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65. Sleep in Mexico during the Middle Ages

JAN. 26, 2023


Ryan takes Pete to Mexico to meet the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayans and more! Witness their horror at the stinky god of nightmares! Find out how best to sleep on a jaguar! And discover what powers lie behind the disgusting dream herb!

This episode saw Ryan take Pete to the Estados-Unidos Mexicanos, at the bottom of North America, neighbouring the USA to the North and Guatemala and Belize to the South.

It is the 13th largest country in the world at 2 million square kilometers (about 6,000 sq miles) and is home to 126 million people, making it the 10th-most-populous country in the world.

Mexico is comprised of 31 states, and Mexico City is the capital city. Meanwhile, outside the towns there are a range of landscapes. Northern Mexico is home to the Chihuahuan Desert – which is roughly 80% the size of France and in the South, you’ll find Selva Lacandona, a dense rainforest full of animals such as jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, toucans, parrots, snakes, and some brightly coloured frogs which look cute, but whose venom will kill you in under a minute.

In fact, of all the world's natural biodiversity, 12% is in Mexico - making it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Mexico is also seventh in the world with respect to the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including ancient cities like Chichén Itzá which is dominated by one of the new seven wonders of the world, a huge stone step pyramid known as the Temple of Kukulcan.

Fun fact: if you stand in front of the Pyramid and clap the sound travels up the slope, into a cavity at the top and returns as an echo which sounds like the native quetzal bird

All this all might explain why Mexico is the sixth most-visited country in the world.

Spanish is the language, Catholicism the religion and the national animal is the Golden Eagle. The flag has three vertical stripes of green, white, and red (which gives the country it’s nickname of ‘El Tri’). In the very centre of the flag is the national coat of arms - an eagle sitting on a cactus, devouring a serpent.

In 1853, a talented young poet called Francisco González Bocanegra was locked into his bedroom by his fiancée, who refused to let him out until he’d finished writing an entry for a National Anthem competition – eventually he did, she let him out, his anthem won – and the rest is history with the song still in use today

Mexico Facts!

Mexico City is sinking! The area where Mexico City is located today was originally a lake called Lago de Texcoco. The lake was drained and a city built on top but as the city continues to grow the underground clay compresses at a rate of 50 cm (20 inches) every year.

This isn’t something which can be stopped, so the city continues to sink, and is now at a stage where its status as the 7th highest city in the world is being questioned

Did you know colour TV was first invented in Mexico! Invented in 1940 by a 17-year-old called Guillermo González Camarena, his chromoscopic adapter meant that black and white tv cameras could start to capture colour images. First used in Mexico City in 1944, it was later used by NASA in 1979 to transmit colour images from cameras sent to Jupiter.

The national drink of Mexico is Tequila, an alcoholic drink made from the blue agave plant, grown around the city of Tequila. Simple to make, you take the plant, extract its juice, then distil it .

Depending on your preference and budget, you can buy it ‘white’ (just distilled), rested, or aged (where it’s left in a barrel for up to 2 years.

However, the origins of tequila come from another drink created around 250 CE. Made as a ceremonial wine, the drink was called pulque and was made by fermenting rather than distilling the sap of the Blue Agave plant. Fermentation creates a white frothy, gooey and yeasty drink which is most charitably described as a love child between beer, yogurt, and juice, the taste of which is less charmingly described as a sensation somewhere between snot and semen. Yum.

Pulque is around 2-6% alcohol and is still drunk to this day, for recreation but also, because it’s a great source of probiotics, protein, and various vitamins and minerals it’s seen as a fix for diabetes, intestinal problems, Impotence.. and sleep disorders. Pulque has a very short shelf life, which means that it’s made daily and discarded at the end of each day.

If that’s not for you, Coca Cola is an insanely popular drink with Mexicans - they are the largest purchaser of it in the world. In fact, one town called Chiapas drinks the most, at an estimated 2.5 litres per person per day being drunk on average. They even have a church there which has swapped out communion wine with coke, earning it the nickname of the Coca-Cola church.

It is said that one of the reasons for its popularity is that Mexican-made coke is different to the rest of the world. Most commercial coke uses high fructose corn syrup as the sweetener, but Mexican Coke has stood by the original recipe and continues to use cane sugar instead, which supposedly makes it taste much better.

