Category Archives: College Model Essay

College Model Essay: Cacao and Maize in Maya Tradition

To today’s consumer of ultra-sweet Hershey’s bars, the notion of blending corn and chocolate may seem less than appetizing. But cacao and maize have been wedded for far longer than more familiar combinations like chocolate and caramel. The roots of this centuries-old link between maize and cacao can be traced back to Maya religious stories and social customs. In fact, the marriage of corn and chocolate can be seen as inevitable. Maize was the most significant good in Maya beliefs, as its growth symbolized the cycle of life and regeneration. Cacao, on the other hand, was among the most significant goods in Maya practices, with great exchange value and medicinal effects. The natural merger of the otherworldly with the earthly led maize and cacao to become a central culinary combination, one which is still enjoyed in modern Mexico.

The chief god in Maya religion was that of maize, whose repeated process of growth and harvesting was akin to the human cycles of rebirth and death. It was from the maize tree that so many fruits and goods were created.

Maize God of the Maya
Maize God of the Maya

Among these was cacao, the fruit which bore seeds of great importance to the Maya (“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion”). So crucial was cacao to Maya life that it was overseen by the Chocolate God, who may have been a brother or close relative of the Maize God (“Maya Gods”). Repeatedly in Maya mythology, cacao and maize appear in tandem. In the Popol Vuh, the creation story of the Maya, the god K’awaiil strikes open a mountain using lightning. Inside the split mountain, maize and cacao are uncovered in a glorious discovery. In another story Itzamna, a healing god with the power to resurrect the dead, teaches the Maya how to properly cultivate both maize and cacao, a sure sign that the two are of paramount importance (“The Mayan Pantheon”). Maya art even shows the Maize God taking the form of a cacao tree, pods sprouting from his pods.

Art depicting Maize God as cacao tree.
Art depicting Maize God as cacao tree

Given that the two goods meant so much to the Maya, it stands to reason that they were paired repeatedly in religion and art. The question, then, turns to the link between cacao and maize in a culinary sense.

 

While today’s consumers might assume that corn was added to enrich the texture of solid chocolate (the same way crisped rice often is), maize was instead used in cacao drink mixtures. Among these mixtures was Sak ha’, a cold beverage with maize kernels and cacao. Sak ha’ was a special drink, consumed only on major social or religious occasions (Staller). Its hot counterpart was a foamy atole prepared for ceremonial gatherings (Green). After creating the base of cacao and maize, numerous other flavors were thrown in, including vanilla and peppers (“Food of the Gods”). Some recipes featured honey from Xunan-Cab, the so-called stingless bee, whose product had a lower sugar content than that of a European honeybee (“Mayan Agriculture”). Today, atole remains popular in Mexico, with modern recipes calling for processed corn dough. In its chocolate form, atole is known as champurrado, which is increasingly popular in the United States (Mora).

A woman prepares champurrado.
A woman prepares champurrado.

While corn and chocolate may sound like strange bedfellows, they have been paired together for years, and their combination lives on in parts of the world. Blending two major foods isn’t at all uncommon; chocolate alone is mixed with meat, fruit, alcohol, and salty snacks. For a society that so valued corn and cacao, it seems only natural that the Maya would associate the two so deeply.

 

Works Cited

“CACAO, FOOD OF THE GODS.” Economic Botany. UCLA, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion. Mexicolore, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Green, Judith Strupp. “Feasting with foam: Ceremonial drinks of cacao, maize, and pataxte cacao.” Pre-Columbian Foodways. Springer New York, 2010. 315-343.

“Maya Agriculture.” Maya Agriculture. Authentic Maya, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

“Maya Gods.” NGA: The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. National Gallery of Art, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

“The Mayan Pantheon: The Many Gods of the Maya.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Mora, Ozzy. “Let’s Make Champurrado: A Mexican Christmas Hot Chocolate.” Azcentral.com. AZ Central News, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

Staller, John, and Michael Carrasco. Pre-Columbian foodways: interdisciplinary approaches to food, culture, and markets in ancient Mesoamerica. Springer Science & Business Media, 2009.

College Model Essay: Ancient Mayan Codices and the Importance of Associations

Republished with the permission of the author as a College Model Essay.

