Monday, February 5, 2018

Atole -- Ancient Maya Drinks

The glyphs for ul ("u" and "lu.") A picture glyph for ul
hasn't been found yet.

Atole (ah-TOE-lay) is one of the varieties of drinks that we know the ancient Maya (and the Maya today) drank.) The two ingredients you absolutely need to make it are cooked corn that's been ground up and water – but other ingredients can also be put into it. (The True History of Chocolate says it is made with corn that is "young.") You may see it called gruel.

The Basic Name
Our name for the drink, “atole,” does not come from any Mayan language. Atole (ah-TOH-lay) comes from an Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word ātolli (which is an altered form of ātl, which means “water.”) This is the word that the Spanish used when they saw the ancient Maya's versions of corn drinks.

What did the Maya, or at least the elite Maya, call atole? Well, there are vessels that were used for atole, and from these archaeologists have found two words: ul (which you may see spelled ‘ul, with a glottal stop) and sa’. One theory thinks it’s possible that sa’ was a word for all types of atole. It’s also possible that ul was a word used for the special kinds of atole that elites drank for special times.

On something of a related note, atole shows up on the captioned murals at Calakmul’s North Plaza. A woman pouring a cup of atole for a customer has a caption: aj ul. This phrase has been translated as “atole person” and seems to be a title for an atole seller.

The glyphs for sakha'.
One type of atole that has been found is kakawal ul, a translation of which is “chocolatey atole.” Some other types that have been found include k'an atole or "ripe atole" and ch'aj ul or "bitter atole." Ch'aj ul may be a drink where parched corn that's been powdered has been mixed with water. There’s also sa’al kakaw, which may be a cacao drink that some basic atole mixed into it or a cacao drink that had a texture like atole – or both. 

Yet another of the different types of atole the ancient Maya had was used for religious purposes. This type of atole had the name sak ha’ (also spelled sakha,) which means “white water.” According to The True History of Chocolate, the ancient Maya made it by mixing together water and fully ripe corn that had been cooked and ground -- but hadn't been treated with the mineral lime. (The treatment is called nixtamalization.) 

Consideration: Atole Vessels
Archaeologists have found a lot of bowls that have inscriptions that include the ul word for atole. These bowls are not deep, and they have walls that are first straight then lean outwards a little bit higher up. This isn’t the only type of atole vessel, but it is a common one.


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Author's drawings based off of:

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