Tag Archives: Creation Myth

Cacao and its Ancient Literary Significance

Cacao seeds, the source of chocolate, don’t often figure as a divine substance in the modern word. However, cacao holds ancient significance as food of the Gods for the Mayan. The world of the Ancient Maya was in many ways built on chocolate. Today, many understand that chocolate was a drink for kings and nobles. There are dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars that depict chocolate as part of a ritual or feast (Presilla 12). Indeed, the Maya incorporated chocolate into their lives daily. Furthermore, they were among the first people to uncover the intricate process of creating and refining cacao seeds into chocolate drink. However, cacao operated as much more than just a food source; the Mayans used it as currency and wrote it into their creation myth. The Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex offer a window into the ancient significance of cacao, connecting it to cultural identity. The act of processing  cacao beans, roasting and grinding them, is not only a cooking process but also deeply connected to a symbol of re-birth and power, due to its framing within a creation epic. Cacao is thus a spiritual food deeply connected to the identity of the Maya.


Image: ancientamerica.org

Cacao’s origins begin with the Mayan civilization and the creation of chocolate beverages. According to Maricel E. Presilla, the Maya “consumed the pulp itself and juice made from the cacao fruit pulp (Presilla 12). Additionally, inscriptions from drinking vessels outline a clear culture of drinking cacao, as the Mayans used terminology such as ‘tree-fresh cacao’ and ‘green cacao’ in order to describe certain tastes or preferences (Presilla 12). Historians have uncovered many vases and vessels, such as a painted pottery jar from a tomb at Río Azul, Guatemala. The vessel depicts a chocolate drinking being made and further shows the process of pouring the substance from one vessel into another “to raise the foam” (Coe 48). Thus, artifacts reveal the intricate care and use of chocolate; the Mayans were so particular about their chocolate routine that even specific moments in the process feature in art.

Image: mexicolore.co.uk

In addition to the clear culture of cacao consummation, cacao plays an instrumental within the Maya creation story. The story centers on the journey of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque in a world that precedes the present. Their father, Hun Hunahpu was killed in Xibalba (the underworld) after he and his brother lost to the Lords of the Death in a ball game (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Hun Hunahpu’s head is placed in a barren tree which magically begins to bear new fruit. According to Michael Grofe, this tree is depicted as a cacao tree, the beans of which make the chocolate drink that the Mayans enjoyed. Ultimately, the Hero Twins fall into a trap from the Lords of the Death who trick them into jumping into fire; they are burned and the Lords dump their bodies into the river. However, the Twins come back within five days as fish. They defeat death and bring about creation (Grofe). Thus, within the story is also the story of cacao. Like the twins returning to Xibalba, chocolate comes from beans which is roasted, refined, and poured into water, only to create something completely new.

Image: mexicolore.co.uk

The Maya word “kakaw” is spelled with two fish glyphs, further emphasizing the connection between the cacao process and the magical story of the Hero Twins (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). According to the scholar Michael J. Grofe, in the “the famous Rio Azul cacao pot, we find both the two ‘ka’ glyphs together with the reduplication symbol, as well as the final syllable ‘wa’, spelling ‘kakaw’. It therefore seems likely that the story of the Hero Twins transforming into ‘two fish’ derives from a pun on the word ‘kakaw’” (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Grofe explains the sacrifice of the Twins as parallel to “cacao processing: entrance into the underworld (burial, fermentation), burning (roasting), grinding of their bones on a metate, and pouring them into water” (Grofe “Recipe” 1). Ultimately, Cacao, through symbolic and mythological writing thus serves as a powerful representation of re-birth, underscoring the cultural significance of cacao to the Maya who used it regularly.

The Dresden Codex further illuminates the significance of cacao in literary Mayan culture. The Codex is a “folding-screen book” and in several sections “gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe 41). In addition, the Dresden Codex specifically connects gods to cacao; according to Sophie and Michael Coe, “the Opossum God travels a sacred road to the edge of the town carrying the Rain God on his back, while the associated text tells us that ‘cacao is his food [kakaw u hanahl]’” (Coe 42). The Mayan Gods, as depicted in the Dresden Codex, have a clear reverential relationship to cacao. Ultimately, cacao seeds are not merely food, but a divine life source, and connected to the what it means to be Mayan.

