Cacao has become a relatively ubiquitous commodity today, but it once held a far more important role, as a significant part of Mayan and Aztec culture and history. It could even be said that cacao was became one of the most fundamental motifs in helping Mesoamerican’s understand and orient themselves to the world. Cacao iconography was found throughout the region in pre-Columbian times. It is related to numerous themes found on Mesoamerican vessels and other objects. This includes themes such as fertility and sustenance, sacrifice and regeneration, as well as embodiment and transformation (Martin). The current scientific name of cacao, Theobroma cacao, translates to ‘food of the gods’, a modern hint to its historical importance to religion.
Possibly the most important link that cacao has to religion within Mesoamerican society is the origination story in the Popol Vuh, a history of Mayan origination that was eventually transcribed by a Dominican Friar Francisco Ximénez. The Popol Vuh contains many references to cacao and is commonly translated as ‘the book of the people’, indicating its core connection to the people and through association, the importance of cacao.
According to a version of the story, Huracan and other deities created a heart of the land, and planted a tall tree connecting the sky and the earth. The roots penetrated into the underworld, the trunk was at the surface, and the branches reached up to the heavens. In some versions of this story the tree is even partially depicted as a cacao tree, suggesting that cacao connects the underworld, the earth, and the heavens. A pair of twins who ended up becoming the sun and the moon were conceived when their father spit on their mother’s hand. Their father in fact is frequently depicted as a cacao tree, and the twins journey is made in order to resurrect their father from the underworld. With the sun and the moon created, the deities were then able to successfully create humans from maize. The story shows how Mayans looked to cacao in order to help define their own creation and existence.
In addition to helping define their place in the world, cacao was also used to help them clarify their relationship to death. Cacao iconography is frequently seen outside the realm of drinking vessels for celebration or in terms of the origination story of the Maya. Many cacao depictions can be found around burial sites. Trees were planted over newly laid graves as tokens of future resurrection (Martin). We can see depictions of cacao trees on the sarcophagus of Pakal, an important Mayan figure. Saplings emerging from cracks in the ground can be identified as cacao. The growth of cacao here is symbolic or resurrection and the cycle of new life after death. Cacao is an important metaphorical symbol of rebirth in Mayan iconography (Grofe). In similar depictions of cacao trees, they are anthropomorphized to represent ancestors. Looking to the lifecycle of cacao, Mayans were able to project meaning into their own death, with cacao used as a primary motif in this understanding.
Cacao became an integral part of Mayan religion through the way it could orient the people to the world around them. In itself, cacao is not inherently significant, but as a result of its importance in use and ubiquity in Mayan culture, cacao was an easy motif to use in their history and understanding of the world. It became a way for them to look at how they came into existence as well as begin to understand the role of death and new life. As a result of this role, cacao became an important motif in the iconography of Mesoamerica.
Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” Famsi.org, 2007, http://www.famsi.org/research/grofe/GrofeRecipeForRebirth.pdf.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.
Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld, 2005, http://www.ecoyuc.com.mx/articles.php?task=detail&aid=30.