Tag Archives: death

Till Death Do Us Part- Cacao in Religion, Marriage, and Death in Maya Civilization

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. 

File:Empiezan las historias(Popol vuh).jpg

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. 

File:Dresden Codex pp.58-62 78.jpg 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. 

File:Codex Tro-Cortesianus.jpg

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.

Understanding Life and Death: Cacao and Ancient Maya Rituals

Mesoamerican culture is perhaps most well known for its religious rituals. Celebrating baptisms, comings of age, marriages, and deaths, the Maya recognized cyclical patterns, and valued the circle of life. Many of their religious beliefs revolved around nature—the Maya worshipped gods of maize, rain, moon, and other earthly entities which granted them life and prosperity (Martin, 2020). Though rituals for various occasions differed in structure and setting, each almost always incorporated cacao into their festivities. Served as a decadent drink or traded as currency, cacao held a prominent and sacred place in Maya culture. In this essay, I examine various ancient rituals and show the ways that the Maya used cacao to celebrate and understand three core aspects of their religion: life, death, and rebirth. Weaving cacao into their religious ceremonies, the Mayans strove to connect the ethereal and the earthly.

One of the most prominent entities in Maya rituals was the Theobroma cacao, or the cacao tree, which was viewed as the connection between earth and the afterlife (Martin, 2020). Requiring high humidity, luscious soil, and thick shade, the cacao tree was cultivated riverside, and its abundant, colorful pods, shown in the picture below, served as a paradigm of natural prosperity (Garthwaite, 2015). The Mayans believed that the plumed serpent Kukulkan gifted the cacao tree to the earth, and celebrated this event by worshipping their god of cacao, Ek Chuah, annually (Hunt, 2013). This idea of a sacred “World Tree” was a recurring motif in Maya culture—they believed that the roots, trunk and branches of a tree created a link between the underworld, the earth, and the sky (Miller & Taube, 1993). Additionally, gods were often depicted as emerging from trees upon birth; Mayan monarchs, such as Lady Zac-Kuk, also embodied trees, which symbolized royal bloodlines (Martin, 2020). Through these images and myths, we can see the incorporation of cacao into ancient rituals as a way to connect with the surrounding natural life. Primarily worshipping nature, the Maya deeply appreciated the gifts of the earth, and used cacao to show this reverence.

Theobroma cacao, or cacao tree.

Cacao was also a prominent feature in burial rites among the Maya; its purpose as an aid in the afterlife indicates the way that the Mayans used cacao to come to terms with and conceptualize death. During life on earth, cacao was often taken as a stimulus—whether used for war or pleasure, cacao provided energy to those who consumed it (Martin, 2020). The Maya incorporated this concept into their burial rituals. Popular and extravagant ceremonies most commonly practiced for the wealthy elite, burial rituals aimed to prepare souls for the afterlife and equip them with tools they might need to get there (Coe & Coe, 1996). Along with special garments, jewelry, and pottery, the dead often received a cacao beverage, held in a vase like the one shown below. The vase, often decorated with beautiful colors and designs, was meant to provide energy in the afterlife to the soul (Martin, 2020). Life after death is a complex idea, and the Maya deeply believed in the existence of an afterlife. We can view the employment of earthly uses of cacao (such as its stimulating properties) to aid the dead in their quest for eternal life as a Maya attempt to understand the meaning of death.

Rio Azul vessel.

The idea of rebirth was also central to Mayan ritual, and was rooted in their reliance on the earth for sustenance. The fertility of the earth was essential for survival, as the Mayans were an agriculture-based society. Many myths and legends centered on deities, such as moon goddess IxChel or rain goddess Chac, working together to maintain Earth’s prosperity, and cacao was often involved (Martin, 2020). For example, the image shown below depicts Ixchel and Chac trading cacao beans to ensure the fruitfulness of the earth. This idea of fertility in nature was also mirrored in Mayan females. Coming of age rituals, particularly for women, celebrated the beginning of a woman’s the fertile years, and involved the presentation of two cacao beans and a sacrificed chicken to the deities (Faust, 1998). Additionally, cacao beverages were often served at ceremonies associated with fertility; ancient marriage rituals centered around the drinking of a chocolate beverage and exchange of cacao beans. According to historians, cacao-inspired beverages made up part of the dowry, and the preparation of the ceremonial cacao drink by the bride “sealed the marriage” (Garthwaite, 2015). Overall, the Mayans’ use of cacao as a way to celebrate fertility indicates their reverence for the earth and natural reproductive processes.

