Understanding Life and Death: Cacao and Ancient Maya Rituals

Mesoamerican culture is perhaps most well known for its religious rituals. Celebrating baptisms, comings of age, marriages, and deaths, the Maya recognized cyclical patterns, and valued the circle of life. Many of their religious beliefs revolved around nature—the Maya worshipped gods of maize, rain, moon, and other earthly entities which granted them life and prosperity (Martin, 2020). Though rituals for various occasions differed in structure and setting, each almost always incorporated cacao into their festivities. Served as a decadent drink or traded as currency, cacao held a prominent and sacred place in Maya culture. In this essay, I examine various ancient rituals and show the ways that the Maya used cacao to celebrate and understand three core aspects of their religion: life, death, and rebirth. Weaving cacao into their religious ceremonies, the Mayans strove to connect the ethereal and the earthly.

One of the most prominent entities in Maya rituals was the Theobroma cacao, or the cacao tree, which was viewed as the connection between earth and the afterlife (Martin, 2020). Requiring high humidity, luscious soil, and thick shade, the cacao tree was cultivated riverside, and its abundant, colorful pods, shown in the picture below, served as a paradigm of natural prosperity (Garthwaite, 2015). The Mayans believed that the plumed serpent Kukulkan gifted the cacao tree to the earth, and celebrated this event by worshipping their god of cacao, Ek Chuah, annually (Hunt, 2013). This idea of a sacred “World Tree” was a recurring motif in Maya culture—they believed that the roots, trunk and branches of a tree created a link between the underworld, the earth, and the sky (Miller & Taube, 1993). Additionally, gods were often depicted as emerging from trees upon birth; Mayan monarchs, such as Lady Zac-Kuk, also embodied trees, which symbolized royal bloodlines (Martin, 2020). Through these images and myths, we can see the incorporation of cacao into ancient rituals as a way to connect with the surrounding natural life. Primarily worshipping nature, the Maya deeply appreciated the gifts of the earth, and used cacao to show this reverence.

Theobroma cacao, or cacao tree.

Cacao was also a prominent feature in burial rites among the Maya; its purpose as an aid in the afterlife indicates the way that the Mayans used cacao to come to terms with and conceptualize death. During life on earth, cacao was often taken as a stimulus—whether used for war or pleasure, cacao provided energy to those who consumed it (Martin, 2020). The Maya incorporated this concept into their burial rituals. Popular and extravagant ceremonies most commonly practiced for the wealthy elite, burial rituals aimed to prepare souls for the afterlife and equip them with tools they might need to get there (Coe & Coe, 1996). Along with special garments, jewelry, and pottery, the dead often received a cacao beverage, held in a vase like the one shown below. The vase, often decorated with beautiful colors and designs, was meant to provide energy in the afterlife to the soul (Martin, 2020). Life after death is a complex idea, and the Maya deeply believed in the existence of an afterlife. We can view the employment of earthly uses of cacao (such as its stimulating properties) to aid the dead in their quest for eternal life as a Maya attempt to understand the meaning of death.

Rio Azul vessel.

The idea of rebirth was also central to Mayan ritual, and was rooted in their reliance on the earth for sustenance. The fertility of the earth was essential for survival, as the Mayans were an agriculture-based society. Many myths and legends centered on deities, such as moon goddess IxChel or rain goddess Chac, working together to maintain Earth’s prosperity, and cacao was often involved (Martin, 2020). For example, the image shown below depicts Ixchel and Chac trading cacao beans to ensure the fruitfulness of the earth. This idea of fertility in nature was also mirrored in Mayan females. Coming of age rituals, particularly for women, celebrated the beginning of a woman’s the fertile years, and involved the presentation of two cacao beans and a sacrificed chicken to the deities (Faust, 1998). Additionally, cacao beverages were often served at ceremonies associated with fertility; ancient marriage rituals centered around the drinking of a chocolate beverage and exchange of cacao beans. According to historians, cacao-inspired beverages made up part of the dowry, and the preparation of the ceremonial cacao drink by the bride “sealed the marriage” (Garthwaite, 2015). Overall, the Mayans’ use of cacao as a way to celebrate fertility indicates their reverence for the earth and natural reproductive processes.

Fertility ceremony– IxChel and Chac promote fertility of the earth by trading cacao beans.

Mesoamerican expression of culture and worship was largely based in their rituals; worshipping nature, its gifts, and the circle of life, the Mayans celebrated life, death, and reproduction. As we examine a select few of these ceremonies, we can see that cacao was heavily involved in the festivities; offering it up to the gods and worshipping it as a symbol of prosperity, the Mayans held cacao as a sacred entity in their society.

Works Cited:

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (1996). A True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson.

Faust, B. (1998). Cacao Beans and Chili Peppers: Gender Socialization in the Cosmology of a Yucatec Maya Curing Ceremony. Sex Roles, 39. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1018895714833

Garthwaite, J. (2015). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/

Hunt, P. (2013). Maya and Aztec Chocolate History and Antecedents – Electrum Magazine. http://www.electrummagazine.com/2013/04/maya-and-aztec-chocolate-history-and-antecedents/

Martin, C. (2020, March 5). 02 Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.” AAAX 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Emerson Hall. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1c6fZMj2cW7A-bByTKzaP-YS7pLdm0dmVPidneg4T4XU/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_25

Miller, M. E., & Taube, K. A. (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson.

Multimedia:

The Maya rain god Chac and the moon goddess IxChel exchange cacao. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://blogs.uoregon.edu/mesoinstitute/about/curriculum-unit-development/stem/ethnobotany/cacao-chocolate/

Rio Azul jar. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/maya-screwtop-vessels.htm

Cacao tree. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/plants/cacao

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