Epic Chocolate: Chocolate in Mythology, Rites, and Reality

            Cacao was an almost divine substance to the Classical Maya, often venerated as the “food of the gods.”[1] This was not without reason as cacao doesn’t only taste good, it also provides a myriad of medicinal benefits. Many Mayan myths and rituals were based off the existence of cacao, from the myth of creation to rites of death. Like all myths, Mayan myths involving chocolate have some basis in fact. In this post, I will explore two Mayan myths –the myth of the Hero Twins and the revival of the Maize God– and explain their relationship to Mayan rites and the real-world benefits of cacao.

            All three myths and rites discussed in this post are part of the greater creation myth of the Maya. This Smithsonian video sums up the creation myth, and briefly describes some of the mythology behind the stories in this post:

Smithsonian video about the Mayan myth of creation

The Hero Twins

            The video from the Smithsonian somewhat describes the Hero Twins’ relationship with cacao – they were born from it. The Popul Vuh narrates the divine origin of cacao, with the cacao tree as the embodiment of the Maize God and cacao as the seed with which he impregnates an Underworld maiden, who then gives birth to Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the Hero Twins.[2] The Hero Twins were, quite literally, born from cacao. Their lives are subsequently chronicled in the Popul Vuh, in which they are described as, among other things, great ball players,[3] and strong and witty warriors.[4]

The Mayans likely believed that those traits of the Hero Twins could be transferred to themselves when they used cacao, the fruit responsible for the life of the Hero Twins. Warriors who consumed cacao before battle were energized and considered invincible, and cacao pods were often worn as a form of spiritual protection, or as a costume for ball games.[5] This is consistent with the reality of cacao – cacao contains methylxanthines like caffeine and theobromine, and methylxanthines are shown to have stimulant effects.[6] Therefore, it is quite likely that the consumption of cacao was beneficial to warriors and ball players, and thus easily connected with the customs of the Mayans and their myths.

The Revival of the Maize God

            After getting killed by the gods of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, the Maize God was decapitated, and his head was placed into a barren tree. The tree, which had never borne fruit until that point, flourished and became covered in round fruit indistinguishable from the head of the Maize God, turning into the calabash tree.[7] It is likely that the “calabash tree” in which the head of the Maize God was placed was a general cauliflory tree, as the Maize God was able to produce cacao for birthing the Hero Twins. The resurrection of the Maize God was the success of the Hero Twins. This late-Classical codex-style plate depicts the Hero Twins aiding the Maize God in his escape from Xibalba:

Codex-style plate depicting the escape of the Maize God

The athletically gifted Hero Twins defeated the gods of Xibalba in a ball game, enraging the gods so much that they slew the twins. Yet, this was part of the twins’ ingenious plan, as they enlisted the aid of men stuck in Xibalba to grind up their bones and throw them in one of the rivers running through Xibalba. Once the twins’ bone dust settled in the river, they were reborn with godly powers, that they used to outwit, overpower, and slay the gods of Xibalba, opening up a path for their father, the Maize God, to come back to life.[8] The Hero Twins were not only able to travel into and out of Xibalba safely, but were also able to defeat the evil gods.

It is quite likely that the Mayans believed that the Hero Twins, those born of cacao, would provide some protection for when the Mayans died and traveled to Xibalba. Thus, cacao was an important part of funeral rites – people, particularly royals, were buried with chocolate drinking vessels filled with beverages derived from cacao, meant to spiritually ease their transition into Xibalba.[9]

Rio Azul Vessel

The famous Rio Azul vessels pictured above, found in the grave of a dead lord and believed to have contained several types of chocolate drinks, are a great example of this.[10] They were the first physical, chemical evidences of Mayans being buried with chocolate beverage, and, along with other codex depictions, show the importance of chocolate in funerary rites. This connection between funerary rites and myth is once again consistent with the reality of the benefits of cacao. Cacao contains epicatechin, a compound whose effects are similar to a mild anesthetic,[11] and can serve to create normal blood flow in humans, especially those with high blood pressure.[12] For those close to death, cacao would provide some amount of relief, and would help ease them into their deaths, and thus into Xibalba.


[1] Coe & Coe, 17.

[2] S. Martin, 164.

[3] Popul Vuh, Chapter 9.

[4] Popul Vuh, Chapter 13.

[5] C. Martin, Lecture 2, Slide 52.

[6] Franco et al.

[7] S. Martin, 164.

[8] Popul Vuh, Chapter 12-14. 

[9] C. Martin, Lecture 2, Slide 41; Coe & Coe, 41.

[10] Coe & Coe, 41.

[11] C. Martin, Lecture 2, Slide 53.

[12] Hooper et al.

Text Sources

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

Franco, Rafael, et al. “Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate.” Nutrients, vol. 5, no. 10, 2013, pp. 4159–4173., doi:10.3390/nu5104159.

Goetz, Delia, and Sylvanus G. Morley. Popul Vuh. Plantin Press, 1954.

Hooper, Lee, et al. “Effects of Chocolate, Cocoa, and Flavan-3-Ols on Cardiovascular Health: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Trials.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 95, no. 3, 2012, pp. 740–751., doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.023457.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”. Lecture, February 5, 2020.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica a Cultural History of Cacao, by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006, pp. 154–183.

Multimedia Sources

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.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Codex-Style Plate.” Codex-Style Plate – Works – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, collections.mfa.org/objects/36320.

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, The Creation Story of the Maya. YouTube, 14 June 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jb5GKmEcJcw.

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