I believe that most things in life are determined or enhanced by the relationship that they have with their environment. Cacao meant many things to the Mayans. It was a gift from the gods. It was currency. It was a liquid delicacy. It was all of these things and much, much more. What I am going to do is attempt to illustrate several different ways that cacao was valued by the Mayans by showing how it has been depicted in various pieces of Mayan artwork. My aim is to illustrate how a single cauliflorous plant can be so influential within the confines of a powerful culture such as the Mayans. By exploring the Mayan people’s multiple perceptions of cacao, I hope to invoke at least some sense of how the Mayans viewed this lone commodity with such importance.
In the above picture, two Mayan gods, the rain god Chac and the moon goddess IxChel, exchange cacao. This illustrates the connection that was believed to have existed between the gods and cacao according to the Mayans. In the eyes of the Mayan people, cacao inhabited both the spiritual and the physical realms. Also, an exchange, not unlike the one depicted in this photo, is often viewed as an act of goodwill or friendship. It is a coming together. Obviously, two Mayan gods giving cacao to each other is not only viewed as cooperative; it is viewed as demonstrating a particular value for cacao – a fruit that is worthy of the gods. In my opinion, this is a strong piece of evidence which showcases how precious cacao was to the Mayans.
Above is a portion of a picture of a flattened vase from the Guatemala Highlands. (By the way, only the colored photo on the left is from the original vase; the drawing on the right is a reproduction done by Dr. Simon Martin in 2006.) The cacao tree is depicted from the bottom of the vase all the way to the top. This could be a metaphor for the connection of the earth to the sky, the gods to the people, and the living to the dead. One theory is that God L killed the Maize God, and thus God L was now the caretaker of cacao. This image of the cacao tree springing up from the ground to the heavens illustrates the connection of the Mayan gods with the Mayans themselves. In a sense, the cacao tree is shown holding up the world. It provided stability and, of course, sustenance to the Mayan people.
On the left side of the above photo of a flattened vase is a depiction of a man who has passed away, and sprouting from this man are multiple trees, the middle one being a cacao tree. This implies the connection of the dead giving life to the living, which is a common theme in Mayan culture. This theme is often prevalent in cultures that are mainly agriculturally-based. Beyond the dead providing life to the living, this symbol, also, represents a different and deeper type of connection between the dead and the living. This is a connection that is more of a bridge than a one-way street, meaning that it runs in both directions. This symbiotic relationship is similar to the Mayan relationship to the physical cacao. It gives life and the pleasure of consumption, and is honored by the Mayan people in return. This gift of cacao was indeed recognized with great appreciation by the Mayans.
On the bottom towards the right of this rolled-out vase photo is shown a cacao tree growing out of a god (God L or possibly the Maize God), and it, also, features people around the tree who benefit from this gift. The god is shown at the bottom in order to reinforce the notion of a fulfillment of responsibility. In this sense, this god is subservient to the Mayan people, because it is his responsibility and duty to supply nourishment to those individuals. The god’s contribution benefits many as exemplified by the multitude of people who are present on this vase.
In addition to its spiritual and the consumable components, cacao had a currency component. It would be just as appropriate for the man portrayed in the sculpture to be holding a hundred dollar bill or a one ounce gold coin (if created in modern times, of course). He is showing the cacao pod off, holding it up, presenting it. It is valuable enough to display to others, and it was assumed by the sculptor that the viewer would understand the precious nature of cacao; otherwise there would have been no reason for him or her to have created this work of art.
In a sense, I believe that we will never really know the full extent of how the Mayans viewed cacao, because it possessed an importance that does not compare to any single item in modern society. It was a gift from the gods; it was eaten; it was exchanged like a commodity in barter trade; it was used as actual money; it was commissioned to honor the dead, and there were probably many, many other ways that it held precious value which may have been lost to history. Today we have several different tangible items that reflect one or more of the ways in which cacao was prized, however we do not have a single item that currently encompasses them all in the same way that cacao did for the Mayans. To me, that is the most amazing fact about cacao. Its tremendous and multi-faceted value was and still is unparalleled.