Religion and Cacao: their interconnection in regards to meaning in Ancient Mayan Culture

In Sweetness and Power, Audrey Richards, anthropology’s best students of food and ingestion once said, “food choices and eating habits reveal distinctions in the wider sphere of human society it determines, more largely than any other physiological function, the nature of social groupings, and the form their activities take” (Mintz 3-4). Richard’s statement becomes more authentic when taking note of the impact of religious beliefs in terms of the cacao tree. Religious beliefs and meaning are intertwined with each other when focusing on the sacred. Taking notice that the cacao tree was the World Tree in cacao-growing regions (Martin), the tree itself, along with its produce can reveal meaning in a religious context by its association with various indicators of the life cycle of indigenous peoples, by its use with rituals, in religion and at death.

While the term “meaning” can be a subjective term, it can be defined in many different ways, including “as a process where one increases his or her understanding in a way that allows one to regain a sense of purpose” (Park 3). Therefore, meaning can be everywhere if one’s imagination created such a realm much like the beliefs of the Maya where the cacao tree was part of the creation myth and thus the start of life, a central theme of an interconnection with the divine.


As the belief of the Maya and Aztec believed that man was created from cacao, maize, and other good plant foods, their beliefs intertwine with the way they saw the world as being multi-tiered (Martin). Seeing the world as multi-tiered in this context means, “consisting of the Above Realm of the heavens; the middle Earthly Realm, the home of living humanity; and the watery Beneath Realm of the dead and thus of the ancestors”(Reilly). The image above gives this example as the tree connects the vertical realms of Sky, Earth and Underworld for travel between worlds (Martin). Here, one can then see the significance of the cacao tree, and the spectrum of how the tree takes part in religion. This also signifies the interconnection between man vs cacao, and cacao vs man. However, the Popol Vuh, lacks a sense of interconnection between man vs cacao to a certain degree.


Maize God suspended in a cacao tree.

An interpretation of an uncompleted version of the Popol Vuh claims that cacao, along with other good plant foods, was part of the creation myth and thus the start of life. As cacao was revered in a class among other good food, being disdained as an elite food, cacao appeared to be a revered substance from what it was supposed to be (Coe and Coe 39-40). While the authors suggest that because cacao is part of this “market basket,” it was “not the revered substance it was to become”, this suggestion not only becomes ambiguous, but also lacks credibility as we do not have access to the full epic at least known to Classic Maya as in one post-Conquest source, one of the Hero Twins (Hanahpu) invented the processing of cacao (Coe and Coe 39-40). That being said, cacao appears in the image above with the Maize God suspended in a cacao tree, in vessels at burial sites (picture below), and in many other superfluous ways, deeming cacao to be a supernatural food rather than part of the typical “market basket” food.


 Pottery jar from a tomb at Rio Azul, Guatemala

Among the many empowering artifacts that cacao took presence in, and still does, the essence of cacao in vessels such as the pottery above amplifies a sacred meaning in a religious context. While investigating a tomb of a middle-aged ruler at some time during the last half of 5th century AD located at Rio Azul, Guatemala, the tomb appeared to be full of the paraphernalia of chocolate consumption. One of the paraphernalia (presented in the image above) was a stirrup-handled pot with two hieroglyphs that read, “cacao.” Under further investigation, David Stuart and Stephen Houston came to the conclusion that the hieroglyph’s full message was that, “the dead lord began his voyage through the underworld with sustaining portions of what were probably several different chocolate drinks by his side”( Coe and Coe 46). This signifies that chocolate soothed a person of significance upon the nearby arrival of death in a sense of transition. As the Mayas saw the world as multi-tiered, one could analyze that cacao provided a smoother transition from the earthy realm, to perhaps, the “Above Realm” or the “Beneath realm”, or consumption of cacao upon death could be a sign of regrowth for their World Tree if not both.

In terms of the Maya, “meaning” is stemmed from their belief of a multi-tiered world in relevance of their world tree. While the “Popul Vuh” may not have given cacao its prestigious identity that it deserves, with lack of access to the full epic, one cannot make qualifying claims. Further exploration on this topic would be to focus on ritual burning in terms of the Mayas, as “its overall significance centered on the king and his special role as one who could renew time and its perpetuity.”(Scarborough) Through this context, “meaning” broadens to a whole new sphere.

Work Cited:

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

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 03 Feb. 2016. Class Lecture.

Mintz, S. (1985). “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History”. New York: Penguin Books. Print.

Park, Crystal L. “Religion and Meaning.” Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Eds. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park. New York: The Guilford Press, 2005.

Reilly, F. Kent III. “Mesoamerican Religious Beliefs: The Practices and Practitioners.” The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology. Web.

Scarborough, L. Vernon. “A Catalyst of Ideas: Anthropological Archaeology and the Legacy of Douglas W. Schwartz. pp. 257-286. The School of American Research Press, Santa Fe. 2005.

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