Image Sources:

  1. Vessel and Popol Vuh page: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya
  2. Map: http://www.ancientamerica.org/?p=40

Works cited:

  1. Coe, Michael D. True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
  2. Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, 15 Apr. 2009, http://www.famsi.org/research/grofe/GrofeRecipeForRebirth.pdf.
  3. Grofe, Michael J. “Xibalba: About.” Xibalba Cacao, Michael Grofe, http://www.xibalbacacao.com/index.htm.
  4.  Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: a Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

The Myth of Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus is a key figure of history who is known for discovering the New World of the Americas in late 1492. The story of Christopher Columbus and the role he played in history is taught in school from a young age. However, over the course of time a popular myth has taken shape that Christopher Columbus was the first to try chocolate. Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe say that “there is not a shred of evidence that Columbus ever contacted syphilis in the New World (though some of his crew may have), nor did he know anything about chocolate” (Coe, 11). By using the myth that Christopher Columbus was the first to try chocolate as a lens, we can determine that over the passage of time people perpetuate popular myths pertaining to history as fact.

It is true that Christopher Columbus on his fourth New World voyage came into contact with cacao beans. In 1502 while he was traveling with his son named Ferdinand, Maricel E. Presilla notes in The New Taste of Chocolate that he “intercepted a party of Indians in a massive canoe off the coast of today’s Honduras” (Presilla 17). These Indians valued cacao beans tremendously but Columbus thought they appeared just like almonds. Presilla remarks “Ferdinand wrote of the supring fuss the people made over some nuts that they carried with them, immediately stooping to rescue any that dropped “as if an eye had fallen from their heads”” (Presilla, 17). This showcases that Columbus came to understand the perception of cacao beans as valuable but not that he personally discovered chocolate. However, according to the link for this Pinterest post below this reality has not come to fruition and the myth has survived the passage of time. The fact that a popular social media site like Pinterest contains comments like this confirms that the general public still believes that Christopher Columbus was responsible for intentionally bringing chocolate to us.

Upon Christopher Columbus’ voyage back home it became apparent that the cacao beans on his ship were the least of his concerns. He was more interested with the gold and silver that he obtained during his voyage. This is is apparent on the website for Cadbury Chocolate in Australia where it delves into Columbus on it’s “Discovering Chocolate” page which can be seen on the link below. It discusses how Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing “the first cocoa beans back to Europe from his fourth visit to the ‘New World’ between 1502 and 1504. However far more exciting treasures on board his galleons meant the humble cocoa beans were ignored” (Cadbury). This showcases that while Columbus comprehended that the cacao beans were valuable he did not comprehend the impact these cacao beans would make.


The myth of Christopher Columbus in regards to chocolate showcases that myths as a whole can develop into facts. This is apparent in this Youtube video embedded below where it lists the top 10 facts about chocolate. The video makes clear that Christopher Columbus in number six introduced chocolate to Europe (0:48 – 1:02). It is perplexing that this topic is placed as one of the top chocolate facts. Columbus has been credited with discovering chocolate but in all actually Columbus thought the cacao beans were almonds. However, he did recognize that the beans were valuable because they could be seen as a means of currency. This is made clear by Presilla when she states “Columbus’s one and only encounter with cacao illustrates the relationship between cacao and currency” (Presilla, 17). Christopher Columbus is a historical figure whose accomplishments are endless but it simply is a myth that he discovered chocolate. This serves as a reminder that it is easy to create myths as a society so it is important to attempt to not perpetuate them as historical unless all gaps are filled.

Works Cited

“All About Chocolate.” Pinterest. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <https://www.pinterest.com/pin/114982596707841289/&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

“Discovering Chocolate.” Discovering Chocolate. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <https://www.cadbury.com.au/About-Chocolate/Discovering-Chocolate.aspx&gt;.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

“Top Chocolate Facts.” YouTube. YouTube. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWculT_DTlQ&spfreload=10&gt;.

Oh, How Divine!

Chocolate is a ubiquitous food that has been an instrument or product of companies, commercials, and love worldwide for centuries. It is often depicted as a superfood and even divine food as illustrated below. While its taste alone would likely incline one to highly praise this food for its flavor, the divinity and perfection attributed to chocolate is derived from the cultural and religious history of cacao, its predecessor. Why is divinity and perfection associated with chocolate today? Is it simply a recent marketing ploy to fascinate buyers’ gustatory attentions?

An illustrative advertisement for chocolate bars produced by Divine Chocolate Limited (Founded 1998), a leading global chocolate provider.

