Extension Graduate Model Essay: “Food of the Gods,” or Chocolate and the Sacred in Ancient Mayan Culture

Republished with the permission of the author as an Extension Graduate Model Essay.

In Aztecs: An Interpretation, Inga Clendinnen explains that “the beverage most coveted by the Mexica lords was…chocolatl: the ground beans of the cacao tree beaten to a sweet foamy froth with honey and maize gruel, then gently warmed” (195). While Clendinnen mistakenly attributes the fondness of the Maya for warm chocolate to the Aztecs, who most commonly took their chocolate cool (Coe and Coe 84), she is otherwise correct in her account of Mesoamerican chocolate. Cool or warm, this beverage played a major role in many spiritual observances for the ancient Maya.1 Based on the archaeological record available to us—incorporating both literary and material sources—the Mayas did indeed treat chocolate as a “food of the gods,”2 shown by a strong relationship between their deities and the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree.

Theobroma cacao (red pods - Haiti)
Pictured here are cacao pods growing directly from the tree trunk (Hobgood) as cacao is a member of the botanical category of cauliflory (C. Martin “Sugar”). In order to interpret Mayan depictions of cacao in relation to their gods, it is necessary to understand how the pods grow.
Although one should not make assumptions about ancient spiritual practices based on contemporary concepts of religion, it is equally important to respect the significance of this belief system for the ancient Maya. In order to understand what are [partially] historical belief systems,3 a reasonably broad definition of religion is needed; conveniently, Charles Long defines religion as “how one comes to terms with…one’s place in the world” (qtd by C. Martin “Mesoamerica”). Mayan religious ritual, which we know through codices and art, provided a sense of meaning for the people, particularly in context of a system ruled by kings who “acted with sacred authority” (Schele and Miller 42). Using this definition, the Mayan belief system certainly counts as a religion for the purposes of analyzing the religious significance of cacao.

Dresden_Codex_p09
This page from the Dresden Codex is a good example of the few extant Mayan texts available today (Wikimedia Commons), many of which depict cacao intertwined with deities.

An interpretation of one such extant text, the Popol Vuh, suggests that cacao was not special among the foods valued by the Maya in their religious stories. Although the gods did use cacao to build humans in this creation myth, it appears in the following extensive list: “yellow corn, white corn, and thick with pataxte…, arid cacao, countless zapotes, anonas, jacotes, nances, matasanos, sweets” (Coe and Coe 39-40). The authors suggest that because cacao is part of this “market basket,” it was “not the revered substance it was to become” (39). That being said, images of cacao appear in the Dresden Codex as the food of the gods and in the Madrid Codex as the food over which four gods spilled their blood (42-43). Furthermore, anthropologist LeCount proposes that Mayan elites likely seized means of cacao production due to its complicated production and corresponding value, supporting the idea of cacao as a signifier with political and religious value (948).4 Even though cacao does rest in the market basket, so to speak, its repeated appearance in the few available sacred texts suggest that it held quite an emphatic place in the Mayan faith.

Mayan - Lidded Vessel - Walters 20092039 - Side B
This Mayan lidded drinking vessel depicts the Maize God wearing a cacao tree headdress, one of many pictorial representations of the deeply rooted relationship between gods and chocolate (Wikimedia Commons).

Indeed, the ancient Maya created items decorated with elaborate scenes featuring gods wearing or entwined with cacao pods, often connected to the other fundamental Mayan crop and corresponding god—maize. Both cacao and maize were offerings made to the gods in the hopes of agricultural success (McNeil 14), but cacao held special value. Significantly, Simon Martin argues that cacao, not maize, holds the “privileged position” as the first foodstuff to spring from the Maize God’s body (163). In the Mayan drinking vessel pictured above, cacao pods decorating the Maize God’s headdress can be seen in the top right hand corner. This vessel is not the only Mayan artifact featuring the Maize God and cacao pods in close quarters—Coe and Coe, among others, document two additional images where the cacao plant is part of the god’s anatomy. In the first, the Maize God’s head grows from the trunk of the cacao tree just like its neighboring pods (Coe and Coe 39), and in the second, cacao pods sprout from the god’s body as if he is the tree trunk itself (43). The Maya also prominently displayed the chocolate beverage, often already frothed in an open container, in art featuring the society’s elites, reinforcing the significance of cacao to the Maya (Presilla 13; Coe and Coe 44). Such is the extent of cacao in religious images, that the absence of a cacao god beyond the rare “anthropomorphic cacao tree” and cacao iconography on the Maize God is surprising (Miller and Martin 63).

Despite the ambiguous evidence of the Popol Vuh on the unique status of cacao, its multiple appearances there and in other extant documents and artifacts, particularly the images of cacao interspersed with sacred beings or members of the ruling class, strongly suggest that cacao was an item of religious significance for the Maya. Indeed, the preponderance of cacao images in a spiritual context and the food’s elite status, both religious and social, implies that cacao was a uniquely sacred item.

Notes

  1. The Aztecs’ relationship with cacao and their gods is also fascinating; however, the intricacies of those dynamics would require another blog post altogether.
  2. This common saying became canon (or perhaps it was the other way around!) when Carolus Linnaeus classified the tree from whose fruits chocolate is derived, Theobroma cacao, Theobroma: “fruit of the gods,” followed by the “inferior” cacao, derived from the native language (Presilla 5; C. Martin “Sugar”).
  3. I say “[partially] historical belief systems” because the Maya survive to the present day (Schele and Miller 9), and speaking of indigenous peoples in the past tense is highly problematic, holding the potential to erase the realities and the concerns of contemporary Mayans from the public consciousness.
  4. This scenario suggests something of a chicken or egg question—did cacao become valued due to its religious significance, or perhaps, did it take on religious significance due to its high value in Mayan society?

Works Cited

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge UP: Cambridge, UK, 1991. Print.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Hobgood, Nick. “Theobroma cacao (red pods – Haiti).” Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theobroma_cacao_(red_pods_- _Haiti).jpg.

LeCount, Lisa J. “Like Water for Chocolate: Feasting and Political Ritual among the Late Classic Maya at Xunantunich, Belize.” American Anthropologist 103.4 (2001): 935-953. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 4 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 18 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil. Gainesville, UP of Florida, 2009. 154-183. Print.

McNeil, Cameron L. “Introduction: The Biology, Antiquity, and Modern Uses of the Chocolate Tree.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil. Gainesville, UP of Florida, 2009. 1-28. Print.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Thames & Hudson: New York, 2004. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print.

Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. George Braziller, Inc.: New York, 1986. Print.

Unknown Artist. Dresden Codex p09. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dresden_Codex_p09.jpg.

Unknown Artist. Lidded Vessel. Walters Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_B.jpg#file.

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