about 45 minutes. Photo mine.

Perhaps it is the fact that you could only worship in small groups that made Tepozteco worth the journey. Perhaps it offered a nice contrast to the loud, violent and disorienting ritual displays that went in on in urban plazas and pyramids–maybe people felt a more genuine connection to the gods here. Or perhaps it was the location, which was pretty elevated: judging from the popularity of pyramids for ritual use, it was a widespread notion in Pre-Columbian societies that we could get closer to the gods by being physically closer to the heavens they inhabited. I remember seeing, from El Tepozteco, several birds of prey patrolling at altitudes just beneath us.

It seems a bit weird that people would care so much about a comparatively minor god like Tepoztecatl. But, considering that he was not just the god of drunkenness, but also fertility, I can imagine couples who wanted children but couldn’t have them having a pretty strong emotional motivation for going on a super-long trek to ask a god for help. Maybe couples travelled together, maybe only the husband, or only the wife, went.

There’s also the fact that Tepoztlan itself was believed, at the time, to have been the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent god, one of the main players in the Mesoamerican pantheon. Did people think, oh, two deities for the price of only one journey, bargain-licious? Or, come for the major god, stay for the minor one?

But perhaps the most interesting thing about El Tepozteco and places like it is the fact that Mesoamerican elites invested so much effort in producing spectacular architecture and art in order to convince people of their legitimacy, often failing (most big Mesoamerican cities were short-lived, and there are reasons to believe, for the Aztecs and the Maya at least, that commoners weren’t particularly taken in by state propaganda generally), while humble little places like this could exert their influence more than a thousand kilometres away.


Cerro Aguilar, G. 1998. El Tepozteco, Morelos (Miniguia). Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia.

Noble, J. 2000. Mexico City. Oakland: Lonely Planet.

  1. Signorinatumistufi said:

    Pulque? Interesting. Elwood P. Dowd’s rabbit is a POOKA. Wonder if there’s any connection…

    Wilson: Who’s Harvey?
    Miss Kelly: A white rabbit, six feet tall.
    Wilson: Six feet?
    Elwood P. Dowd: Six feet three and a half inches. Now let’s stick to the facts.

    • Such a wonderful film! Apparently though, the inspiration for Harvey (and the word “pooka”) comes from Gaelic mythology, so there’s probably no connection. Also, the Aztecs didn’t call pulque “pulque”, they called it “iztac octli”, and it is believed that the Spanish called it pulque when they mis-heard the phrase “octli poliuqui”, which means “bad pulque”.

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