The cacao tree and its fruit have been imbued with divinity since the earliest recordings of them. Ancient Mesoamerican peoples including the Mayan and the Aztec credit their culture and their very existence to them. In fact, the cacao tree is considered to be a world tree—a gateway to the divine—for the ancient peoples who inhabited the cacao-growing regions of Mesoamerica (Martin, AAAS 119x Lecture 3). The relationship between the Mayan and cacao are illustrated multiple times throughout the epic found in the Popul Vuh a Maya document, which in particular, contains that people’s creation myth. Though it is referenced multiple times within this text, the exact role of cacao is not clearly defined in the Popul Vuh. However, the pointers to cacao’s divine significance found in the text lie in the narrative facts (a) that a living head of heroic Maize God is depicted fruiting from the cacao tree cacao and (b) that cacao is listed among other staple Mayan foods found on the Mountain of Sustenance with which the gods would create human bodies (Coe, 39). Moreover, Theobroma cacao—the cacao tree’s scientific name given in 1753 by Swedish scientist Carl von Linné—directly references the sacred roots of cacao—“the food of gods” (Coe, 17).

Classic Maya vase located in the Popul Vuh Museum (Guatemala City) depicting the head of the Maize God attached to a cacao tree as if it were a pod. A parallel depiction drawn by Simon Martin accompanies.

Likely originated within Olmec civilization (1500-400 BC), highly developed in 600 BC within the Maya civilization, and transmitted to the Aztec civilization, chocolate bears the divine mark of cacao as it becomes a featured food item for sacred rituals and the consumption of the elite. Archaeological discoveries continuously indicate that, especially in Maya society, the significance and cachet of chocolate (Presilla, 12). As a food item, chocolate maintains a plethora of culinary variations; but most chocolate consumption was experienced as a beverage (Coe, 15). Of all the modes that even chocolate as a beverage possesses, the most illustrious form is a chocolate beverage with a frothy top (Presilla, 13). The coveted foaming, or frothing, chocolate beverage likely occurs as a result of manual continual aeration of the beverage as depicted below. This invention is the crème de la crème of chocolate and was typically reserved for one of two things: the altar of sacrifice to a god or the table of the noble (Presilla, 9). This pouring out of a worthy drink offering, or libation, to a god reinforces the inextricable elements of divinity and perfection found in chocolate. Moreover, the preparation of this frothed beverage for the noble of society also demands a certain benchmark of skill and craftsmanship that is worthy and befitting of elite company.

The Princeton Vase (A.D. 670-750) is a Late Classic Maya vase that interestingly depicts a woman likely preparing a frothy chocolate beverage by pouring the beverage repeatedly from vessel to vessel to create aeration and, thus, foaming.

These ancient customs, beliefs, and rituals surrounding cacao and chocolate fuel today’s portrayal of chocolate as a premier food to be regarded in high esteem. Chocolate’s highly involved and evolved association of divinity and perfection even predates the creation of chocolate itself and originates with cacao. At first, these concepts are not industrially constructed addendums to the story of chocolate to take advantage of the marketing landscape. Rather, this ideology about chocolate has existed for millennia, yet with such status comes indeed marketing and social potential that can be leveraged by chocolate producers and consumers alike.

Works Cited
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Martin, Carla. AAAS 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Online.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print. Revised.

Maya, Cacao, and the Creation Myth.

                                       Maya, Cacao, and the Creation Myth Popol Vuh.

One of the important themes of Unit 1 has been the influence of cacao on the Ancient Mayan civilization. Cacao was an important part of Mayan culture, and a desired delicacy. However, cacao was not just a tree or a food to eat, its significance extends to the metaphysical: the Mayan creation myth, Popol Vuh, makes several references to cacao. Thus, the reason cacao is held to such a pedestal in the Mayan culture is because it bares some credit for the existence of humanity.

The Story:

Popol Vuh was one of the important stories discussed during Unit 1. It is a Mayan creation myth, which goes as follows: In the very beginning, there was not much to the world—other than nothingness and water. There were also six Gods who existed during this time. They created the Earth and separated it from the Sky by planting a tree. Plants were created next, followed by animals. Animals, however, could not pay respect and worship to the Gods, so the Gods created humans. In their first attempt, they used mud. These humans were soulless and sinful so the Gods punished them by a great flood. The Gods next tried to create humans from wood; but they, too, could not pay respect to their makers, so were destroyed or became primates. During this time, the Sun and Moon did not exist. A bird, Seven Macaw, pretended to be the Sun and Moon, but it was killed by two heroic twins, Hunajpu and Xbalanque. These two twins came to existence when their deceased father’s head spat onto their mother’s hand from a cacao tree. The twins, after going through many difficulties, were able to resurrect their father into the form of the Maize God. The heroic twins would ultimately become the Sun and the Moon. The corn from their father would be the substance used to create the true humans of the world (Living Maya Time).

