Tag Archives: Mayan Creation Myth

Epic Chocolate: Chocolate in Mythology, Rites, and Reality

            Cacao was an almost divine substance to the Classical Maya, often venerated as the “food of the gods.”[1] This was not without reason as cacao doesn’t only taste good, it also provides a myriad of medicinal benefits. Many Mayan myths and rituals were based off the existence of cacao, from the myth of creation to rites of death. Like all myths, Mayan myths involving chocolate have some basis in fact. In this post, I will explore two Mayan myths –the myth of the Hero Twins and the revival of the Maize God– and explain their relationship to Mayan rites and the real-world benefits of cacao.

            All three myths and rites discussed in this post are part of the greater creation myth of the Maya. This Smithsonian video sums up the creation myth, and briefly describes some of the mythology behind the stories in this post:

Smithsonian video about the Mayan myth of creation

The Hero Twins

            The video from the Smithsonian somewhat describes the Hero Twins’ relationship with cacao – they were born from it. The Popul Vuh narrates the divine origin of cacao, with the cacao tree as the embodiment of the Maize God and cacao as the seed with which he impregnates an Underworld maiden, who then gives birth to Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the Hero Twins.[2] The Hero Twins were, quite literally, born from cacao. Their lives are subsequently chronicled in the Popul Vuh, in which they are described as, among other things, great ball players,[3] and strong and witty warriors.[4]

The Mayans likely believed that those traits of the Hero Twins could be transferred to themselves when they used cacao, the fruit responsible for the life of the Hero Twins. Warriors who consumed cacao before battle were energized and considered invincible, and cacao pods were often worn as a form of spiritual protection, or as a costume for ball games.[5] This is consistent with the reality of cacao – cacao contains methylxanthines like caffeine and theobromine, and methylxanthines are shown to have stimulant effects.[6] Therefore, it is quite likely that the consumption of cacao was beneficial to warriors and ball players, and thus easily connected with the customs of the Mayans and their myths.

The Revival of the Maize God

            After getting killed by the gods of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, the Maize God was decapitated, and his head was placed into a barren tree. The tree, which had never borne fruit until that point, flourished and became covered in round fruit indistinguishable from the head of the Maize God, turning into the calabash tree.[7] It is likely that the “calabash tree” in which the head of the Maize God was placed was a general cauliflory tree, as the Maize God was able to produce cacao for birthing the Hero Twins. The resurrection of the Maize God was the success of the Hero Twins. This late-Classical codex-style plate depicts the Hero Twins aiding the Maize God in his escape from Xibalba:

Codex-style plate depicting the escape of the Maize God

The athletically gifted Hero Twins defeated the gods of Xibalba in a ball game, enraging the gods so much that they slew the twins. Yet, this was part of the twins’ ingenious plan, as they enlisted the aid of men stuck in Xibalba to grind up their bones and throw them in one of the rivers running through Xibalba. Once the twins’ bone dust settled in the river, they were reborn with godly powers, that they used to outwit, overpower, and slay the gods of Xibalba, opening up a path for their father, the Maize God, to come back to life.[8] The Hero Twins were not only able to travel into and out of Xibalba safely, but were also able to defeat the evil gods.

It is quite likely that the Mayans believed that the Hero Twins, those born of cacao, would provide some protection for when the Mayans died and traveled to Xibalba. Thus, cacao was an important part of funeral rites – people, particularly royals, were buried with chocolate drinking vessels filled with beverages derived from cacao, meant to spiritually ease their transition into Xibalba.[9]

Rio Azul Vessel

The famous Rio Azul vessels pictured above, found in the grave of a dead lord and believed to have contained several types of chocolate drinks, are a great example of this.[10] They were the first physical, chemical evidences of Mayans being buried with chocolate beverage, and, along with other codex depictions, show the importance of chocolate in funerary rites. This connection between funerary rites and myth is once again consistent with the reality of the benefits of cacao. Cacao contains epicatechin, a compound whose effects are similar to a mild anesthetic,[11] and can serve to create normal blood flow in humans, especially those with high blood pressure.[12] For those close to death, cacao would provide some amount of relief, and would help ease them into their deaths, and thus into Xibalba.


[1] Coe & Coe, 17.

[2] S. Martin, 164.

[3] Popul Vuh, Chapter 9.

[4] Popul Vuh, Chapter 13.

[5] C. Martin, Lecture 2, Slide 52.

[6] Franco et al.

[7] S. Martin, 164.

[8] Popul Vuh, Chapter 12-14. 

[9] C. Martin, Lecture 2, Slide 41; Coe & Coe, 41.

[10] Coe & Coe, 41.

[11] C. Martin, Lecture 2, Slide 53.

[12] Hooper et al.

Text Sources

Coe, Michael D. and Sophie D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Franco, Rafael, et al. “Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate.” Nutrients, vol. 5, no. 10, 2013, pp. 4159–4173., doi:10.3390/nu5104159.

