Tag Archives: Maya Maize God

Religious and Cultural Significane of Cacao and Chocolate in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

            For the pre-Columbian civilizations of Central and South America, cacao, the seeds of the cacao pod growing on the Theobroma Cacao tree is more than just the input used to make what is commonly known as chocolate. Cacao’s central and southern American origin makes the plant particularly significant to the peoples who established civilizations there, specifically the ancient Mayan, Aztec, and Olmec peoples. The process of turning these cacao seeds into what is known as chocolate is an intricate process developed by these Mesoamerican peoples requiring them to grind the cacao seeds and create a paste called chocolate liquor. For the ancient Mesoamerican peoples, cacao was not just a food, but much more than that. Cacao held a spiritual, cultural, and religious significance. In many ways, cacao shaped the social and spiritual customs of Mesoamerican peoples in pre-Columbian civilizations. All parts of the Theobroma tree, including the cacao pods and seeds, have a sacred place in the religious beliefs of these peoples, having caused them to create specific societal customs and traditions. The ancient Mayan civilizations are commonly cited for their use of cacao in religious ceremonies like marriage along with uses in social gatherings. In fact, Mayan’s believed that cacao was the food of the gods. Three main ways in which cacao demonstrated its spiritual importance was in marriage ceremonies, religious offerings, and death rituals. The way in which cacao has been discovered to be used in these ways illustrates the significance of this precious Mesoamerican food.

            Cacao was discovered to have religious and spiritual significance through discoveries of ancient archeological finds and through literature like the Dresden Codex and Madrid Codex. These early Mayan pieces of literature describe the important religious rituals and deities that the Mayan people preform and celebrate. In the codex, many gods are depicted either eating or holding cacao beans, and are referenced as the food of the gods. A depiction of gods spilling blood over cacao pods can be seen in the Madrid Codex, illustrated in Figure 1 (Coe, et. al. 79). There has always been a strong connection between cacao and religious beliefs for ancient Mesoamericans.

Figure 1

            Cacao played an important part in religious beliefs for ancient Mayan people. The ancient peoples had the belief that the cacao seed was the food of the gods, many times having depictions of cacao and gods on religious vessels. The Maize God, or “iximte” as it was known to the ancient Mayans is depicted as a cacao tree. Cacao pods are protruding from the figure’s body as it points at a vessel. This vessel would have been used to transfer and carry chocolate liquor or other sacred foods. This type of depiction is quite important when trying to understand the role cacao played in Mayan religious practice. This type of illustration shows that there was a clear link between the gods and cacao, so much so that they are drawn interweaved with each other. Cacao was simply a gift from the gods that was a part of their religious belief systems.

Figure 2

            Cacao was more than just depicted in hieroglyphs and images by ancient Mesoamericans. It was also a part of their daily religious and societal practices. An important way in which cacao was implemented into their customs was through marriage ceremonies. At these ceremonies, a frothy cacao based drink called “kakaw” would be served amongst the individuals attending these events. This was a societal ritual that was practiced at weddings specifically royal weddings. This important ceremony of serving kakaw usually was served in a special vase which shows depictions of cacao and people serving kakaw drinks.This type of vase was used particularly to serve nobles and royalty and was a part of Mayan culture. Other ceremonies that kakaw would be served at besides weddings include, war victories or a ruler coming into a throne, and even rites of sacrifice. (Carassco 105). In Figure 3 we can see that at these ceremonies, a vessel was used to carry cacao. These vessels were seen at these types of sociocultural events. Cacao was essential at all of these types of sociocultural events as they had religious significance and was a food of the gods as discussed earlier.

Figure 3

Another important way in which cacao was important in the religious and spiritual lives of ancient Mayans and Mesoamericans can be seen during death. In all cultures death is an essential part of belief systems. Death is an important part of the ancient stories of the Maize God. Based on the legends the death and rebirth of the Maize God gave way to the germination of the earth, proving the land with trees and seeds, including cacao (McNeil. 178).

Works Cited

Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica. Waveland Press, 2014.

Chase, Arlen F., and Diane Z. Chase. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.

Figure 1: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3ABacabs.gif&psig=AOvVaw08DFRFhWcNJ2vAqqtx5EAV&ust=1585374906509000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCKC29Mb-uegCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD

Figure 2: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3AMaya_maize_god.jpg&psig=AOvVaw3xS9xjlzDD_Tve_OxeaD_e&ust=1585375049452000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCLjr1Lz-uegCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD

Figure 3: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3AClevelandart_2012.32.jpg&psig=AOvVaw0dR2sX0wq2H60guhjruVIe&ust=1585375476503000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCKCQpoP-uegCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD

Chocolate, Religion and Hierarchy: Chocolate’s Religious Symbolism in Pre-Columbian Mayan Culture and its Evolution under Colonialism

The widespread availability of chocolate today hardly hints any relation to hierarchical systems. The mass production of it as a confection and how it readily available for consumption at different quality levels reveals little about its rich history. Long before the European settlement in the Americas, chocolate, or rather the fruit it is borne from, symbolized wealth, and social and religious status in Mesoamerica societies. Here, I will briefly discuss how its hierarchical symbolism with respect to religion evolved in Mayan societies before and during colonialism.