Much of our knowledge about the centrality of cacao in the lives of ancient peoples is derived from analysis of original texts.  The most comprehensive and original written record about ancient Mayan civilization is found in the Dresden and Madrid codices, very few of which are still intact today.  The codices are pictographic texts that can be subjectively interpreted by modern scholars to infer about aspects of Mayan life.  Yet, since these glyphs do not possess the raw communicative power of modern language, interpreters must form of a web of associations in order to understand the role of different objects in Mayan customs.  The importance of cacao can be determined from these glyphs because of its frequency of appearance, the objects surrounding it in the glyphs, and its centrality in interactions among Mayan deities.  This string of links is key to understanding the reverence with which ancient people viewed cacao.

Two deities exchange cacao. This scene is depicted in the Madrid Codex.

The two most complete Mayan codices are the Dresden Codex and the Madrid codex, and cacao appears multiple times in both.  It appears in numerous forms, such as the pods, seeds, trees, or chocolate products (Dreiss and Greenhill 35).  The appearance in multiple forms is significant to understanding Mayan culture because it showed their understanding of and their appreciation for the natural process that produces the goods in their world.  While depictions of chocolate products alone would imply limited understanding of the origins of cacao beverages, the presence of cacao in all stages of its development in the codices shows that the Mayan people felt a connection to the substance that exceeded bodily and culinary pleasures.  Cacao, in addition to being present in all forms, also surfaced in many ritualistic contexts in the codices.  It is associated with blood-letting, eating, rain, sun, life, and death, therefore present in most facets of life (Grivetti and Shapiro).  It is these associations that provide modern interpreters with hints as to the significance of cacao in the lives of Ancient Mayans.

The god of sustenance, K’awil, holds a bowl of cacao beans
The quetzal was valued highly by the the Mayans for its feathers

In the glyphs of the Madrid Codex, cacao can be seen paired with the quetzal bird in scenes involving one or more deities, and this association adds to the significance of cacao.  The quetzal is a species that still exists today and once made its home in the highland Maya area.  Its bright plumage produced feathers that were a prized item for trade and were depicted on the heads of deities in ancient glyphs (Grivetti and Shapiro).  The feathers were also worn by rulers as part of a headdress.  The quetzal appears in the Madrid codex above two cacao trees and the god Nik, the priest god.  The pairing of cacao and the quetzal naturally invokes circular logic as to whether the presence of the quetzal increased perceived value of cacao or vice versa, but it is undeniable that both were prized by the Mayans.  Their presence together in deeply ritualistic scenes strengthens conviction in the value of cacao.

The connection between cacao and the gods is the one that is most significant and prevalent in the codices.  In one scene, the moon goddess IxChel exchanges cacao with Chac, a god that influences the rain.

The rain god, Chaak, holds a bowl with cacao in his hands and wears a headdress of quetzal feathers.  This scene is from the Dresden Codex.

In another from the Dresden Codex, Chac holds a container of cacao beans next to the god of war and sacrifice, who is also offering cacao pods (Dreiss and Greenhill 35).  In the Madrid Codex, the gods perform blood-letting rituals, piercing themselves and allowing the blood to flow upon cacao pods (Dreiss and Greenhill 38).  These scenes are fascinating because they show that cacao was not only viewed as a connection between humanity and the divine but also as a unit of exchange among the gods as well.  The Dresden and Madrid codices are evidence that cacao was fundamental to the lives of the Mayan people.  The ubiquity of cacao in these scenes is important, but it is its associations with valuable goods such as quetzals and its role among the gods that elevate cacao to highest regard.

Picture sources

Quetzal : http://i1-news.softpedia-static.com/images/news2/Ubuntu-12-10-a-k-a-Quantal-Quetzal-2.jpg

For the pictures of the codices, thanks to:

Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández
2013  The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1. A website and database available at
http://www.mayacodices.org/.

Works cited

Dreiss, Meredith L., & Greenhill, Sharon (2008).  Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods.  University of Arizona Press.

Grivetti, Louis E., & Shapiro, Howard-Yana (2011).  Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage.  John Wiley & Sons.