Tag Archives: ceremonies

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.

Mayan marriage traditions around cacao and chocolate

Chocolate and cacao was imbued with religious meaning and incorporated into ceremonies in unique ways that still carry over to today. Particularly poignant examples can be found in the context of the marriage traditions of the Maya. Chocolate was used by the Maya to seal marriage negotiations and ceremonies. Coe and Coe illustrate how special a role cocoa played in Mayan wedding explaining how brides and grooms would each exchange five cacao beans along with their vows  to execute the contract of marriage. (Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 2013, Kindle Locations 868-870.)

Such an important role cacao and chocolate played in marriage traditions that it too was represented in important historical artifacts of the Maya.

Image 1. A depiction of an exchange of cacao beans during a marriage ceremony.

This post classic Maya picture comes from the Codex Nuttall and shows a Mayan wedding scene in which chocolate is being exchanged by the bride, Lady 13 Snake, and groom, Mixtec king 8 Deer “Tiger Claw” of Tilantongo. (Mixtec)

The longevity of this tradition is apparent in many Mayan wedding traditions even today. For example, the Awakateko are a Mayan ethnic group from the that reside in the Aguacatan municipality located in the northwestern highlands of modern-day Guatemala. Mayan marriage traditions practiced today by this people still feature cacao quite prominently. For example,  after marriage negotiation between families, a marriage ceremony is performed which is  known as a quicyuj. The quicyuj means “cacao beans” and referential to the Mayan custom of using cacao beans to pay bride-prices/dowries to cement the contract to marry between the groom and bride. (Brintnall, 1979, pp. 82-84) 

Final Mayan Chocolate vessel Illustration
Image 2. A depiction of a premarital bride-price negotiation and exchange.

A modern example of  a traditional Mayan wedding ceremony showcasing the role of cacao beans may be viewed here.

The relationship between chocolate and marriages would extend beyond the ceremony and negotiations; chocolate was used as a tie that could bind people and families together but it was also used to keep them together, particularly by women. Typically, chocolate  drinks were made by women rather than men and so that role was unique. An example of a woman making chocolate in the traditional Mayan fashion may be viewed here.  

After the Spanish conquest, chocolate continued to be used to treat marital difficulties by women who learned from the indigenous women of the area. For instance, in Guatemala during the 16th century when experiencing marital difficulties, like infidelity or spousal abuse, women would often turn to serving bewitched  or “doctored” chocolate drinks to their partners.(Few, 2005, pp. 673-687) These specially prepared chocolate drinks were thought to imbue women with powers over men, and so offered women who prepared this drink a certain amount of agency, particularly significant for indigenous women and African/Mulatto women that often worked as domestics or slaves in  during the Spanish colonial period of Guatemala, around the 16th century.

Understanding more about how cacao and chocolate was incorporated into rituals around marriage, both in the pre-Columbian and colonial periods, is fascinating. it is interesting to briefly explore how Mayan traditions surrounding cocoa, chocolate and marriage related to today’s customs and to women. From the exchange of cacao beans to execute a marriage contract to the preparation of bewitched chocolate drinks to preserve a marriage, chocolate and cacao played a pivotal role.


Brintnall, D E. 1979. Revolt Against the Dead: The Modernization of a Mayan Community in the Highlands of Guatemala. Library of Anthropology. Gordon and Breach. https://books.google.com/books?id=-Merrz3IoqUC. (82-84)

Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Locations 868-870). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.

Few, M. (2005). Chocolate, sex, and disorderly women in late-seventeenth-and early-eighteenth-century Guatemala. Ethnohistory, 52(4), 673-687

Mixtec. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2016, from http://www.ancientscripts.com/mixtec.html

Restall, M. (2009). The Black middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in colonial Yucatan. CA: Stanford University Press. (271-272)


  1. A depiction of an exchange of cacao beans during a marriage ceremony[Photograph found in Codex Zouche-Nuttall, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria]. (2015, December 4). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/images-ans/ans_21_06_2.jpg
  2. Mayan Chocolate vessel Illustration [Photograph found in Denver Art Museum, Denver]. (2012, November). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from http://creativity.denverartmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Final-Mayan-Chocolate-vessel-Illustration.jpg

Multimedia Sources

Spirituality Riviera Maya: Traditional Mayan Wedding Spirituality Riviera Maya [Video file]. (2013, October 25). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xosdr-Tj_nI (Marriage ceremony showcasing the Mayan tradition of exchanging cocoa beans)

Toledo Ecotourism Association – making a chocolate drink [Video file]. (2008, May 10). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE (Mayan woman making a traditional chocolate drink of chocolate and maize)