Cacao in Mayan Religious Stories and Rituals and Community Celebrations

While chocolate may just seem like a dessert food to most people today, its main ingredient, cacao, and the tree from which the fruit stems played essential roles in the lives of the people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It was associated with fertility rites, marriage rituals, and even rites of death for the Maya people. As illustrated through their mythology, the cacao tree connected generations. Cacao brought people together by being a part of their religion illustrated through vases and by bringing together communities during feasts and celebrations. It established the Mayan hierarchy, and during the feasts of the elite, the people in the local community were able to exchange goods with others outside of the community. The cacao tree and the fruit it bears played a significant role in the religious and community life of the Maya people in the Pre-Columbian era.

The religious significance of the cacao tree for the Mayan people is illustrated through their creation myth. In this myth, the twin sons of the couple who created the universe are beheaded in the Maya underworld, Xibalba, by the lords of the underworld. One of the severed heads, which is now known as the Maize God, is hung up in a cacao tree, like the figure depicted by the lidded vessel below. As the daughter of an Xibalban ruler holds her hand up to the tree one day, the severed head is able to impregnate her. This woman then gives birth to the Hero Twins named Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These twins go on to accomplish a number of exploits and eventually defeat the underworld. They then resurrect their father, the Maize God, as their final task. With their final task completed, they become the sun and the moon (Coe). The cacao tree in this story allows the Maize God to “pass on his procreative seed and to eventually triumph through the heroic deeds of his offspring” (Martin 178). The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit were also passed between communities and generations.

This Mayan Lidded vessel depicts the Maize God as a Cacao Tree. The cacao pods surround the vessel, and the lid’s nob is a cacao tree with a bird that is now broken (Wikimedia Commons contributors).

The tree and its fruit connected each generation of the Maya people and permeated Mayan religion in rites like baptism and funerals. During the baptismal ritual, the noble giving the ceremony would dip a bone in a vessel filled with water, flowers, and cacao. With this mixture, “he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between the fingers and toes, in complete silence” (Coe). Like the tree that the Maize God manifested himself in allowed him to have children and reconnect with the world, the Maya people would bury people with vases that were used to drink cacao with inscriptions of cacao on them. As the dead traveled to the underworld, the cacao would continue to provide for the Maya as it did when they were alive and would ensure their safe travel (Martin). In addition to rituals, the cacao tree and its fruit played an essential role in the celebrations and community interactions of the Maya people.

During religious ceremonies and celebrations, the Maya would drink from vases that had inscriptions of cacao and the cacao tree. These inscriptions and drawings “made even a sip of chocolate a sacramental act” (Martin 179). The cacao was celebrated by all in the community, but the inscriptions reinforced the Maya rulership as many portrayed Mayan rulers among the deities. The cacao vases demonstrated the order within the community by establishing the power of the elite as they were compared to supernatural deities as shown in the image of a Maya vessel below. They would be exchanged among elites during feasts that “created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation” (Reents-Budet 209). These feasts then extended to the local community where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds were able to exchange goods which extended their relations beyond the local community. The vases were still present in the lower tier society, although they were not as elaborate as the elite vessels. While the people would offer cacao to the gods for gifts like fertility and rain, it also reinforced “their sense of community by way of a fabric of overlapping rights and obligations developed between sponsors and participants” (Reents-Budet 209). Cacao and the practice of drinking from and giving vases were a central part of the lives of the Mayan people.

The inscription around the rim of the this Maya vessel refers to its function as a chocolate-drinking cup and also states that it was owned by a Namaan king. The drawing portrays a king on a throne and a supernatural being in front of him, illustrating the connection between the elite and religion.

Overall, the cacao tree and fruit were central aspects to the religious, social, and economic lives of the Maya people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In their creation story, his manifestation in tree enabled the Maize God to give way to the next generation which then resurrected him from the underworld. The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit permeated the Mayan religion and played essential roles in the religious rituals of the people. Cacao was present in the baptismal rites and in the tombs of people, illustrating a connection between cacao and religion. The drinking of cacao and exchange of vases that held cacao and also had inscriptions of the elite and cacao during feasts and celebrations demonstrated order within the Maya community. From these feasts, different people were able to connect and extend relations beyond their local community. Cacao connected people in the community through its role in religious stories and rituals and celebrations among elites.

Works Cited:

Chocolate Cup (2002-9). https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/40908. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. 2019. Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Martin, Simon. Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld. University Press of Florida, 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.003.0008.

Reents-Budet, Dorie. The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among of the Ancient Maya. University Press of Florida, 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.003.0010.

Wikimedia Commons contributors. File:Mayan – Lidded Vessel – Walters 20092039 – Side D.Jpg. Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository., https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg.

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