Tag Archives: religion

A Mestizo Tradition in Cacao: The Introduction and Incorporation of Molinillos

The history of chocolate mirrors the history of mestizaje from Mesoamerica to modern-day Mexico and Central America, with the contemporary product serving as the result of both Mesoamerican and Spanish influences. Even the production of authentic, ancient, or traditional Mesoamerican cacao beverages and chocolate are infused with post-colonial influences, from the addition of new ingredients to entirely new techniques for crafting chocolate. Of these, the introduction of the molinillo, now considered a staple component in crafting traditional Mexican chocolate, represents the culmination of indigenous and Spanish techniques.

Pre-Conquest Mesoamerican Chocolate

Cacao was harvested and consumed as early as the Olmec civilization, with cacao originating from their word for currency, ka-ka-w [1]. The Mayans adopted cacao into their respective civilization–for consumption, as legal tender, and for rituals.

Cacao was essential for social, physical, and spiritual well-being, regarded for its medicinal, spiritual, and aphrodisiac qualities. The Mayan would prepare the batidos and other hot chocolate beverages from the ground cacao pulps. They were also used for arranging marriages, with the term tac haa, “to serve chocolate,” commonly used to describe the discussions in which they would determine marriages while drinking chocolate. Mixtec went a step further, using “cacao” as a phrase for royal marriage [2]. For the Aztecs, only the elites and wealthy consumed it because it couldn’t grow in Mexico, so they had to transport it 900 miles on their back [3].

Aztec sculpture holding a cacao pod.

Early pre-Columbian religious references to cacao are also prevalent in both Mayan and Aztec artifacts, with the Popol Vuh ascribing cacao with godly qualities and the Dresden Codex featuring cacao throughout, including consumption by the gods [4]. Likewise, in the Madrid Codex, Aztecs believed that cacao beans were the physical manifestation of Quetzalcoatl [5]. Other religious depictions included:

  • Cacao in fertility rites, with Ixchel and the rain god exchanging cacao.
  • Cacao tree depictions of royal bloodlines, with deities emerging from cacao trees with pods and flowers to symbolize their royal blood [6].

Figure: Aztec statue holding a cacao pod.

“Chocolate for the body; foam for the soul.”

Meredith Dreiss, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods [7]

The foam produced was of special religious importance, with the foam seen as the most sacred part of the drink [8]. With this reverence toward the froth, the molinillo, as the instrument used to facilitate easier production of the froth, would also be revered and would become deeply intertwined in the chocolate-making process.

Molinillo in Mesoamerica? The Spanish Arrive

Many would expect that the Mayans and Aztecs used molinillos, since they are now regarded as crucial instruments when crafting authentic traditional chocolate beverages, but in fact, the molinillo was most likely introduced by the Spanish, possibly during the 16th century. While it is true that pre-Columbian texts mentioned turtle/tortoise shell stirring spoons and stirrers, there were no mentions of molinillos in pre-Columbian texts. Moreover, it was noticeably absent from the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary in 1571 [9].

Some of the possible confusion could stem from anachronistic depictions of the molinillo, such as the one below:

 “The artist has misunderstood the use of the metate [curved cacao grinding stone], and has mistakenly included the post-Conquest molinillo. (From J. Ogilby, America, London, 1671.) 

Instead, they used “small, hemispherical bowls” as drinking and mixing vessels, made with materials ranging from ceramics, to decorated calabash gourds (Crescentia cujete tree), to gold (huei tlatoani). Foam was created by pouring chocolate repeatedly between drinking vessels to produce the foam [10].

Left: 6-9th century Mayan ceramic vessel, Guatemala  | right: 7-8th century Mayan ceramic vessel, Mexico
Mayan woman producing foam via pouring technique

It wasn’t until 1780, when Jesuit Francesco Saverio Clavigero, mentioned the molinillo but not the traditional method of pouring the beverage to produce foam [11].

Molinillo: The Basics

The molinillo, a kitchen tool used to froth hot chocolate beverages, is a carved, handcrafted wooden stick, with a slender handle at one end and a knob at the other [12]. Its name is derived from its circular shape and its motion when used for producing foam resembling that of a molino (windmill) [13]. Each molinillo is unique and varies in size depending on the amount of beverage to be produced. The first iterations involved a simple ball or square at the end of a long handle. However, these soon were adapted to better facilitate frothing. Modern molinillos are crafted from a single block of wood, forming a slender wooden “whisk” with a long tapered handle and a carved knob with rings and other movable parts on the other end [14].

Each molinillo is unique, and the basic design can be flourished with details such as colored accents or ivory pieces, as well as square tops instead of rounded [15].

Molinillo with Color Accents
Molinillo with Squarish Top

Using a Molinillo

Frothing hot chocolate beverages with a molinillo is straightforward. Simply put, the slender handle is gripped between the palms, which are then rubbed together to rotate the carved knob back and forth. This motion grinds the chocolate discs used for the beverages against the pestle bottom of the drinking vessel [16], allowing the beverage to froth within a few minutes.

A Mexican Cook, “Using A Molinillo to Make Hot Chocolate.”

The motion is so simple, in fact, that the molinillo frothing process is even a popular rhyme among Mexican children and their teachers:

Bate, bate, chocolate,
tu nariz de cacahuate.
Uno, dos, tres, CHO!
Uno, dos, tres, CO!
Uno, dos, tres, LA!
Uno, dos, tres, TE!
Chocolate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, bate, bate,
Bate, bate, CHOCOLATE![17]

Bate = Stir or whip
tu nariz de cacahuate = roughly "your peanut nose"
Uno, dos, tres = One, two, three

Crafting Molinillos

“Molinillo and chocolate depend on each other–one cannot exist without the other. “

Molinillos are carved from a single piece of wood rotating on an axis. Typically soft wood from trees like the aile mexicano (Alnus acuminata ssp. glabrata) are used for carving because they are odorless and flavorless as to not impact the flavor of the chocolate. The black sections of the molinillo are not painted; rather, the friction from the velocity of the wood spinning on the axis of the machine burns the wood a darker color, which the crafter then polishes. Once the base is completed with all the large grooves, all the smaller notch carvings (helpful for circulating the milk to increase frothiness) are completed by hand [18].

Molinillo Tradicional [Making a Molinillo from Wood]

Each molinillo is unique, and the basic design can be flourished with details such as colored accents or ivory pieces:

Artisanal Molinillo Crafting

For molinillo artisans in areas popular for their chocolate, such as 3rd generation crafter Jesus Torres Gomez, carving molinillos, among other wooden kitchen utensils, is both a skill and an artform, passed down for over 100 years as they continue to modify and perfect their craftsmanship. While he uses a motor to facilitate the rotation of the wood piece, all the carvings are completed by hand. He produces 3 types of molinillos:

  • Criollo, for making the foam for chocolate atole in the central valleys.
  • For making the foam for hot chocolate.
  • More elaborate item to serve as a decorative souvenir for tourists in Oaxaca (not meant to be used).

Similar to the more extravagant uses of chocolate and chocolate-producing equipment in Mesoamerica, these items are often also used for special events, including weddings and quinceañeras (coming of age celebration for 15th birthday) [19].

Jesus Torres Gomez, “Artesano de Molinillos”

Modern-Day Molinillos and “Authentic Recipes”

Contemporary molinillos serve more as a nostalgic artifact than a necessary tool for the average chocolate beverage consumer. For champurrado–traditional Mexican chocolate-based atole– and hot chocolate, recipes available online often include many modifications to traditional recipes, incorporating many ingredients not available to pre-Columbian Mesoamericans. For the thicker champurrado, they are often flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, cloves, and other spices, as well as grated piloncillo (raw, undefined sugar cane)[20].

