All countries have traditions and legends, especially those with a culture rich in folklore. Living and breathing in the land of the ancient Maya, among jungles and pyramids, there is one such legend that concerns the most famous drink of the Yucatan peninsula: Xtabentun. Pronounced "ish-ta-ben-toon," the name means "twisting vine that grows on rocks" and the drink that comes from it is something akin to anise: sweet and goes down with a touch of honey but with a punch that belies its alcoholic nature. It is a Maya tradition, fermented from a flower of the same name. Rivea corymbosa (also Turbina corymbosaas), as it is scientifically known, comes from a seed that, when ingested, causes a sense of euphoria and drowsiness, due to its psychotropic nature.
According to local legend from the Yucatan Peninsula, the origin of the flower comes from a tale of two women who lived in the same village long ago. One was Xtabay, who was popularly called by the townspeople "Xkeban," which meant prostitute, bad woman or one who gives illicit love. She was a beautiful woman who was said to have given her body to anyone who solicited her love. In reality, however, she was a kind soul who gave help to those in need. If there was someone who had nothing to cover their back, she gave them the fine clothes she received from her lovers. Sold the jewelry she had to get medicine for the sick and took care of animals that were ailing or were considered useless. The entire town looked down upon her and although she was insulted publicly numerous times, she never retorted.
The other woman of this story was Utz-Colel, considered an example for all women, a lady of decency, well dressed, of a clean, well built home and virtuous. She had never had her reputation marred by a lover for she was virgin. But her goodness was limited to those things for she was cold hearted, never helped the sick and detested the poor. Her virtue was false and her pride was her crowning jewel.
It happened one day, then, that the townspeople noticed that Xtabay had not been seen leaving her home. Speculation was that she was in other towns, giving her love away. But as the days progressed, a sweet aroma began to fill the air. Curious, the people began to look for the source of this exquisite perfume and discovered that it came from the home of Xtabay. Upon entering, they found her dead, surrounded by animals. They were guarding her body, licking her hands and keeping away the flies.
Utz-Colel was incensed and said that it was an absolute lie. That no scent of such delicacy can emanate from such a foul, impure woman. That such a thing must be the work of evil spirits. She then declared that if such an aroma can rise from a despicably corrupt woman, then when she dies, her body would give off a fragrance that would be more exquisite. Since she was a well respected woman of the town, everyone agreed.
Xtabay was buried by only a few people who pitied her and felt it was their duty to do so. The next day, her tomb was covered by white flowers which gave off that same sweet scent that filled the town days before.
Then came the day when Utz-Colel died. Her funeral was filled with people, recalling her virtuousness, honesty and purity. As they cried, they also recalled her words, that her body would emit an aroma far more fragrant than that of Xtabay. But as soon as she was buried, the earth above her body started to give off the smell of rancid putrefaction, of decaying corpse, so horrible that all those who were gathered dispersed in disgust. So awful was the stench that no living creature would go near and not even the vultures would go and pick the bones. A plant also began to grow on her grave but unlike the delicate white flower that covered Xtabay's body, it was a spiny cactus called tzacam, which evidently has no aroma lest you neared it, revealing a nauseating smell.
Utz-Colel was beside herself with rage and asked the gods to send her back. She returned to the land of the living, disguised as Xtabay, and lived everything she never had lived while alive. The legend has it that she waits in the jungle for an unsuspecting young man to come along, seduce him and then take his heart. Others tell of men who were seduced by a beautiful woman in the jungle. They would lay with her and in the morning, find themselves embracing a cactus. If you should see a woman combing her hair with a stem of cactus, do not follow her for she is Utz-Colel, awaiting her next victim.
The moral of this story is that true virtue comes from the heart. The white flower on Xtabay's grave was called Xtabentun, from which a nectar could be got to make the famous drink of honey and anise, native to the Peninsula. It is said that when you drink a cup, the dizzy drunkenness that follows is the effect of the love and charm that Xtabay had on the men she frequented.
This Blog post was written in memory of Juan Camaal Llan (1972-2008), one of the four divers who passed away in a diving accident in El Salitre, Toluca and who was the first to tell me this story.