Chocolate, Religion and Hierarchy: Chocolate’s Religious Symbolism in Pre-Columbian Mayan Culture and its Evolution under Colonialism

The widespread availability of chocolate today hardly hints any relation to hierarchical systems. The mass production of it as a confection and how it readily available for consumption at different quality levels reveals little about its rich history. Long before the European settlement in the Americas, chocolate, or rather the fruit it is borne from, symbolized wealth, and social and religious status in Mesoamerica societies. Here, I will briefly discuss how its hierarchical symbolism with respect to religion evolved in Mayan societies before and during colonialism.

The hierarchical symbolism of chocolate in Mayan culture can be traced through an ethnographical study of Mayan celebratory rituals. In his essay “The Language of Chocolate”, David Stuarts writes about how such ethnographical studies from Central Mexico reveal that chocolate was enjoyed by the elites (Stuart 184). Feasting rites among the elite, in particular, in Mayan Yucatan were heavily documented in chocolate vessels, which describe chocolate’s involvement in extravagant gift-giving formalities in its cacao bean form (Reents-Budet 207). This was viewed as a method for forging sociopolitical alliances among the elite (Reents-Budet 209). In its drink form, cacao was consumed during “ceremonies to seal important social contracts and confirm the legitimacy of dynasties” (Martin et al. 39). Moreover, the use of cacao beverages did not only exist in worldly rituals. Mayan glyphs and art show that the Gods also used cacao beverages to honor guests in divine rituals such as seen in figure 1. Thus, it is apparent that the use of cacao in Mayan rituals reflects how chocolate itself was a symbol of extravagance and hierarchy. 

Figure 1: Mayan God L with Hero Twins, servant behind the God pouring a chocolate beverage.

However, cacao beans and chocolate also possessed religious symbolism that contributed to their hierarchical symbolism. Evidence from Mayan vessels reveal in their hieroglyphs that the Maize God is often embodied as a cacao tree (McNeil 155). Gods in the Mayan tradition are portrayed as trees to show a celestial cycle of death. The roots are in the underworld, the trunk in the middle world and the branches in the heavens. The Maize God is highly regarded in that maize is a staple Mayan crop, thus the association between the Maize God and the cacao tree shows a highly esteemed religious connection and divinity that is possessed by cacao. Beyond representation in religious glyphs, the religious symbolism of cacao can be extended to the notion of “court dwarfs” in Mayan culture. Christian Prager writes that dwarf figurines were placed in Mayan courts to symbolize social power and religious authority (Prager 279). This is rooted in the pre-Mayan Olmec belief that four dwarfs were tasked with propping up heaven. Moreover, dwarfs were seen as companions of the Sun and Maize Gods, thus further solidifying their divine symbolism. Hence, these dwarfs were placed in Mayan courts to further this symbolism. However, it is important to note that these dwarfs would sometimes be sculpted as carrying cacao pods, as seen in figure 2. This further displays that cacao possessed divine value and reflected a type of religious symbolism so that it can be manifested in Mayan society as a hierarchical instrument. 

Figure 2: A Mayan figurine of court dwarf bearing a cacao pod.

This religious symbolism of cacao did not end with colonialism but only transformed under it. The initial European interaction with cacao upon their settlement in Mesoamerica was through the introduction of the cacao bean as a form of currency (Martin et al. 40). However, with the spread of Catholicism by the European settlers in Mayan territory, specifically Mexico, cacao beans soon crossed over into the realm of religiosity. The conversion of indigenous Mexicans led them to create offerings to Jesus. These offerings were often in the form of cacao beans, as was done to indigenous God (Aguilar-Moreno 276). A prominent example is the statue of “Christ of the Cacao” in Mexico City as shown in figure 3. While these offerings were not consumed by Christ, but by the priests of the cathedral, they were converted into wealth, such as in the case of seventeenth century friar in Mexico and Guatemala Thomas Gage (Aguilar-Moreno 276). Here, we see that the symbolism of cacao is multifaceted: it showed a relationship to Jesus and also remained a symbol for wealth. 

Figure 3: Christ of the Cacao: A 16th century colonial Mexican sculpture in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City.

However, does the link between colonial Catholicism and symbolism in cacao extend beyond the borders of the colony? In 1577, Dominican friar in Chiapas did write to the Pope asking for some guidance as to whether chocolate could be appropriately consumed on days when oen is fasting. The Pope never offered a written reply but it is told that he simply laughed with his cardinals. The link to Catholicism in Europe extended beyond this lone interaction, the status of chocolate has long been debated by Catholic scholars in the 1620s and 1630s, with reservations appearing on how to incorporate this seemingly pagan product into the Catholic Church. While here there is a recognition of religious value, it is hard to determine whether or not this religious value was accepted by the Catholic Church in Europe. Nevertheless, the role of chocolate and cacao as a status symbol did cross over into the European continent: it is told that Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were prescribed chocolate by their physician to consume daily during breakfast, seemingly due to chocolate’s energizing benefits. The heavy royal consumption of chocolate and its high regard within the royal court deemed it a luxury item, showing that it did remain a status symbol beyond the Mesoamerican realm. 

Nevertheless, it is important to note that beyond colonialism, Mesoamerican cultures still regarded chocolate highly. Their reverence of cacao beans and their products shifted and adapted to the colonial influences that were introduced into their territory. While it failed to have the same religious symbolism in Europe, chocolate did enter the continent as an item symbolizing social hierarchy. Thus, one can say that the evolution of chocolate as a religious symbol remained within Mesoamerica but its hierarchical symbolism was able to cross the Atlantic into the European continent. 

Bibliography

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  7. Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 8.
  8. Prager, Christian. “Court Dwarfs – The Companions of Rulers and Envoys of the Underworld.” Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest, by Nikolai Grube, Konemann, 2001, pp. 278–279.
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  10. Robicsek, Francis. “God L with the Hero Twins.” Wikimedia Commons, Princeton, NJ, 31 Oct. 2009, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God_L_with_the_Hero_Twins.jpg.
  11. Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.”Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 9.

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