Likewise, they often include milk instead of water, and they are frothed with whisks or spoons. For “authentic Mexican hot chocolate” recipes, chocolate beverages are not strictly based on traditional Mayan or Aztec chocolate recipes; similar to the effect of molinillos on chocolate crafting, they combine indigenous and Spanish influences. However, molinillos are still incorporated into more traditional recipes, particularly Oaxacan hot chocolate, which uses water instead of milk and is whisked with a molinillo [21].


  • [1] Khan, Gulnaz. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.”
  • [2] Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’”
  • [3] Festa, Jessica. “Sweet Guatemala: A Look At The Country’s Mayan Chocolate History And Modern Experiences.”
  • [4] Martin, Carla D.
  • [5] De la Fuente del Moral, Fatima.
  • [6] Martin, Carla D.
  • [7] Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods.
  • [8] Martin, Carla D.
  • [9] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate.
  • [10] ibid
  • [11] ibid
  • [12] Edwards, Owen. “A Historic Kitchen Utensil Captures What It Takes to Make Hot Chocolate From Scratch.”
  • [13] CORTV. Jesús Torres Gómez artesano en molinillos.
  • [14] Bowman, Barbara. “Molinillo – Mexican Chocolate Whisk (Stirrer).”
  • [15] ibid
  • [16] “Molinillo: Hot Cocoa Frother | Mexico, Wooden Stick, Traditional Hot Chocolate Grinder, Frothing Stick, Molinillos.” UncommonGoods.
  • [17] Fain, Lisa. “Mexican Hot Chocolate and a Molinillo.”
  • [18] Cocinando con Rita. Molinillo Tradicional.
  • [19] CORTV.
  • [20] Rodriguez, Vianncy. “How to Make Champurrado.”
  • [21] “How to Make Authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate.” A Side of Sweet.

Works Cited

Multimedia Cited

———. Molinillo with Squarish Top. Gourmet Sleuth, Molinillo – Mexican Chocolate Whisk (Stirrer). Accessed May 16, 2019. https://www.gourmetsleuth.com/images/default-source/articles/molinillo-3.jpg?sfvrsn=2.

From Cultural to Commercial: Cocoa’s Geopolitical Transformation

Molded by years of exposure to masterfully crafted marketing campaigns, average consumer knowledge of cacao [or cocoa] is limited to its function as an ingredient and source from which their beloved chocolate is derived. There is much more to the birth, rise, and spread of Theobroma cacao.

The following seeks to explain how a culturally significant crop among early civilizations dating back to 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013) transformed from a highly treasured ingredient and social currency cultivated within a fairly limited zone to a globally produced and traded commodity: a highly reformulated, mass-produced, and readily available confectionery product.

This journey traces cacao back to its genetic and cultural beginnings where it was religious and cultural fixture among early civilizations; how exploration and migration played into the geographical expansion of its cultivation and rise in popularity as a food; role in accelerating industrialization; and transformation from a social currency and treasured ingredient to a heavily traded commodity and mass manufactured consumer product.

Genetic and Cultural Beginnings

From births and burials, recipes and rituals, cacao’s cultural origins are linked to Mesoamerica (present day Mexico through Central America), where its social and religious significance among the Olmec dates back to 1500 to 400 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013). The rise of Maya and Aztec civilizations gave way for cacao’s evolution utility and proliferation as a consumable.

Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion

Evidenced by archeologic discoveries, translated texts, and scientific testing, several vessels and writings have been unearthed, clarifying and validating cacao’s significance, religious ties, and early application as a currency.

Mayan and Aztec civilization associated cacao with the gods. As such, they were believed to enrich and afford protections during and after life, playing a central role in offerings and rituals (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Ceramic vessels similar to those pictured here which date back to 455 to 465 CE were found in burial tombs at Río Azul (Martin, 2019). Further testing confirmed positive traces of caffeine and theobromine—two of cacao’s alkaloid signatures (Martin, 2019).

Dating back to 455 to 465 CE, “funerary vessels” similar to those pictured here were discovered in tombs at Río Azul. As testing revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, two of cacao’s signature alkaloids, this further supported evidence of cacao’s religious significance (Martin, 2019).

As a food or drink, cacao took many forms. Popular among the Maya and Aztec, “cacahuatl” was a frothy preparation often transferred from one vessel to another and served cold (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Described by Coe and Coe in The True History of Chocolate and drawn by Diane Griffiths Peck, this illustration provides a glimpse into one of many Maya and Aztec cacao preparation and serving methods.
Of the 15 discovered, translated, and still intact, the Dresden Codex contains the aforementioned Mayan hieroglyphic depiction of cacao being consumed by gods and used in rituals (Martin, 2019). Other major works include the Popol Vuh or “Book of Counsel” is a colonial document later translated by Friar Francisco Ximénez that reveals the importance of cacao among early civilizations.

Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption

By definition, explorers were bound to make new discoveries and learn from their experience. Capturing the innocent confusion and eye-opening experience (only to be realized years later), the following briefly details just how one explorer mistakenly thought that cacao beans were almonds.”

Mistaken for Almonds: When recounting observations from his 1502 landing at Guanaja, one of many landmasses that make up the Bay Islands archipelago, Ferdinand Columbus, one of Christopher Columbus’ sons wrote about cherished “almonds” that traded hands similarly to how currency would pass between customers and merchants (Coe and Coe, 2013). It was not until years later after multiple interpretations and sources concluded that what he presumed to be almonds were in fact cacao beans.

As it came to be more widely known, not far from where Ferdidnad landed, throughout the Rio Ceniza Valley (present day coast of El Salvador), cacao was an increasingly popular form of currency being produced and traded in record volume—something . In time, this led to further learnings about the “Nahua counting system” and subsequent adoption of cacao as payment for “protection” by Spanish conquistadors.

Generally relegated to tropical climates falling 10-15 degrees north and south of equator, is was inevitable that cacao would make its way around the world. So as people moved, and culture spread, so too did the cacao, as a crop, currency, and curiosity, ultimately leading to its introduction to new geographies, and paving the way for new industries and traditions around the world (Martin, 2019).

New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients

As ingredients such as vanilla, chili, and many others traveled around the world, pairings and formulations rapidly evolved. Marking a major development and informing direction for the confectionery side as we know it today, sugar was introduced to Europe around 1100 CE and chocolate followed shortly thereafter in 1500 CE (Martin, 2019).

Cacao’s Role in Accelerating Industrialization and Expanding its Place in Society

While cacao consumption continued to be reserved for certain classes during its journey around the world, increasingly sophisticated processing methods streamlined productions, regulation eventually brought its price down, and despite medical and religious challenges to its place in society, cacao products were increasingly available to a grander population.

By the 1600 and 1700s, advances in processing continued to align with rising and more diverse consumption habits. Of course, by this time, the separation between “producing” and “processing” countries (read: colonies vs. industrialized nations) was increasingly clear.

So while cultivation and production spread across Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to meet demand, industry began to take shape on the consumer side as well with the emergence of social gathering halls or “Chocolate Houses” in Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and other “industrialized” nations who had transitioned to managing the cacao’s trade as a commodity and processing for various food and beverage applications. It was not until Rudolphe Lindt’s invention of the conche in 1879, an advancement that bolstered flavor and feel (among other things), and set the stage for quality, processing, and mass production to take off (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Illustrated above, the matete, grinder, and conche are examples of what cacao processing tools were used by early civilizations (and are still used in the same or similar forms today) and evolved or industrialized processing equipment employed today (Martin, 2019).

