The Popol Vuh and the Globalization of Chocolate

Sprouting from the heart of the Amazon basin, the first cacao trees endowed South America with the “food of the gods,” and for centuries, the indigenous people who inhabited the area indulged on the fruit as if it truly were a gift from the heavens (Klitgard “Theobroma cacao”). Today, what began as an isolated delicacy of the Mayan civilization is now the beloved, yet easily accessible commodity that people from all over the world know as chocolate. What spurred such a rapid globalization of an otherwise extremely demanding crop to cultivate? How did cacao make its way across the Atlantic to the lands so far overseas? And why was this plant, of the myriad of exotic foods to enjoy from the New World, the one that captivated every country it entered? Chocolate’s origin and its almost universal attraction stems from its earliest appearances in the Mayan creation myths detailed in the narratives referred to as the Popol Vuh (Coe, Coe 40). Through the colonial document recorded by a Dominican friar, cacao’s reverence was passed on from the native population of Mesoamerica to the foreign explorers that so fortunately stumbled upon the indigenous civilization (Woodruff, “Francisco Ximenez”). As such, the Popol Vuh is one of the most influential, historical documents for the globalization of chocolate as it plays a major role in introducing Mayan culture, customs, and beliefs to the first of the Europeans, leading to further interactions between the two parties over cacao and the subsequent development of a strong, worldwide interest in this food.

The Popol Vuh or the “Book of Counsel” provides valuable insight into countless Mayan customs, including their perspective on the preparation and consumption of cacao; these implications can be derived from the Mayan creation myth, one of the most prominent stories featured in the collection of narratives (Coe, Coe 40).

According to the Popol Vuh, the “six [creator] deities, covered in green and blue feathers… helped Heart of Sky” shape the earth from the primordial sea, filling the land with animals and later on humans (Smithsonian, “Creation Story of the Maya”). However, their attempts at perfecting people were initially unsuccessful: those molded out of mud were too weak while those carved from wood became ignorant of their duties (Smithsonian, “Creation Story of the Maya”).

Two Mayan gods creating the first humans with mud
Two Mayan gods creating the first humans

Eventually, the gods came upon the “Mountain of Sustenance,” and seeing that it was “filled with delicious things, crowded with yellow ears of maize… white ears of maize… and chocolate,” they decided to utilize these staples to form the present human race, hence the strong emphasis Mayan culture places on the use of cacao (Christenson, 182). It is no surprise then that such a food, having its own place in the creation of mankind, was thoroughly incorporated in nearly every custom practiced by the Natives. From serving as a culinary treat to being held as offerings to the deceased, cacao is by far the Mayan’s most prized possession (Staller, Carrasco 324).

Although the creation myth is entertaining in its own respect, it also represents the importance of cacao to the indigenous people, and for this reason, the Popol Vuh, among other messages inscribed upon Mayan vessels, can be attributed to drawing the attention of early Spanish colonizers towards the benefits of this fruit. By allowing Friar Francisco Ximenez to record the Popol Vuh, the Mayans effectively introduced cacao to not only the explorers that just encountered their civilization, but also all Europeans to come (Woodruff, “Francisco Ximenez”).

A page from the Popol Vuh recorded and translated by Friar Francisco Ximenez
A page from the Popol Vuh recorded and translated by the Dominican friar, Francisco Ximenez

This document, through its translation, distribution, and survival, disseminated both knowledge and rampant curiosity among the Old World populations, remaining till this day as one of the few significant accounts of Mesoamerican mythologies. As a result, the Popol Vuh indirectly demonstrated to the Spanish exactly which crops the Mayans held in high regard, including the undiscovered cacao tree and its luscious fruits, marking the beginning of an extended exchange of cultural and culinary appreciation (Coe, Coe 66).

The influence of the Popol Vuh ushered in new eras of interaction with the indigenous people, ultimately leading to the adoption of chocolate in Europe, the colonization of Mesoamerica, and the hybridization of the two cultures. Today, chocolate is produced all over the world and its mass production points to our cultural and preferential dependence on this food. And as the timeless saying goes, “we are what we eat” – looks like the Popol Vuh was right all along.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Klitgard, Bente, ed. "Theobroma cacao." Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Theobroma-cacao.htm>. 

Newberry Library. "Arte de las tres lenguas kakchiquel, quiche y tzutuhil." Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia, 29 June 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Popol_vuh.jpg>.

Popol Vuh creation myth. Popol Vuh: The Book of the People. SacredTexts, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/popol_vuh/book.htm>.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st, Rev ed. New York: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

Smithsonian. "Creation Story of the Maya." Living Maya Time: Sun, Corn, and the Calender. Smithsonian Institution, 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://maya.nmai.si.edu/the-maya/creation-story-maya>. 

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The Creation Story of the Maya. Living Maya Time: Sun, Corn, and the Calender. Smithsonian Institution, 14 June 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jb5GKmEcJcw#t=53>. 

Staller, John, and Micahel Carrasco. Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Pringer, 2010. Print. 

"The Discovery of Maize." Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Quiche Maya People. Trans. Allen J. Christenson. N.p.: Mesoweb, 2007. 180-83. Print.

Woodruff, John. "Francisco Ximenez." JohnWoodruff.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://www.johnwoodruff.com/research/ximenez.html>.

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