His feet stomped on the ground to the rhythm of the beating drums. Jewels of the great god Quetzalcoatl swung about his body, glinting in the sun as he swayed. His smile slowly slipped off his face as his eyes fell upon the obsidian knife meant to carve out his heart the very next day. The temple elders brought a gourd to his lips, and he obliged (Coe and Coe).
This sacrificial ritual took place annually in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. A slave, chosen to represent Quetzalcoatl, would perform a sacrificial dance on the eve of his sacrifice. If he did not dance joyously, the temple elders would prepare a potion of human blood washed off of sacrificial knives mixed with chocolate in order to make the slave forget about his impending sacrifice and continue to dance cheerfully (Coe and Coe).
From Mesoamerican archaeological records, chocolate is typically known for its economic role as currency or social restriction as a beverage exclusive to the upper class (Prufer and Hurst). So how did its association with human sacrifices originate? In tracing back through Mesoamerican traditions incorporating cacao and blood, it can be theorized that such rituals evolved from beliefs derived from the Olmecs thousands of years before.
During the Aztec slave’s sacrifice, his heart would be extracted and presented to the gods. Chocolate was likely used in the sacrificial ritual due to cacao pods’ symbolism of the human heart torn out in sacrifice (Coe and Coe). Evidence of this is recorded in the Song to Otontecuhtli, in which the verse cuauhinochitla, cacahuatla associates a cacao pod with the heart of a sacrificial victim (Mazariegos). Although this symbolism may be due to the vague similarities between the shapes of human hearts and cacao pods, historian Eric Thompson argues that the association is more likely because “both were the repositories of precious liquids—blood and chocolate” (qtd. in Coe and Coe 85).
This explanation concurs with the Aztecs’ association of cacao as a symbol of the heart and blood. Their priests, poets, and philosophers used yollotl, eztli, or “heart, blood,” as a figure of speech referring to chocolate. Although Spanish informants observing the Aztecs believed the phrase to represent how precious cacao was (Coe and Coe), it is likely that the metaphor had more literal symbolism.
The Codex Féjévary-Mayer
The Codex Féjévary-Mayer, an Aztec manuscript depicting the tonalpohualli, their 260-day calendar (“Fejérváry-Mayer Codex”), serves as further archaeological evidence of the association between cacao and blood. The painting above portrays a god surrounded by four T-shaped trees–the 4 World Trees of cardinal directions (Martin).
Taking a closer look, the tree pointing downwards may seem to have ritually stained knives hanging off of it. In actuality, this depicts a cacao tree (Martin). The cacao tree represents the Tree of the South, which is associated with the Land of the Dead, the color red, and blood (Coe and Coe). This codex provides an artistic record of cacao’s association with both death and blood.
The association between cacao and blood was not exclusive to the Aztecs–rather, it was universal throughout Mesoamerica. For example, the Madrid Codex illustrates four Mayan gods piercing their earlobes and showering cacao pods with their own blood. This is evidence for how the Mayans, who existed over 3000 years before the Aztecs, also equated liquid chocolate with blood, although there is no record that the Mayans used cacao in human sacrificial rituals. Because the symbolism of cacao as blood is so strong, surviving through thousands of years and multiple civilizations, it presumably originated from the robust beliefs of an ancestral culture (Seawright).
The most likely origin of the association between cacao and blood may be traced to the Olmecs. The Olmec civilization, which thrived from 1500 BCE – 400 BCE, is thought to be a possible ancestor of the Mayans (Martin). They were one of the first powerful civilizations to use chocolate, as evidenced by both chemical and linguistic analysis. With their immense prominence, the Olmec were able to spread the use of chocolate to emerging cultures around Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe).
Like the Mayans and Aztecs, the Olmecs placed great ritual significance on chocolate. Although we have no decipherable written record, cacao has been found amongst burial remains of sacrificial victims (Powis), suggesting that the Olmecs associated cacao with death and sacrifice. It is likely that this association, as well as other cultural, religious, and social practices, were spread alongside the diffusion of chocolate itself (Seawright).
Thus, it is reasonable to attribute the origins of the use of chocolate in human sacrifices to the spread of Olmec culture. As the Olmecs’ beliefs spread alongside the use of chocolate, cacao’s association with sacrifice and death remained strong. As this association was adopted by different civilizations, like the Mayans and the Aztecs, it was modified to fit their own cultural practices. Consequently, the Aztecs integrated chocolate into their rituals of human sacrifice.
Coe, Sophie and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate, London, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
“Fejérváry-Mayer Codex.” Exploring the Early Americas: The Heavens and The Earth, Library of Congress, 12 Dec. 2007, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/interactives/heavens-and-earth/earth/index.html.
Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 05 Feb 2020, Harvard University, Lecture.
Mazariegos, Oswaldo Chinchilla. “Human Sacrifice And Divine Nourishment In Mesoamerica: The Iconography Of Cacao On The Pacific Coast Of Guatemala.” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 27, no. 2, 2016, pp. 361–375., doi:10.1017/s0956536116000201.
Powis, T. G., et al. “Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 21, Sept. 2011, pp. 8595–8600., doi:10.1073/pnas.1100620108.
Prufer, K. M., and W. J. Hurst. “Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave.” Ethnohistory, vol. 54, no. 2, Jan. 2007, pp. 273–301., doi:10.1215/00141801-2006-063.
Seawright, Caroline. “ARC2AZT Essay: Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where Did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate?” N.p., 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.