Forbidden Luxury: Aztec Chocolate Regulation and Tradition

Aztec sculpture with cacao pod. demonstrating its importance and ubiquity in Aztec culture. Wikimedia Commons image.

In most of the world today, chocolate is ubiquitous and cheap: 99-cent candy bars, discounted post-Valentine’s Day candies, and hot chocolate cafes allow members of every economic class to enjoy the sweet treat. It may seem incomprehensible that the enjoyment of chocolate was once heavily regulated. However, among the Aztecs, chocolate consumption was influenced by Aztec religious beliefs and laws, and subsequently limited by social rank and regulated by special traditions.

Despite the availability of chocolate to every social strata in Mayan society, most of the Aztec population was not allowed to taste the end product once the cacao beans were turned into drinkable chocolate. This restriction stands in contrast to the fact that cacao beans were used as everyday currency: three beans, for instance, would buy a freshly-picked avocado (The Telegraph). A few interrelated factors might resolve the discrepancy. The Aztecs had to import cacao from a distance, which naturally led to restrictions place on the availability of chocolate drinks and explains how pochteca, the long-distance merchants that traded chocolate, were given elevated status that allowed them to partake in drinking chocolate. These traders “travelled through very dangerous lands to reach their markets, and often fought pitched battles with hostile foreign groups” (Coe and Coe), and their ability to drink the fruits of their labors might have been compensation for their warrior-like class status.

Chocolate’s status as a luxury was also cemented by Aztec religious belief and legal sumptuary codes: the Aztecs believed that their god Quetzalcoatl had brought chocolate to humans and had been cast out of heaven for his blasphemy (Kerr). Cacao was even referred to as “heart and blood” in this warlike society, and cacao was important to both warrior and religious ceremonies. Additionally, the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina laid down sumptuary laws that banned commoners from drinking cacao, among other luxuries. The Aztecs only allowed members of the royal house, the nobility, long-distance merchants, and warriors to drink chocolate. In fact, under these laws, the only commoners who might have been able to taste chocolate would have been the soldiers on the march (Coe and Coe, 99). In that exceptional case, transportable, ground pellets made of cacao were rationed out to soldiers while on a campaign.

Pochteca on their journey, bent over with the weight of their cargo. Wikimedia Commons.

The act of drinking chocolate was also regulated by several traditions governing how chocolate could be served to elites. Chocolate drinks were never sipped or drunk during the meal; rather, chocolate was drunk at the end of the banquet as a dessert (Coe and Coe, 96). Fray Bartolome de las Casas recounted how chocolate was served in painted calabash cups and how the lords revered these vessels as though the cups “were gold and silver” (Coe and Coe 98). Bernadino de Sahagún corroborates the use of special gourd and calabash cups to serve chocolate. In one account of a banquet held by merchants (one of the classes allowed to partake in the chocolate tradition), Sahagún recounts how the meal ended with the lords being served chocolate out of fine cups while the lesser citizens drank chocolate from clay cups. The hierarchical regulation on chocolate extended even to the types of drinking vessels that a person was permitted to use during the ritual of drinking.

Mayan drinking vessels depicting nobles drinking chocolate. Found using Google image search with usage rights stipulated.

In conclusion, chocolate enjoyment was restricted in Aztec society by its strict hierarchal rules, and reinforced by religious beliefs. The fact that pochtecas were allowed to participate in drinking chocolate was probably a testament to the dangers encountered on trade routes and underscores how important cacao was to the Aztecs. Luckily, there are no such restrictions on chocolate today, and its wide availability makes it a democratic treat.


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