Mayans were cacao pioneers. Maricel E. Presilla writes in The New Taste of Chocolate that “It was the Maya who brought chocolate making to a high art” (Presilla 11). Mayans made a variety beverages with cacao, from a frothy drink that was prized by the upper class to a humbler porridge based on ground corn (Presilla 9). A variation on this porridge, or chocolate atole, is still widely made today and is now known as champurrado. This atole stands out as interesting in the context of the the agricultural Mayan religion that prized cacao but worshiped corn.
The Mayans recorded their complex cacao recipes, inscribing drinking vessels with glyphs for the beverage they contained (Presilla 12). These vessels could be beautiful pieces of clay pottery or hollowed-out gourds from the calabash tree. The calabash tree was religiously significant to the Mayans; the Popol Vuh creation myth outlines a story of two brothers who lose a ballgame to the lords of the underworld and are consequently decapitated. One of the brothers has his head hung in tree that then sprouts flowers and turns into a calabash tree. This unfortunate brother is the main deity in the Mayan religion, the Maize God (de Orellana 69).
Bernardino de Sahagún was a Franciscan friar and Spanish colonizer who took down a Spanish version of the Popol Vuh. This document has illuminated Mayan beliefs and traditions that were stifled and lost during the period of Spanish conquest. The version of the Popol Vuh that survives today mentions cacao, but not specifically; it’s brought up in conjunction with descriptions of the foods Mesoamericans would consume (Coe and Coe 41). Much of the text of the Popol Vuh is devoted to another crop, maize.
Maize was widely consumed by early Mesoamericans, constituting four fifths of their diet (Coe and Coe 38). The Maize God was a figure of high importance for a reason. Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe call maize “the Maya-and Mesoamerican-staff of life” (Coe and Coe 41). And just as corn was linked to life, Mayans saw cacao trees as a link to the land of the dead. In cacao growing regions the tree was seen as the World Tree or First Tree and as a connection to both heaven and the underworld (Martin).
Valentine Tibere writes beautifully on this dichotomy in the publication “Artes de México: Chocolate: Cultivation and Culture in pre-Hispanic Mexico”:
Corn, a solar plant, embodies light, resurrection on earth and the creation of humanity on Xmucane’s grinding stone. Corn—or Santo Gracia as the ancients called it—is thus related to public ceremonies and the general recognition of “the people of corn”: ancient and contemporary Mexicans. Cacao, growing in the gloom, secretly represents rebirth after death, gestation and germination in the primordial sea, the breath of life, the word entombed. Corn is earthly, it is the substance of human flesh and its sustenance, but its double, cacao, contains the secret embryo of birth or rebirth. Chocolate is the ferryman that helps us cross over from death to life, that regenerates our forces, that reawakens the slumbering spirit, that makes women pregnant, that revives the dead. (de Orellana 70)
So when corn and cacao are combined in invigorating and nourishing atoles a connection to life and death is established. Precious cacao elevates essential maize; as Mayans consumed these two highly valued crops they were partaking in an everyday demonstration of appreciation for the religious, agricultural culture their society was founded on.
Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1996. Print.
de Orellana, Margarita et al.. “Chocolate: Cultivation and Culture in Pre-hispanic Mexico”. Artes de México 103 (2011): 65–80. Web. 19 February 2016.
Martin, Carla D. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 February 2016. Class Lecture.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.