History of Mexico
65 million years an asteroid travelling at 72,000 kmph (or 45,000 mph) crashed to Earth in Mexico, hitting the surface with 7,000 times the power of all the atomic weapons available today combined.

Smoke and dust from the impact darkened the sky, tsunamis caused devastation around the globe. 75% of the planet’s wildlife disappears in a day – wiping out the dinosaurs forever.

Mexico was still there though. Time slowly passed and the Earth recovered.

20,000 years ago, and the land was again lush forest, where early man arrived. They lived off the land, hunting, gathering, and chiselling stone tools, eventually developing agriculture.

Villages with distinct hierarchies developed – societies with chiefs at the top and workers at the bottom - civilisation!

One of these civilisations, the most notable from the period, was the Olmec, an empire with a complex society that ruled for about a thousand years from 1400 BCE. They carved massive 10 feet / 3 m tall stone sculptures of human heads, sacrificed humans to their gods and developed a complex writing system.

What’s more, the Olmec have such a strong influence over the area that their culture became absorbed by other societies. When the Olmecs mysteriously vanished around 400BCE, the Olmec influence across the region saw a number of similarly advanced populations spring up.

Such as in Teotihuacán - one of the largest cities in the world at the time, with a population of around 200,000 people. It also featured huge stone pyramids an interconnected web of roads and highways, and bustling marketplaces, suburbs and neighbourhoods.

After a few hundred years Teotihuacán collapsed, the city abandoned and the population dispersed across the country to join rival cultures.

In the 7th century, we meet a new powerhouse group called the Maya. They build on the old Olmec knowledge, by introducing an advanced form of writing, mathematics, astronomy, and architecture.

For 300 years the Mayans were the dominant society - until inevitably, for equally mysterious reasons - they declined too.

This exit paved the way for the Toltec – a culture with a strong and brutal military that controls a vast empire for hundreds of years, until in the 14th century when their empire crumpled, leaving a vacuum of power, which is greedily filled by the Aztecs – another powerful group who took control and absolutely flourished, expanding their empire across the landscape, and building themselves a huge capital city to celebrate called, Tenochtitlan.

This is the beating heart of the Aztec Empire, and it’s here in the grandeur of the city that we witness a complex and sophisticated culture built around government and religion.
But all things end. two hundred years pass and the he 16th century arrived and with its, the Spanish. Conquistador Hernán Cortés leading the way.

Cortes and his Spanish army brought superior weapons, military tactics and alien diseases, all of which they leverage to quickly defeat their enemy. 200,000 Aztecs died in the battle of Tenochtitlan alone, and the total death toll from the European arrival is estimated to be in the region of 20 million people.

The Spanish established a colony and began the systematic removal of the native culture through the destruction of written work and religious artefacts.

Unsurprisingly, this made the Spanish incredibly unpopular, and by the 18th and 19th centuries, a series of wars and revolutions sprant up which led ultimately to 1821 when the country gained its independence.

As a side note, shortly after independence, in 1843, a book is published by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt within which he refers to the people of Mesoamerica prior to the Spanish colonisation as "Azteken". This book became popular around the world and soon most people outside of Mexico referred to all ancient Mesoamericans as ‘Aztec’ –including the Maya, the Olmec, the Zapotecs, the Toltecs and more.

Today there is an effort to correct von Humboldt’s error, and a hope that ancient cultures will start being referred to by their own individual names.

Independence was not all smooth sailing either. A long and brutal revolution took place, starting in 1910 and lasted for a decade. At the end, the country was under the leadership of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The PRI stayed in charge for 70 years, during which time they oversaw modernisation, industrialisation and the introduction of international trade. Wealth and prosperity increased.

However, as we enter the new millennium, the country heads in a new direction, shirking grip of the PRI and entertaining a new leadership which promotes Mexico on the international stage by joining the United Nations, the G-20, the Union of South American Nations, and the Organization of American States.

In 2018, Mexico’s current President was voted in under the apparently controversial policy of ‘putting the poor first’. His name is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and he is a left-leaning politician, who blames much of the country’s issues on the wealthy.