From early civilizations to present day, cacao’s role in society, cultural significance, availability and consumption have evolved tremendously. However, its mystique and association as something special are still true to this day—just as they were in different and more elaborate forms among early civilizations. Perhaps this condensed history will give pause and reason for the average consumer to think beyond commercialization of cacao, cocoa, or chocolate, and value and validate its history and claims made by brands to improve global understanding, perception, and consumer habits.

Works Cited

  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  • Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.
  • Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018

Media Cited

  • Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past”. Nawatl Scholar. January 1, 1970. Accessed March 15, 2019. http://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
  • Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. Lynne Olver 2000. March 1, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.
  • Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “Map of Mesoamerica.” Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
  • Río Azul [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Wikimedia Commons. File:Popol vuh.jpg. (January 16, 2015). Retrieved February 17, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Popol_vuh.jpg&oldid=146695431.
  • Matete [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Grinder [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Conche [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Lectures Cited

  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 13, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 20, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Cacao and Religion in Ancient Mesoamerica

The presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica dates back to the Pre-Classic civilization of the Olmec. Archeologists have been able to study the presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica by debunking hieroglyphs, discovering artifacts, and chemically testing for cacao residue. From their studies, they have been able to discern that cacao played an intimate role in ritualistic religious practices. Evidence shows cacao being incorporated in a myriad of ancient ceremonies like marriage, burial, sacrifice, and shaman initiation, dating from the Pre-Classic age through Post-Classic Mesoamerica. The focus of this piece is to explore, further, the connection between cacao and religious practices in ancient Mesoamerica by way of artifacts found by archeologists. Religion played a massive role in the everyday of people in Mesoamerica, as I have come to find out, cacao did too. The first step is understanding what cacao meant to religion is to better understand what exactly the people of the time believed in.

It is important to clarify that,“cacao” for the purpose of this paper is starkly dissimilar to chocolate. The processes ancient Mesoamericans used to consume their cacao were very simple, not many ingredients whatsoever, compared to the cacao to chocolate processes of today. We use it as a decadent treat, whereas they used it primarily as a stimulant (McNiel 82). There was a focused purpose when someone consumed cacao, purposes stated in the preceding section. The ancient Mesoamericans, in particular the Mayans, held cacao in such a high-regard that the importance of cacao of the time was akin to maize (Mahony). It is well understood that maize was more integral in the everyday diet of the Mayan people, however, maize was not integral in the ceremonial processes of the time. Cacao represented much more than sustenance, there was a sacred component to it which is why I became interested in discovering its relationship with cacao in Mesoamerica.

Religion throughout ancient Mesoamerica has remained fairly consistent beginning with the Olmecs, moving to the Mayans, and ending with the Aztecs. Professor Davíd Carrasco, who studies specifically Mesoamerican anthropology at Harvard, suggested this assertion to me through a book recommendation and I find the thesis of the book very compelling. Professor Carrasco turned me to Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy which aims to tackle the question, “Why did people believe what they did?” When discussing ancient Mesoamerica his primary contention and explanation was “As above, so below” which basically means that ancient Mesoamericans thought that the happiness or discontent of the gods was directly reflected in their earthly ongoings (Berger). In other words, they believed that life was being played on two different levels simultaneously: one being their autonomous action and the other being the will of the gods in the other world. This is commonly referred to as “duality” in anthropology. They used religion to explain the ongoings of the natural world. As a result we have seen a repetition of ritualistic archetypes from all ancient civilizations in attempt to garner the favor of the gods. Even through the years it is noted that the Nahuas made a cacao sacrifice to an effigy of Jesus Christ that the spaniards brought in (Mahony). This offers even more evidence of their religious practices remaining consistent even through severe transition. All in all,  Berger makes a compelling argument as to why ancient Mesoamerican belief has been rather consistent.

The repeated ritualistic archetypes to appease the needs of the gods is where we find chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica. Burial ceremonies were religious in nature (Prufer). Their understanding of death was that it was more of a beginning than an end. Death embarked one’s journey into the other world. In an ancient burial ground dating back to the 5th to 4th century there was a bowl uncovered that had chemical tracings of cacao, discovered in what would have been ancient Maya. The bowl was thought to have possessed the ritual sustenance for that person’s travel into the other world (Prufer). As the person died and moved on to the next life the cacao was the fuel that allowed them to successfully travel to the other worldly side. Consequently, the people that were still alive would continually make sacrifices in order to gain the favor of the past relatives, cacao deities, and other agricultural deities.

Copán is a famous archeological site located in current day western Honduras, in the 5th to 9th century it is understood that they were a part of the Mayan civilization. This site is one of the most famous locations connecting religion to chocolate by way of physical artifacts and hieroglyphs. In Copán we see diagrams and hieroglyphs of cacao trees and other agricultural deities. An interesting discovery in Copán was that the cacao tree was used to help depict their ancestry. Furthermore, there were artifacts that correlated people whom were still alive putting multiple sacrificial ornaments in their past relatives’ tombs. The connection with their ancestors which played a massive role in their religion (McNeil). They would pay respect to the dead and they looked upon their ancestors as having almost god-like impact in the other world, they Mayans would look to their ancestors alongside deities to help them protect and maintain their cacao storages. As a means of protecting their ability to successfully complete their ritualistic practices both religious and social.

I have been very interested in exploring the roots of Mesoamerica because they are my ancestors. Their belief system being so closely tied in with chocolate of all things is fascinating.The implications of rituals has had dramatic effects throughout all ancient Mesoamerican history, it was fruitful finding where cacao finds it place in these repeated archetypes.

Works Cited

Berger, Peter L., 1929-2017. The Sacred Canopy; Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, N.Y. :Doubleday, 1967. Print.

Rosenswig, R. M. (2008), Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Culture History of Cacao ‐ Edited by Cameron L. McNeil. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27: 435-437.

Mahony, Mary Ann. “Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (review).” Enterprise & Society, vol. 11 no. 1, 2010, pp. 175-177. 

Prufer, Keith M. W. Hurst, Jeffery; Cacao in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave. Ethnohistory 1 April 2007; 54 (2): 273–301.



The Ritual Significance of Cacao in Pre-Colombian Mesoamerica

Chocolate and other cocao-based products were first produced by Mesoamerican natives from the beans of the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, pictured below. The genus of cacao’s scientific name, theobroma, means “food of the gods,” and the species name, cacao, is the Mesoamerican name for the tree and its beans (Coe and Coe 2007, 17-18). This scientific name is particularly appropriate for cacao, as the tree and its beans carried great significance in Mesoamerican religions. Cacao was indeed associated with the gods and important rituals in Maya and Aztec societies. In pre-Columbian Maya and Aztec civilizations, cacao was significant for religious customs and beliefs surrounding death, fertility, and economic exchange.

Cacao Tree - Theobroma cacao
Figure 1: Theobroma cacao tree and pods

Cacao and Death

In pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, cacao was ritually connected to and representative of death. The cacao tree grows in the shady understory of the lowland tropical forests of Central America (Coe and Coe 2007). Because of cacao’s love of shade, the tree was associated with night and the Underworld in Mesoamerican societies (Leissle 2018). In the Maya origin myth, the central deity, the Maize God, is beheaded in the Underworld. The Maize God’s head is then hung on none other than the cacao tree. Cacao beverages were often prepared by adding achiote, a red plant substance, that colored the drink red and linked cacao to blood (Leissle 2018). In Figure 2 below, the cacao tree is depicted as one of the four sacred trees of Aztec society, representing the South. The pods of the cacao tree in the image are painted red, harkening this connection to blood and resembling a human heart (Coe and Coe 2007, 103). The ghostly spectre of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Land of the Dead, is depicted standing beside the cacao tree on one side, reinforcing cacao’s connection to death and the Underworld (Coe and Coe 2007, 103). Cacao was also utilized as an offering in human sacrifices, especially by the Aztecs (though human sacrifice was likely not as widespread as Spanish accounts suggest) (Leissle 2018). In both Maya and Aztec societies, cacao was not only a food but an important symbol of the transition between this life and the next. Because of cacao’s religious significance, the consumption of cacao in these Mesoamerican societies was a symbolic act in itself.