The hierarchical symbolism of chocolate in Mayan culture can be traced through an ethnographical study of Mayan celebratory rituals. In his essay “The Language of Chocolate”, David Stuarts writes about how such ethnographical studies from Central Mexico reveal that chocolate was enjoyed by the elites (Stuart 184). Feasting rites among the elite, in particular, in Mayan Yucatan were heavily documented in chocolate vessels, which describe chocolate’s involvement in extravagant gift-giving formalities in its cacao bean form (Reents-Budet 207). This was viewed as a method for forging sociopolitical alliances among the elite (Reents-Budet 209). In its drink form, cacao was consumed during “ceremonies to seal important social contracts and confirm the legitimacy of dynasties” (Martin et al. 39). Moreover, the use of cacao beverages did not only exist in worldly rituals. Mayan glyphs and art show that the Gods also used cacao beverages to honor guests in divine rituals such as seen in figure 1. Thus, it is apparent that the use of cacao in Mayan rituals reflects how chocolate itself was a symbol of extravagance and hierarchy. 

Figure 1: Mayan God L with Hero Twins, servant behind the God pouring a chocolate beverage.

However, cacao beans and chocolate also possessed religious symbolism that contributed to their hierarchical symbolism. Evidence from Mayan vessels reveal in their hieroglyphs that the Maize God is often embodied as a cacao tree (McNeil 155). Gods in the Mayan tradition are portrayed as trees to show a celestial cycle of death. The roots are in the underworld, the trunk in the middle world and the branches in the heavens. The Maize God is highly regarded in that maize is a staple Mayan crop, thus the association between the Maize God and the cacao tree shows a highly esteemed religious connection and divinity that is possessed by cacao. Beyond representation in religious glyphs, the religious symbolism of cacao can be extended to the notion of “court dwarfs” in Mayan culture. Christian Prager writes that dwarf figurines were placed in Mayan courts to symbolize social power and religious authority (Prager 279). This is rooted in the pre-Mayan Olmec belief that four dwarfs were tasked with propping up heaven. Moreover, dwarfs were seen as companions of the Sun and Maize Gods, thus further solidifying their divine symbolism. Hence, these dwarfs were placed in Mayan courts to further this symbolism. However, it is important to note that these dwarfs would sometimes be sculpted as carrying cacao pods, as seen in figure 2. This further displays that cacao possessed divine value and reflected a type of religious symbolism so that it can be manifested in Mayan society as a hierarchical instrument. 

Figure 2: A Mayan figurine of court dwarf bearing a cacao pod.

This religious symbolism of cacao did not end with colonialism but only transformed under it. The initial European interaction with cacao upon their settlement in Mesoamerica was through the introduction of the cacao bean as a form of currency (Martin et al. 40). However, with the spread of Catholicism by the European settlers in Mayan territory, specifically Mexico, cacao beans soon crossed over into the realm of religiosity. The conversion of indigenous Mexicans led them to create offerings to Jesus. These offerings were often in the form of cacao beans, as was done to indigenous God (Aguilar-Moreno 276). A prominent example is the statue of “Christ of the Cacao” in Mexico City as shown in figure 3. While these offerings were not consumed by Christ, but by the priests of the cathedral, they were converted into wealth, such as in the case of seventeenth century friar in Mexico and Guatemala Thomas Gage (Aguilar-Moreno 276). Here, we see that the symbolism of cacao is multifaceted: it showed a relationship to Jesus and also remained a symbol for wealth. 

Figure 3: Christ of the Cacao: A 16th century colonial Mexican sculpture in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City.

However, does the link between colonial Catholicism and symbolism in cacao extend beyond the borders of the colony? In 1577, Dominican friar in Chiapas did write to the Pope asking for some guidance as to whether chocolate could be appropriately consumed on days when oen is fasting. The Pope never offered a written reply but it is told that he simply laughed with his cardinals. The link to Catholicism in Europe extended beyond this lone interaction, the status of chocolate has long been debated by Catholic scholars in the 1620s and 1630s, with reservations appearing on how to incorporate this seemingly pagan product into the Catholic Church. While here there is a recognition of religious value, it is hard to determine whether or not this religious value was accepted by the Catholic Church in Europe. Nevertheless, the role of chocolate and cacao as a status symbol did cross over into the European continent: it is told that Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were prescribed chocolate by their physician to consume daily during breakfast, seemingly due to chocolate’s energizing benefits. The heavy royal consumption of chocolate and its high regard within the royal court deemed it a luxury item, showing that it did remain a status symbol beyond the Mesoamerican realm. 

Nevertheless, it is important to note that beyond colonialism, Mesoamerican cultures still regarded chocolate highly. Their reverence of cacao beans and their products shifted and adapted to the colonial influences that were introduced into their territory. While it failed to have the same religious symbolism in Europe, chocolate did enter the continent as an item symbolizing social hierarchy. Thus, one can say that the evolution of chocolate as a religious symbol remained within Mesoamerica but its hierarchical symbolism was able to cross the Atlantic into the European continent. 

Bibliography

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  2. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72-95.
  3. Anagoria. “ El Señor Del Cacao.” Wikimedia Commons, Mexico City, 22 Dec. 2013, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2013-12-22_El_Señor_del_cacao_anagoria.JPG.
  4. Lacambalam. “Tonsured Maize God and Spotted Hero Twin.” Wikimedia Commons, 25 Sept. 2014, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hero_Twins.JPG.
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  6. Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37-60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.
  7. Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 8.
  8. Prager, Christian. “Court Dwarfs – The Companions of Rulers and Envoys of the Underworld.” Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest, by Nikolai Grube, Konemann, 2001, pp. 278–279.
  9. Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among of the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 10.
  10. Robicsek, Francis. “God L with the Hero Twins.” Wikimedia Commons, Princeton, NJ, 31 Oct. 2009, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God_L_with_the_Hero_Twins.jpg.
  11. Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.”Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 9.