Maya, Cacao, and the Creation Myth Popol Vuh.
One of the important themes of Unit 1 has been the influence of cacao on the Ancient Mayan civilization. Cacao was an important part of Mayan culture, and a desired delicacy. However, cacao was not just a tree or a food to eat, its significance extends to the metaphysical: the Mayan creation myth, Popol Vuh, makes several references to cacao. Thus, the reason cacao is held to such a pedestal in the Mayan culture is because it bares some credit for the existence of humanity.
Popol Vuh was one of the important stories discussed during Unit 1. It is a Mayan creation myth, which goes as follows: In the very beginning, there was not much to the world—other than nothingness and water. There were also six Gods who existed during this time. They created the Earth and separated it from the Sky by planting a tree. Plants were created next, followed by animals. Animals, however, could not pay respect and worship to the Gods, so the Gods created humans. In their first attempt, they used mud. These humans were soulless and sinful so the Gods punished them by a great flood. The Gods next tried to create humans from wood; but they, too, could not pay respect to their makers, so were destroyed or became primates. During this time, the Sun and Moon did not exist. A bird, Seven Macaw, pretended to be the Sun and Moon, but it was killed by two heroic twins, Hunajpu and Xbalanque. These two twins came to existence when their deceased father’s head spat onto their mother’s hand from a cacao tree. The twins, after going through many difficulties, were able to resurrect their father into the form of the Maize God. The heroic twins would ultimately become the Sun and the Moon. The corn from their father would be the substance used to create the true humans of the world (Living Maya Time).
Along with the corn, one of the other ingredients that went into making true humans was cacao. Ancient Mayans, in turn, learned how to make chocolate by taking cacao pods, removing the beans, letting them germinate and ferment before roasting them, grounding them, and then adding water to get the liquid texture. (Black Edgar, The Power of Chocolate, pg. 23)
The Smithsonian has also created an amazing video with great art and a vivid rendering of this creation myth:
What is the significance of chocolate in this story? Cacao makes several appearances in the myth. For instance, the Lords of Death killed the heroic twins’ father—Hun Hunahpu. His severed head was left on a cacao tree, which grows the chocolate beans. In other accounts, the tree is the gourd tree, with fruits that resemble skulls and that were used by Mayans to drink chocolate. Regardless, it was the allure of the tree that attracted the heroic twins’ mother—who was the daughter of the lord of the underworld—to go and speak to the severed head, from which she was impregnated (Gorman Museum).
Furthermore, cacao was one of the ingredients that the Gods needed to successfully create humanity. It was not just simply corn, but a combination of things—cacao being one of them—that the deities needed in order to create stable humans. Mud and wood did not work. In other words, cacao is in the essence of humanity. Also, without it, the Hero twins would not exist, meaning that the Sun and the Moon would cease to exist as well. Thus, cacao embodies the spirit of nature. Not only does it bare some credit for humanity, but it also has some responsibility for the natural order of the world—keeping it in harmony and balance through the sun and the moon. To the Mayans, it is clear that cacao is more than just a tree or a food, it is a big part of the world.
Here is an illustration of Hunahpu’s head on the Gourd Tree and the Twins’ mother.
We also see depictions of the Maize God (the resurrected Hunahpu) as cacao pods on a Mayan Vase. The recurrent references to cacao show just how important they are to Mayan culture and mythology.
Source: Authentic Maya
“The Creation Story of the Maya.” Living Maya Time. Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <http://maya.nmai.si.edu/sites/default/files/transcripts/the_creation_story_of_the_maya.pdf>.
“The Creation Story of the Maya.” Youtube.com. SmithsonianNMAI, 14 June 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jb5GKmEcJcw#t=28>.
Edgar, Blake. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology 63.6 (2010): 20-25. Jstor.org. Archaeological Institute of America. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/41780626>.
“The Tree of Xibalba: Cacao and the Ancient Maya.” Gorman Museum. University of California, Davis, 4 Oct. 2007. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <http://gormanmuseum.ucdavis.edu/Exhibitions/FLASH/PastFlash/Cacao/Cacao.htm>.
“Popol Vuh VII.” Deviantart.com. Cascarin, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <http://cascarin.deviantart.com/art/Popol-Vuh-VII-72258309>.
“Vaso Popol Vuh.” Authenticmaya.com. Authentic Maya. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <http://www.authenticmaya.com/images/vaso popol vuh.jpg>.