Figure 2: pre-Columbian Aztec ritual calendar depicting the four quarters of the universe, four world-trees, and nine gods , taken from the Codex Fejervary-Mayer (Coe and Coe 2007, 102). The cacao tree of the South is depicted on the right.

Cacao and Fertility

In Mesoamerican religion, cacao was also associated with rebirth and fertility. In Mesoamerican ideology, death is the foundation for new life (Martin 2009). In the Maya origin myth introduced above, from the Maize God’s corpse, the next generation is conceived and fruit-bearing trees sprout, specifically the coveted cacao tree (Martin 2009). In this cycle of death and rebirth, cacao was not only an important symbol of death in Mesoamerican cultures but also a symbol of fertility and life. Mesoamerican people believed that humans were created by the gods from the food crops that sustained life, especially cacao and maize (Coe and Coe 2007). As a symbol of new life, cacao was often exchanged to endorse marriage alliances in both Maya and Aztec societies (Martin and Sampeck 2016; Coe and Coe 2007). Brides and bridegrooms in marriage ceremonies would often gift cacao beans or beverages to one another and engage in chokola’j, the act of drinking chocolate together, to seal the wedding pact (Coe and Coe 2007, 61). This exchange of cacao was a blessing of fertility for the couple.

Cacao and Wealth

Beyond the social exchanges of marriage and fertility, cacao was also important for economic exchanges and ritual displays of wealth. Cacao beans were used as valuable currency by Maya and Aztec people. Cacao became associated with trade and mercantilism as the merchant class in Mesoamerican societies transported precious cacao beans and seasonings from distant areas of production throughout the Maya and Aztec civilizations (Coe and Coe 2007). Figure 3 below depicts the Maya Merchant God (Ek Chuah or God L) with a cacao tree. The Merchant God in the image is located at the botom of a set of stairs; this location is quite purposeful because the Merchant God was also the principal deity of the Underworld. Thus God L has a two-fold connection to cacao as both an important trade item and a symbol of death (Martin 2009). Cacao was such a valuable currency and sacred food item that Mesoamericans were buried with cacao in their tombs to take with them into the afterlife (Coe and Coe 2007, 47; Leissle 2018). Cacao in daily life and in Mesoamerican religion was a symbol of power and wealth that could even aide one in death. In life, Mesoamerican elites would also display their wealth and power by hosting feasts at which guests drank chocolate beverages (Coe and Coe 2007). Cacao as a symbol of wealth in life and in death interweaves these ritual themes of death, rebirth, and economic exchange.

Figure 3: The Maya Merchant God with a cacao tree on a 9th century mural at Cacaxtla in central Mexico (Coe and Coe 2007, 55).

Concluding Thoughts

The spiritual meanings of cacao as it related to death, fertility, and economic exchange in Mesoamerican societies were interconnected in complex and significant ways. Cacao served in Maya and Aztec cultures as a symbol of the afterlife, yet the afterlife was also intimately connected with the idea of rebirth and fertility. Thus, cacao carried meanings of both death and new life. Additionally, cacao came to be associated with wealth, power, and trade. The significance of cacao in economic exchange transcended both life and death as the Maya and Aztec elites displayed their wealth in cacao through ritual feasts while living and in their burial chambers after death. Cacao for the Maya and Aztec was so much more than a food product or a beverage. Cacao was thoroughly integrated into Mesoamerican peoples’ belief systems and ways of life.

If the reader is interested in further exploring cacao’s ritual significance in Mesoamerica, check out this video production:


2013. “Xiuhtecuhtli 1.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved March 14, 2019 (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7e/Xiuhtecuhtli_1.jpg).

Bjorn, S. 2016. “Cacao Tree: Theobroma Cacao.” Flickr. Retrieved March 15, 2019 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/40948266@N04/26680744921).

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2007. The True History of Chocolate. 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

Leissle, Kristy. 2018. Cocoa. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, 37-60.

Martin, Simon. 2009. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and other Tales from the Underworld.” Pp. 154-183 in Chocolate in Mesoamerica. Edited by McNeil, Cameron L. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.

Sandra Origins. 2016. “Cacao Pathway to the Gods: Sacred Cacao Rituals.” You-Tube Web site. Retrieved March 14, 2019 (https://youtu.be/XDxZ_BH_xYQ).

Zaman, Tim. 2012. “Caxatla Mural Del Templo Rojo.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved March 14, 2019 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caxatla_Mural_Del_Templo_Rojo.jpg).

Chocolate Healing

Chocolate: the ultimate breakup food. Who hasn’t had chocolate prescribed post-heartbreak by some well-meaning friend? Modern popular media have especially promoted this trope as an essential part of the female experience, depicting devastated, gluttonous woman shoveling chocolate down their crying mouths. For example, take this iconic scene from the 2001 hit Legally Blonde when the protagonist, Elle Woods, uses chocolate to try and numb her post-breakup pain:



But from where does this trope stem from? Did someone just see a devastated, heartbroken woman and decide that the best course of action was to give her a plastic container full of sugar bombs to heal her pain? To start and investigate this question we can look before the iconic chocolate box, before even the concept of a chocolate box itself, and find that Aztec and Mayan beliefs about the spiritual and healing nature of cacao provides the foundation for modern beliefs on the properties of chocolate.


Foundations in Mayan and Aztec Beliefs

Examining ancient Maya artwork reveals that the Mayans deeply associated cacao with the gods, thus imbuing the plant with a spiritual value. The Dresden Codex—one of the four surviving Mayan manuscripts—contains many images depicting gods interacting with and even consuming cacao, like in this image, captioned “cacao is his food.”

Similarly, in the Madrid Codex, gods are even depicted showering their blood over cacao pods in a powerful demonstration of their close relationship with cacao (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). Furthermore, according to David Carrasco, this relationship between the gods and cacao emerges in Mayan religion, as well. According to Carrasco, the Mayans believed that trees, such as the cacao tree, served as “metastructures of the heavens,” through which the roots connected gods to the underworld, the trunk placed them in the world, and the branches extended up to the heavens (Carrasco, Religions of Mesoamerica). Therefore, the Mayan association of cacao to the gods demonstrates their belief of cacao being spiritual.

Ancient Aztec religion also placed cacao on a spiritual level. It is depicted on a ritual book called the Codex Féjérváry-Mayer where it is part of a cosmic diagram. It also took prominence in metaphors used by Aztec religious figures, in which they referred to chocolate as “heart, blood.” (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). Thus, the prominence of cacao in Aztec rituals highlights their association of cacao with spirituality.

Furthermore, the Aztec and Mayan belief in the spirituality of cacao extended past just the metaphysical plane, and into everyday life. They believed in the ability of cacao to nourish not only the bodies, but also the spirits of their people.

The Maya believed that cacao drinks contained “powerful physiological effects,” causing “virility, strength, and the fortitude to undertake physically demanding feats, such as marching to war” as depicted in this image of a warrior alongside a cacao tree laden with cacao pods (Leissle, Cocoa).

vector illustration sketch drawing aztec pattern cacao tree, mayan warrior with tomahawk, cacao beans and decorative borders yellow, red, green, brown, grey colors on white background

They also believed that the health boosting properties of cacao extended into fertility—thus, as evidenced in this image of a marriage ceremony, cacao played an important role in marriage rites, not only as currency in the bride’s dowry, but also to promote fertility.

