Pre-Columbian Mayan Culture Surrounding Cacao and Chocolate

In ancient Mayan civilization, cacao was revered as a food of divine origin, appearing in many important ritualistic ceremonies and religious hieroglyphics. Cacao was featured throughout Mayan mythology as incredibly important to the gods, was used extensively in marriage rituals, and was even used in the military in times of war. The prevalence of Cacao in ancient Mayan civilization certainly sheds more light on the importance of chocolate in Mesoamerican history.

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The Dresden Codex

The Classical-Era Maya existed between 250CE and 900CE (Martin). One can see in texts as early as the Dresden Codex and Madrid Codex evidence of cacao being featured with ritualistic significance (Martin). These Codexes were a series of Pre-Columbian Mayan books written in hieroglyphics, and cacao was shown to be consumed by gods within the texts. In addition to this, the Popol Vuh, a colonial document containing Maya myth in its entirety, features cacao throughout in religious or divine contexts (Martin). We can scan these texts for insight on cacao’s place in the stories of the gods. The Mayan moon goddess IxChel and the rain god Chac are depicted in the Madrid Codex to use cacao in order to preserve the earth’s fertility (Martin).

Many Mayans most likely consumed cacao drinks in order to communicate with various gods, including those of nature, fertility, and rain (Garthwaite). Burial sites had cacao in them, and many were buried with cacao pots within in order to accompany the souls of the dead into the afterlife. It was believed that the energy provided by cacao – as it contains caffeine – would stimulate the dead spirits and ease their journey to the underworld (Martin). The energy-boosting effects of cacao, although not thoroughly understood, were taken advantage of in other ways as well. Mayan warriors who consumed cacao before battle were considered to be much stronger, even invincible (Martin). Many warriors would even wear cacao pods in their armor to serve as spiritual protection.

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Mayan dish depicting cocoa being ground

Cacao was also important for marriage rituals; the groom often invited the father of the bride for a chocolate drink and to discuss the marriage (Martin). In addition, cacao seeds were often used as marriage dowry. Chocolate was used to seal the marriage, and in some locations, brides were expected to make cacao and prove that they were able to make it with adequate ability (Garthwaite). Aside from marriage, many special occasions and initiation ceremonies included cacao drinks, especially those for young men (Garthwaite). In Mayan civilization, cacao and chocolate became associated with celebration, religious ritual, and status.

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World Tree depicted in Mayan cylindrical vessel

Cacao was also considered the “World Tree” in areas where cacao trees grew – these ancient World Trees were considered the center of the universe and the source of all living things (“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.”). The World Tree was obviously sacred, connecting Sky, Earth, and Underworld vertically in order to allow travel between them. Ancient Mayan artifacts show images connecting the cacao tree and the sacred maize tree, depicting cacao as being among the first trees to grow from the Maize God’s body (“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.”). This Maize God became the world tree, and drinking chocolate was considered to be a way of commemorating this event.

The significance of cacao in Mayan beliefs and practices is truly remarkable, as it played a central role in the Mayan way of life. The next time we have a bite of our favorite kind of chocolate, we can think of countless people who constructed entire religions and cultures around something so small. It is truly incredible, to say the least.

Works Referenced:

  • “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Maya at Mexico Lore. N.p., 26 Jan. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.
  • FA2010. Maya Cylindrical Vessel DMA. Digital image. Https://commons.wikimedia.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
  • Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian. Smithsonian, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.
  • InverseHypercube. Förstemann Dresden Codex. Digital image. Https://commons.wikimedia.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
  • Martin, Carla D., PhD. “Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the Gods”.” 3 Feb. 2016. Lecture.
  • Yelkrokoyade. Metate Maya. Digital image. Https://commons.wikimedia.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
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