Life, Blood, Cacao: Maya and Aztec Myths and Rituals

Cacao was an intrinsic part of ancient Mayan and Aztec life, not just as a beverage or food, but as a pillar of their economies and an integral part of their religions, appearing in numerous spiritual ceremonies—even death rites and sacrifices.

The spiritual link between cacao and the Maya is immediately apparent in their texts, although only a small handful remain of their bark codexes. The Popol Vuh or Book of Counsel, for example, includes many references to cacao. In one story, the severed head of a god is hung on a cacao tree. Another page depicts the maize god sprouting from a cacao pod:

Maize god as cacao pod
Figure 1: Maize god as cacao pod

Cacao even features in their creation mythology: at another point in the Popol Vuh, when the gods are creating humans out of foodstuffs, cacao is one of those foods found in the Mountain of Sustenance (Coe 38-40). In Mayan creation mythology, humans are partially composed of cacao! In the Madrid Codex, an additional ancient Mayan text, four young gods bleed onto cacao pods, mingling the cacao and their blood:

Gods cutting their ears and bleeding on cacao pods
Figure 2: Gods cutting their ears and bleeding onto cacao pods

If cacao was “a sacred offering to the gods combined with personal blood-letting through the piercing or cutting of their own flesh” to the Mayans, this page is an excellent reflection of that close bond (Seawright 7).

The link between blood (or heart) and cacao was not exclusive to the Mayans: in ancient Aztec society, cacao was given to sacrificial victims, often in ways that directly linked chocolate and blood. During the annual Aztec ritual in Tenochtitlan, a slave would be chosen to represent Quetzalcoatl. At the end of forty days, during which he had been dressed in finery and given all manner of good food and drink, he was informed of his impending death and then made to dance. If the temple priests saw that he was not dancing as enthusiastically or as well as they expected him to, he was given a drink of itzpacalatl, which was a mix of cacao and water used to wash obsidian blades. These were sacrificial blades, and therefore crusted in blood. The sacrifice would be rejuvenated and joyful after drinking this mixture of blood and chocolate, and dance to his death (Coe 103-104).

Cacao was also present in Aztec mythology. The Chimalpopoca Codex includes a myth similar to the creation tale in the Mayan Popol Vuh, in which the gods created man from maize, cacao, and other plants brought from the Mountains of Sustenance (Seawright 5). Additionally, the Codex Fejervary-Meyer, depicts a cacao tree as part of the universe:

From the Codex Fejervary-Mayer
Figure 3: The Tree of the South from the Codex Fejervary-Mayer

“It is the Tree of the South, the direction of the Land of the Dead, associated with the color red, the color of blood. At the top of the tree is a macaw bird, the symbol of the hot lands from which cacao came; while to one side of the tree stand Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Land of the Dead” (Coe 101). This is one of many examples showing how ancient Mesoamericans linked their understand of divinity and spirituality with cacao (Seawright 5). It is also yet another instance in which we see cacao as intrinsic to Aztec mythology and art, as well as connected to blood.

Works Cited

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

Seawright, Caroline. “ARC2AZT Essay: Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where Did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate?” N.p., 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

“Codex Fejérváry-Mayer.” FAMSI – Akademische Druck – U. Verlagsanstalt – Graz – Codex Fejérváry-Mayer. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
“Maya Codices – The Madrid Codex.” FAMSI – Maya Codices – The Madrid Codex. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

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