Along with the corn, one of the other ingredients that went into making true humans was cacao. Ancient Mayans, in turn, learned how to make chocolate by taking cacao pods, removing the beans, letting them germinate and ferment before roasting them, grounding them, and then adding water to get the liquid texture. (Black Edgar, The Power of Chocolate, pg. 23)

The Smithsonian has also created an amazing video with great art and a vivid rendering of this creation myth:

The Significance:

What is the significance of chocolate in this story? Cacao makes several appearances in the myth. For instance, the Lords of Death killed the heroic twins’ father—Hun Hunahpu. His severed head was left on a cacao tree, which grows the chocolate beans. In other accounts, the tree is the gourd tree, with fruits that resemble skulls and that were used by Mayans to drink chocolate. Regardless, it was the allure of the tree that attracted the heroic twins’ mother—who was the daughter of the lord of the underworld—to go and speak to the severed head, from which she was impregnated (Gorman Museum).

Furthermore, cacao was one of the ingredients that the Gods needed to successfully create humanity. It was not just simply corn, but a combination of things—cacao being one of them—that the deities needed in order to create stable humans. Mud and wood did not work. In other words, cacao is in the essence of humanity. Also, without it, the Hero twins would not exist, meaning that the Sun and the Moon would cease to exist as well. Thus, cacao embodies the spirit of nature. Not only does it bare some credit for humanity, but it also has some responsibility for the natural order of the world—keeping it in harmony and balance through the sun and the moon. To the Mayans, it is clear that cacao is more than just a tree or a food, it is a big part of the world.

Here is an illustration of Hunahpu’s head on the Gourd Tree and the Twins’ mother.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 6.36.22 PM

Source: Cascarin

We also see depictions of the Maize God (the resurrected Hunahpu) as cacao pods on a Mayan Vase. The recurrent references to cacao show just how important they are to Mayan culture and mythology.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 9.24.33 PM

Source: Authentic Maya

Works Cited:

“The Creation Story of the Maya.” Living Maya Time. Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <http://maya.nmai.si.edu/sites/default/files/transcripts/the_creation_story_of_the_maya.pdf&gt;.

“The Creation Story of the Maya.” Youtube.com. SmithsonianNMAI, 14 June 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jb5GKmEcJcw#t=28&gt;.

Edgar, Blake. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology 63.6 (2010): 20-25. Jstor.org. Archaeological Institute of America. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/41780626&gt;.

“The Tree of Xibalba: Cacao and the Ancient Maya.” Gorman Museum. University of California, Davis, 4 Oct. 2007. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <http://gormanmuseum.ucdavis.edu/Exhibitions/FLASH/PastFlash/Cacao/Cacao.htm&gt;.

“Popol Vuh VII.” Deviantart.com. Cascarin, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <http://cascarin.deviantart.com/art/Popol-Vuh-VII-72258309&gt;.

“Vaso Popol Vuh.” Authenticmaya.com. Authentic Maya. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <http://www.authenticmaya.com/images/vaso popol vuh.jpg>.

The Popol Vuh and the Globalization of Chocolate

Sprouting from the heart of the Amazon basin, the first cacao trees endowed South America with the “food of the gods,” and for centuries, the indigenous people who inhabited the area indulged on the fruit as if it truly were a gift from the heavens (Klitgard “Theobroma cacao”). Today, what began as an isolated delicacy of the Mayan civilization is now the beloved, yet easily accessible commodity that people from all over the world know as chocolate. What spurred such a rapid globalization of an otherwise extremely demanding crop to cultivate? How did cacao make its way across the Atlantic to the lands so far overseas? And why was this plant, of the myriad of exotic foods to enjoy from the New World, the one that captivated every country it entered? Chocolate’s origin and its almost universal attraction stems from its earliest appearances in the Mayan creation myths detailed in the narratives referred to as the Popol Vuh (Coe, Coe 40). Through the colonial document recorded by a Dominican friar, cacao’s reverence was passed on from the native population of Mesoamerica to the foreign explorers that so fortunately stumbled upon the indigenous civilization (Woodruff, “Francisco Ximenez”). As such, the Popol Vuh is one of the most influential, historical documents for the globalization of chocolate as it plays a major role in introducing Mayan culture, customs, and beliefs to the first of the Europeans, leading to further interactions between the two parties over cacao and the subsequent development of a strong, worldwide interest in this food.