Image result for maya marriage cacao pods

The Aztecs similarly believed in the beneficial effects of cacao on the body. Aztec society highly condemned drunkenness—a sin they deemed punishable by death. Therefore, instead of their alcoholic drink, octli, they revered cacao beverages as a healthier and more virtuous alternative (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). These beliefs that chocolate could nourish and revitalize the body demonstrates the translation of the spiritual nature of cacao into tangible benefits in the human body.

Therefore, by looking into Mayan and Aztec attitudes and associations with cacao, we can see that these ancient civilizations formed the foundation of belief around the healing and spiritual properties of cacao that still exist today.


Tracking the Colonization of Indigenous Beliefs

But how did these ancient ideas stand the test of time to exist in today’s society? Examining interactions between colonizers and the Mayans illuminates the way these ancient beliefs migrated through time and space.

When colonizers came from Europe to mesoamerica in the early sixteenth century they encountered not only the Mayan people, but also their foods and beliefs. Among these foods were cacao, which was highly prevalent in Mayan society at the time as both a currency and a revered form of food. Through interactions with the Mayans, the Spanish colonizers adopted beliefs around the spiritually and physically healing properties of cacao. As cacao distribution spread as part of triangular trade, which brought goods and slaves between continents across the Atlantic, as shown on the diagram below, this belief spread through European society. In the early seventeenth century an ailing Alphonse de Richelieu brought chocolate to France for the first time in the hopes that it would help his problems with his spleen.


Image result for triangular trade diagram

We can continue to track the belief of the healing and spiritual nature of chocolate a few centuries later by looking at the U.S army’s use of chocolate rations in the second world war. The U.S. developed a sustenance they called the “D-ration bar” to maintain the energy and health of their troops. The D-ration bar contained “a blend of chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, skim milk powder and oat flour” and was used, alongside other candy, to keep up the morale and overall nutrition of the troops (Butler, D-Day Rations). Thus, this application of chocolate to keep allied warriors going demonstrates the foundation of Aztec and Mayan beliefs around chocolate to influence the use of chocolate in modern civilization to boost nutrition and aid warriors.


Remembering Roots: Historical Significance

It’s easy to look at chocolate and only see the candy. However, cacao has a long history of colonization, abuse, and enslavement—much of which still exists today. It’s important to remember the history of cacao to remember that our culture does not exist in its own vacuum, but has been influenced by those who lived before us. Part of this reflection is recognizing that so much of what we have has been colonized from other countries and cultures and assimilated until they wear only the label of “today.” While some may just see a heartbroken girl eating chocolate to heal herself, remembering the Mesoamerican foundation of beliefs on which our associations stand can allow us to see more than just a trope. We can see the connection between us and cultures from different parts of the world and different eras in history, helping us remember that our experiences are inextricably linked to those around us.

Works Cited

Butler, Stephanie. “D-Day Rations: How Chocolate Helped Win the War.” History.com,  A&E Television Networks, 6 June 2014, www.history.com/news/d-day-rations-how-chocolate-helped-win-the-war.

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

Coe, Sophie D.. The True History of Chocolate . Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa (Resources) (p. 31). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Martin, Carla. “20190206 Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, February 30, 2019, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA. 

“Maya Civilization.” Civilization.ca – Haida – Haida Art – Masks, Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/maya/mmc01eng.html.

Multimedia Sources

“Aztec Possum God and Cacao Beans.” The Possomery, members.peak.org/~jeremy/possomery/.

Martin, Carla. “20190206 Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, February 30, 2019, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA. 

Ramirez, Jason, director. Legally Blond “LIAR”. YouTube, YouTube, 3 Oct. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGauMKoX3JE.

Sergov, Gerasiminov. “Sketch Drawing Aztec Pattern Cacao Tree, Mayan Warrior with Tomahawk, Cacao Beans and Decorative Borders Yellow, Red, Green, Brown, Grey Colors on White Background .” Shutterstock, vector illustration sketch drawing aztec pattern cacao tree, mayan warrior with tomahawk, cacao beans and decorative borders yellow, red, green, brown, grey colors on white background .

Triangular Trade. http://www.mrbrownsclass.net/mercantilism–columbian-exchange–and-triangular-trade.html.

The Legendary Cacao: Ancient Mayan Religion and the “Food of the Gods”

The global importance of cacao today is rooted in a widespread love of chocolate. The chocolate industry is one that is lucrative yet exploitive, enticing but oppressive—yet all based on the versatile fruit cacao. Cacao, named the “food of the gods” (theobroma cacao) by Carl Linnaeus, gleans its importance today from its role in the chocolate industry, but in the ancient Maya civilization cacao’s significance was as much religious as it was dietary (Luna 87). This post will explore artifacts from the classical period of the Mayan civilization (500-800 CE) and evidence of cacao’s influential spiritual significance. The ancient artifacts explored showcase cacao’s intimate relationship with the human origin story of the ancient Maya. These spiritual beliefs laid the foundation for the important role cacao would play in Mayan civilization from a social, religious, and alimentary perspective.

Cacao and the Origin of Life

As  Maya hieroglyphic specialist Gabrielle Vail explains, the role of cacao was grounded in an ancient history that traced back to the creation of humanity.  According to the Popol Vuh, and ancient Mayan epic, cacao is one of the “precious substances”, along with corn, that poured from the “Sustenance Mountain” to ultimately create humanity (Vail 4). Before cacao catalyzed the creation of human beings, it belonged to the realm of the Underworld lords, where it “grew from the body of the sacrificed god of maize, who was defeated by the lords of the Underworld in an earlier era” (Vail 4). Later the god of maize would be resurrected by his sons the Hero Twins, who overcame the gods of the Underworld, ushering in the advent of human life (Vail 4).

 The Maize God in the Sustenance Mountain

The work of historian Simon Martin provides great insight on the role of cacao in Classical Mayan religion. The image below displays a black ware vase and Martin’s sketch of the artifact. Known as the Berlin vase, it depicts what Martin calls the “transubstantiation of man, maize, and cacao” (156). Produced in the Early Classic period, the artifact illustrates the mythological tale of cacao’s divine role. The vase depicts the death and transformation of the maize god, and the new lord who would follow in his footsteps (Martin 157). The lord who continues in the maize god’s steps is represented by the middle tree, which sprouts two cacao pods. The corpse of the maize god, reduced to a skeleton, can be seen at the base of the image.

Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 158.

The Maize God as a Cacao Tree

                  The image below is from a small stone bowl from the Early Classic era of Mayan civilization (250-600 CE). Martin analyzes the relationship between the artistic imagery and hieroglyphic text in this piece. Per Martin, the ripe cacao pods that adorn the man’s limbs and the “wavy wood motifs” which decorate his skin, indicate that this artifact depicts an anthropomorphic cacao tree (155). Although this deity has been dubbed a ‘Cacao God’ Martin argues that references to cacao in the image instead depict the Maize God as “the embodiment of a cacao tree” (155-156). Martin substantiates this conclusion through the translation of the hieroglyphs, which roughly translate to “Maize Tree God” (156). This combination of cacao imagery and maize deity inscription led Martin, like Vail, to the sixteenth-century K’iche’ Maya epic, the Popul Vuh,  a mythological tale in which both the artifact’s text and depiction make sense.


Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 155.


