Tag Archives: marriage

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.

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.

To chokola’j – Chocolate’s History as a Connector of People

The word “chocolate” potentially traces its etymological roots back to the Quiché Mayan verb chokola’j –  translated “to drink chocolate together” (Coe and Coe 118). While there remains debate over the exact origins of the word, there is no question the processed seeds from the fruit of the theobroma cacao tree that we now call chocolate or cacao has been a unique connector of individuals, groups, and cultures throughout its history. By examining the historical record: Depictions of ancient Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, vessels from the ancestral Pueblo of North America, and paintings portraying New England and British chocolate houses of the 1600s and 1700s, we will see chocolate’s historical significance as a connector of people.

While the first evidence of chocolate cultivation traces back to the Mokoya and Olmec of early Mesoamerica, it was through the Maya (250 CE to 900 CE) and Mixtec (1000 CE to 1500 CE), where we first see chocolate’s significance as a social connector of individuals and families particularly through marriage ceremony (Presilla 10-11). The first example of cacao’s centrality to marriage can be seen through a Maya ritual called tac haa, roughly translated “to serve chocolate”.  In this ritual, the family of the groom-to-be would “invite the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serve him (chocolate) drink” (Martin “Mesoamerica”). The image below illustrates the communal and ritualistic aspects of the marriage ceremony with a vessel of chocolate clearly at the center.

tac haa
A vessel of chocolate at the center of the marriage ceremony of “tac haa”, illustrating chocolate’s centrality in bringing individuals and families together in Maya culture (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

The next example recorded from the Codex Zouche-Nuttal shows the Mixtec marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent (1051 CE) (Dreiss and Greenhill 64). Lady Serpent holds a cup of chocolate with two hands offering it to Lord Eight Deer as a gesture to cement their marriage union.

From the Codex Zouche-Nuttal, Lady Thirteen Serpent offering Lord Eight Deer a cup of chocolate to seal the marriage union in Mixtec society (1051 CE) (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

A similar example from the Chol Maya elevates the cacao bean itself as a key element of the marriage union. As described by Eric Thompson:

The form of marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, 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.” And he also gives her some new skirts and another five grains of cacao, saying the same thing. (Coe and Coe 61)

It is clear through the examination of these Maya and Mixtec artifacts that cacao was essential in knitting together the fabric of early Mesoamerican families and society. As we travel north, we will next examine ancient Pueblo artifacts discovered in pre-colonial New Mexico and Utah that suggest the surprisingly early presence of cacao in North America.

Until very recently, it was thought there was very little interaction between the Maya of Mesoamerica and the Pueblo of southwestern North America but recent chocolate research suggests otherwise. These two cultures may have been more interconnected than ever imagined – with chocolate being at the center of this cultural exchange (Haederle).  In 2009, University of New Mexico researcher Patricia Crown observed similarities between drinking vessels found at the historic Pueblo site of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (1000 – 1125 CE) and those used in Maya ceremony (Crown and Hurst). Crown turned to W. Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist for the Hershey Company, to test for the possibility of cacao residue on the Chaco Canyon vessels. Hurst tested five shards of pottery, three of which confirmed the presence of theobromine – a biomarker unique to cacao (Crown and Hurst).

The presence of theobromine found on vessels from Chaco Canyon, New Mexico suggesting Maya and Pueblo relationship through trade of chocolate (Crown and Hurst).

Building on Crown and Hurst’s findings, in 2016 University of Pennsylvania researcher Dorothy Washburn examined pottery fragments originating from another historic Pueblo site located at Blanding, Utah. The vessel fragments tested also returned strong traces of theobromine, pushing the potential timeline for Maya and Pueblo interaction back 300-400 years to around 750 CE (Mozdy).

Chaco Canyon Map
Distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America showing closest major areas of production 1,200 miles from Chaco, Canyon, New Mexico CE 1502 (Crown and Hurst).

Considering the closest cacao source at that time was 1,200-1,400 miles away in Mesoamerica, these findings suggest the incredible lengths at which cacao traveled north. Says Crown of the New Mexico findings, “The only way for this material to get [to New Mexico] is [that] either people from Chaco walked down to get it, or it was traded hand to hand from Mesoamerica to Chaco, or people from Mesoamerica came up and traded it” (Haederle). The great distances a delicacy like cacao traveled and exchanged hands between the Maya and Pueblo elucidates chocolate’s connectivity and its social impact. From the ancient Pueblo culture of the southwest, we move next to New England and Britain of the 1600s and 1700s where we find paintings depicting coffee and chocolate houses as a forum for the vibrant exchange of ideas.

