For the pre-Columbian civilizations of Central and South America, cacao, the seeds of the cacao pod growing on the Theobroma Cacao tree is more than just the input used to make what is commonly known as chocolate. Cacao’s central and southern American origin makes the plant particularly significant to the peoples who established civilizations there, specifically the ancient Mayan, Aztec, and Olmec peoples. The process of turning these cacao seeds into what is known as chocolate is an intricate process developed by these Mesoamerican peoples requiring them to grind the cacao seeds and create a paste called chocolate liquor. For the ancient Mesoamerican peoples, cacao was not just a food, but much more than that. Cacao held a spiritual, cultural, and religious significance. In many ways, cacao shaped the social and spiritual customs of Mesoamerican peoples in pre-Columbian civilizations. All parts of the Theobroma tree, including the cacao pods and seeds, have a sacred place in the religious beliefs of these peoples, having caused them to create specific societal customs and traditions. The ancient Mayan civilizations are commonly cited for their use of cacao in religious ceremonies like marriage along with uses in social gatherings. In fact, Mayan’s believed that cacao was the food of the gods. Three main ways in which cacao demonstrated its spiritual importance was in marriage ceremonies, religious offerings, and death rituals. The way in which cacao has been discovered to be used in these ways illustrates the significance of this precious Mesoamerican food.
Cacao was discovered to have religious and spiritual significance through discoveries of ancient archeological finds and through literature like the Dresden Codex and Madrid Codex. These early Mayan pieces of literature describe the important religious rituals and deities that the Mayan people preform and celebrate. In the codex, many gods are depicted either eating or holding cacao beans, and are referenced as the food of the gods. A depiction of gods spilling blood over cacao pods can be seen in the Madrid Codex, illustrated in Figure 1 (Coe, et. al. 79). There has always been a strong connection between cacao and religious beliefs for ancient Mesoamericans.
Cacao played an important part in religious beliefs for ancient Mayan people. The ancient peoples had the belief that the cacao seed was the food of the gods, many times having depictions of cacao and gods on religious vessels. The Maize God, or “iximte” as it was known to the ancient Mayans is depicted as a cacao tree. Cacao pods are protruding from the figure’s body as it points at a vessel. This vessel would have been used to transfer and carry chocolate liquor or other sacred foods. This type of depiction is quite important when trying to understand the role cacao played in Mayan religious practice. This type of illustration shows that there was a clear link between the gods and cacao, so much so that they are drawn interweaved with each other. Cacao was simply a gift from the gods that was a part of their religious belief systems.
Cacao was more than just depicted in hieroglyphs and images by ancient Mesoamericans. It was also a part of their daily religious and societal practices. An important way in which cacao was implemented into their customs was through marriage ceremonies. At these ceremonies, a frothy cacao based drink called “kakaw” would be served amongst the individuals attending these events. This was a societal ritual that was practiced at weddings specifically royal weddings. This important ceremony of serving kakaw usually was served in a special vase which shows depictions of cacao and people serving kakaw drinks.This type of vase was used particularly to serve nobles and royalty and was a part of Mayan culture. Other ceremonies that kakaw would be served at besides weddings include, war victories or a ruler coming into a throne, and even rites of sacrifice. (Carassco 105). In Figure 3 we can see that at these ceremonies, a vessel was used to carry cacao. These vessels were seen at these types of sociocultural events. Cacao was essential at all of these types of sociocultural events as they had religious significance and was a food of the gods as discussed earlier.
Another important way in which cacao was important in the religious and spiritual lives of ancient Mayans and Mesoamericans can be seen during death. In all cultures death is an essential part of belief systems. Death is an important part of the ancient stories of the Maize God. Based on the legends the death and rebirth of the Maize God gave way to the germination of the earth, proving the land with trees and seeds, including cacao (McNeil. 178).
Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica. Waveland Press, 2014.
Chase, Arlen F., and Diane Z. Chase. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.
Figure 1: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3ABacabs.gif&psig=AOvVaw08DFRFhWcNJ2vAqqtx5EAV&ust=1585374906509000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCKC29Mb-uegCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD
Figure 2: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3AMaya_maize_god.jpg&psig=AOvVaw3xS9xjlzDD_Tve_OxeaD_e&ust=1585375049452000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCLjr1Lz-uegCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD
Figure 3: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3AClevelandart_2012.32.jpg&psig=AOvVaw0dR2sX0wq2H60guhjruVIe&ust=1585375476503000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCKCQpoP-uegCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD