Chocolate in Mayan and Aztec Religion

Some of the first civilizations to consume chocolate include the Mayans and Aztecs. However, chocolate not only plays an important role at the food table, but also makes its appearance in both civilizations’ religions. Despite having unique religions and cultures, the Mayans and Aztecs both valued chocolate as a valuable substance to be offered and the cacao tree as a divine symbol.

One of the places to look for residue of cacao would be through the buried offerings, often contained in vessels. Hieroglyphic translation and chemical analysis show that the Rio Azul vessel from present-day Guatemala contained cacao was an ingredient in a religious offering to help sustain the dead as they journey into the afterlife (Coe & Coe). The Aztecs, unlike the Mayans, had a more pessimistic view of the supernatural and their future. They believed that one day, they as the Fifth Sun will die just as the generations before (Coe & Coe). In order to appease the gods and hopefully continue their civilization, they occasionally gave sacrifices, whether in the form of precious goods or in the form of the most valuable substance for humans – blood (Carrasco 23). Occasionally, the Aztecs would dye chocolate with annatto, a seed that gives off a reddish pigment, to mimic  blood (Presilla 13). This suggests that the Aztecs saw cacao as an ingredient with characteristics similar to blood used in the theme of “world-renewing,” or consistent ritual. Thus, despite the differences in why and who the offerings are for, both civilizations view cacao as a substance of enough spiritual value to give.

Seeds from the achiote tree, which are ground into the red powder and mixed with chocolate to give a blood-like color

While containing different stories, many historians compare the similar themes, such as the connecting concepts and distributions of time and space, in Aztec and Mayan civilizations through religious documents. The two Mayan codices, the Madrid Codex and the Dresden Codex, feature the cacao tree as an “axis mundi,” or a vertical line that connects and goes through the underworld, earth, and the heavens(Coe & Coe). Similarly, the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer from the Aztecs also contains the cacao tree on the right(Coe & Coe). This tree represents time and space as the Tree of the South with the Direction of the Dead. Another striking feature of the depicted cacao pods, of course, is the vibrant red color, another Aztec analogy of cacao to blood. In both civilizations, the cacao tree symbolizes as a spiritual “marker,” as seen in through various pre-Hispanic religious documents.

Page from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, with cacao tree on the right

Many view the conquest of the Mesoamerican civilizations to be the end of its culture and religion. However, many religious and cultural ideas have been preserved or adapted, and chocolate still plays a significant role after these adaptations. The Popul Vuh was written during post-Conquest Maya and contains references to chocolate, often portraying the cacao tree as the birthplace for gods (Coe & Coe). Oaxaca (a region of nahuatl-speaking people under the Aztec’s control) also continued the trend of chocolate in the Day of the Dead. Chocolate is often offered to the dead in addition to marigolds and sugar skulls. Chocolate thus plays a role in the three Mesoamerican general themes of world-making (preparations), world-centering (altars), and world-renewing (communion). (Carrasco 145). The idea of chocolate and ritual persists in both regions (post-Mayan and post-Aztec) persist, despite conquest and changing times.

Calaveritas de Chocolate (Skulls of Chocolate), common during the Day of the Dead

The Aztecs and Mayans, while having relatively different religions, both value chocolate in religion and ritual. The views of chocolate as valuable offerings, or the general Mesoamerican religious theme of “world-renewing,” can be seen through the Mayan burial vases and the dyed Aztec chocolate offerings. Both civilizations also depict the cacao tree as a spiritual symbol of space and time. Lastly, the role of chocolate in ritual can be seen from colonial to modern-day Mexico in the Popul Vuh and the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. The relationship between chocolate and some of the general Mesoamerican themes, as well as its persistence through time, portray that chocolate isn’t just a sustaining beverage or currency, but a valuable substance.

Works Cited

Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica: Cosmovision and Ceremonial Centers. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.

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

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley, [Calif.: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

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