Fertility ceremony– IxChel and Chac promote fertility of the earth by trading cacao beans.

Mesoamerican expression of culture and worship was largely based in their rituals; worshipping nature, its gifts, and the circle of life, the Mayans celebrated life, death, and reproduction. As we examine a select few of these ceremonies, we can see that cacao was heavily involved in the festivities; offering it up to the gods and worshipping it as a symbol of prosperity, the Mayans held cacao as a sacred entity in their society.

Works Cited:

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (1996). A True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson.

Faust, B. (1998). Cacao Beans and Chili Peppers: Gender Socialization in the Cosmology of a Yucatec Maya Curing Ceremony. Sex Roles, 39. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1018895714833

Garthwaite, J. (2015). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/

Hunt, P. (2013). Maya and Aztec Chocolate History and Antecedents – Electrum Magazine. http://www.electrummagazine.com/2013/04/maya-and-aztec-chocolate-history-and-antecedents/

Martin, C. (2020, March 5). 02 Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.” AAAX 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Emerson Hall. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1c6fZMj2cW7A-bByTKzaP-YS7pLdm0dmVPidneg4T4XU/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_25

Miller, M. E., & Taube, K. A. (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson.


The Maya rain god Chac and the moon goddess IxChel exchange cacao. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://blogs.uoregon.edu/mesoinstitute/about/curriculum-unit-development/stem/ethnobotany/cacao-chocolate/

Rio Azul jar. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/maya-screwtop-vessels.htm

Cacao tree. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/plants/cacao

Containing Chocolate and Culture

The instruments used to hold chocolate reveal more about the history and culture of the time period than one might first assume. Chocolate consumption began with the Olmecs, a civilization who lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1500 BC and 400 BC (Presilla, 46). Around 500 AD, the Mayan people also embraced chocolate as a drink and as part of traditional rituals like marriage, funerals, and religious ceremonies. Over 1000 years later, chocolate had made its way to Europe as a luxury enjoyed by the elite members of society (Coe and Coe, 158). The transformation of chocolate from a religious food to an indulgence for the wealthy is reflected through the vessels used to contain cacao. The culture and beliefs surrounding chocolate are reflected by a vessel found in a Mayan tomb discovery and the French silver chocolatière.



In 1984, archeologists uncovered a Mayan tomb from the late 5th century containing 14 decorated vessels. This tomb was found at Rio Azul, a Maya city located in Guatemala (Presilla, 46). Specifically, one artifact found in this tomb helped researchers to discover Cacao’s importance in Mayan funeral traditions. In their book, Michael D. Coe and Sophie D. Coe describe the artifact:


“There was a single example of an extremely rare form, a stirrup-handled pot with a screw-on lid. This strange object had been surfaced with stucco and brilliantly painted with six large hieroglyphs, including two which read ‘cacao.’” (Coe and Coe, 46)

Kakaw_(Mayan_word).pngFigure 1:  A close up of the glyph that helped identify this vessel. This symbol meant “cacao” in the Classic Maya period. 

Figure 2 (on left): The pot found at Rio Azul that Coe describes.


For the Mayans, chocolate was more than just a substance to consume. Chocolate held spiritual power. This connection between religion and chocolate is clear when we take into consideration the location of this pot. This artifact was found in a tomb, surrounding the body of the deceased ruler. When tested in a lab, this screw-top jar had traces of caffeine and theobromine—the two trace compounds found together only in chocolate (Martin.) This discovery confirmed that the ruler was buried with chocolate. For further proof that the vessel contained chocolate, researcher David Stuart decoded the glyphs along the outside to read “a drinking vessel for witik cacao, for kox caco” (Coe and Coe, 46).

Funerals and chocolate were also linked in Mayan scripture.  The Mayans believed that chocolate eased the journey to the underworld. Chocolate is mentioned in conjunction with different religious rituals in the Dresden Codex, a Maya text that still exists today (Martin).

