Archaeological and anthropological research shows that many human societies across time and space have used alcohol in religious and ritual contexts. There are often customs and ethics that govern how alcohol is produced, the ingredients used, and when, how, and by whom it may be consumed. Growing up in the United States as part of a mildly religious Christian family, I was familiar with ritual alcohol use primarily in the practice of communion wine, thought to be transubstantiated into divine blood. The amount each participant was expected to drink was small, amounting to no more than a shot’s worth, and thus participants did not become intoxicated (though the priest was expected to consume all the alcohol that remained at the end of the ceremony).
During my ethnographic fieldwork in rural Yucatan and Haiti, however, I participated in spiritual rituals that involved liberal consumption of local liquors in an effort to produce altered states of consciousness among specific participants. As with communion, the alcohol use was deeply connected to spiritual practices. The type of local alcohol used in both sites was potent, and had important guidelines governing how it should be used and consumed by participants. Below, I examine my experiences with the Yucatec Maya and their drink, balché, and rural Haitians and their drink, kleren, using ethnographic data from eHRAF World Cultures to add context.
During my first travels to the Yucatan, I was unaware that the local brew, “balché”, had a highly symbolic role in local Maya ritual practices. I was first offered balché during a ritual event called a Chac Chaac. This agriculturally important ceremony is used to pray to deities for rain. During this event, shamans craft a table setting that is divided into four quadrants at two levels; this division into four planes with upper- and under-worlds symbolically represents the Maya view of the cosmos. During the Chac Chaac I attended, a shaman laid out offerings of masa (corn flour) in gourd bowls. A visually striking array of pink hibiscus flowers had also been collected and were arranged beautifully around the table. At each of the table’s four corners, the shaman placed a vintage glass bottle that had no label; it was filled with a golden-colored liquid (similar to that of Figure 2). This liquid was balché, a sweet honey-based drink that had ties at least back to the ancient Maya (Sharer 1994:576; see Figure 3 for the closest example to a prehispanic balché vessel).
The Chac Chaac ceremony lasted all day. Local women painstakingly prepared a variety of meats while men prepared a special form of masa, and the food was then combined into a feast that women and men consumed separately. Once the feast was complete, the shaman turned to the balché, which rested on the table setting. It was now late afternoon, and the shaman explained to me that he was offering balché to Jesus above, to the four brothers at the corners of the earth, and to a Jaguar that sat in the middle of the earth. He offered balché to these important figures by splashing a generous amount of liquid onto the earth around the table. The shaman then drank roughly a bottle of balché while he recited a complex series of prayers, shifting his attention upwards and then downwards towards the table. After later research, and in reflecting on conversations I had with the shaman and participants, it became clear that the Chac Chaac and the ritual balché played a vital role in tying participants to their ancestors, and the ritual had deep historical roots.
After the shaman drank most of a bottle of balché, an assistant passed the remains of his bottle and the other still-full bottles to the oldest men first and then the younger men. Women, who were not offered balché, stood at a distance observing the ceremony. Perhaps because I was a special guest, the shaman also provided me and my colleague with a full bottle of balché. The balché was sweet and tasted mainly of honey. Its flavor was comparable to some of the European meads that I had sampled in specialty bars in the United States. We drank the bottle with the other men and a jovial mellow state of drunkenness pervaded the group. In Duane Metzger’s 1964 work, he investigates how ceremonial drinks like balché are regulated in Maya society, and reflect social order. In the Maya highlands, the distribution of the alcohol over the course of the ritual symbolically ranks groups, as well as individuals within these groups: “the isolatable drinking act encodes one’s own rank relative to all other persons present, or, alternatively, each person’s rank relative to every other” (1964:57). At the Chac Chaac I describe, balché was certainly distributed according to age, but the men who contributed the most masa to the ritual also drank earlier.
To better contextualize the tradition of drinking balché, I turned to the eHRAF World Cultures collection on Yucatec Maya. Mary Elmendorf (1976) describes the importance of balché, as well as other alcoholic beverages, in indigenous Yucatec ceremonies. She notes the exchange value of balché, describing how shamans are paid for their services as medicinal practitioners with alcohol, such as in the Chac Chaac ritual and others. As the spiritual leaders, shamans also perform important organizing functions in the context of the ritual, and often are in charge of distributing the alcohol and overseeing how and by whom it is consumed.
