Tag Archives: baptism

Cacao in Mayan Religious Stories and Rituals and Community Celebrations

While chocolate may just seem like a dessert food to most people today, its main ingredient, cacao, and the tree from which the fruit stems played essential roles in the lives of the people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It was associated with fertility rites, marriage rituals, and even rites of death for the Maya people. As illustrated through their mythology, the cacao tree connected generations. Cacao brought people together by being a part of their religion illustrated through vases and by bringing together communities during feasts and celebrations. It established the Mayan hierarchy, and during the feasts of the elite, the people in the local community were able to exchange goods with others outside of the community. The cacao tree and the fruit it bears played a significant role in the religious and community life of the Maya people in the Pre-Columbian era.

The religious significance of the cacao tree for the Mayan people is illustrated through their creation myth. In this myth, the twin sons of the couple who created the universe are beheaded in the Maya underworld, Xibalba, by the lords of the underworld. One of the severed heads, which is now known as the Maize God, is hung up in a cacao tree, like the figure depicted by the lidded vessel below. As the daughter of an Xibalban ruler holds her hand up to the tree one day, the severed head is able to impregnate her. This woman then gives birth to the Hero Twins named Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These twins go on to accomplish a number of exploits and eventually defeat the underworld. They then resurrect their father, the Maize God, as their final task. With their final task completed, they become the sun and the moon (Coe). The cacao tree in this story allows the Maize God to “pass on his procreative seed and to eventually triumph through the heroic deeds of his offspring” (Martin 178). The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit were also passed between communities and generations.

This Mayan Lidded vessel depicts the Maize God as a Cacao Tree. The cacao pods surround the vessel, and the lid’s nob is a cacao tree with a bird that is now broken (Wikimedia Commons contributors).

The tree and its fruit connected each generation of the Maya people and permeated Mayan religion in rites like baptism and funerals. During the baptismal ritual, the noble giving the ceremony would dip a bone in a vessel filled with water, flowers, and cacao. With this mixture, “he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between the fingers and toes, in complete silence” (Coe). Like the tree that the Maize God manifested himself in allowed him to have children and reconnect with the world, the Maya people would bury people with vases that were used to drink cacao with inscriptions of cacao on them. As the dead traveled to the underworld, the cacao would continue to provide for the Maya as it did when they were alive and would ensure their safe travel (Martin). In addition to rituals, the cacao tree and its fruit played an essential role in the celebrations and community interactions of the Maya people.

During religious ceremonies and celebrations, the Maya would drink from vases that had inscriptions of cacao and the cacao tree. These inscriptions and drawings “made even a sip of chocolate a sacramental act” (Martin 179). The cacao was celebrated by all in the community, but the inscriptions reinforced the Maya rulership as many portrayed Mayan rulers among the deities. The cacao vases demonstrated the order within the community by establishing the power of the elite as they were compared to supernatural deities as shown in the image of a Maya vessel below. They would be exchanged among elites during feasts that “created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation” (Reents-Budet 209). These feasts then extended to the local community where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds were able to exchange goods which extended their relations beyond the local community. The vases were still present in the lower tier society, although they were not as elaborate as the elite vessels. While the people would offer cacao to the gods for gifts like fertility and rain, it also reinforced “their sense of community by way of a fabric of overlapping rights and obligations developed between sponsors and participants” (Reents-Budet 209). Cacao and the practice of drinking from and giving vases were a central part of the lives of the Mayan people.

The inscription around the rim of the this Maya vessel refers to its function as a chocolate-drinking cup and also states that it was owned by a Namaan king. The drawing portrays a king on a throne and a supernatural being in front of him, illustrating the connection between the elite and religion.

Overall, the cacao tree and fruit were central aspects to the religious, social, and economic lives of the Maya people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In their creation story, his manifestation in tree enabled the Maize God to give way to the next generation which then resurrected him from the underworld. The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit permeated the Mayan religion and played essential roles in the religious rituals of the people. Cacao was present in the baptismal rites and in the tombs of people, illustrating a connection between cacao and religion. The drinking of cacao and exchange of vases that held cacao and also had inscriptions of the elite and cacao during feasts and celebrations demonstrated order within the Maya community. From these feasts, different people were able to connect and extend relations beyond their local community. Cacao connected people in the community through its role in religious stories and rituals and celebrations among elites.

Works Cited:

Chocolate Cup (2002-9). https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/40908. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. 2019. Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Martin, Simon. Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld. University Press of Florida, 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.003.0008.