Not only does the Rio Azul discovery reveal the connection between religion and chocolate, it also clues us into the consumption process. Some of the other vases are tall and narrow. They were picked up and poured into other pots to increase the foam.
Figure 3: This image is found on the Princeton Vase, and it depicts the process in which people made the chocolate drink. The chocolate was poured from one jug to the other to add froth, as the foam was considered the most important part. 



Luxury in the 18th century France

In France in the 17th and 18th centuries, the vessels used to contain chocolate also reflect the attitudes towards chocolate and the way it was imbibed. Chocolate was heralded as a beneficial delicacy with many health benefits. The French “are usually credited with the invention of the chocolatière, the chocolate pot ”(Coe and Coe, 156). Many of the elite took chocolate daily to cure a number of ailments (Coe and Coe, 156). The vessels from which hot chocolate was poured reflect the extravagance of the segment of society who embraced chocolate.


Figure 4 and 5: This chocolatière, currently on display in the Metropolitan museum of art, was made in the 1760s and  is typical for the time period.





“The French innovation seems to have been fix a straight wooden handle to the metal pot at right angles to the spout; this handle was usually unscrewed clockwise so that it would remain tight while pouring from the pot in a counter-clockwise motion. At the top was a hinged lid, with a central hole under the swiveling (or hinged) finial to take the handle of the moussoir (“froth maker”), as they called the molinillo.… Of course, this would have been in silver, as would the chocolatiers of all the nobility.” – Coe 


The extravagance of this pot highlights how only the wealthy had access to chocolate at the time. The average citizen would have never been able to afford such an intricate piece of silverware (Righthand). Chocolatières were also used as gifts between royalty. Coe cites the first appearance of a silver chocolatières in France as a gift from a Siamese mission. “It was not that the Thai had suddenly turned into chocolate drinkers (they never did so), but [the minister to the King of Siam] had obviously instructed the royal metalsmiths to turn out something that would appeal to the French court.” And the metalsmith’s idea of what would appeal to the French court was an extravagant set of chocolatières. The chocolatières given to the French court incuded “two chocolatières in silver, one with golden flowers and the other Japenned” as well as another “entirely in gold” (Coe and Coe, 158). Chocolatières were brought as a gift and to signify diplomacy. This incident establishes the way chocolate was viewed in society—something for only the elite to enjoy for pleasure.



Figure 6:  “La Famille du duc de Penthièvre en 1768” a painting by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier illustrates how chocolate was for the wealthy.


Same food, different cultures

For the Europeans of the 17th century, chocolate was a status symbol. As the price was still expensive, only the wealthy could afford to take chocolate. The intricacies of the chocolatières highlight their function in society. For the most part, chocolate no longer held any spiritual affiliation. While the Mayan pots were decorated with glyphs and drawings depicting what was inside and religious rituals, the chocolatières were ornately decorated illustrating the wealth and class of those who used them. Although both pots hold chocolate, their uses and sociological function were very different, illustrating the adaptation of chocolate as it spread to Europe as a secular delicacy, rather than a religious artifact.


Works cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

Righthand, Jess. “A Brief History of the Chocolate Pot.” Smithsonian.com. February 13, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/brief-history-chocolate-pot-180954241/.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009 Print.







Sugar: The Journey From Medicine to Murder.

In the 1500s, a Dominican Friar in Chiapas wrote to the pope about Chocolate. He wanted to know whether the pope felt that chocolate was appropriate for Catholics to indulge in. Specifically, he wanted to know if Catholics should be consuming chocolate during times of fasting. The pope ignored the letter and it is said that he even laughed the letter to scorn. But, was the pope in error? Should he have actually taken note to what the friar was arguing?

It may be that the friar had an intuition about an even deeper and greater issue. Maybe he should have continued his inquiries to the pope until he received the response that he wanted. Or, maybe he should have made his argument a little more in-depth. Like, what in chocolate makes it something that Catholics should not indulge in. After all, in all honesty, the base is cacao and that is as much a fruit as any other. What makes it so bad? The true issue may have been the sugar mixed with cacao that made it no good for consumption. Although we can’t go back in time, it does not hinder us from considering all possibilities. One being, what if this Dominican Friar would have focused his attention on sugar and its negative potential? What would the world look like today? How would history be told, the same? Sugar is a driver behind two of the worst subjects in the history of the Americas, slavery and obesity. Both lead to death for many.

