Ancient Mayan Codices and the Importance of Associations

Much of our knowledge about the centrality of cacao in the lives of ancient peoples is derived from analysis of original texts.  The most comprehensive and original written record about ancient Mayan civilization is found in the Dresden and Madrid codices, very few of which are still intact today.  The codices are pictographic texts that can be subjectively interpreted by modern scholars to infer about aspects of Mayan life.  Yet, since these glyphs do not possess the raw communicative power of modern language, interpreters must form of a web of associations in order to understand the role of different objects in Mayan customs.  The importance of cacao can be determined from these glyphs because of its frequency of appearance, the objects surrounding it in the glyphs, and its centrality in interactions among Mayan deities.  This string of links is key to understanding the reverence with which ancient people viewed cacao.

Two deities exchange cacao. This scene is depicted in the Madrid Codex.

The two most complete Mayan codices are the Dresden Codex and the Madrid codex, and cacao appears multiple times in both.  It appears in numerous forms, such as the pods, seeds, trees, or chocolate products (Dreiss and Greenhill 35).  The appearance in multiple forms is significant to understanding Mayan culture because it showed their understanding of and their appreciation for the natural process that produces the goods in their world.  While depictions of chocolate products alone would imply limited understanding of the origins of cacao beverages, the presence of cacao in all stages of its development in the codices shows that the Mayan people felt a connection to the substance that exceeded bodily and culinary pleasures.  Cacao, in addition to being present in all forms, also surfaced in many ritualistic contexts in the codices.  It is associated with blood-letting, eating, rain, sun, life, and death, therefore present in most facets of life (Grivetti and Shapiro).  It is these associations that provide modern interpreters with hints as to the significance of cacao in the lives of Ancient Mayans.

The god of sustenance, K’awil, holds a bowl of cacao beans
The quetzal was valued highly by the the Mayans for its feathers

In the glyphs of the Madrid Codex, cacao can be seen paired with the quetzal bird in scenes involving one or more deities, and this association adds to the significance of cacao.  The quetzal is a species that still exists today and once made its home in the highland Maya area.  Its bright plumage produced feathers that were a prized item for trade and were depicted on the heads of deities in ancient glyphs (Grivetti and Shapiro).  The feathers were also worn by rulers as part of a headdress.  The quetzal appears in the Madrid codex above two cacao trees and the god Nik, the priest god.  The pairing of cacao and the quetzal naturally invokes circular logic as to whether the presence of the quetzal increased perceived value of cacao or vice versa, but it is undeniable that both were prized by the Mayans.  Their presence together in deeply ritualistic scenes strengthens conviction in the value of cacao.

The connection between cacao and the gods is the one that is most significant and prevalent in the codices.  In one scene, the moon goddess IxChel exchanges cacao with Chac, a god that influences the rain.

The rain god, Chaak, holds a bowl with cacao in his hands and wears a headdress of quetzal feathers.  This scene is from the Dresden Codex.

In another from the Dresden Codex, Chac holds a container of cacao beans next to the god of war and sacrifice, who is also offering cacao pods (Dreiss and Greenhill 35).  In the Madrid Codex, the gods perform blood-letting rituals, piercing themselves and allowing the blood to flow upon cacao pods (Dreiss and Greenhill 38).  These scenes are fascinating because they show that cacao was not only viewed as a connection between humanity and the divine but also as a unit of exchange among the gods as well.  The Dresden and Madrid codices are evidence that cacao was fundamental to the lives of the Mayan people.  The ubiquity of cacao in these scenes is important, but it is its associations with valuable goods such as quetzals and its role among the gods that elevate cacao to highest regard.

Picture sources

Quetzal :

For the pictures of the codices, thanks to:

Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández
2013  The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1. A website and database available at

Works cited

Dreiss, Meredith L., & Greenhill, Sharon (2008).  Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods.  University of Arizona Press.

Grivetti, Louis E., & Shapiro, Howard-Yana (2011).  Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage.  John Wiley & Sons.


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