Art reflects the values and mores of a society. By analyzing ancient artworks, we can learn much about a culture. Art from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, for example, reflect the important role of wine in ceremonial life. These ancient artworks depict wine gods, royal feasts, wedding celebrations, and funeral rites with wine vessels prominently displayed. An analysis of artwork from ancient Mayan society reveals that, rather than wine, the Mayan people prized chocolate. Indeed, chocolate appears to function in an almost identical role as wine did in those other ancient societies, taking on significant roles in religion, celebrations, court life, and even funeral processions. Dating from 670 to 750 CE, the Princeton Vase subtly communicates the sacred and all-encompassing nature of cacao in the Maya civilization.
The Princeton Vase
The Princeton Vase features several scenes, including a representation of royal life, one of chocolate beverage-making, and one mythological proportions. On one side of the vase, an elderly god without any teeth sits on a throne within a palace, which is represented by the cornice above him and the pier behind him. Curtains, which were used as doors in the ancient Mayan society, are pulled up to display the scene. Known as God L among scholars, this figure wears a shawl and a hat ornamented with owl feathers and an owl. God L ruled the underworld and was also a patron god of tobacco and merchants (Princeton). Five female figures, who may be concubines, surround him, and a rabbit scribe sits below him, writing in a book.
To the right of the king, a woman stands bent over with a vessel like the Princeton Vase in both size and shape, pouring a liquid down into what is probably another vessel – unfortunately, that part of the vase has been eroded. This scene likely depicts the common method of preparing the chocolate beverage that this vessel served at the time. This is the first known picture of a chocolate beverage being made, showing the pouring back and forth between vessels that was used to create a prized foam (Coe).
The next scene is that of two men wearing detailed masks and holding axes decapitating an unclothed bound figure, who has a serpent coming out of him to bite one of the executioners. This scene resembles a section of the Popol Vuh, a Mayan mythological text written in the 1500s about the Hero Twins who trick the gods of the underworld into requesting their own decapitations (Princeton). The text at the upper edge of the vessel consecrated it and specified that the vase was intended for drinking “maize tree” chocolate, in addition to naming its owner (a lord called MuWaan K’uk’). The vase would have been used in “courtly feasts” like the one displayed on it (Princeton).
The significance of cacao
As depicted on the vase, chocolate served a social function in Mayan society. Converting the cacao pod to a chocolate beverage was a time-consuming and laborious process that brought people together. While co-directing an archeological project in Mexico, anthropologist Joel Palka, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, still meets people who create chocolate as a family tradition and cultural practice. This custom, he says, is “part of their identity” (qtd. in Garthwaite). Cacao drinks in Mayan society were associated with high status and special events, including many rituals (Garthwaite). These beverages were even involved in marriage, both in dowries and the ceremony itself (Martin). In Guatemala, early records of Mayan marriages show that sometimes a woman would have to make a cacao beverage to prove that she was capable of making it with the proper froth (Garthwaite). Cacao also became integrated into religion and law, with recovered paintings from the time showcasing its use in mythological scenes and court proceedings (Garthwaite). The beans were also used as a form of currency, based on archaeologist Joanne Baron’s analysis of Mayan artwork from about 691 CE to 900 CE (Learn). Lastly, cacao was considered important enough that it even traveled to the underworld, with the deceased’s body surrounded by pottery dishes, vases, and bowls, of which the latter two often contained several different types of chocolate beverages (Coe). Cacao was a constant in Mayan society, present for all major milestones, special occasions, and transactions, even in death.
The revealing nature of the Princeton Vase
The Princeton Vase informs us of the centrality of chocolate to Mayan life. By including a woman making a chocolate beverage with a tall cylindrical vessel just like the Princeton Vase alongside scenes of death, heroism, godliness, and court life, the vase’s creator emphasizes the lofty level at which Mayans regarded chocolate. Moreover, a post-Conquest source attributes the invention of the processing of cacao to someone named Hunahpú (Coe), which just so happens to be the name of one of the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh who is thought to be depicted on the vase. In a subtle, understated fashion, this vase pays homage to the mythological creation of chocolate, and tells of the earthly ways chocolate presented itself in the life and death of royals and gods.
Today, cacao is prominent in Western society, but it is an everyday treat for all, from children to adults and the poor to the wealthy. While enjoyed by many, it is not elevated in contemporary society. For the Mayans, however, it was sacrosanct and vital to religious rituals, feasts for royalty, weddings, funeral offerings, and economic currency. This crucial role of cacao is depicted in Mayan art, which reflects the values and customs of Mayan society. The Princeton Vase exemplifies this phenomenon by linking the act of creating a chocolate beverage to gods, heroes, feasting, and death, showcasing the enormous cultural significance of cacao.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.
Learn, Joshua Rapp. “The Maya Civilization Used Chocolate as Money.” Science Magazine, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 27 June 2018, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/maya-civilization-used-chocolate-money#.
Marshall, Colin. “How the Ancient Mayans Used Chocolate as Money.” Open Culture, 8 Oct. 2018, http://www.openculture.com/2018/10/ancient-mayans-used-chocolate-money.html.“The Princeton Vase.” Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University, artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221.