The Maize God as a World Tree

This image below is Simon Martin’s sketch of the lid of a Late Classic period ceramic censer which depicts an arched maize god with a cacao pod in his headdress (Martin 167). The artifact depicts the maize god in an inverted posture bearing a cacao pod. The depiction of the god is reminiscent of the idea of World Trees, which were often depicted with inverted postures (see the inverted crocodilian tree below). The artifact continues in line with the Popul Vuh, with the maize god now appearing as a World Tree. World Trees are a vital concept with ancient Mayan lore. According to the colonial era Chilam Bam documents of Yucutan, world trees helped define the limits of the cosmos and the cardinal directions (Martin 165). The depiction of the maize god as a World Tree followed his death and consequent rebirth as such a tree.

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 9.29.50 PM
Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 167.

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 5.56.19 PM
Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of
Florida, 2009, p. 159.

The artifacts explored demonstrate the high value attributed to cacao within the religion of the ancient Mayan civilization. Cacao was revered on a cosmic and existential level, central to the organization of the universe and the creation of humanity. Anahi Luna suggests another spiritual connection the Maya had to cacao, by highlighting their affinity for plants with anthropomorphic structures. This idea can explain the sacred nature of both cacao and corn within the culture, both of which possess an orderly arrangement of seeds (Luna 85). The prevalence of cacao within Mayan spirituality would continue, allowing cacao to play an important role cacao in rituals, offerings, wedding ceremonies, and eventually be used as currency (Vail 5-6).


Works Cited

           Grivetti, Louis Evan, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and
Heritage. Wiley, 2009.
            Luna, Anahi. “Chocolate III: Ritual, Art, and Memory.” Artes De Mexico, no. 110,
June 2013, pp. 72–96. JSTOR [JSTOR], http://www.jstor.org/stable/24318995.
           Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a
Cultural History of Cacao, by Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase, University Press of
Florida, 2009, pp. 154–183.


Cacao and its Ancient Literary Significance

Cacao seeds, the source of chocolate, don’t often figure as a divine substance in the modern word. However, cacao holds ancient significance as food of the Gods for the Mayan. The world of the Ancient Maya was in many ways built on chocolate. Today, many understand that chocolate was a drink for kings and nobles. There are dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars that depict chocolate as part of a ritual or feast (Presilla 12). Indeed, the Maya incorporated chocolate into their lives daily. Furthermore, they were among the first people to uncover the intricate process of creating and refining cacao seeds into chocolate drink. However, cacao operated as much more than just a food source; the Mayans used it as currency and wrote it into their creation myth. The Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex offer a window into the ancient significance of cacao, connecting it to cultural identity. The act of processing  cacao beans, roasting and grinding them, is not only a cooking process but also deeply connected to a symbol of re-birth and power, due to its framing within a creation epic. Cacao is thus a spiritual food deeply connected to the identity of the Maya.


Image: ancientamerica.org

Cacao’s origins begin with the Mayan civilization and the creation of chocolate beverages. According to Maricel E. Presilla, the Maya “consumed the pulp itself and juice made from the cacao fruit pulp (Presilla 12). Additionally, inscriptions from drinking vessels outline a clear culture of drinking cacao, as the Mayans used terminology such as ‘tree-fresh cacao’ and ‘green cacao’ in order to describe certain tastes or preferences (Presilla 12). Historians have uncovered many vases and vessels, such as a painted pottery jar from a tomb at Río Azul, Guatemala. The vessel depicts a chocolate drinking being made and further shows the process of pouring the substance from one vessel into another “to raise the foam” (Coe 48). Thus, artifacts reveal the intricate care and use of chocolate; the Mayans were so particular about their chocolate routine that even specific moments in the process feature in art.

Image: mexicolore.co.uk

In addition to the clear culture of cacao consummation, cacao plays an instrumental within the Maya creation story. The story centers on the journey of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque in a world that precedes the present. Their father, Hun Hunahpu was killed in Xibalba (the underworld) after he and his brother lost to the Lords of the Death in a ball game (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Hun Hunahpu’s head is placed in a barren tree which magically begins to bear new fruit. According to Michael Grofe, this tree is depicted as a cacao tree, the beans of which make the chocolate drink that the Mayans enjoyed. Ultimately, the Hero Twins fall into a trap from the Lords of the Death who trick them into jumping into fire; they are burned and the Lords dump their bodies into the river. However, the Twins come back within five days as fish. They defeat death and bring about creation (Grofe). Thus, within the story is also the story of cacao. Like the twins returning to Xibalba, chocolate comes from beans which is roasted, refined, and poured into water, only to create something completely new.

Image: mexicolore.co.uk

The Maya word “kakaw” is spelled with two fish glyphs, further emphasizing the connection between the cacao process and the magical story of the Hero Twins (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). According to the scholar Michael J. Grofe, in the “the famous Rio Azul cacao pot, we find both the two ‘ka’ glyphs together with the reduplication symbol, as well as the final syllable ‘wa’, spelling ‘kakaw’. It therefore seems likely that the story of the Hero Twins transforming into ‘two fish’ derives from a pun on the word ‘kakaw’” (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Grofe explains the sacrifice of the Twins as parallel to “cacao processing: entrance into the underworld (burial, fermentation), burning (roasting), grinding of their bones on a metate, and pouring them into water” (Grofe “Recipe” 1). Ultimately, Cacao, through symbolic and mythological writing thus serves as a powerful representation of re-birth, underscoring the cultural significance of cacao to the Maya who used it regularly.

The Dresden Codex further illuminates the significance of cacao in literary Mayan culture. The Codex is a “folding-screen book” and in several sections “gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe 41). In addition, the Dresden Codex specifically connects gods to cacao; according to Sophie and Michael Coe, “the Opossum God travels a sacred road to the edge of the town carrying the Rain God on his back, while the associated text tells us that ‘cacao is his food [kakaw u hanahl]’” (Coe 42). The Mayan Gods, as depicted in the Dresden Codex, have a clear reverential relationship to cacao. Ultimately, cacao seeds are not merely food, but a divine life source, and connected to the what it means to be Mayan.

Image Sources:

  1. Vessel and Popol Vuh page: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya
  2. Map: http://www.ancientamerica.org/?p=40

Works cited:

  1. Coe, Michael D. True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
  2. Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, 15 Apr. 2009, http://www.famsi.org/research/grofe/GrofeRecipeForRebirth.pdf.
  3. Grofe, Michael J. “Xibalba: About.” Xibalba Cacao, Michael Grofe, http://www.xibalbacacao.com/index.htm.
  4.  Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: a Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

The Chocolate Lens of Religion

Depicted in various Mayan artifacts, cacao along with its various forms were interwoven into Mayan society. From rituals to everyday life, cacao seemed to have an immortal presence in Mayan society, so much so that it found its way into Mayan religious paintings that depicted cacao beans or cacao trees intertwined with the Gods. In the picture below, the Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, is seen shaping himself as a cacao tree, and pointing at what seems to be a vessel holding liquid cacao: “His limbs are studded with ripe cacao pods, and his skin is marked with wavy ‘wood’ motifs. Clearly, an anthropomorphic cacao tree is at hand” (Simon Martin 155).

The Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, depicted as a cacao tree on an ancient Mayan bowl.

Along with the Maize God, cacao seems to also play a central role in other Godly tales, but why? Why did cacao play such an important part in Mayan theology? The answers lie in the very same picture above. This artifact highlights how the Mayans used the story of the Gods to explain the world around them, and ultimately, how, and why, the Mayans decided to incorporate cacao into their theology.

First, let’s establish the magnitude of how holy the cacao tree is according to the Popol Vuh, “a colonial document from records of Franciscan friar, believed to be the oldest Maya myth documented in its entirety” (Carla Martin 35). According to the Popol Vuh, a central Mayan God, the Maize God, was sacrificed during harvest time in Xibalba, the Underworld, by the Death Gods. He was later buried and somehow was reincarnated as a cacao tree, albeit quite an anthropomorphic one. The picture below depicts how the Maize God supposedly looked after he was slain and reborn as a cacao tree.

