Cacao served as an important element in many different rituals and customs in Maya civilization. Cacao can be found in Maya religious imagery, but also cacao held importance at many of the social milestones of an individual’s life like a wedding or funeral. Much in this way, Cacao has both symbolic and practical significance in the Maya civilization as it served as an indicator of an individual’s power and wealth. In this blog post, I will further explore the cultural significance of Cacao in Maya civilization in religious, social and political contexts. This cultural significance allows us to better conceptualize the long history of Cacao in the Americas that existed before the arrival of Columbus.
Historical texts provide insight into the religious sphere of the Maya civilization.
The Popol Vuh, otherwise known as the “Book of Counsel,” is a text written shortly after the Spanish Conquest regarding the Maya civilization. It is important to note that some of the stories can be linked back to the Izapans of the Late Pre-Classic, who had ties to the Olmec civilization. In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Doe write about the first set of twins who face a painful death, “The severed head of one of that unlucky pair (now known to be the Maize God) is hung up in a tree-said to be a calabash tree in the story, but pictured as a cacao tree on a class Maya vase.” (Coe, and Coe; pg. 39) The choice of the cacao tree is an intentional choice as the Maize God protects the Maize crops, which is a lifeline for their civilization.
The Dresden Codex offers many Classic Maya characteristics like calligraphy and astronomical information but it dates back to the end of the Pre-Conquest era.
The imagery in the Dresden Codex shows deities holding onto cacao pods. Sophie and Michael Doe write about a Dresden page from the Post-Classic Yucatán that shows the Opossum God and an, “associated text tells us that “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]. “” (Coe, and Coe; pg. 42) These two examples in the Dresden Codex demonstrate the long-lasting significance of cacao within a religious context.
The Madrid Codex contains a large amount of ritual imagery and text with regards to cacao. Sophie and Michael Doe highlight a striking example in the Madrid Codex that contains four deities piercing their ears and letting the blood flow over cacao pods, “This is especially interesting since our ethnohistoric sources tell us that there were strong symbolic associations between chocolate and human blood among both the late Post-Classic Maya and the Aztecs.” (Coe, and Coe; pg. 42) These two civilizations had strong systems of religious sacrifice and offerings. This emphasizes the power of cacao within their society and the place that it holds within the hierarchy of value.
Cacao was immensely popular for social settings as well. It was frequently served at expensive banquets, baptisms, weddings, and burials. Cacao beverages were consumed in many of these different celebrations, as it was known in the Maya civilization to have many health benefits including digestive, anti-inflammatory, and energy-related benefits. It was common for merchants and nobles to throw these huge banquets. Sophie and Michael Coe note that the baptisms performed in the Maya civilizations typically included a type of liquid that included flowers and cacao powder. (Coe, and Coe; pg. 60) The Madrid Codex displays images in relation to Maya marriage rituals. Just as cacao held a special place within the role of religion, cacao held practice and symbolic power within marriage. One of the rituals included tac haa (“to serve chocolate”) which generally meant inviting the girl’s father over to discuss marriage prospects and drinking a cacao beverage. The cacao drink also symbolized the phrase for royal marriage. Cacao was a type of social capital that indicated that someone was worthy of a marriage. Later on, the cacao seeds were used as a currency for marriage dowry in the 1500s. Cacao was not only used for joyous occasions either. In the Codex Nuttall, there is a Mixtec scene with a funeral procession showing a foaming cacao beverage. Cacao was thought to energize and help the soul’s journey through the underworld. This still has bearings on today’s celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, which includes chocolate beverages today.
The Maya Civilization is one of many Pre-Columbian groups that has history tied together with cacao. In Cocoa, Kristy Leissle notes that, “From the earliest records of its uses among the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations, cocoa has always been politicized.” (Leissle; pg. 17) The politics of cacao goes hand in hand with the way in which it was used to shape society. Just like the Maize God and the connection to the cacao tree, cacao was used in many political ways to determine power and wealth. It is essential to remember this as many times history has been told from a white, Eurocentric point of view. In Chocolate, women, and empire, Emma Robertson highlights that focusing on over-looked history can allow for reparations of this imperial acts of colonization that have happened throughout time, “The imperial history of cocoa thus becomes stabilized, not to be disrupted by the violence of imperial conquest.” (Robertson; pg. 65)
Cacao was not only the food of the gods, but also the demonstration of love and power.
Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. The True History Of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Dresden Codex. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dresden_Codex_pp.58-62_78.jpg. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
Madrid Codex. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Tro-Cortesianus.jpg. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.
Popol Vuh. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Empiezan_las_historias(Popol_vuh).jpg. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women And Empire. Manchester University Press, 2009.