Goetz, Delia, and Sylvanus G. Morley. Popul Vuh. Plantin Press, 1954.

Hooper, Lee, et al. “Effects of Chocolate, Cocoa, and Flavan-3-Ols on Cardiovascular Health: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Trials.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 95, no. 3, 2012, pp. 740–751., doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.023457.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”. Lecture, February 5, 2020.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica a Cultural History of Cacao, by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006, pp. 154–183.

Multimedia Sources

Hall, Grant D., et al. “Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala.” American Antiquity, vol. 55, no. 1, 1990. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/281499.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Codex-Style Plate.” Codex-Style Plate – Works – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, collections.mfa.org/objects/36320.

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, The Creation Story of the Maya. YouTube, 14 June 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jb5GKmEcJcw.

Cacao in Mayan Religious Stories and Rituals and Community Celebrations

While chocolate may just seem like a dessert food to most people today, its main ingredient, cacao, and the tree from which the fruit stems played essential roles in the lives of the people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It was associated with fertility rites, marriage rituals, and even rites of death for the Maya people. As illustrated through their mythology, the cacao tree connected generations. Cacao brought people together by being a part of their religion illustrated through vases and by bringing together communities during feasts and celebrations. It established the Mayan hierarchy, and during the feasts of the elite, the people in the local community were able to exchange goods with others outside of the community. The cacao tree and the fruit it bears played a significant role in the religious and community life of the Maya people in the Pre-Columbian era.

The religious significance of the cacao tree for the Mayan people is illustrated through their creation myth. In this myth, the twin sons of the couple who created the universe are beheaded in the Maya underworld, Xibalba, by the lords of the underworld. One of the severed heads, which is now known as the Maize God, is hung up in a cacao tree, like the figure depicted by the lidded vessel below. As the daughter of an Xibalban ruler holds her hand up to the tree one day, the severed head is able to impregnate her. This woman then gives birth to the Hero Twins named Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These twins go on to accomplish a number of exploits and eventually defeat the underworld. They then resurrect their father, the Maize God, as their final task. With their final task completed, they become the sun and the moon (Coe). The cacao tree in this story allows the Maize God to “pass on his procreative seed and to eventually triumph through the heroic deeds of his offspring” (Martin 178). The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit were also passed between communities and generations.

This Mayan Lidded vessel depicts the Maize God as a Cacao Tree. The cacao pods surround the vessel, and the lid’s nob is a cacao tree with a bird that is now broken (Wikimedia Commons contributors).

The tree and its fruit connected each generation of the Maya people and permeated Mayan religion in rites like baptism and funerals. During the baptismal ritual, the noble giving the ceremony would dip a bone in a vessel filled with water, flowers, and cacao. With this mixture, “he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between the fingers and toes, in complete silence” (Coe). Like the tree that the Maize God manifested himself in allowed him to have children and reconnect with the world, the Maya people would bury people with vases that were used to drink cacao with inscriptions of cacao on them. As the dead traveled to the underworld, the cacao would continue to provide for the Maya as it did when they were alive and would ensure their safe travel (Martin). In addition to rituals, the cacao tree and its fruit played an essential role in the celebrations and community interactions of the Maya people.

During religious ceremonies and celebrations, the Maya would drink from vases that had inscriptions of cacao and the cacao tree. These inscriptions and drawings “made even a sip of chocolate a sacramental act” (Martin 179). The cacao was celebrated by all in the community, but the inscriptions reinforced the Maya rulership as many portrayed Mayan rulers among the deities. The cacao vases demonstrated the order within the community by establishing the power of the elite as they were compared to supernatural deities as shown in the image of a Maya vessel below. They would be exchanged among elites during feasts that “created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation” (Reents-Budet 209). These feasts then extended to the local community where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds were able to exchange goods which extended their relations beyond the local community. The vases were still present in the lower tier society, although they were not as elaborate as the elite vessels. While the people would offer cacao to the gods for gifts like fertility and rain, it also reinforced “their sense of community by way of a fabric of overlapping rights and obligations developed between sponsors and participants” (Reents-Budet 209). Cacao and the practice of drinking from and giving vases were a central part of the lives of the Mayan people.

The inscription around the rim of the this Maya vessel refers to its function as a chocolate-drinking cup and also states that it was owned by a Namaan king. The drawing portrays a king on a throne and a supernatural being in front of him, illustrating the connection between the elite and religion.

