Tag Archives: Mythology

Chocolate as an Aphrodisiac: A Historical Analysis

Dating back to the earliest known origins of chocolate—or rather its characteristic ingredient, cacao—this extraordinary substance has consistently been associated with socially intimate and aphrodisiacal properties. The particular manifestation of these aphrodisiacal properties, however, and how they have taken shape over time tells an interesting story of the power of media and advertising. Much of this early knowledge is situated around the ritual practices and mythology of the Maya civilization in the pre-Columbian period, during which cacao was heavily featured and revered in the context of fertility and marriage rites. In the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya documenting Mayan mythology, “when the gods were creating humans in their final form,” cacao was among the “foods which were to form their bodies” (Coe & Coe 39). This notion of cacao playing a role in the creation of human life is a recurring theme in surviving remnants of Mayan society, bringing to mind a clear connection with procreation and fertility. In much the same way, archeological/anthropological research has indicated the “widespread, perhaps even pan-Maya, use of chocolate in betrothal and marriage ceremonies” (Coe & Coe 60). Similar beliefs and rituals held true for Mixtec and Aztec societies, as we can see in this detail from the Codex Nuttall (Mixtec book) displayed below, or in the Aztec poem that refers to “‘flowering chocolate’ [as] a metaphor for luxuriousness and sensuality” (Coe & Coe 104).

Figure 1: This image shows an exchange of a frothy cup of chocolate from the bride, Lady Thirteen Serpent, to the Mixtec King, Lord Eight Deer (1051 BCE) (Coe & Coe 97)

Even more explicit, is the account of Spanish conquistador, Bernal Díaz de Castillo, upon attending a lavish Aztec banquet in which he writes about the emperor, including that “ they brought him some cups of fine gold, with a certain drink made of cacao, which they said was for success with women” (Coe & Coe 96). While this certainly speaks to the Spanish conquistadors’ beliefs and interpretations of cacao, whether there is any actual truth to this testimony is unsubstantiated. However this did not stop the notion of cacao as a sexual stimulant from spreading throughout Europe after it was first introduced in Spain. Almost a century after for instance, Dr. Henry Stubbes (1632-72), a prominent English authority on chocolate, was “convinced, as were most of his contemporaries in England and on the Continent, that chocolate was an aphrodisiac” (Coe & Coe 171).

If we fast forward to the 19th and early 20th centuries, these themes associated with chocolate seem to not only persist, but become ever-more present. This is likely the consequence of two key changes in the chocolate industry, the first being Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten’s 1828 invention of the hydraulic press, which allowed for the production of chocolate in solid form. The second shift lies in the industrialization of food, which gave way to mass production and, by extension, lower food costs, resulting in the democratization of chocolate (Coe & Coe 234-235). Considering its history as a substance once only available to the elite and wealthy upper echelons of society, this new potential for chocolate to be available and affordable to the masses meant immense economic opportunity—cue mass marketing. Chocolate advertising in its earlier days often featured women providing chocolate to their families, as the ideal wife and mother—roles which were both, at the time, at the forefront of any socially accepted notion of female identity. Kids were also considerably featured in these ads, thus by placing chocolate at the nucleus of the family bond, we are reminded of the original role cacao played in marriage and fertility for the Maya.

Figure 2: Nestle poster, c. 1898 – A mother, depicted in accordance with the beauty ideals of the time, is with her kids in nature, which advances the wholesome, natural image of milk chocolate
Figure 3: Post-war Rowntree’s Cocoa ad; acts as a clear representation of the role & expectations of women

In a similar vein, ads in which chocolate is the embodiment of romance soon seem to take center stage—at least for those ads targeted toward males (which speaks to a whole other dimension on the gendering of foods, but I’ll leave that for another discussion). While this notion of chocolate is clearly linked to aphrodisia, it is also convenient for business when it comes to special occasions centered around love and affection, such as Valentine’s Day and anniversaries.

Figure 4

Figure 5

As is hinted at in the ads above, this idea of chocolate as the perfect gift for a girlfriend or wife goes beyond its supposed inherent powers of attraction, to suggest that it’s so irresistible that it could win over any woman. The implication here being that simply a box of chocolates can render a woman so feeble-minded and lacking control over her desires that it removes any sexual resistance. This, again, plays into sexist stereotypes of women as mindless, emotional, pretty, sweet objects, lacking any intelligence, authority, or confidence.

