Chocolate is an important part of today’s culture. From holiday gifts, to travel souvenirs, this sweet aphrodisiac seems to be a uniting entity amongst individuals of all places. While many people could not imagine a life without chocolate, its history depicts an even richer connection between the cacao and the civilizations of those times.
For the Mayans, the cacao tree was seen as the bearer of all life, and the reason their civilization came into existence (Coe and Coe, 2013). Taken from the Popol Vuh, the story depicts two twins, the sons of the creators of the universe, who are beheaded in the Mayan underworld. The head of one twin, who would become the Maize God, is hung up on a cacao tree, and later impregnates a princess who gives birth to a second set of twins. These two twins fight to bring honor back to their land, and by resurrecting their father (the Maize God), they start the Mayan civilization. The planting of the cacao seed is depicted as a symbol of the start of a new life. This story is an example of how interconnected the Mayans felt with the cacao; not only did they think that chocolate drinks were sacred (Martin, 2015), but that they themselves came from this godly tree. The cacao tree was the source of all life.
The Mayans were not the only ones who thought cacao was holy. The Aztecs shared a similar feeling: “the cacao pod was a symbolic term, used in ritual, for the human heart torn out in sacrifice” (Coe and Coe, 2013). Every year a well-built slave would be chosen by the Aztecs to be sacrificed in the honor of the Quetzalcoatl God. For 40 days he would be treated as the God himself, at the end of which he would give up his life. If the slave got scared of the final step, the members gave him a chocolate drink that would make him “almost unconscious […] and would return to his usual cheerfulness and dance…” (Coe and Coe, 2013). Again, we see this emphasis on chocolate being an integral part of a cultural belief. The Aztecs relied on it to bring joy and cheerfulness to the one who drinks it, kind of like an alcoholic beverage. If you drink this chocolate mix then all your worries will disappear.
The symbolism of cacao being associated with gods has been a progressive theme throughout chocolate’s history. From the Dresden Codex illustrating various gods holding cacao pods and dishes with cacao beans, as well as the Madrid Codex which places more emphasis on ritualistic sacrifices– gods are usually depicted spilling their blood over the pods–, to the more modern interactions with chocolate (Carl Linnaeus naming it Theobroma cacao, which translates into food of the gods) (Martin, 2015), is it no wonder that chocolate is seen as something more than just a sweet delight. Even some chocolate commercials nowadays depict their products as being consumed by the Gods, that the recipes fell from Heaven, in order to make people associate their chocolate product with divinity and holiness.
Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The True History of Chocolate. London, Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Martin, Carla. AAAS 119x Lecture 3: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”. Conducted February 2, 2015.