When people today think about cacao, they most likely think of the chocolate used in their favorite desserts and snacks. To the Maya, however, cacao served as an integral part of both their history and worldview. In Unit 1 of this class, we discussed the existence of the Popol Vuh, the creation narrative according to the Quiche Maya of present-day Guatemala (Mark). In the epic, Hun Hunahpu and his twin brother were tricked into losing a ball game and killed by the Lords of Xibalbá, the Maya Underworld. Hun Hunahpu’s head was hung up on what is depicted as a cacao tree. When he spits into the hand of the princess Ixkik’, she conceives the two Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. These twins eventually become skilled ball players and challenge the Lords of Xibalbá to a game in order to bring their father back to life. The Lords agree to the game only if the twins successfully complete a set of dangerous trials in the Underworld. Through their skill and cunning, they are able to complete the trials, defeat the Lords, and resurrect their father as the Maize God. Having finished this task, they then climb up into the sky to become the sun and moon (“Creation Story of the Maya”).
Although we do not have the complete, original version of the epic, the repeated appearance of cacao throughout the story shows its significance to Maya beliefs (Coe and Sophie 36). Image depictions on artifacts of scenes in the epic show cacao pods as human faces, like Hun Hunahpu’s decapitated head. Ixkik’ is drawn to the cacao tree, which leads to her meeting with Hun Hunahpu and the birth of the Hero Twins. This holds historical significance because it both explains the presence of the sun and moon to the Maya, as well as the origin of the twins who would ultimately help create human beings.
Another story in the Popol Vuh discusses the gods’ first attempt to create humans using mud and wood. Despite their efforts, they fail both times as their weak creations are destroyed. Only when the twins raise their father, the Maize God, from the dead are the gods able to combine maize and cacao together to finally create humans successfully (Mark). Here, cacao once again serves as a symbol for life, not only bringing forth the existence of the Hero Twins, but all of humanity.
To properly understand the importance of cacao in the Maya creation narrative, we must also examine the role of maize. The resurrection and eternal life cycle of Hun Hunahpu demonstrates their belief in “recycling” the material of which all humans are made. The Maya believed that rather than going to something akin to heaven after death, the elderly and sick would reincarnate as grandchildren (Martin). As a result, the maize tree was a sacred symbol to the Maya representing death, life, and rebirth. It lives again despite dying by the hands of the Lords of the Underworld, flourishing into the cosmos and heavens. In the epic, this sacred maize tree produces cacao as a divine fruit which in itself is the origin of future generations. Not only is it a divine fruit, it is also the first among the fruit trees (Martin). This affirms their belief in cacao’s role as a symbol of fertility and the origin of all humans.
We see then, through the stories of the Popol Vuh, that cacao held a significant position to the people of Quiche. It continually shows up symbolically, which helps to explain the creation of life, the triumphs of the hero twins, the attempts and eventual success of the deities to create humans, and the basis for their genealogies. For the ancient Maya, enjoying cacao was much more than enjoying the taste. It was a way for them to celebrate the rise of the Maize God from Xibalba, to commemorate the journey of death, life, and complete union with all of existence.
Coe, Michael D. and Sophie D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.
“Creation Story of the Maya.” Living Maya Time, Smithsonian: National Museum of the American Indian, maya.nmai.si.edu/the-maya/creation-story-maya.
Mark, Joshua J. “Popol Vuh.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 21 Mar 2014. Web. 24 Mar 2020.
Martin, Simon. “Tales from the Underworld.” Edited by Cameron L. McNeil, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, Mexicolore, 26 Jan. 2014, www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-in-ancient-maya-religion.