In both Boston and London, coffee and chocolate houses were at the center of political and cultural life where men of the emerging merchant class would “gather to discuss the news of the day and dangerous ideas like democracy or things that threatened the political elite of the time” (Martin “Introduction”). In Boston, we find the establishment of the first North American coffee and chocolate house as a political declaration in and of itself. Two women, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard, successfully petitioned the city “to keepe a house of publique Entertainment for the selling of Cofffee and Chucaloette” (Martin “Introduction”). In London, members of nascent political parties would often gather at these houses and would eventually turn them into a virtual headquarters (Coe and Coe 223). These establishments were so threatening, King Charles II attempted to shut them down calling them “hotbeds of sedition” (Coe and Coe 167). However, equally reflective of the social position these houses had come to have in British society, public outcry prevented their suppression and they continued to grow in importance.

17th Century painting underscoring the significance of coffee and chocolate houses as forums for political and cultural exchange (Wikimedia Commons).

In the 1600s and 1700s of New England and Britain, we see chocolate’s fundamental role in society as a reason for communal and political gathering and the debate of important ideas, not unlike the role coffee houses serve today.

Through examining the historical record depicting Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, ancient vessels found in Pueblo North America, and images portraying coffee and chocolate houses in Boston and London, we see chocolate’s importance in binding together individuals and families, bridging different groups and cultures thousands of miles away, and serving as a reason for people to come together to discuss the important issues of the day. Reverberating from chocolate’s communal past is perhaps a paradigm to best view chocolate’s current social, economic, and environmental sustainability challenges. To chokola’j – to bring together disparate individuals and groups to have meaningful discussion and debate over the important issues surrounding chocolate itself – is perhaps the vessel we drink to in order to secure chocolate’s sustainable future.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “The distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America and Mexico in A.D. 1502, relative to Chaco Canyon” Digital Image. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018

Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Evidence of Cacao Use in the Prehispanic American Southwest.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018

Dreiss, Meredith L. and Greenhill, Sharon E. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2008. Print.

Haederle, Michael. “Mystery of Ancient Pueblo Jars Is Solved.” New York Times, 3 Feb. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/us/04cocoa.html. Accessed 1 Mar 2018

Martin, Carla D. “Introduction.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 24 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 31 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Mozdy, Michael. “Utah’s Ancient Cacao: A Surprising Find.” Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, 4 Aug. 2016, nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/08/04/utah%E2%80%99s-ancient-cacao-surprising-find. Accessed 02 Mar 2018

Presilla, Maricel. 2009 The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press. Berkley, CA. Print.

Unknown. Artist “Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century”. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. 01 Mar. 2018 http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~sajamato/description.html

Chocolate and Romance: A Historical Exploration of Chocolate’s Association with Love

Chocolate in modern society is deeply intertwined with ideas of romance, love, and lust. From our celebration of Valentine’s Day, a holiday in which the exchange of chocolate and love notes is foundational, to advertisements from chocolate companies filled with sexual innuendos, we are constantly bombarded with ideas and images depicting chocolate’s association with romance. While many consider chocolate’s relationship with love to be a tactic manufactured by large chocolate companies to increase sales, there has been a long-standing association between chocolate and budding romance that began in pre-Columbian times. Chocolate’s affiliation with love and romance today is both rooted in tradition and influenced by capitalistic endeavors to sell more chocolate.

One of the earliest examples of chocolate’s role in romantic relationships is an ancient Mayan marriage ritual called tac haa. The ritual involved the potential groom’s family serving a chocolate drink to the father of the woman he wanted to marry. The men, including the father of the potential groom, father of the potential bride, and the admirer himself would sit together and discuss the marriage, while women remained removed from the negotiations. The women, such as the potential groom’s mother, would be involved in making the chocolate drink that was served to the guests (Martin, Lecture 2).  Another Mayan marriage ritual involving chocolate took place at the actual wedding ceremony. The Mayan bride and groom would exchange five cacao beans with each other, and wedding guests would drink chocolate together (Coe and Coe 61). Ancient rituals such as tac haa and the exchange of cacao beans do not directly resemble modern traditions surrounding chocolate and romance (i.e. heart-shaped chocolate boxes that are presented to significant others), but both ancient Mayan marriage rituals and heart-shaped chocolate boxes share the common thread of lovers being united through chocolate. It could be that rituals like tac haa serve as prototypes for modern traditions involving chocolate and courtship.