Reents-Budet, Dorie. The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among of the Ancient Maya. University Press of Florida, 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.003.0010.

Wikimedia Commons contributors. File:Mayan – Lidded Vessel – Walters 20092039 – Side D.Jpg. Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository., https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg.

The Ritual Uses of Chocolate

            For 16th-century Mesoamericans, specifically Mayans on the Yucatán peninsula, chocolate played a substantial part in rituals and ceremonies including baptism and marriages. However, that was not the only way that Mayans incorporated chocolate into their lives. Before Europeans arrived and co-opted cacao for their own use and benefit, “cacao became the small coin in a monetizing economy” in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.[1]Cacao beans, or “happie money” as Milanese chronicler Peter Martyr termed it because it “groweth upon trees,” was exchanged for work and other goods like turkey hens, avocados, and tomatoes.[2]Now, the only time chocolate is used as a currency is when children trade chocolate bars for Skittles after a night of trick-or-treating. 

[1]Carla D. Martin and Kathryn E. Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” Socio.Hu, no. special issue 3 (2015): 40, https://doi.org/10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

[2]Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate(London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2019), 99.

This image shows the contents of an Aztec tribute collected from Soconusco. Much of the tribute was collected in cacao beans, shown here in sacks next to the jaguar skins.  Codex Mendoza (c. 1541) “CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods,” Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library, accessed March 8, 2020, http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php

Like cacao is no longer used as currency today, chocolate is not a part of baptisms, and is only a part of a marriage if a couple decides to have chocolate cake at their reception. However, the involvement of chocolate in Mayan ceremonies and rituals was a big part of what chocolate meant to Mayans.[3]Chocolate was not just consumed for enjoyment during these practices; it was assigned a certain spiritual meaning, a meaning which was lost when Europeans arrived and made the presence and cultivation of cacao as well as the making of chocolate in Mesoamerica more associated with trade and wealth than ritual.

            Mayans used cacao to “connect with the divine and distinguish themselves” in their rituals, including in their baptismal rite.[4]Bishop Landa, a Spanish Franciscan priest and bishop who lived amongst, learned about—and tortured—16th-century Mayans, included a description of this baptismal rite in his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán.[5]Having a baptismal rite at all was surprising to the Christian Landa because he had observed that the Mayans were pagan, but he observed nonetheless. What he observed was an intricate ceremony. The priest was “gorgeously arrayed,” the children were “gathered together inside a cord held by four elderly men representing the Chacs (rain men),” and the children were all anointed by the noble conducting the ceremony.[6]This liquid was made up of “certain flowers and of cacao pounded and dissolved in virgin water.”[7]Though it was a custom to drink chocolate, especially amongst wealthy or noble Mayans, the cacao used in the baptismal rite was not meant to be consumed at all. Its use here was simply spiritual and ritualistic. 

            The ethnohistory of Mayan civilizations show that cacao and chocolate were also used in Mayan betrothal and marriage ceremonies.[8]Coe and Coe’s A True History of Chocolateexplains that “when a Quiché Maya king was looking for a wife, his messenger was given… a vessel of beaten chocolate,” and at wedding banquets, a popular activity was chokola’jwhich means “drink chocolate together.”[9]The photo below, an illustration found in the Codex Nuttall, a pre-Columbian document containing native pictography, shows King 8 Deer, the groom, pointing to a cup of chocolate in the hands of his bride, Princess 13 Serpent.[10]The chocolate in the drawing is frothing, clearly beaten like Coe’s description mentions. Both Coe’s explanation of a Quiché Maya king and the Codex Nuttall illustration point to the use of drinking chocolate in Mayan wedding festivities. 

[3]Coe and Coe, 61.

[4]Coe and Coe, 61.

[5]“Codex Nuttall,” accessed March 8, 2020, https://library.si.edu/donate/adopt-a-book/codex-nuttall.

[6]Coe and Coe, 60.

[7]Kathryn E. Sampeck and Jonathan Thayn, “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism,” in Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), 92.

[8]“Diego de Landa | Spanish Bishop,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed March 8, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Diego-de-Landa; Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 60.

[9]Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 60.

[10]Coe and Coe, 60.

A groom points to a cup of chocolate in his bride’s hands in AD 1051. Found in the Codex Nuttall. Ed Whelan, “Failed Crops Caused Economic Crash for Mayan Chocolate Currency,” Text, accessed March 8, 2020, https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/crops-economic-crash-mayan-chocolate-currency-0010285.