His policies have divided opinion, with the working class seeing him as a visionary ‘man of the people’, and conservatives considering him “an incompetent demagogue” more interested in consolidating political power than addressing economic and social problems.

Time will tell who is correct.  
What is Sleep?

At its most simple sleep is an essential state of rest for the body and mind. It's the time when the body can repair and restore itself, and when the brain can process memories, emotions, and anxieties.

If we don’t get enough sleep - or not good enough sleep – we can experience fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, an increased risk of accidents, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, difficulty with memory, inability to retain information, even an increased risk of premature death.

So how does it work?

As the sky gets darker, our body's internal clock is triggered, and messages are sent through the nervous system to a small gland in our brains called the pineal gland – this releases a chemical called melatonin which is designed to make us feel sleepy.

When that happens, we have entered the first of several stages of sleep, called N1, or drowsy sleep. This initial sleep stage slows the brain down and encourages muscles to relax

At this point we usually lie down and close our eyes which triggers the next stage, N2, or light sleep, where brain waves slow down and become more regular.

This puts us into a deeper stage of sleep, called N3, or deep sleep. This is the stage where our brain waves are at the slowest, and where we find it most difficult to wake up.

We then enter the Rapid Eye Movement stage (or REM), and it’s where we experience dreams - a series of thoughts, images, and sensations that combine to make personal little mini-movies which can be as equally bizarre, exciting, erotic, or terrifying.

Throughout the night, the brain cycles through these stages’ multiple times.

Research shows that this process usually takes about 7-9 hours each night which is why the recommendation for daily sleep is around 8 hours.

But sleep isn’t something that just humans do.. animals such as cats and dogs also sleep in a way which is similar to humans. Other animals differ, there are species of shark and dolphin that have to keep swimming in order to breathe, so they can’t just shut their bodies down, so instead they have periods of rest as they swim.

Either way, rest is important to all creatures, and to humans, sleep is essential. But do try to stay up and read the rest of this.

Sleep in Mesoamerica

Unlike today, where we live in houses which often have multiple floors full of rooms for different activities, like eating, bathing, storing and working, the people of ancient Mesoamerica designed homes principally for sleeping - and not very much else. Because they lived together as part of a large extended group of family, this meant a lot of close-proximity and not much room for anything other than just lying down still, but also because the weather was hot, so much of the household could be conducted outdoors.

Whoever you were, it is likely your house was a small one-story rectangular hut with walls are either made of ‘adobe’ (which is dried mud bricks), or ‘wattle and daub’ - thin wooden strips woven together, covered in plaster, and then (if you lived in a town) whitewashed.

The roof is flat and thatched with grass and you enter the hut through the one open doorway and inside you’ll find the one main room.

There is no chimney, no windows, and the floor is made of either earth or stone. Around the room and you’ll find a few pieces of pottery, but other than that all you’ll find is the one universal piece of furniture - the bed - or rather, the sleeping mat, called a petlatl.

Large enough for a human to lie on it, these mats are made of dried reeds, interwoven with different colours and designs, sometimes padded with feathers or rabbit fur, and covered with some cosy rugs.

In the Maya region in particular, there is some evidence to suggest that the mats might actually have been placed on low wooden frames rather than directly onto the floor, and in some cases hammocks were used too.

And these beds were for everyone. In his book, Historia Verdadera, Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz de Castillo wrote.. ‘However great a lord he might be, no-one had any bed other than this kind’

What did vary though was the quality of the materials and the number of mats used, with common people on one mat, but emperors on a whole pile!

Dangerous spirits were believed to cause harm to anyone out and about at night, and so, the best place for people to be during night hours was in their own house and laying on their mat. Which sounds sensible.

Sleep was a time when it was believed that the soul left the body and travelled to the afterlife, so you needed to be protected from evil, and what better thing to protect you than your sleeping mat?

In fact the mat was considered so highly, that they called it ‘the jaguar’ because it was said to devour anyone or anything which would cause you harm while sleeping. And if your mat wasn’t up to snuff, you could also take part in purification rituals and sleep ceremonies which would also ensure you were safe while asleep.

But before you could sleep, there would be the nightly ritual. First, one hour after eating, we drink some warm water with lime or lemon, which is said to help us prepare our minds for sleep.
Then we need to say prayers.. to our sleeping mat - and thank it for its protection.