An example of a contemporary courting ritual involving chocolate is depicted in the following advertisement for Edible Arrangements: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1I1FW1ffSc. The advertisement showcases a man setting up a romantic evening on Valentine’s Day. It is clear to any viewer that this is a romantic evening because of the cultural connotations of the objects presented in the ad. For example, the man lights candles, there is a rose and box of chocolates set on the table, and slow music plays in the background. Roses, candles, and chocolate are all objects American society associates with romance, specifically with courting women. As the advertisement progresses, the heart-shaped box of chocolates begins to speak, saying that he is the “ultimate wing-man,” reiterating the idea of chocolate being used to woo women in our society. The object of the advertisement is to demonstrate how Edible Arrangements is superior to the box of chocolates in wooing the woman. However, including the box of chocolates as something to compete with further emphasizes the notion of offering chocolate as an established method of courtship in our society.

Presenting chocolate to a significant other is not only used as a method of courtship in modern society, but has evolved into becoming fundamentally associated with the definition of “romantic” altogether. For example, AskMen, a popular website that offers life advice to men, contains an article entitled “9 Simple Romantic Ideas for Every Man” linked here http://www.askmen.com/dating/heidi_60/77b_dating_girl.html.  One of the romantic ideas listed is to “Be More Thoughtful,” and a suggestion on how to do so is to “leave [your significant other] a chocolate ‘kiss’ on her pillow before bedtime.” It is apparent that giving your partner chocolate should be viewed as a thoughtful gesture, and by doing so one can be described as “romantic.” Thousands of men visit AskMen for daily advice and likely follow it, indicating how chocolate has become an extremely conventional method of showcasing a man’s thoughtfulness and affection for a woman. Similarly, the way chocolate is presented in this article suggests that women too have been conditioned to feel loved and appreciated when their partner gives them chocolate.

Chocolate’s affiliation with romance extends further than simple courtship and gift-giving. In fact, people have long used chocolate as an aphrodisiac, or in combination with believed aphrodisiacs, to heighten sexual desire in themselves and in others.  A chocolate beverage called Atextli consumed by the Aztecs was believed to be healthy due to its supposed aphrodisiac qualities (Elferink 27). Chocolate beverages have also been documented as being used in love potions to seduce and control men. Margarita Orellana writes, “Because of its dark color and grainy texture, chocolate provided an ideal cover for items associated with sexual witchcraft. These included various powders and herbs, as well as female body parts and fluids, which women then mixed into a chocolate beverage and fed to men to control their sexuality” (81). Whether chocolate truly possesses aphrodisiac qualities or not, modern chocolate companies often use chocolate’s historical association with sexuality as the basis of their marketing. Linked here is an example of a typical chocolate advertisement from Lindt, a company known for their chocolate truffles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgGz2oNk0Pg. Although not overt, once can see how Lindt is sexualizing chocolate in this advertisement. Terms like “irresistible,” “passion,” and “luscious” have carnal connotations, and the image of the woman removing her scarf suggests that the idea of consuming chocolate has heightened her sexual desires.

The affiliation between chocolate and romance, beginning with Aztec and Mayan traditions, perseveres in modern times. Something else that has remained in tact is the idea of men using chocolate to court women, and women having sexualized responses to chocolate. There seems to be a stark difference between men and women’s interactions with chocolate that have become engrained into contemporary society.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

De Orellana, Margarita, et al. “Chocolate III: RITUAL, ART AND MEMORY.” Artes De México, no. 110, 2013, pp. 72–96., http://www.jstor.org/stable/24318995.

“Edible Arrangements Advertisement.” YouTube, uploaded by MBR616, http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=b1I1FW1ffSc. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

“Lindt Chocolate Commercial.” YouTube, uploaded by LindtChocolateUSA, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgGz2oNk0Pg. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

Jan G. R. Elferink. “Aphrodisiac Use in Pre-Columbian Aztec and Inca Cultures.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 9, no. 1/2, 2000, pp. 25–36., http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704630.

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

“9 Simple Romantic Ideas for Every Man.” AskMen, http://www.askmen.com/dating/heidi_60/ 77b_dating_girl.html. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.