Sugar is sweet. But, sugar has caused some of the worst damage this world has ever seen. From slavery to the modern American diet, sugar has altered the lives of millions for the worst. It is amazing that not many have looked at sugar from this perspective. After all, this small crystal of pleasure would not have the capacity to do that much, would it?sugar1

Let’s consider American slavery. During American slavery what were slaves actually producing? According to Dr. Carla D. Martin,

What enslaved people were producing were primarily commodity crops,things like                 cacao, sugar, rum, tobacco, coffee, and cotton. And if you sort of separate out cotton,             what you have is a list of crops that are luxuries that are meant to stimulate or                         inebriate Europeans and early colonial north  Americans. They are not things that are           necessary for life.

Slavery was driven by a desire not only to make money, but to fulfill a lust for stimulating pleasure. Only one out of the six primary commodity crops being produced during slavery was not a stimulant. Even further, one out of the five commodity crops that were stimulants was an ingredient used in three of the crops. All three of those crops were pleasure drinks with an ingredient of sugar. Thus, making sugar a subtle driver in the system of slavery. It has a trail that leads to the final product of half of the processed primary commodity crops. It is one of the six commodity crops itself. This makes sugar sixty-six percent of the primary commodity crops produced during slavery. If there was no sugar, there would not be any rum. If there was no sugar, would tea and coffee be so popular?


sugarSugar was first introduced as a medicine. Within 400 years it was an elite product that only the nobility and wealthy could access for food. By 1800, “sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one” (Mintz). Post 1800, even common Europeans were accessing this costly product. The question is, who was it actually costly too? In Latin America slaves were producing the sugar. They only had an 8 year life expectancy. Yes, it cost a few extra pounds for Europeans to purchase their sugar. But for the slaves, it was costing their lives.

Speaking of pounds, things have changed. In modern America, sugar is still costly. It has continued to pack on the pounds. But the modern pounds are not currency. They are fat cells that are a driver behind diabetes, coronary heart disease, and congestive heart failure. The aforementioned are leading causes of death in Americans. Today, there are very few foods that don’t have sugar. It is hard to fathom that this 1100 CE medicine has turned into a 2000 CE drug. Within 400 years of entering European and early American colonial culture it turned into a life threatening substance –directly and indirectly. According to Sidney Mintz:

In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon             after they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had                       become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary                             imagery, and displays of rank. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity –             albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was                       supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet.

Slavery has ended. In general, sugar is no longer indirectly affecting the life expectancy of people. Much worse, it is now directly affecting the life span of millions of Americans. Consider this article, http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/08/30/how-much-sugar-are-americsugaans-eating-infographic/#17a7df291f71.
In 1800, added sugar counted for only twenty percent of the diets of Europeans. That number has escalated for Americans. According to Alice G. Walton of Forbes.com, “Too much sugar is linked to everything from metabolic syndrome to cancer, and given our tragic dependence on it, it’s even begun to be banned in some locales.” The American Heart Association reports a 2014 study that says, “Getting too much added sugar in your diet could significantly increase your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease”.


Sugar has been in the western world a little over 1,000 years. It entered as a medicine and in just a small span of time its existence has become a terror to many. What stories would history tell if the western world would not have encountered sugar?


Works Cited:

Added Sugars Add to Your Risk of Dying from Heart Disease. (2015, October 25). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Added-Sugars-Add-to-Your-Risk-of-Dying-from-Heart-Disease_UCM_460319_Article.jsp#.VuOALWQrKL1

Dr. Carla Martin (2016) Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture Video. https://matterhorn.dce.harvard.edu/engage/player/watch.html?id=bbf932d0-696b-417b-811d-a9b3fc051aea Web. 19 February 2016

Dr. Carla Martin (2016) Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture Video. https://matterhorn.dce.harvard.edu/engage/player/watch.html?id=bbf932d0-696b-417b-811d-a9b3fc051aea Web. 9 March 2016

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Walton, A. G. (2012, August 30). How Much Sugar Are Americans Eating? Retrieved March 9, 2016, from https://www.google.com/search?q=cdc how much sugar are americans consumption