The Worship of Cacao in Pre-Columbian Civilizations

Today we consume chocolate when we crave something sweet, as a warm drink on a cold day, or to acknowledge the ones we love on Valentine’s Day.  Chocolate is a part of our day to day life as an indulgence.  However, the culture of chocolate has developed and changed throughout the centuries.  The first uses and production of cacao can be tracked all the way back to Pre-Columbian civilizations where it was valued greater than a delicious treat.  Chocolate and cacao were staples in Pre-Columbian traditions, religion, status, and health and are portrayed in several artifacts and evidence we use to study the history today.

Thanks to companies such as Hersey’s or Ghirardelli, chocolate is consistently at an easy access and takes just minutes to retrieve from a nearby convenience store.  The process of chocolate making has not always been this simple and to Pre-Columbian civilizations, the making of cacao was a unique experience and the end result was never a bar of milk chocolate.  There were various methods of using cacao beans depending on the outcome these people desired.  In “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe”, it is expressed that cacao could be made into ritual offerings, beverages, and even currency during this time period.  Inscriptions on “monogrammed vases”, such as the one below, strongly reflect how the Mesoamericans “invested meaning in cacao” through their consumption and production (Martin and Sampeck, 39).  Through these and many other inscriptions, we are able to understand the presence of cacao and chocolate through one’s life during marriage rituals, religious practices, and at funerals.  

“Princeton Vase”, a Maya chocolate-drinking cup

At marriages, chocolate beverages were shared between the groom and the bride’s father during a pre-martial discussion.  In contrast, cacao was dried and dyed red during funeral processions and was believed to ease the soul into the afterlife, as portrayed in the image below. These chocolate beverages were prepared in a way very sacred to Mesoamericans.  It was made with a frothy foam that was believed to be for the soul.

“Codex Nuttal”, Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession

Cacao was highly emphasized in religion with the Mayas as they believed “cacao was discovered by the gods in a mountain and was to be given to the people following their creation,” (St Jean, 1).  Ek Chuah was believed to be the Cacao God and the cacao tree resembled one of the Maya’s most prized possessions.  Other Maya gods, such as the Maize God were often represented as cacao pods and trees in inscriptions revealing the importance of these Pre-Columbian rituals and beliefs. The term “World Tree” is used to describe the center of the universe connecting Gods, Sky, Earth and the Underworld. The World Tree was also essential for maintaining the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  Often, deities are represented as these World Trees in several artifacts. Different civilizations had trees that they believed was their World Tree and for cacao-growing regions, it was the cacao tree. 

The Maize God as a cacao pod on a Maya vase

As previously mentioned, cacao was also used as currency during this era. An Aztec document, the Nahuatl, contains a list of conversions from cacao beans to other various goods. “A male turkey is worth 200 cacao beans. A hare or forest rabbit is worth 100 cacao beans each.A small rabbit is worth 30.  One turkey egg is worth 3 cacao beans. An avocado newly picked is worth 3 cacao beans; when an avocado is fully ripe it will be equivalent to one cacao bean,” (Nahuatl, 1545).  According to “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe”, this was likely due to a currency crisis and a lack of small denominations (Martin and Sampeck, 41). In fact, cacao was also the target of counterfeiting and Mesoamericans would often empty the beans and fill them with mud of the equivalent weight.  Cacao was so precious to these individuals that it was difficult for those with cacao plants to give up this good in exchange for something else.  For this reason, cacao was a very practical instrument of currency, (A Tasty Currency, 8).

The importance of cacao in the Pre-Columbian era can be examined in artifacts and documents dating back to the 15thcentury. Their beliefs and culture revolved around these trees and pods that they idolized from birth to death and everything in between.  The production meant much more to them than imagining a Hersey’s chocolate factory spitting out wrapped desserts.  The Mayas and Aztecs worshipped their World Tree and chocolate as a beverage, a death rite, a currency, and the representation of their Gods. 

Work Cited

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’.” February 6 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

“Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica – HeritageDaily – Archaeology News.” HeritageDaily, 4 May 2018, http://www.heritagedaily.com/2018/02/medicinal-and-ritualistic-uses-for-chocolate-in-mesoamerica-2/98809.

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