Similar to my own observations among the Maya (as well as Catholic Communion rituals), Elmendorf states that the shaman is expected to drink the most. Elmendorf (1976:113) explains that, “as the communal glass passes through the group, some people refuse it while others imbibe more freely, but it is the shaman who seems to be expected to reach a high state of intoxication as he calls on the saints and looks into his aza-tun (magic stone).” This tradition of significant drinking during spiritual rituals connects the contemporary Maya traditions to the ancient Maya. Noting that alcohol consumption during rituals was an important spiritual practice for the Maya during the early colonial period (when prehispanic rituals were still dominant), Robert Sharer (1994:576) argues that “the drunkenness reported by the Spanish was undoubtedly related to an aspect of Maya ritual not well described in the ethnohistorical documents: divination, or ritual acts designed to communicate directly with supernatural powers.”
The recipe for balché is thought to be linked to the ancient Maya drink (Sharer 1994:576). It is produced from the bark of the balché tree. The bark is harvested, left in the sun to dry for four days, and cooked in three buckets of water. Five to six kilograms of honey are added alongside anise and cinnamon. After foam appears, the balché has fermented and is ready (Kintz 1990:124). Because the drink and its recipe are deeply traditional with links to the ancestry of the Maya, balché is regarded as a symbolically powerful beverage that is also spiritually charged with local and ancestral energies.
The traditional connections that balché represents is part of the reason it is used in so many Maya ceremonies. Ethnographer Ellen Kintz (1990) studying the Yucatec Maya found that this was the case. One of her informants provided details about a ceremony for protecting places, called the Lolcatali ceremony. The local Maya man says that protection results from doing the following actions to pray to forest spirits called alux:
“It will protect us. We will petition the spirits, walk around the property nine times, drink 13 bowls of balché wine, and pray to the alux. The balam wind spirits will be called to protect us. We will prepare nohua, the ritual bread, and slaughter a chicken. We will walk to the four corners, and there we will position the crosses, the pieces of the tancazche wood, a little rum, and some pieces of the black obsidian to protect us. We will offer the nohua and the balché to the alux.”
In Haiti, I also experienced alcohol in a ritual context. Here, like among the Maya, participants often consumed more than a sip, instead drinking moderate amounts in the course of ritual ceremonies such as divinations and festivals. Most of the rituals that I experienced were divination events that took place in small Vodou temples. While collaborating with ethnographer Alissa Jordan, I built up a rapport with the local men practicing Vodou divination rituals. The leaders of such events, locally known as houngans, often invited me to participate and observe in these ceremonies. After attending two or three of such ceremonies, I discovered that I (like other well-off participants) was informally expected to contribute to the festivities by bringing an offering to consume with others, such as a bit of the local liquour kleren (raw rum). To obtain kleren, I had to buy it from local women or houngans who in turn had purchased it from others, often in the mountainside where some families were involved in household production. In 1951, Alfred Métraux and colleagues (1951:142) noted that kleren was purchased from “saleswomen;” this is in stark contrast to my experiences in the Yucatec ritual, where women did not participate in the consumption, storage, or distribution of balché.
At ritual gatherings in Haiti, kleren was freely passed among all in attendance, often starting with the houngan. Like Yucatec rituals and Catholic Communion feasts, the leader of the ritual—houngans, in this case—was often expected to imbibe the most. The kleren I tasted in Haiti was a clear, spicy, and potent beverage. Depending on the specific ritual being conducted, it could be mixed with a variety of botanicals, such as when newly purchased kleren was added to emptied bottles that contained peppers, flowers, twigs, fruits, bones, or spices. Due to its high potency (90 proof), it is usually consumed in small sips, and it is also used medicinally. Inhaling the fumes helps to decongest sinuses, gargling reduces the effects of sore throats, and applying it to knees and backs helps alleviate aching muscles. Alfred Métraux and colleagues (1951:142) note that kleren is the standard drink chosen for ritual ceremonies.
At rituals in Haiti I would first present the kleren I purchased to the houngan (or the spirit possessing the houngan), who would take a swig and expect that I also take a few drinks with him and the other participants. When I came early to rituals, this frequently meant that the houngan, other critical participants, and I had consumed a moderate amount of alcohol before the event began. After all participants had arrived, we would take seats around the houngan. When we were seated, he would initiate a series of prayers spoken rapidly, or otherwise sing prayers which the participants repeated. Between key prayers to the Lwa (ancestral spirit entities), God (Bondye) and Catholic Saints (Lesenn yo), the houngan would take a gulp of kleren and give it to me to drink and to pass along to other participants. This meant that by the end of a given ritual event (which could last roughly 3-4 hours), everyone participating would have imbibed a fair amount, or at least feigned drinking it out of politeness.
