Significance of Cacao in Mayan Civilization: Exposing the Divine Origins of Chocolate and its Mysticism

Cacao and chocolate were important aspects of Mesoamerican civilizations’ customs and beliefs. In addition to drinking chocolate, Mayan societies utilized cacao for ritualistic purposes, an interesting aspect of chocolate’s history that deserves further exploration. While the Olmecs, active from 1500 to 400 BCE, were most likely the first to make chocolate from cacao beans, the focus will be on the Mayans’ utilization of chocolate. Evidence suggests that cacao was an integral part of their society as it was embedded in their religious beliefs. Understanding these historical uses and origins of cacao illuminates the reasons chocolate is represented as a luxurious item in today’s society. The representation of cacao in the Mayan religion established chocolate as a powerful entity, which shaped the ways that chocolate was utilized, and contributed to its essence of purity.

            The common association of cacao with godly figures derives from its origin story. According to Mayan religious beliefs, their gods discovered cacao.[1] Consequently, cacao, or chocolate, is termed “food of the gods.”[2] There are two Mayan Gods worth mentioning to emphasize the importance of cacao in their society. The first, Ek Chuah, was supposedly honored by the Maya in an annual festival.[3] While some chocolate historians term Ek Chuah the Maya Merchant God, others refer to Ek Chuah as the Cacao God.[4][5] Regardless, Ek Chuah was an important deity to the Mayans, and commonly presented with cacao or a cacao tree.[6] The second, the Maize God, was an important deity, as maize was necessary to sustain life.[7] The image below illustrates the Maize God, on the right, presumably conversing with the figure on the left (Image 1). The Maize God is depicted as older and in control of the discussion, compared to the younger, timid being on the left, suggests he is authoritative in the Mayan religion. In another recreation of the Maize God, he is portrayed as a cacao tree.[8] That cacao is associated with this powerful god signifies the importance of cacao in Mayan religion and justifies its use in significant Mayan rituals.

maize_god_and_itzamnc3a1

(Image 1)

            The strong connection between cacao and the gods established chocolate as a mystical and highly valued substance. Records from Mayan society, written in hieroglyphics, reveal the significance of cacao in the Mayan rituals. One document, called the Dresden Codex, describes rituals in which the gods consume cacao.[9] Another document, called Popol Vuh, also mentions cacao in combination with godly rituals.[10] That cacao was used by divine beings qualifies chocolate as a divine entity as well. Labeling chocolate as “food of the gods” implicates cacao as a substance worthy to unworldly beings, which has resulted in mystical and pure connotations being attached to cacao. These associations have extended to the present-day, demonstrated by the chocolate named “Food of the Gods,” displayed in the image below (Image 2). This brand name implies this chocolate is pure and of high quality. That this phrase and idea is employed in chocolate marketing strategies today validates the historical significance of cacao’s divine origins, and is representative of expectations that chocolate is pure and of high value.

1411838976

(Image 2)

            The symbolic importance of cacao is exemplified by the Mayas’ incorporation of chocolate pottery vessels in their burial rituals. Cacao was included in numerous different ceremonies in Mayan society, including baptisms, banquets, weddings, and funerals.[11] Fascinatingly, archaeological excavation of ancient Mayan graves found tombs filled with chocolate pottery vessels.[12] Noteworthy, these vessels are only found in tombs of the Mayan elite presumably because only those in the highest social circles consumed chocolate.[13] The image below pictures a pottery vessel from Classic Maya society that contained chocolate (Image 3).[14] This presents a characteristic chocolate pottery vessel buried in a tomb of a Mayan elite. The delicate shape and intricacy of the images on the side of the vessel indicate that not only was chocolate highly valued, but the container the substance was consumed from was also of high value, probably only affordable by the wealthiest Mayans. The purpose of burying these formerly cacao-filled pottery vessels with the deceased resided in the Mayan belief that chocolate assisted the soul’s travel to death.[15] Perhaps Mayan society only buried these pottery vessels with the elite because they were the only individuals worthy of cacao’s powers in the afterlife. Again, this represents the mystical abilities of cacao, attributable to its divine origins and association with the gods.

alv14539

(Image 3)

            The use of chocolate for medicinal purposes in Mayan society also exemplifies the mystical abilities associated with cacao, attributable to its discovery by the gods. In most modern western societies today, chocolate is not used as a medical treatment, but rather is detrimental to health when consumed in large quantities. The Mayans utilized chocolate for health ailments such as digestive issues, fatigue, and inflammation.[16] Similar to the argument made for chocolate’s powers in the afterlife, the belief in cacao’s healing powers also arguably originates from its divine origins. The belief that chocolate possessed healing abilities portrays it as a mystical substance. This is historically significant because while the Mayans may have been the first society to utilize cacao for medicinal purposes, it is certainly not unique to their society now, as this treatment was adopted by cultures and societies as cacao spread throughout the world in subsequent centuries.[17] The Aztecs and even doctors in 16th and 17th century Europe placed faith in the healing powers of cacao.[18] The medicinal use of cacao helped cement the illusion of chocolate as a pure, mystical, and powerful substance, These mystical abilities established chocolate as a special, highly-valued, and pure substance, perceptions of cacao that have persisted to the present-day.

Thinking of chocolate probably triggers happy memories for most people, but for most individuals in modern western societies today, it most likely does not elicit symbolic or religious meaning. However, for the Mayans, chocolate was strongly associated with their gods and played an active role in their rituals. Cacao possessed powerful skills, able to help the dead pass into the afterlife, and cure health ailments. The association of cacao with divine beings established chocolate as a special substance, and set a precedent for it as a highly-valued, pure, and luxurious item, only to be consumed by worthy, elite individuals. The symbolic significance and use of cacao in Mayan society plays an important historical role in how chocolate would be used and by whom in the following centuries, and the connotations attached to it in present-day cultures.

[1] Teresa L. Dillinger, Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti, “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate,” The American Society for Nutritional Sciences 130 (2000): 2057-72, accessed March 7, 2017, http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf+html.

[2] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,” in The True History of Chocolate, (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013), 33-64.

[3] Dillinger et al., “Food of the Gods.”

[4] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[5] Dillinger et al., “Food of the Gods.”

[6] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[7] Donatella Lippi, “Sin and Pleasure: The History of Chocolate in Medicine,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 63 (2015): 9936-9941, accessed March 7, 2017, doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.5b00829.

[8] Coe and Coe, “The Tree,” 43.

[9] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Carla D. Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods,’” lecture for Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food course, Cambridge, MA, February, 1, 2017.

[12] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Coe and Coe, “The Tree,” 47.

[15] Martin, “Mesoamerica.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lippi, “Sin and Pleasure.”

[18] Dillinger, “Food of the Gods.”

References

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods.” In The True History  of Chocolate, 33-64. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.

Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The American Society for Nutritional Sciences 130 (2000): 2057-72. Accessed March 7, 2017. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf+html.

Lippi, Donatella. “Sin and Pleasure: The History of Chocolate in Medicine.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 63 (2015): 9936-9941. Accessed March 7, 2017. Doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.5b00829.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods.’” Lecture for Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food course, Cambridge, MA, February, 1, 2017.

Multimedia sources

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maize_God_and_Itzamn%C3%A1.JPG

Image 2: http://www.foodofthegods.org.uk/

Image 3: http://www.artehistoria.com/v2/contextos/3850.htm

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