Eric Thompson’s “Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Maya,” published in a 1938 edition of American Anthropologist, noted that “the form of the marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool… and also gives him five grains of cacao, and says to him ‘These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband.’”[11]Cacao beans themselves, before being ground into chocolate liquor, were also, evidently, a part of Mayan marriage rituals. Although this use of cacao was more associated with currency because it resembles a dowry, it is also related to the betrothal process and therefore is ritualistic in nature. 

            Once Europeans arrived in Mesoamerica, they coopted the cultivation of cacao for trade purposes and chocolate became more and more separate from its original, spiritual state. When the Spanish first arrived to Mesoamerica, though, they “did not alter chocolate to the predilections of their palate,” and instead “sought to re-create the indigenous chocolate experience in America and in Europe.”[12]Early European chocolate recipes had similar flavor profiles as Mesoamerican ones, but with some added ingredients “acquired through trade or produced in Europe,” and Europeans embraced the native tools of chocolate beverage making, recreating them in copper and silver instead of wood.[13]However, as wealth from cacao cultivation grew, European began to be interested in chocolate as a drink “not because it was a curious food or drink, but because it was an engine of commerce.”[14]This idea of cacao and chocolate being an engine of commerce was reinforced when Europeans started to enslave Africans for cacao cultivation, a shift meant to bring in more profit in response to the shortage of native labor due to disease. At that point, “a new foodways regime that was predicated upon capitalism” was created.[15]Due to this strong association of chocolate and commerce, the association of chocolate and ritual diminished and mostly disappeared for producers as well as consumers. 

[11]J. Thompson, “Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Maya,” American Anthropologist40 (1938): 584–604 quoted in Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate(London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2019), 61.

[12]Marcy Norton, “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” The American Historical Review111, no. 3 (2006): 660, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660.

[13]Martin and Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 42–43.

[14]Martin and Sampeck, 44.

[15]Martin and Sampeck, 45.

            Although our relationship with chocolate has strayed from Mesoamericans’ original ritualistic and spiritual associations, in large part due to the capitalistic hunger of early European settlers of the Mesoamerican region, there has been a recent movement to return to Mayan ceremonial uses. With a simple YouTube search, one can find many people, usually white women, explaining their experiences with what they call “cacao ceremonies.” In the video linked here, Ksenia Avdulova describes to her audience of 3.8K subscribers, and anyone else who googles “cacao ceremony,” how to “make ceremonial cacao at home and make it really a ritual that helps you connect with your heart that nourishes you not just physically but also energetically.”[16]

[16]WHAT IS CACAO CEREMONY | How To Create A Cacao Ritual, accessed March 10, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG7bzsuGII0.

On the word “energetically,” Avdulova does spirit fingers and blows at the camera, seemingly trying to pass some kind of energy to her viewers, and includes a very stereotypically “tribal”-sounding music in the background to accompany these motions. Avdulova does not combine crushed cacao beans and flowers to anoint children or chokola’j with family members at a wedding feast, but instead uses a blender to blend “ceremonial cacao” with sea salt and cayenne to drink hot in the morning while holding her “favorite crystal” or “lighting sage.”[17]Though her idea of chocolate as ritual is very different and distanced from Mayan rituals, and is definitely cultural appropriation on some level, Avdulova, and many other people, are rediscovering the original ritualistic and spiritual meaning of cacao that started in 16th-century Mesoamerica that we as a society had strayed from long ago. 

[17]WHAT IS CACAO CEREMONY | How To Create A Cacao Ritual.


“CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods.” Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library. Accessed 

March 8, 2020. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php

“Codex Nuttall.” Accessed March 8, 2020. https://library.si.edu/donate/adopt-a-book/codex-nuttall.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2019.

“Diego de Landa | Spanish Bishop.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed March 8, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Diego-de-Landa.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, no. special issue 3 (2015): 37–60. https://doi.org/10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review111, no. 3 (2006): 660–691. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660.

Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” In Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition., 72–95. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

Thompson, J. “Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Maya.” American Anthropologist40 (1938): 584–604.

WHAT IS CACAO CEREMONY | How To Create A Cacao Ritual. Accessed March 10, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG7bzsuGII0.

Whelan, Ed. “Failed Crops Caused Economic Crash for Mayan Chocolate Currency.” Text. Accessed March 8, 2020. https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/crops-economic-crash-mayan-chocolate-currency-0010285.