Rich Chocolate, Rich Mayans, and Their Rituals

The Rich Chocolate:

When we consume rich, delicious chocolate, what we often fail to understand, more so than its impact on our health, is its history. There are two common misconceptions surrounding chocolate. The first of which is the assumption that chocolate is essentially the same as cacao; in actuality, chocolate is a product created through an extensive preparation of the seeds of cacao, a raw material taken from the tree. Second, we often make the mistake of believing chocolate found its roots in European history. This is a completely false impression, one which has been sustained by centuries of misleading advertisements and products. Spanish invaders actually “derived their earliest real knowledge of cacao, and the very word ‘cacao’” from the Maya, an ancient civilization of the Yucatán Peninsula (Coe, & Coe; pg 421). In fact, for these Mesoamericans, cacao served as much more than a flavorful taste. Cacao played a significant role in the social, spiritual, and ritualistic practices of the Mayan societies, earning a highly symbolic role in Maya culture.

The Rich Mayans:

For the Maya people, “cacao was a proper offering in healing rituals, to endorse marriage alliances, and to ensure successful travel,” as well as in banquets, weddings, and burials (Martin & Sampeck; pg 39). Through extensive research, archaeologists and Mayanists have determined that the Maya elite class would host special feasts in which a drink made from cacao would be consumed. Although there is evidence which proves the ceremonial use of chocolate by the nobility and the rulers, it remains unknown whether chocolate was also consumed regularly in more casual settings by all of the Mayan people (Davidson; pg 485). Nonetheless, the consistent presence of cacao in such meaningful traditions speaks to the undebatable importance of cacao in the eyes of the Mayans. This presence was able to be documented with confidence due to the hieroglyphic writing employed by the Maya. Through studying various texts and inscribed vessels, researchers determined that “among the things [Mayans] wrote about was cacao” (Coe, & Coe; pg 538). Unfortunately, due to the use of “perishable bark paper,” only four books still exist and can continue to be interpreted (Coe, & Coe; pg 538). Out of these four books, two contain noteworthy references to cacao: the Dresden Codex and Madrid Codex.

The Dresden Codex

The Rituals:

In the Dresden Codex, there are several sections which address the “ritual activities tied in to the Maya’s sacred 260-day cycle” (Coe, & Coe; pg 563). The text contains images which depict gods holding cacao pods, as well as dishes containing cacao beans. We can be certain that these beans are in fact cacao due to the discovery of a Russian epigrapher, Yuri V. Knorosov. In the 1950s, he deciphered how to interpret and read these Maya texts. Knorosov figured out the “phonetic part of the [hieroglyphic] script” (Coe, & Coe; pg 563). Thus, he unlocked our ability to observe the many explicit references to cacao pods and beans in these texts. In one section of the Dresden Codex, there is text above each deity which states “that what is held in the hand is ‘his cacao [u kakaw]’” (Coe, & Coe; pg 564). Additionally, a page of the Dresden “dealing with the New Year ceremonies so important in the Post-Classic Yucatán,” includes a segment where “the Opossum God travels a sacred road to the edge of the town carrying the Rain God on his back, while the associated text tells us that ‘cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]” (Coe, & Coe; pg 563). 

The pairing of cacao with powerful, spiritual figures, such as gods, lends credence to the concept that cacao beans were truly seen as valuable by the Mayans. Furthermore, cacao also appears in the Madrid Codex in a similar manner. In one instance, “an unidentified young god squats while grasping limbs from a cacao tree” (Coe, & Coe; pg 563). In another, there is a depiction of “four gods piercing their own ears,” and “scattering showers of precious blood over cacao pods” (Coe, & Coe; pg 564). Upon first glance these references to cacao could seem inconsequential; however, when considering the spiritual context in which they are presented, it becomes clear that cacao was indeed a keystone principle of Maya culture. 

The Mayan Glyph for Cacao (Kakaw)

The Río Azul Vessel:

As aforementioned, cacao was utilized in both the marriage rituals, and rites of death in Maya society. In marriage ceremonies, the chocolate serving rituals were used to cement the union; the use of cacao could symbolize marriage negotiations or the dowry (Martin, 2020). In contrast, cacao was also present in the rites of death, or burial ceremonies, for the Maya elite class. Oftentimes, “the honored dead were lavishly accompanied by special offerings to sustain them in the afterlife” (Coe, & Coe; pg 576). Specifically, “pottery dishes, bowls, and cylindrical vases” which carried food and drink would be placed next to the body, for “the ruler or noble (or his wife) to enjoy in the  abode of the dead” (Coe, & Coe; pg 576). These vessels would often contain cacao which at times would be dyed red to resemble blood (Martin, 2020). The cacao was meant to ease the soul of the dead, as they traveled to the underworld. It is assumed that this was done as the Mayans understood cacao as a provider of energy; therefore, it was seen as a useful aid to sustain the soul on its journey. 

Much of the evidence for the “Classic Maya use of cacao survives on the elegantly painted or carved vessels that accompanied the elite in their tombs and graves” (Coe, & Coe; pg 576). In 1984, at Río Azul (a Maya city), archaeologists made a key discovery in a Classic Maya tomb. Through collaboration between archaeologists, Mayanists, and Hershey chemists, it was proven that the tomb was “full of the paraphernalia of chocolate consumption” (Coe, & Coe; pg 620). The Río Azul vessels were transported to the Hershey laboratory; it was there that they discovered that the vessels contained both caffeine and theobromine in the residue. This was critical, as “the only plant or organic material in all of ancient America that can produce those two chemical signatures together are cacao” (Ewbank, 2019). Consequently, it was concluded that the Mayans most likely placed several different chocolate drinks in the tomb of the dead lord (Coe, & Coe; pg 620).

The Río Azul Vessel

Works Cited:

Hall, Grant D., et al. “Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala.” American Antiquity, vol. 55, no. 1, 1990. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/281499. Accessed 23 Mar. 2020.

The Maya Dresden Codex [electronic image]. Retrieved from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/dresden-codex.htm

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” pp. 37-60

Ewbank, Anne. “Archaeologists, Mayanists, and Hershey’s Collaborated to Reveal This Ancient Vessel’s Secrets.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 21 Feb. 2019, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/mayan-chocolate. Accessed 23 Mar. 2020.

Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 485-6)

The Mayan Glyph for Cacao [electronic image]. Retrieved from http://albanykid.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Mayan-Glyph-for-Cocoa.jpg

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