While it would be nice to think this sort of messaging has subsided in recent years, the truth of the matter is that this pattern of perpetuating socially prescribed feminine ideals and stereotypes, particularly in relation to romance and desire is still common practice, only less overtly sexist. A prime example of this is for an Axe commercial in which women uncontrollably lust over a man who, upon spraying Axe Dark Temptation, turns into a walking, talking piece of chocolate. Despite being cloaked in a veil of humor, this message here is no different from that found in earlier advertising.

In a similar vein, while society has changed over time to embrace more progressive values, namely freedom of sexual expression and independence, it’s interesting to see how chocolate advertising has used this to make even more explicit the connection between chocolate, desire, and pleasure—all the while often maintaining their use of female stereotypes and ideals, which only works to delay or set back feminist efforts. That is, women are sexualized, objectified, and interlaced with sexual innuendo in such ads where there is an apparent attempt to blur the lines between chocolate and sex. Oftentimes these advertisements are targeted towards women as a way of “encouraging self indulgence for a food that provides feelings equated to sex and love” (Fahim 7).

It’s quite interesting, or perhaps more than that, it’s rather informative of the power that lies in the hands of media and marketing to perpetuate a notion with little to no basis in fact, as evidenced by numerous studies debunking any real effect of chocolate on libido or as an aphrodisiac (Shamloul 2010, Brent 2018), yet remains at the core—in some way, shape, or form, of chocolate marketing strategy.

In analyzing the way these advertisements have marketed chocolate, we can see the progress of the way society views the female role. In the earlier times, we see how the importance of women in society is closely intertwined with reproduction as well as the simple-minded housewife trope, which was quite clearly reflected in the messaging of chocolate at the time. And, subsequently, as women’s expression of sexuality in media becomes more commonplace, the importance and relevance of chocolate in society comes in large part from overt and subtle references to its purported (yet unsubstantiated) supernatural or aphrodisiacs properties. Specifically, it aims to encourage “ self indulgence for a food that provides feelings equated to sex and love.

All that being said, while this current theme of hypersexuality, desire, and indulgence is unlikely to subside any time soon (especially considering it’s persisted over thousands of years), it will be interesting to see how and if the portrayal of women in ads related to chocolate will change in this new wave of female empowerment as a marketing strategy (e.g. the new Nike and Gillette ads), which still have their issues but show an overall positive progression towards gender equality.

Works-Cited & Sources:

Brent A. Bauer, M.D. “Do Natural Aphrodisiacs Actually Work?” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 8 Mar. 2018, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/sexual-health/expert-answers/natural-aphrodisiacs/faq-20058252.

Fahim, Jamal, “Beyond Cravings: Gender and Class Desires in Chocolate Marketing” (2010). Sociology Student Scholarship. http://scholar.oxy.edu/sociology_student/3

French, Michael. “Modernity in British Advertising: Selling Cocoa and Chocolate in the 1930s.” Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, vol. 9, no. 4, 2017, pp. 451-466. ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1973450713?accountid=11311, doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1108/JHRM-05-2017-0015.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Shamloul, Rany. “Natural Aphrodisiacs.” The Journal of Sexual Medicine, vol. 7, no. 1, 2010, pp. 39–49., doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01521.x.

Multimedia Sources:





Cacao’s Importance in the Mythnohistory of Ancient Mesoamerican Society

Cacao has become a relatively ubiquitous commodity today, but it once held a far more important role, as a significant part of Mayan and Aztec culture and history. It could even be said that cacao was became one of the most fundamental motifs in helping Mesoamerican’s understand and orient themselves to the world. Cacao iconography was found throughout the region in pre-Columbian times. It is related to numerous themes found on Mesoamerican vessels and other objects. This includes themes such as fertility and sustenance, sacrifice and regeneration, as well as embodiment and transformation (Martin). The current scientific name of cacao, Theobroma cacao, translates to ‘food of the gods’, a modern hint to its historical importance to religion.

Possibly the most important link that cacao has to religion within Mesoamerican society is the origination story in the Popol Vuh, a history of Mayan origination that was eventually transcribed by a Dominican Friar Francisco Ximénez. The Popol Vuh contains many references to cacao and is commonly translated as ‘the book of the people’, indicating its core connection to the people and through association, the importance of cacao.