At some point, often halfway through the ceremony, after a series of what seemed like countless prayers and rounds of kleren, the houngan would enter into a trance state called “possession” in English, or “being ridden” (monte) in Creole. His eyes would glaze over, his bodily movements would shift in style dramatically, and his voice would shift its tenor depending on the specific lwa that was present. At this point, the houngan was possessed or “being rode” by a lwa spirit. Harold Courlander (1960:68) witnessed a possession during which kleren fueled a similarly dramatic transformation in a houngan:
“He shook his asson [ritual rattle] rhythmically and spoke language to Pinga Maza [a lwa]. Suddenly Pinga Maza entered the houngan’s head. The houngan became violent. He jerked this way and that, making strange noises in his throat. He seized a machete from the altar, waved it around, and struck the flat of it against his head. He continued for a while to beat his head fiercely with the machete. Gradually he became quiet. His assistants placed Pinga’s red jacket on him. Now he spoke in the tired voice of an old man. He complained that he was hungry, that he had not eaten for a long while. His assistant handed him a razor blade. He placed it in his mouth, chewed it up, and swallowed it, washing it down with more of the white liquid in the bottle.”
The houngan frequently used alcohol and chanted prayer to reach a state of possession during divination rituals, wherein the visiting spirit was thought to be able to see the future or observe events in distant places. Once the spirit possessed the houngan, usually it would ask for kleren. If there was none left, one or more participants would contribute funds to purchase more kleren for the ceremony, often sending a youth to purchase it from a merchant woman. After receiving the new kleren, the possessed houngan would drink large quantities of liquor, frequently showing little effect from it. At this point, the possessed houngan would make pronouncements about the future, the past, and present. These cryptic prognostications were the site of much discussion by the attendees.
Drinking kleren during ritual events like these is an important tradition in Haitian Vodoun practice. In 1951, Metraux et al. noted that heavy drinking was most common when men gathered together in labor teams or in rara festivals (carnival dances) or funerals. As many Haitians know, kleren has never been commercially bottled to a significant degree. Refined privately from Haiti’s abundant sugar cane crops, it is produced and distributed by artisans in shacks all around the country (Hall 2012). Rather than being distributed across the country like other goods, it is produced and consumed during local ritual events and often does not travel far. Perhaps because it is a local brew, it steadfastly remains a central part of many Haitian Vodou rituals.
When considering the cultural importance of alcohol and its ritual usage, HRAF’s extensive database helped me contextualize these ethnographic experiences with both ethnographic data and theories regarding the social implications of alcohol use. More specifically, ethnographic data in eHRAF World Cultures demonstrate that alcohol use during rituals can be both highly structured and high in quantity. In both the Yucatan and Haiti, alcohol use shaped social relationships while also providing important ties to the past (in the case of Haiti, through the literal presence of the ancestors in the body of the houngan). Further research with eHRAF could help researchers determine the correlates of alcohol use in ritual, providing answers to questions such as: is alcohol use related to possession cross-culturally? How does alcohol use in ritual correlate to key types of religious organization or social order? How have colonial governments historically shaped traditional alcohol uses? Answers to these questions could help us understand the important nexus of history, religion, tradition, and social relations that alcohol has shaped across time and space.
Courlander, Harold. 1960. “Drum And The Hoe: Life And Lore Of The Haitian People.” Berkeley And Los Angeles: University of California Press. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=sv03-002.
Elmendorf, Mary L. (Mary Lindsay). 1976. “Nine Mayan Women: A Village Faces Change.” Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Pub. Co. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=nv10-017.
Hall, Michael R. 2012. “Historical Dictionary of Haiti”. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.
Kintz, Ellen R. 1990. “Life Under The Tropical Canopy: Tradition And Change Among The Yucatec Maya.” Case Studies In Cultural Anthropology. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=nv10-014.
Métraux, Alfred, Edouard Berrouet, Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain, and Jean Comhaire-Sylvain. 1951. “Making A Living In The Marbial Valley, Haiti.” Occasional Papers In Education. Paris: UNESCO. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=sv03-011.
Metzger, Duane. 1964. “Interpretations Of Drinking Performances In Aguacatenango.” Microfilm Thesis. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Library. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=nv09-006.
Sharer, Robert J., and Sylvanus Griswold Morley. 1994. “Ancient Maya.” Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. https://ehrafarchaeology.yale.edu/document?id=ny53-002.