We leave a cup of water for our spirit to drink when it returns to our body in the morning and we lie down, breathe deeply, clear our minds, and imagine a bird rhythmically moving, slowly shapeshifting us into an animal that will carry us into the dream world.

When we awake, as we lie there on our mat, we try to recall our dreams because an important part of the culture is to remember and analyse our dreams - and throughout the day we will be asked many times by the people we meet about them.

Children are especially encouraged to talk about their dreams because it is seen as a way of leading them towards living a full life

And so, lying there on our mat we try to recall as much about our dreams as possible. Then we say another prayer to the mat as a ‘thank you and good-bye’, pick it up off the floor, shake it off, roll it up, and store it against the wall to avoid it getting cold and wet from the floor.

And having had a good night of sleep, we go about our day.


In the Classic period, the Maya civilization had a complex religious system that included many gods and goddesses, and many of these were associated with different aspects of sleep and dreams.

They had a god called Ixtlilton who was associated with dancing and drinking, medicine and healing, and it was said that he would visit young children in their beds at night and bring them darkness and a good night's sleep.

Another god was Ah Puch - an extremely fearsome deity often depicted as a skeleton with rotting flesh. In fact, it is believed that the depictions of Ah Puch’s rotting flesh is a visual indicator for the other name he was known by, which was Cizin or ‘the Stinking One’, so named because rotting flesh smells bad and the word Ciz in Mayan means ‘fart’.

Ah Puch, or Cizen, was a malevolent god who brought harm and suffering wherever he went. He was the god of death, disease, decay, bad luck, war, and… nightmares.

According to one Mayan myth, when a person dies, Cizin burns their soul, and when their soul complains, Cizin douses them in cold water until they complain even more - at which point he uses his anus to burn the soul until it disintegrates into nothing.

So you might think that the Maya would try to keep clear of Au Puch, but because he had the ability to influence their dreams - they actually would invoke him and beg protection from nightmares.

Because throughout our period, and even today, good dreams and bad dreams were all considered to be godly messages of advice and guidance, predictions of a future that you should ignore at your peril.

Consequently the ancient Mesoamericans sought out experts who could decode these supernatural messages.

And to help them remember their dreams, priests and sorcerers would sometimes recommend people a mystical herb called Calea Zacatechichi. Known as the ‘dream herb’, Calea is used as an aid to help you sleep, supposedly giving you a relaxing feeling and make falling asleep more easy.

More impressively though, it is said that Calea can help you have crystal-clear dreams, dreams with a narrative structure rather than the abrupt changes or endings that we might otherwise normally have, dreams that you can control, and when you wake up - it will help you remember those dreams for much longer than you normally would.

It doesn’t get you high or give you hallucinations, it just helps your dreams be more coherent and memorable.

It’s not clear how or if Calea works, but some modern research has shown that it does help reduce inflammation around the brain - which might cause shallow sleep patterns to lengthen and increase the opportunity for memory recall.

In ancient Mesoamerica, Calea would normally be smoked, but today there are a range of ways people consume it from tea, to pills, and tincture. Considered safe, it’s legal to purchase in the UK and in America, but Calea hasn’t been heavily researched, so it’s difficult to know exactly what side effects it may have. It's not FDA approved and there is some evidence that shows it might actually be nephrotoxic – could cause kidney damage.

Today it is commonly taken as a tincture - placing a few drops under the tongue to allow for quick absorption into the bloodstream.

The Final Sleep

Death has frequently been equated with a state of dreaming, but the ancient Mesoamericans, took quite an opposite view. They believed that life was the dream and only in death did one become truly awake.

Aztec poet Tochihuitzin Coyolchiuhqui wrote about this in a song:

We only came to sleep,
We only came to dream,
It is not true, no, it is not true
That we came to live on the earth.
We are changed into the grass of springtime;
Our hearts will grow green again
And they will open their petals,
But our body is like a rose tree:
It puts forth flowers and then withers

The Mayan word for 'sleep' is Wayob - but Wayob was also used as a term to describe the nagual, that is, an animal you transform into while you’re asleep. Mayans believed that the Wayob were your ‘spirit animal’ and had an important role to play in how you led your life.

