The Agave: a plant and its story
Part 1
by Jan Kolendo


The Agave, which has also been called the 'century plant', the 'Century Aloe' and the 'American Aloe', obtained it's name from the Greek language--- the word 'agavos' meaning illustrious, an apt description for some magnificent and noble plants.

The word is found in a number of instances in classical mythology.

Agave, the mother of Pentheus, was the deified daughter of the god Cadmus, the mythical founder of the ancient city of Thebes, and his wife Hermione. Her story is told by Euripides in the Bacchae, where the god Dionysius, angry at being rejected as a god by the city of Thebes, which was ruled by Pentheus, throws a spell of drunkenness upon the women of the city, causing them to lose control and revel on the mountainside.

Whilst under this spell, Agave and her fellow revellers notice Pentheus spying on them and not recognising her own son , whom she mistakes for a marauding lion in her drunken stupor, she and her companions set upon him in a particularly brutal way and literally tear him apart limb from limb. She does not realise what she had done until she returns to Thebes with the head of Pentheus as her 'prize' and presents this grizzly trophy to Cadmus. She sobers up rapidly when it is pointed out to her that the head is that of her own son and falls into a frenzy of grief. She exiles herself from Thebes and is heard of no more. "....Pentheus was torn in pieces by his own mother Agave, at the head of her companions at the ceremony, as an intruder upon the feminine rites as well as a scoffer at the god"(Grote: Hist. Greece, pt. 1 ,ch. 1).

It was also the name of one of the fifty Nereids, a group of sea nymphs,daughters of the ancient sea god Nereus and his wife Doris. They were described as beings with green hair and the lower part of their bodies was fish like i.e. a sort of early punk mermaid.

Throughout the history of the New World the agave has been closely associated with mankind in a multitude of ways, both with the original inhabitants of Mesoamerica and subsequently with invaders and conquerors from Europe.

In the pre conquest era the agave was well established as an important feature of everyday life and religion and played an prominent role in the human sacrifice which especially the Aztecs practised to an extent which horrified even Cortez and his soldiers. The native Mexican Indians had a complex religion and a formidable array of gods, most of whom appeared to be very bloodthirsty and who needed to be sustained and honoured with sacrifices, usually human. They were represented on earth by priests who were at the top of a very rigid class structure and consequently had many priviledges, such as control over land and food distribution, jobs, taxes, and supervision over the allocation and consumption of agave juice.

Quetzacoatl, the serpent god, who represented the arts and morality, was the only deity apparently opposed to human sacrifice and paid for his views by being driven out into exile. It was said that his return would coincide with the fall of the Aztec empire.

Sacrifice to the god of hunting was preceeded by the shooting of many arrows in a chosen specimen of agave. One of the major sacrificial events in the calender seems to have been the ceremonies in honour of Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and of war, who was represented by a hummingbird. These events seem to have been marked by the consumption in large quantities of pulque, an intoxicating, fermented liquid product of the agave.

The word Chalchihuatl meaning 'precious liquid' was used to refer to the agave juice. It was known that in order to extract the best quality juice it was necessary to castrate the plant by removing the embryonic reproductive structures or the flowering stalk so that flowers and seeds were not produced. The sugar rich nutrients then ebbed from the leaves and flowed into the heart of the plant and produced a beverage of higher quality.

The Aztecs also realised that by castrating these plants they were depriving the pollinating hummingbird Huitzilopochtli of his nourishment and consequently had to make amends by sacrifice. The word Chalchihuatl also came to mean 'nectar fed to the gods' in the sense of human blood. Captives of war (the Aztecs would often wage war specifically to increase their stocks of victims intended for sacrifice) were brought to temples at the top of pyramids where they were given pulque to drink and were dedicated to the god. From that time they were considered as carriers of the nectar belonging to the hummingbird god and they lived peacefully, provided with the best food, elegant clothing and maidens as partners until such time as the god required sustenance. At these times, often in famine or war, the victims were again taken to the temples and were given pulque to consume. This time however the circulating agave juice was offered to Huitzilopochtli by priests, whose enthusiasm for sacrifice was fuelled by also drinking pulque, ripping the heart out of the unfortunate, still living victims. The flesh was then cooked and eaten, cannibalism being practised by the Aztecs on a very wide scale.