A cacao tree with the Maize God’s head as a fruit. There are several instances in Mayan Bowls and Vases that depicts various gods and people as anthropomorphic cacao trees.

The Maize God, as a tree, impregnated an Underworld goddess, who subsequently gave birth to the Hero twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu. Eventually, the Hero Twins “go on to defeat Xibalba and its ghastly denizens” (Coe and Coe 39). They then “resurrect their slain father, the Maize God…[and] rise to the sky in glory as the sun and the moon” (Coe and Coe 39).

Within this story alone, it’s undeniable that the cacao tree represents the Gods. It has a God-like quality, and is intrinsically connected to the Mayan idea of holiness. The cacao is not only deeply connected to the integrity of the Maize God, but to many others as described in the Dresden Codex, “Pre-Columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics” (Carla Martin 34). In the Dresden, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe and Coe 42). Cacao is also frequently seen “being consumed by Gods in ritual activities” (Carla Martin 34). Depicted in a section of the Dresden regarding new year celebrations, the Opossum God is seen carrying the Rain God on his back, with caption being “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]” (Carla Martin 34).

The Opossum god carrying the Rain God on his back, with cacao apparently sustaining the entire journey. There are several instances, including this one, that describe cacao as foods of the Gods.

Whether through the cacao tree or beans, cacao has an incredibly important role in the Mayan religion, as shown by its extensive portrayal in the Popol Vuh and the Dresden. In addition to Gods being portrayed with cacao in some way, the cacao tree is explicitly referred to as the World Tree, which “connects the vertical realms of Sky, Earth, and the Underworld” (Carla Martin 44). This is consistent with how the Maize God was murdered in Xibalba (the Underworld), how he impregnated a woman who escaped into the world’s surface (the Earth), and how the Hero Twins avenged the Maize God’s death and became the sun and the moon (the Sky). The cacao tree is present in nearly all forms of activities of the Gods and of the cycle of nature, of life and death. From the epic of the Maize God to the tales of other Gods, it is obvious that cacao is deeply connected to the Gods.

With all this reverence given to the cacao tree, it’s only natural to ask why did the Mayans choose to akin cacao to the Gods?

Firstly, the Mayans used their religion as a tool to explain the world around them. Having “had an abiding and intimate relationship with the natural world,” (Simon Martin 154) the Mayans wanted to explain why and how the world around them grows the way it does, so it’s only natural for them to create these mythical stories to do just that.

Secondly, because cacao was so integral to the lives of the Mayan and so deeply connected to their way of life, it only makes sense that they so closely kinned the very nature of the cacao to the Gods. Looking closely at the Maize God’s epic death and rebirth, it is clear that the entire story was created to simply explain how their sacred cacao was created, and how it ultimately grows.

The act of the Maize God’s dead body giving rise to trees and edible fruits and seeds (enough to impregnate an Underworld goddess) symbolizes germination in nature: “Cacao, the most coveted product of the mortal orchard, was emblematic of all prized and sustaining vegetal growth—with the exception of maize—and the myth served to explain how it and other foodstuffs came into being” (Simon Martin 178). In other words, “the story, then, basically deals in symbolic form with the burial (that is, the planting of the seed), growth, and fruition of maize [and cacao], the Maya-and Mesoamerican-staff of life” (Coe and Coe 39). Essentially, the Mayans used the Gods to explain how and why the nature around the grows (especially their precious cacao), which was used to ultimately explain the phenomenon of life and death.

While the Mayans certainly had other reasons in creating their religious tales, there is no doubt that a number of myths, including the Popol Vuh, incorporated cacao to help the Mayans understand the world around them. After all, chocolate was, and is considered divine, so why wouldn’t the Mayans place their cacao in the hands of the Gods in their tales?


Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie, and Coe, Michael. “The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2018. Class Lecture. (Images also used from this Lecture as well)

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.

The Maya link between Cacao and Religion

People and societies are always looking for ways in which to find meaning in their world. Whether it is through creating rituals, forming habits, or connecting with others, humans are constantly looking for ways to find meaning, connection, and a greater purpose. Because of this need to to create values, societies often elevate everyday, mundane aspects of life to something significant and powerful. In Charles Long’s analysis of religion, he explains how religion is about “orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world” (Long 7). In order to create a religion and to find meaning in life, societies must orient themselves using the objects and experiences around them. Each society assigns values to different and unique aspects of their daily lives, and for the ancient Maya civilization cacao became an elevated and important aspect substance. Mayas used cacao as a way to understand their place in the world, which elevated cacao to more than just food for sustenance; it became a lens in which they could see the world through.

As David Carrasco describes, the tree is “rooted in the underworld, has its trunk in the middleworld, and its high branches or top ascending into heaven or the upperworld: (Carrasco 124). The cacao tree acted as useful visual and tool for the Maya as they sought out ways to understand their place in the world.

First and foremost, The Maya used cacao trees as a framework to conceptualize how their place in the world related to the afterlife and underworld. The different parts of the tree correspond to the the different aspects of life and afterlife, with the roots representing the underworld, the trunk representing the present, everyday life, and the leaves connecting to heaven (Carrasco 124). By thinking about these abstract ideas in terms of a understandable visual, it not only elevates the significance of the tree but also makes lofty and complicated ideas more accessible. Further, cacao was used as a powerful safeguard when people transitioned into the underworld. At a tomb in Río Azul (a Maya city in present day Guatamala), ancient jars with traces of chocolate were discovered, suggesting that “the dead lord began his voyage through the underworld with sustaining portions of what were probably several different chocolate drinks by his side” (Coe & Coe 46). Cacao trees not only had connections to the underworld through its roots, but it was also a resource for individuals as they transitioned into life after death.  By taking cacao and using it as a means of orienting themselves and their understanding of afterlife, it both elevated cacao’s significance and helped the Maya understand their life cycle. Not only did cacao provide a way to understand life and afterlife, it helped Maya transition into the afterlife comfortably.

The Popul Vuh references cacao in a variety of ways, and the story of Hunahpu is just one unique tale demonstrating cacao’s significance.

Additionally, the Maya used cacao as a way to conceptualize passing along traits and characteristics from one generation to the next. The Popol Vuh, one of the oldest documented Maya myths, has many references to cacao and helps to demonstrate how valuable cacao was for the Maya and the way in which they viewed the world. The story in the Popol Vuh of the Maize God, Hunahpu, is a myth that describes the sacrifice of Hunahpu (Martin 163). After Hunahpu was killed, his head was placed in a tree that had never grown fruit, yet once his head became a part of the tree it was able to produce fruit in abundance. Because of this, Hunahpu’s offspring, the Hero Twins, were able to carry his legacy with them. As Simon Martin describes, this tale “sets out the divine origins of cacao, as well as its role as a means of exchange. […] Here the fruit serves the purpose it has in nature: a means of generational descent” (Martin 164). Once again, the Maya were able to take a somewhat abstract religious concept and use cacao as a way to understand it.

The Hero Twins are the offspring of Hunahpu whose characteristics were carried on through the fruits of the tree in which his head was placed (Martin 163).