They were seen as powerful spirits – literally the soul of a person - and they were most powerful in the hours just before dawn. During this time the Wayob would wander around the spirit world and interact with each other, chitchatting and doing spirit stuff.

Because of this, dreaming was your best way of connecting with your (and other people’s) Wayob. And not just living people’s either. They believed souls lived on after someone died, which made the afterlife a very real thing, with the dead continuing to have a significant presence in the living world.

Deceased ancestors were seen as sources of wisdom and worthy of respect, and through dreams, the Wayob were a means for the living to keep in contact.

And so, ancient ceremonies were practiced to remember and honour those who had passed, the best known of which, still held today, is Día de Muertos, the Aztec Day of the Dead.

Now a traditional Mexican holiday held in the beginning of November, it has roots that go back to the earliest ancient Mesoamericans who celebrated the queen of the underworld Mictecacihuatl.

The Aztecs believed that instead of going to heaven, all the souls of the dead travelled on an arduous four year descent down nine levels into the deepest part of Mictlan where they would find eternal sleep.

But they also believed that the aroma of incense and the bright colour and fragrance of marigold flowers could awaken the spirits and guide them back home.

And so celebrations were held each year called ‘the Festival of the Dead’, huge events which lasted for several days.

During this time they would honour the deceased and remember their contributions in life. They built altars to honour the dead, and decorated them with flowers, candles, and other symbolic items of all the things that the deceased enjoyed in life.

It wasn’t a morbid affair, it was a celebration of life - with bright colours, music, and dancing.

Eventually, during the colonial period, the Aztec Day of the Dead merged with Catholic traditions, and today the holiday is celebrated by millions of people around the world.

But traditional customs are still held in some areas of Mexico. On a small island called Janitzio, descendants of the Purépecha people still maintain the same customs of ancestors from our time period.

The rituals take place over two days, beginning on Nov 1 with the ‘Day of the Innocents’, which honours the spirits of children who died young.

At the start of the day, fathers watch from outside the graveyard as Mothers and siblings go into the cemetery and prepare an altar with flowers, wooden toys and sweets where they hold a wake.

When the sun sets the Night of the Dead begins, and this welcomes the adult spirits. Fishermen head out on the lake in wooden canoes lit with candles to perform a butterfly dance using their nets as butterfly wings. This rouses the souls of those who have passed and guides them into the cemetery.

At midnight, Day of the Dead begins proper. Women and children take torches and candles and return to the altars which they had prepared earlier. Fires are lit, incense is burned, costumes of animal skins and bones are worn.

Offerings are made of ceramics, flowers, food and drink andthe cemetery bell tolls all night long, calling out to the dead.

It is said that as the wind picks up so the spirits are awoken and blown back to Earth. The women and children chant and pray for their relatives and the men wait outside the cemetery until dawn, when the vigil ends and the souls return to Mictlan to return to eternal sleep.

The Story of Iztaccihuatl, ‘the sleeping woman’
This is a little Aztec bedtime story called ‘The Sleeping Woman’.

Long ago, a beautiful princess named Iztaccíhuatl fell in love with one of her father's warriors, called Popocatépetl.

The emperor was unhappy that his daughter should be in love with such a man and so only promised that they could marry on the condition that Popocatépetl returned from a war against a ferocious enemy.

Popocatépetl accepted the terms and left to do battle.

Expecting that the warrior would not return, the Emperor soon told his daughter that Popocatépetl had been killed.

Believing the news, Iztaccíhuatl was overcome with grief - and died. But Popocatépetl did return, and on finding his love dead, he collected her body and carried it to a place outside the city where he buried her.
He knelt down by her graveside and he mourned.

Days pass to weeks, weeks into months, and still Popocatépetl remained, kneeling by her side.

Time passed and the gods covered them with snow. Slowly they turned to stone.

Popocatépetl became a volcano, raining fire in rage at the loss of his beloved Iztaccíhuatl’s snow-covered mountain became known as “The Sleeping Woman"

The End

Well, not quite. You can see both mountains today if you visit Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park.

At 5,230 m tall (that’s 17,160 ft) Izz-tah-zi-what-al is the third highest peak in Mexico and its four snow-capped peaks really do seem to form the head, chest, knees and feet of a sleeping female lying on her back.

The End. For real this time.

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