On a typical sacrificial night it was an legitimate act for all the celebrants participating to carry on drinking the pulque without restriction. During the dedication of the Templo Major to Huitzilopochtli in 1487, 20,000 captives were sacrificed and one can only guess at the amount of pulque consumed and the effect on the local agave populations. Estimates of sacrifices range from 4,000 annually according to the diaries of Cortez to a more recent figure of 250,000 annually (Borah, in Harner 1977).

On ordinary days, as opposed to special occasions, drinking was not allowed except by persons,male or female, who had reached the age of 52 plus the sick, pregnant women and nursing mothers, on account of the rich nutritional properties of the juice. The penalties for breaking these laws were severe and involved punishments such as shaving of the hair, flogging or loss of job in minor cases and execution for more severe or repeated incidents.They were apparently frequently and strictly enforced, especially if the law had been broken in a public place.

There was an agave goddess depicted called Mayahuel with 400 nipples symbolising her nutritious power and representing, via the agave plant, the embodiment of fertility. She was a benign deity, related to the gods of wind, rain and crops. Pictographs show the goddess usually emerging from the plant, foaming pulque in her hair and holding pots of pulque plus rope made presumably from agave. It is she who is reputed to have shown to the people the process to extract the sap and produce pulque whilst her husband Petecatl was responsible for the first process of fermentation. There was also a group of Rabbit gods associated with the consumption of pulque.

Contrasting with the widespread cultivation and use of agave crops further south,documented evidence of the Indians further north i.e. what is now the southwestern part of the U.S.A. shows a much less important role. Cultivation seems to have been limited to much smaller plantings and the agave certainly does not seem to have represented any major role as cultigen. Although there is evidence of use for food and fibre, farming was done on a relatively small scale on valley slopes.

Archeological work has discovered evidence of plantations and roasting pits. Charred plant remains found at these sites have been proved to be burnt fragments of agave, showing a consistent association between these sites and agave.

Stone artifacts provide additional evidence of plant use e.g. broad flat implements with edges sharpened by chipping and grinding and these so called mescal knives were used by the Indians to sever the leaves prior to roasting. Amongst these charred remains there was very little evidence of flowering or fruiting parts of agaves in keeping with the fact that harvesting is completed before the maturation of the flower stalk and consequent dissipation of stored nutrients.

Various parts of plants have been identified by archeologists including leaf fragments, individual fibres and plant bases and further research suggests the presence of Agave parryi and Agave murpheyi. In this particular geographical area of study it would appear that maximum utilisation of the agave occurred in prehistoric times and it's role was not so important to subsequent groups of native inhabitants.

Cortez and his Spanish invaders arrived in agaveland from Cuba in 1519 looking for a new source of gold and other minerals plus a new pool of labour to replace the depleted indigenous population of the Caribbean Islands. He discovered an enchanted new world full of new resources and commercial practices.

He mentions the existence of pulque in his first letter to King Carlos V as reported by Zamora: " They sell honey emanated from corn that are as sweet as the sugar obtained from a plant they call maguey and from these plants they make whine and sugar which they sell".

During the 16th century Francisco Ximenez, a Spanish monk, wrote about the importance of the huge variety of products obtained from the maguey and in 1651 a Spanish doctor called Jeronimo Hernandez described the medicinal uses of mezcal, reporting that as a cure for rhematism the liquid was to be rubbed into the affected part.

Subsequent to the invasion the outward spread of agave cultivation had occured rapidly in all directions from it's original nucleus. Local Indians were used by their new masters in many varied roles, as guides,interpreters, labourers and farmers and as colonisation spread the Spaniards took their labour force with them. The Indians in turn took their agaves with them and so occurred the spread of species to new habitats beyond their natural range.

This process went a step further by the Spanish and Portuguese taking agaves abroad for ornamental and economic use and thus these plants found their way to the Azores, Canary Islands, Africa, Asia and Europe. The main species involved appear to have been Agave Americana, Angustifolia, Cantala and Lurida.

