The Role of Cacao in Aztec Customs

Introduction to Aztecs

The Aztecs were the people of the fifth sun who lived in Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) and spoke the Nahuatl language. From the 14th-16th centuries they dominated much of Mesoamerica, however, history remembers them as cruel, volatile and sadistic people. This stereotype arose because it benefited the Spaniards to paint the Aztec people in a bad light. The quote, “history is written by the victors” illuminates this point. What we study and remember about historical events comes from the eye of those who are able to live and tell the story. The fact of the matter is that we will never know everything about the Aztec culture but one thing we know for sure is that the cacao bean was incredibly significant in their everyday lives.


Making of Chocolate

Figure 1. This image shows the care and time it takes to make the chocolate drink. In this picture the women is moving the chocolate from one basin to another in order to create a layer of foam.

When we think of chocolate today we think of a sweet, brown block of food that is enjoyed as a desert or a sugary snack. This chocolate is derived from the theobroma cacao bean. The Aztecs used these theobroma cacao beans in a very different way. A man known as the Anonymous Conqueror, a gentleman of Hernan Cortez, described the way chocolate was prepared in Tenochtitlan. The seeds of cacao were ground and made into a powder that was put into basins and mixed with water. After mixing for an extended period of time they change it from one basin to another in order to create a layer of foam. When completed, the delicacy is to be served cold as a drink. (Coe and Coe, 87) “The conqueror describes this drink as the healthiest thing and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”(Coe and Coe, 87) Chocolate in the Aztec culture was not a sweet drink for everyone to enjoy; it had an intense bitter taste and was reserved for the Aztec elite.



Chocolate Drinking, A Royal Pleasure

The drinking of chocolate was primarily for the Royal house, the lords and nobility. The only commoners who had the privilege of drinking chocolate were the soldiers as it was thought to rejuvenate warriors before they entered battle. Chocolate was a delicacy that was not available to everyone in the Aztec culture. The drinking of chocolate was also a civil and ritualized process. According to Fray Bartolome de las Casas, who was one of the first Dominicans in the Americas, royalty drank chocolate out of calabash cups called xicalli in Nahuatl that were painted inside and out. Chocolate was also never drank during the meals rather it was sipped after the meal was over. “It was an ambrosia from the rich and exotic lands of Anahuac, not something to wash down one’s food.”(Coe and Coe, 94)



Role of Chocolate as Currency

The other interesting aspect of cacao that signified its importance in the Aztec culture was how it was used as a form of currency. According to the Codice Mendoza, cacao beans had taken on the status of legal money. “The cacao beans of Soconusco were particularly valued as records indicate an annual tribute of 200 hundred loads of 24,00 beans each to the capital.” (Presilla, 17) Another historical record of the importance of cacao was from Christopher Colombus’ son Ferdinand who recounted in a letter; “they dropped some nuts and immediately stooped to rescue any that dropped as if an eye had fallen from their heads” (Presilla, 17). Ferdinand was referring to the cacao beans when he said ‘nuts’ but the reaction of the Aztec people shows the importance of these beans and is testimony that they may have carried monetary value in addition to their intrinsic value.


Figure 2: The exchange of cacao beans between gods. Cacao was used in many ways and was also used as a form of currency.


Chocolate in Aztec Rituals




Figure 3. This image is a depiction of the heart extraction ritual that was performed once every year by the Aztec people. The use of chocolate in this ritual signifies its importance in the Aztec culture.

Chocolate was engrained in the culture and rituals of the Aztec people. When members of Aztec royalty and nobility hosted guests they would often invite them to partake in the drinking of chocolate. This gesture was meant as a great honor to the guest who received the chocolate. (Presilla, 19) Another specialized ritual that occurred every year among the Aztecs was the sacred heart extraction in Tenochtitlan. One slave would be chosen to dress up and impersonate the great god Quetzalcoatl for 40 days. When the 40 days came to an end the slave would be required to sacrifice himself to the gods. Throughout the process the slave had to act and dance joyously as if he was lucky to be honored as the one chosen to sacrifice himself to the gods. It is said that if the individual became melancholy he would be given a gourd of chocolate to drink. The slave would immediately forget the situation he was in and would return to his usual cheerfulness. (Coe and Coe, 102) The use of chocolate in these types of rituals shows how highly the Aztecs viewed chocolate and how important it was in their culture.





It is clear that the Aztec people viewed cacao as more than just a food or drink. Cacao was reserved for the elite of Aztec society and carried cultural and monetary significance that made it so important and so valuable to the Aztec people.



Works Cited:

  1. Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.
  2. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

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