Here is an animated narration of the Popol Vuh, including depictions of cacao important to the mythologic history of the Maya

According to a version of the story, Huracan and other deities created a heart of the land, and planted a tall tree connecting the sky and the earth. The roots penetrated into the underworld, the trunk was at the surface, and the branches reached up to the heavens. In some versions of this story the tree is even partially depicted as a cacao tree, suggesting that cacao connects the underworld, the earth, and the heavens. A pair of twins who ended up becoming the sun and the moon were conceived when their father spit on their mother’s hand. Their father in fact is frequently depicted as a cacao tree, and the twins journey is made in order to resurrect their father from the underworld. With the sun and the moon created, the deities were then able to successfully create humans from maize. The story shows how Mayans looked to cacao in order to help define their own creation and existence.

Depicted above is the father of the twins in the form of a cacao tree, who is commonly known as the Maize god

In addition to helping define their place in the world, cacao was also used to help them clarify their relationship to death. Cacao iconography is frequently seen outside the realm of drinking vessels for celebration or in terms of the origination story of the Maya. Many cacao depictions can be found around burial sites. Trees were planted over newly laid graves as tokens of future resurrection (Martin). We can see depictions of cacao trees on the sarcophagus of Pakal, an important Mayan figure. Saplings emerging from cracks in the ground can be identified as cacao. The growth of cacao here is symbolic or resurrection and the cycle of new life after death. Cacao is an important metaphorical symbol of rebirth in Mayan iconography (Grofe). In similar depictions of cacao trees, they are anthropomorphized to represent ancestors. Looking to the lifecycle of cacao, Mayans were able to project meaning into their own death, with cacao used as a primary motif in this understanding.

This is an image of Pakal’s sarcophagus which depicts cacao trees, an important motif in death and resurrection for the maya

Cacao became an integral part of Mayan religion through the way it could orient the people to the world around them. In itself, cacao is not inherently significant, but as a result of its importance in use and ubiquity in Mayan culture, cacao was an easy motif to use in their history and understanding of the world. It became a way for them to look at how they came into existence as well as begin to understand the role of death and new life. As a result of this role, cacao became an important motif in the iconography of Mesoamerica.

Work Cited

Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” Famsi.org, 2007, http://www.famsi.org/research/grofe/GrofeRecipeForRebirth.pdf.

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

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld, 2005, http://www.ecoyuc.com.mx/articles.php?task=detail&aid=30.

The Importance of Mythology: Cacao and Why We Study Its Significance

It was just a game of ball – an innocent game in which the Mayan Maize God and his brother were participating. But this rowdy game angered the lords of Xibalbá, the Maya underworld. So as a punishment, the Maize God and his brother were cast down to Xibalbá (meaning ‘place of fright’), where they were beheaded. However, the story takes an unexpected turn when the Maize God’s head is placed in what is pictured as a cacao tree. His head, now representing a cacao pod, attracts the daughter of one of the underworld lords — she had heard that the fruit of the tree was sweet. Upon interacting with the Maize God’s head, she somehow becomes impregnated and eventually gives birth to his two children, the Hero Twins.

The Maize God’s head on a cacao tree, representing a cacao pod

The Hero Twins’ subsequent adventure in the underworld, some argue, is a metaphor possibly corresponding to the steps in processing cacao. For example, in The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya, Grofe claims that their entrance into the underworld represents the burial and fermentation stages in making chocolate. He then describes that they go through burning (representing the roasting of the beans), before having their bones ground on a metate and then poured into water. All of these events in the lives of the Hero Twins seem to parallel those of turning cacao into chocolate. Grofe concludes from this that cacao must represent a powerful symbol of rebirth (1).

We might think of this story as simply another example of a myth — a unique creation that reflects beliefs and values that may seem alien to us. But this myth comes from the Popol Vuh, a book that was sacred to the Maya (Coe & Coe, 38). What was so special about cacao that it was considered to have religious importance? That it represented blood, death, rebirth and that it was reserved for the elite? Were the Maya just arbitrarily fixated on cacao, or does it actually have some deeper uniqueness? And what could we gain by studying other cultures’ fixations on something so common and “normal” to us?

Popol Vuh: sacred Mayan book which indicates the importance of cacao

Below is an advertisement for a chocolate candy which emphasizes just how universal and accessible chocolate has become; this candy is a stark contrast to the reverently prepared chocolate drinks that the elite Mayans drank. We see that there is an extraordinary difference between the chocolate that seems so normal to us today and the sacred cacao that the Mayans valued. We will now examine why it may have been so special to them.

