Chocolate and Divinity: Keeping the Hierarchy

Chocolate held a place in Aztec society that transcended its physical uses in food and medicinal strategies, and in turn, became a cultural symbol. Chocolate’s use in Aztec sacrifice rituals and connection to the human heart only further solidified the reality of chocolate as a symbol of both high status and divinity, serving as a tool with which to separate different Aztec classes.

The very source of chocolate, the cacao tree, even exhibits some of this divinity we later see in the sacrificial rituals. The cacao tree “appears as part of a cosmic diagram” a part of a pictorial depiction including symbols of death and presumably life, clearly very much a part of an Aztec interpretation of the spiritual plane. [i] Cacao beans and pods and the chocolate they produced, thus, were objects of power (and at the same time, perhaps, “unimaginable luxury.”)[ii] The Aztecs even went so far as to liken it, and mores specifically cacao pods (pictured here) to the human heart, the organ responsible for powering the body and pumping “precious” liquid — blood —through the veins of a human body.[iii] The heart lies quite literally at the center of the human universe, the most vital part of the body: a person cannot live without their heart.

A cacao pod, resembling a human heart.
A cacao pod, resembling a human heart.

These symbolic characterizations of chocolate as powerful and divine are further cemented during divine ritual. Cacao was “directly associated with heart extraction” in a sacrifice that would take place in Tenochtitlan. A slave, chosen on the basis of physical perfection would dress the in garments of the wealthy and divine in a symbolic impersonation of the god Quetzalcoatl.[iv] This continued for a period of 40 days until the night before the sacrifice itself were to take place, the slave would be allowed to drink liquid chocolate from a decorated gourd, mixed with the blood of previous sacrifices. The next day, the slave’s heart would be removed from his body in a ritual (depicted in the below image), while his body coursed with blood, chocolate and the blood of previous sacrifices.[v]

Depiction of Aztec sacrifice from the Codex Tudela
Depiction of Aztec sacrifice from the Codex Tudela

The Aztec Sacrifice (slightly graphic)

The combination of divine depiction of the cacao tree in the cosmic chart, the likening of cacao pods to the heart, the center of the human universe, and the use of chocolate in a sacrificial ritual only further elevated the importance of chocolate in Aztec society. It certainly wasn’t simply a food or drink. It became a commodity, that held meaning, that the elite could keep to themselves, something at once internally valuable, but also that could be used to separate the classes. Those who had chocolate, had an “ enhance[d]…connection with the divine world” and through that enhanced connection, naturally held a higher place in the Aztec social hierarchy.[vi] The rich had access to divine goods (chocolate) and the poor did not. Chocolate, thus, played a prominent role in differentiating social classes and determining individual importance in Aztec society.

[i] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print., 100

[ii] Blake Edgar Archaeology Vol. 63, No. 6 (November/December 2010), pp. 20-25

[iii] “Aztecs and Cacao: The Bittersweet past of Chocolate.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

[iv] Coe, 102-103

[v] Ibid, 102-103

[vi] Edgar, 20-25

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