The Popol Vuh or the “Book of Counsel” provides valuable insight into countless Mayan customs, including their perspective on the preparation and consumption of cacao; these implications can be derived from the Mayan creation myth, one of the most prominent stories featured in the collection of narratives (Coe, Coe 40).

According to the Popol Vuh, the “six [creator] deities, covered in green and blue feathers… helped Heart of Sky” shape the earth from the primordial sea, filling the land with animals and later on humans (Smithsonian, “Creation Story of the Maya”). However, their attempts at perfecting people were initially unsuccessful: those molded out of mud were too weak while those carved from wood became ignorant of their duties (Smithsonian, “Creation Story of the Maya”).

Two Mayan gods creating the first humans with mud
Two Mayan gods creating the first humans

Eventually, the gods came upon the “Mountain of Sustenance,” and seeing that it was “filled with delicious things, crowded with yellow ears of maize… white ears of maize… and chocolate,” they decided to utilize these staples to form the present human race, hence the strong emphasis Mayan culture places on the use of cacao (Christenson, 182). It is no surprise then that such a food, having its own place in the creation of mankind, was thoroughly incorporated in nearly every custom practiced by the Natives. From serving as a culinary treat to being held as offerings to the deceased, cacao is by far the Mayan’s most prized possession (Staller, Carrasco 324).

Although the creation myth is entertaining in its own respect, it also represents the importance of cacao to the indigenous people, and for this reason, the Popol Vuh, among other messages inscribed upon Mayan vessels, can be attributed to drawing the attention of early Spanish colonizers towards the benefits of this fruit. By allowing Friar Francisco Ximenez to record the Popol Vuh, the Mayans effectively introduced cacao to not only the explorers that just encountered their civilization, but also all Europeans to come (Woodruff, “Francisco Ximenez”).

A page from the Popol Vuh recorded and translated by Friar Francisco Ximenez
A page from the Popol Vuh recorded and translated by the Dominican friar, Francisco Ximenez

This document, through its translation, distribution, and survival, disseminated both knowledge and rampant curiosity among the Old World populations, remaining till this day as one of the few significant accounts of Mesoamerican mythologies. As a result, the Popol Vuh indirectly demonstrated to the Spanish exactly which crops the Mayans held in high regard, including the undiscovered cacao tree and its luscious fruits, marking the beginning of an extended exchange of cultural and culinary appreciation (Coe, Coe 66).

The influence of the Popol Vuh ushered in new eras of interaction with the indigenous people, ultimately leading to the adoption of chocolate in Europe, the colonization of Mesoamerica, and the hybridization of the two cultures. Today, chocolate is produced all over the world and its mass production points to our cultural and preferential dependence on this food. And as the timeless saying goes, “we are what we eat” – looks like the Popol Vuh was right all along.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Klitgard, Bente, ed. "Theobroma cacao." Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Theobroma-cacao.htm>. 

Newberry Library. "Arte de las tres lenguas kakchiquel, quiche y tzutuhil." Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia, 29 June 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Popol_vuh.jpg>.

Popol Vuh creation myth. Popol Vuh: The Book of the People. SacredTexts, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/popol_vuh/book.htm>.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st, Rev ed. New York: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

Smithsonian. "Creation Story of the Maya." Living Maya Time: Sun, Corn, and the Calender. Smithsonian Institution, 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://maya.nmai.si.edu/the-maya/creation-story-maya>. 

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The Creation Story of the Maya. Living Maya Time: Sun, Corn, and the Calender. Smithsonian Institution, 14 June 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jb5GKmEcJcw#t=53>. 

Staller, John, and Micahel Carrasco. Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Pringer, 2010. Print. 

"The Discovery of Maize." Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Quiche Maya People. Trans. Allen J. Christenson. N.p.: Mesoweb, 2007. 180-83. Print.

Woodruff, John. "Francisco Ximenez." JohnWoodruff.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://www.johnwoodruff.com/research/ximenez.html>.