Overall, the cacao tree and fruit were central aspects to the religious, social, and economic lives of the Maya people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In their creation story, his manifestation in tree enabled the Maize God to give way to the next generation which then resurrected him from the underworld. The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit permeated the Mayan religion and played essential roles in the religious rituals of the people. Cacao was present in the baptismal rites and in the tombs of people, illustrating a connection between cacao and religion. The drinking of cacao and exchange of vases that held cacao and also had inscriptions of the elite and cacao during feasts and celebrations demonstrated order within the Maya community. From these feasts, different people were able to connect and extend relations beyond their local community. Cacao connected people in the community through its role in religious stories and rituals and celebrations among elites.

Works Cited:

Chocolate Cup (2002-9). https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/40908. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. 2019. Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Martin, Simon. Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld. University Press of Florida, 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.003.0008.

Reents-Budet, Dorie. The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among of the Ancient Maya. University Press of Florida, 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.003.0010.

Wikimedia Commons contributors. File:Mayan – Lidded Vessel – Walters 20092039 – Side D.Jpg. Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository., https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg.

Cacao at the Center of Creation

When people today think about cacao, they most likely think of the chocolate used in their favorite desserts and snacks. To the Maya, however, cacao served as an integral part of both their history and worldview. In Unit 1 of this class, we discussed the existence of the Popol Vuh, the creation narrative according to the Quiche Maya of present-day Guatemala (Mark). In the epic, Hun Hunahpu and his twin brother were tricked into losing a ball game and killed by the Lords of Xibalbá, the Maya Underworld. Hun Hunahpu’s head was hung up on what is depicted as a cacao tree. When he spits into the hand of the princess Ixkik’, she conceives the two Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. These twins eventually become skilled ball players and challenge the Lords of Xibalbá to a game in order to bring their father back to life. The Lords agree to the game only if the twins successfully complete a set of dangerous trials in the Underworld. Through their skill and cunning, they are able to complete the trials, defeat the Lords, and resurrect their father as the Maize God. Having finished this task, they then climb up into the sky to become the sun and moon (“Creation Story of the Maya”).

Although we do not have the complete, original version of the epic, the repeated appearance of cacao throughout the story shows its significance to Maya beliefs (Coe and Sophie 36). Image depictions on artifacts of scenes in the epic show cacao pods as human faces, like Hun Hunahpu’s decapitated head. Ixkik’ is drawn to the cacao tree, which leads to her meeting with Hun Hunahpu and the birth of the Hero Twins. This holds historical significance because it both explains the presence of the sun and moon to the Maya, as well as the origin of the twins who would ultimately help create human beings.

K5615: A depiction of Hun Hunahpu’s head hanging on the cacao tree after his beheading by the Lords of the Underworld. http://research.mayavase.com/kerrmaya_hires.php?vase=5615

Another story in the Popol Vuh discusses the gods’ first attempt to create humans using mud and wood. Despite their efforts, they fail both times as their weak creations are destroyed. Only when the twins raise their father, the Maize God, from the dead are the gods able to combine maize and cacao together to finally create humans successfully (Mark). Here, cacao once again serves as a symbol for life, not only bringing forth the existence of the Hero Twins, but all of humanity.

To properly understand the importance of cacao in the Maya creation narrative, we must also examine the role of maize. The resurrection and eternal life cycle of Hun Hunahpu demonstrates their belief in “recycling” the material of which all humans are made. The Maya believed that rather than going to something akin to heaven after death, the elderly and sick would reincarnate as grandchildren (Martin). As a result, the maize tree was a sacred symbol to the Maya representing death, life, and rebirth. It lives again despite dying by the hands of the Lords of the Underworld, flourishing into the cosmos and heavens. In the epic, this sacred maize tree produces cacao as a divine fruit which in itself is the origin of future generations. Not only is it a divine fruit, it is also the first among the fruit trees (Martin). This affirms their belief in cacao’s role as a symbol of fertility and the origin of all humans.

K1892: Resurrection Plate. Depiction of the Maize God being resurrected by his two sons. http://research.mayavase.com/uploads/mayavase/hires/1892.jpg

We see then, through the stories of the Popol Vuh, that cacao held a significant position to the people of Quiche. It continually shows up symbolically, which helps to explain the creation of life, the triumphs of the hero twins, the attempts and eventual success of the deities to create humans, and the basis for their genealogies. For the ancient Maya, enjoying cacao was much more than enjoying the taste. It was a way for them to celebrate the rise of the Maize God from Xibalba, to commemorate the journey of death, life, and complete union with all of existence.

K4331*: Maize God as a cacao tree in human form. Drawings by Simon Martin.

Works Cited

Coe, Michael D. and Sophie D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

“Creation Story of the Maya.” Living Maya Time, Smithsonian: National Museum of the American Indian, maya.nmai.si.edu/the-maya/creation-story-maya.

Mark, Joshua J. “Popol Vuh.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 21 Mar 2014. Web. 24 Mar 2020.

Martin, Simon. “Tales from the Underworld.” Edited by Cameron L. McNeil, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, Mexicolore, 26 Jan. 2014, www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-in-ancient-maya-religion.