There is evidence from paintings, murals, frescoes and illustrations that agaves may have been grown in Europe for some 3000 years. There are frescoes depicting succulents illustrating Homer's Odyssey whilst in the oldest church in Denmark, 900 years old, there are frescoes showing cacti and agaves.

Columbus collected agaves amongst other species in 1492--93 as he mentions the finding and collection of 'aloes' and there is more recorded evidence in diaries from subsequent voyages. In 1516 Peter Martyr mentions agaves, sedums and sempervivums in 'Decades de Orbe Nova' and the same author in ' De Rebus Oc. et Orbe Novo' published in Basle in 1533 describes amongst the plants of the island of San Domingo "eine Maguei" ( a Maguey ), a common local term for an agave, which was mistaken for a type of palm. He is thought to be refering to Agave antillarum.

The first specific mention of Agave americana is by Lopez de Gomara in 'Historia general de las Indias' (Saragoza 1552). This particular species might have arrived in Europe sometime after 1520 and was mentioned by Charles de L'Ecluse in 1576 who had seen it in a monastery in Valencia and sent offsets to his friend Coudebeq an apothecary in Antwerp.It was de L'Ecluse, better known as Clusius,appointed as the first director of the Leiden Botanical Gardens in Holland in 1590 and the man who brought the tulip to Holland, who first coined the name American Aloe.

The first description of a flowering agave in Europe was in 1561 by Jacob Anton Cortosus of Padua followed by Cesalpino in Pisa in 1583. There followed a list of descriptions of flowering agaves around Europe and it is interesting to find on that list several records of flowering agaves in England, including at Hampton Court in 1714 and an Agave americana at Cliff House in Salcombe in 1774 known to be 28 years old at the time of flowering.

The next significant chronicler of agaves was an English traveller called John Gilton, who visited ' Nova Hispania' between 1568 and 1572 and wrote " About Mexico and other places in Nova Hispania there groweth a certain plant called Magueis which yieldeth wine, vinegar, hony and blacke sugar and the leaves of which dried they make hempe, rope, shooes which they use, and tiles for their houses, and at the end of every leaf there groweth a sharp point like an awle, wherewith they use to bore or pearce thorow anything".

In 1596 an Italian translation appeared of the history of the native Indians of Central America by Acosta in which he calls the agave 'the wonderous tree' : " el arbol de las maravillas es el Maguey".

By the eighteenth century Agave americana was well established in southern Europe and along the Mediterranean coasts to the extent that in 1730 an Italian writer called Francesco Carli used the term Italian Aloe in refering to agaves growing in the vicinity of Lake Garda.

The spread reached it's zenith in the nineteenth century when agaves became very popular throughout Europe as ornamentals in both public and private collections. Whereas in southern Europe cultivation was possible in relatively warm outdoor sites, further north the growth of these plants was hampered by climate and was generally restricted to pots and greenhouses.

Apart from Europe there is evidence of a link between America and Asia as far back as 700 B.C. Agave angustifolia and Agave cantala appear to have been known about in various Asian countries a long time before they were recorded in Europe.

Fibre industries were developed by Dutch colonists in the nineteenth century in the far East and in the twentieth in East Africa ,using Agave sisalana, thus ensuring further propagation in these areas. In it's North American home, as we can see from the evidence, the agave was one of the first and most important factors in the early development of agriculture.

The ease with which it can be propagated is no doubt a vital reason. No need for complicated manouvres with seeds, simply pulling up and replanting offsets would almost guarantee a new plant being established in the next year or two.

The various tribes developed a close relationship with these plants, which provided them with food, drink, fibre, shelter and various assorted natural products. New methods of culture, harvest and species selection have been developed in different regions, dependant on local conditions and needs.Various uses have ensured that the cultivation of agaves has continued for centuries and has assumed in some areas a vitally important economic role, such as the manufacture of rope and related products and of course Tequila.

Jan Kolendo has written, and maintain 'The Agave Pages', a major site about Agaves and about growing them in England


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