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)

Cacao & Chocolate as a symbol of wealth

Cacao is a very demanding crop: among others, it needs a canopy of shade trees, an optimal climate, permeable soil, and protection from the wind. These exact requirements designate cacao to only certain growing regions and for centuries confined pre-Mayan, Mayan, Aztecs and colonial civilizations to characterize cacao as an “exotic import” (Coe & Coe, 38). But despite its difficulties, cacao thrived in South America and later, Central America, projecting itself as a symbol of wealth for many centuries. The wealthy, powerful and worthy noble thus associated themselves to cacao through civilizations. As such, cacao stayed a significant commercial crop that is still cultivated today.

The very first examples of Theobroma cacao literally meaning, “food of the Gods” can be seen with the Olmecs. Evidence that dates back to 1800-1400 BC portrays the use of very delicate pottery called “Barra” for holding and drinking chocolate. These innovative and exquisite vessels could only have been associated with the elites. Vessel shards found at San Lorenzo link cacao with human sacrifice and wealth destruction, placing it as a central element in the Olmec Empire. The picture below gives us a glimpse of Barra, the first non-written evidence of cacao’s association with wealth.

Vessels used for storing and consuming chocolate during San Lorenzo Olmec period

Building on Olmec’s traditions, the Mayans did not ignore the power held by cacao, and so they developed skills and knowledge to expand its prestige. This became evident with the appearance of cacao glyphs on vessels and “recipes” which were created for exclusive consumption by kings and nobles. To symbolize their wealth, the Mayan nobility assured cacao’s presence in special feasts and celebrations. Bishop Landa mentions “cacao as among the requirements of a noble feast, and states that hosts were obliged to present the guests with such gifts as cups or vases, “ as fine as the host can afford”” (Presilla, 12). Such opulent feasts with abundance of cacao gave the nobility a higher status in society.

The Mayan high nobles built burial chambers that further illuminates cacao’s power and its status in the Mayan society. Dozens of exquisite pottery made exclusively for holding drinks made of cacao were found in the tombs of the elites. Cacao was the supreme offering which accompanied only the lords to ease their passage to the underworld. The intricate designs and paintings with hieroglyphs of cacao on these vessels reveal to us the esteem and high regard to which cacao was held by the Mayans.

The preparation of the cacao drink itself was that of a prestigious matter. Repeatedly, we can see in many pieces of evidence where lords, nobility and government elites are consuming a “foamy” drink. Presilla says “foamy cacao [and] foamy toppings eventually came to be one of the glories of chocolate drinking among the Maya” (Presilla 12). This foam, which the Mayan women went through great pains to achieve, is what defined the quality of the served drink, increasing its value and the social status of the host. In a way, it showcased the high taste preferences of the elite and its continued symbolism of wealth.

This foamy drink appeared in celebrations particularly in marriage ceremonies between nobility. Within the upper classes and elites, the groom offered the chocolate drink to the prospective bride. This ensured the wealth and prosperity of the groom and provided an assurance to the bride’s parents. Merchants, in order to showcase their status and power, held large banquets where the elite chocolate drink was offered: “And often they spent on one banquet what they earned by trading and bargaining many days. (…) And to each guest they give a roasted fowl, bread, and drinks of cacao in abundance” (Coe & Coe, 60). This was customary in Mayan tradition and to showcase “lavish hospitality” (Coe &Coe, 59) in the society was a requirement to maintain relationships with nobility.

The wealthy’s association with Cacao to show off their status and their power helped shape its significance in Mayan culture. It is no wonder that the Aztecs and later the colonials not only were introduced to but revered this exotic drink. The introduction of this crop to the rest of the world eventually changed the way it was consumed, making it an everyday commonplace food. But for the longest time a sip of it was like “drinking real money” (Coe & Coe 100), and this early image of cacao helped segment its place in history to be used in special occasions much like we have Valentine’s day to our day.


Powis, TG, Cyphers, A, Gaikwad, NW, Grivetti, L, & Cheong, K 2011, ‘Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 21, pp. 8595-8600.

Xian, M 2012a, The “Dazzler Vase” from the royal ‘Margarita Tomb’ in Copán, Honduras, image, C-Spot, viewed 14 May 2012, http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/

Moreiras, DK 2010, ‘Thinking and Drinking Chocolate: The Origins, Distribution, and

Significance of Cacao in Mesoamerica’, Honours thesis, University of British Columbia.

Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández
2013 The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1. A website and database available at http://www.mayacodices.org/images/m52c1.jpg

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” 2016

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.

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