An advertisement for a chocolate candy bar

Is cacao actually special?

It seems possible that the specialness of cacao was just the Mayans’ imagination — that they randomly chose to elevate cacao for the sake of elevating something, and that the myths are based upon this random decision. But it seems unlikely that so many Mayans would share this same attraction, and to such an extent that their sacred books (like the Popol Vuh) highlight it. Furthermore, the globalization of cacao tells us that there must be something special about cacao — at least, it must be good enough to spread and keep spreading.

What specifically, then, makes cacao special? It does make some sense that the Mayans would be fascinated by cacao upon seeing a cacao tree. The pods look at once unnatural and beautiful: hanging directly from the trunk of the tree, they are bumpy and elongated fruits of vibrant hues. But aside from this, the Mayans’ fascination with cacao most likely had to do with its rich and multi-dimensional taste. In fact, from a scientific standpoint, chocolate has many chemical properties that are so complexly intertwined that flavorists have never been able to synthesize it (Brenner, 2000). So cacao is indeed a unique flavor in nature. This explains why cacao had such significance to people such as the Aztecs and Mayans; it also explains why cacao has not gone out of style since then, but has instead spread across the world.

Alien-looking cacao pods on a tree trunk

What is the importance of this significance?

There are several reasons why we might want to care about the significance of cacao to cultures of the past. For one, the respect with which they handled cacao caught the attention of Europeans, urging the globalization of cacao: Europeans did not at first have relevant knowledge to help them understand the fruit, but perhaps they just knew that it had religious significance (Cocoa, 28). But aside from helping to globalize it, the significance of cacao teaches us about the culture in which it is significant.

For example, one significant group that also valued cacao highly were the Aztecs. A large amount of the information that we know about the Aztecs comes from what we hear about their culture from other sources — for example, from Spanish conquistadors and their apologists (Coe & Coe, 65). This results in a one-dimensional stereotype of Aztecs being bloodthirsty savages.

But often times, it turns out we can learn a lot about a people by observing what is important to them, and how they convey this importance. For example, we look at the way the Aztecs prepared chocolate drinks: they are healthy and with the “greatest sustenance,” with particular instructions for how to drink the chocolate and the foam (Coe & Coe, 84). To create a more sophisticated flavor, they added maize, chili, flowers, or vanilla. The Aztecs, then, were more than just violence: they also had custom and science and art. In learning about how cacao fits into their culture, we can have a deeper understanding of it and also become more open to learning about other aspects of their culture in general.

Europeanized watercolor of Aztec woman carefully pouring chocolate to raise foam

We have seen through mythology that cacao has a rare significance compared to other flavors. We also saw this scientifically, but additionally there is something remarkable about an entire culture (such as the Mayans and Aztecs) becoming fascinated with a flavor — to the point where they believe it comes from the gods. It turns out that there is worth in studying something so innocent and common as cacao, and in studying its significance to others. Examining the significance of cacao to certain cultures gives us a different perspective on that culture, which might help clear previous misconceptions about it. Perhaps if we avoid viewing such cultures in such dramatized ways as we are used to, we can see that we have much to gain from them even today.

Works Cited

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. Broadway Books, 2000.

Cartwright, Mark. “Xibalba.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 15 Mar. 2019, www.ancient.eu/Xibalba/.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” 15 Mar. 2019.

Grofe, Michael J. “Xibalba.” Xibalba Cacao, 15 Mar. 2019, www.xibalbacacao.com/about.htm.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.


“Cocoa Pods.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 15 Mar. 2019, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cocoa_Pods.JPG.

“Europeanized Watercolor of Aztec Woman Pouring Chocolate to Raise Foam.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 15 Mar. 2019, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.

“Pic 6.” Late Classic Period Polychrome Maya Vase, Popol Vuh Museum Guatemala (Detail) (K5615*); the Head of the Maize God as a Cacao Pod. Drawing by Simon Martin (Click on Image to Enlarge), http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-in-ancient-maya-religion, 15 Mar. 2019.

“Popol Vuh.” Wikimedia Commons, 15 Mar. 2019, upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Popol_vuh.jpg/335px-Popol_vuh.jpg.

“1950 Mars Bar Advertisement Life Magazine October 16 1950.” Flickr, Flickr, 15 Mar. 2019, www.flickr.com/photos/91591049@N00/15591740934.