Finally, the Maya used cacao as a way to provide meaning and significance in various rituals, like baptisms. By bringing cacao into different types of rituals, it extends cacao’s previously established significance in order to assign greater meaning to to new rituals. For example, as Coe & Coe describe, “the pagan Maya had a baptismal rite for boys and girls… The children were gathered together… [and ] then the noble who was giving the ceremony took a bone and wet it in a vessel filled with water made of ‘certain flowers and of cacao pounded and dissolved in virgin water […]’; with this liquid he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between their fingers and toes, in complete silence” (Coe & Coe 60). Many religions have baptism rituals, and they each reflect important values within each group of people. For these Maya, cacao is clearly a highly valued and treasured substance that adds greater meaning and connection to this important ceremony.

By using cacao as a way to understand and find meaning in the world from understanding the afterlife to baptisms, cacao’s relevance and power were strengthened and it became an important framework for the Maya to understand the world through. Cacao did not have any meaning until the Maya decided to use it as lens for them to see the world through, which goes to show how powerful societies can be in taking something mundane and using it as a tool to create religion and meaning. The narratives around cacao are so strong that we still today associate the Maya with cacao and recognize its significance. For example, Godiva, a popular premium and mainstream chocolate company, references the Maya’s relationship with with cacao, noting its prominence on many Maya artifacts and its place in Maya ceremonies on their website (Godiva website). The Maya were able to take something seemingly mundane, a fruit bearing tree, and use it as a tool to help them understand and interact with the world. This not only helped the Maya create religious significance in their lives, but it completely changed the way we view cacao today and has shaped our understanding of cacao as special and important.

Works Cited

“Cacao Tree and Seedling.” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 30 August 2012.


Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica, Second Edition. Long Grove:

Waveland Press, Inc, 2013. Print.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition.

Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

“Hero Twins,” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 25 September 2014.


Long, Charles H. Significations: Signs, Symbols, And Images In The Interpretation

Of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. Print.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in ancient Maya religion: first fruit from the maize free and other

tales from the underworld.” Chocolate In Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of

Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil: Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

154-183. Print.

“Popol Vuh.” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 17 April 2012.


“The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs.” Godiva Chocolate, Godiva.

Web. 8 March 2018. <https://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-



Chocoholic Catholics: A Match Made in Heaven or a Sinful Union?

As European explorers trekked on journeys beyond the confines of their continent and encountered diverse climates, people, and cultures, they were exposed to a variety of goods and foods for the first time. Integrating aspects of the so-called “New World” cultures and practices into European norms proved challenging for both explorers and the European institutions that were exposed to the new goods upon the explorers’ returns. One institution, the Catholic Church, attempted to incorporate rules about chocolate, one of the most popular food additions from the new colonies, into its canon. However, tensions arose during the church’s attempts to control its followers’ relationships to the food. The consumption of chocolate by devout Catholics remains as controversial, and at times contradictory, today as it was to Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when they first encountered the treat.

White Catholics living in both Europe and Mesoamerica in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries readily embraced the native Mesoamerican’s love of chocolate consumption, and chocolate came to be a significant part of their lives in a relatively short period of time. In South America, Jesuit missionaries and laypeople eagerly adopted the native population’s chocolate drink. Upper-class women of European descent living in South America in the seventeenth century “claimed to suffer from such weak stomachs that they were unable to get through a prayer mass… without taking a jícara of very hot chocolate… to fortify themselves” (Coe 181). Despite not having been familiar with the drink a century earlier, these white settlers in Mesoamerica became so attached to chocolate that they were accused of murdering a bishop who tried to ban chocolate during mass (Dreiss 150). Chocolate became an integral part of white Catholic life in Mesoamerica and experienced a similar rise in popularity in European Catholic circles. Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz writes that for many clergy members in Europe, “Chocolate became an instrument of adulation, an offering for the greater glory of God.”

Despite the widespread rise in popularity of chocolate among members of the Catholic Church during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some Catholic leaders and philosophers of the time were adamantly against the consumption of chocolate, especially during Lenten and fasting periods (Forrest). In 1591 a Catholic philosopher posited that consuming chocolate is equivalent to breaking a fast, reasoning that it quenched thirst, provided nourishment, and served as an aphrodisiac (Coe 149 – 150). That criticism of chocolate did not directly attribute negative qualities to chocolate; instead, it stigmatized chocolate consumption during various hours of the day, going so far as to deem those who consumed it at certain times “sinners.” The oft-posed question of whether or not chocolate could be consumed during a fast underscored the importance that some Catholics placed on classifying chocolate as either good or bad. Chocolate emerged as a polarizing item, and debate around the righteousness of its consumption placed it in a class separate from all other foods and drinks.

In addition to deeming it ineligible for consumption during fasts, many Catholics feared a literal death by chocolate. The thick liquid was notorious for its ability to conceal the taste of poison, and for centuries claims circulated that Pope Clement XIV, who is shown in the picture below, was poisoned by a bowl of chocolate (Coe 211). Though the claims were unfounded, the story of Pope Clement XIV’s chocolate-caused death was widely spread. Tales of chocolate poison inspired fear in the masses of drinking their beloved beverage, and the dark side of chocolate created a large source of tension when considered with its widespread popularity.

Stories abounded that Pope Clement XIV (pictured) died by drinking poisoned chocolate

Today, chocolate enjoys near-ubiquitous consumption in Catholic countries and is
considered by many to be a necessary part of Catholic holiday celebrations. Chocolate lindt_bunniescompanies like Lindt and Hershey’s create special marketing campaigns around
Catholic holidays to sell chocolate, like these pictures below of advertisements featuring rabbit-shaped chocolates at Easter (left image) and red, white, and green Hershey’s 10627887824_a124435fd6_bkisses shaped into a wreath around Christmas (right image). While some may argue that for-profit companies will use any
holiday as an excuse to sell their product, individual consumers also consistently include chocolate in their homemade desserts during the holiday season. Pictured below is a Buche Nöel, a cake traditionally made with many types of chocolate that is one of the most popular desserts in France during the Christmas season (“13 Desserts”). Commercial enterprises’ focus on using Catholic holidays to sell chocolate and Catholic consumers seeking out chocolate treats to celebrate Catholic holidays show the enthusiasm with which chocolate has not only been embraced by Catholics broadly, and how it has specifically been embraced to further celebrate their religious beliefs.

Buche Nöel

Notwithstanding chocolate’s modern-day popularity, many members of the Catholic Church consider chocolate consumption a luxurious vice that should be avoided. This is made incredibly apparent when examining modern-day Catholics perception of chocolate during Lent, the forty-day period in observed by Catholics between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday during which Catholics give up something important to them in order to repent and diminish sinful tendencies. According to an analysis of Lent-related tweets, chocolate ranked as the number one most commonly forgone item (Mortimer). Pop culture references to the difficulty of going without chocolate during Lent abound, including, for example, an article on the website Buzzfeed entitled “The 21 Stages of Giving Up Chocolate for Lent.” But just what does giving up something for Lent say about that object? An article on Catholic Online explains that Lent “always involves giving up sin in some form. The goal is not just to abstain from sin for the duration of Lent but to root sin out of our lives forever” (“FAQs about Lent”). Applying this definition of Lent to the popularity of giving up chocolate, one can confidently infer that consuming chocolate is considered sinful by the non-negligible number of Catholics who choose to abstain from chocolate during Lent. Through considering Lent and holiday practices, the contradiction between celebrating and vilifying chocolate becomes striking. Many of the same people who use chocolate to observe joyful occasions arguably consider that very same chocolate to be one of their worst vices.

Despite the fact that modern-day Catholic laypeople consume a large amount of chocolate and that the Catholic Church has not issued formal criticism of chocolate in centuries, the tension and conflicting opinions that were present in the early days of Catholic chocolate consumption remains. While time-specific contradictions have changed, Catholics’ consistent attempts to classify chocolate as predominantly good or bad have remained both constant and ultimately unsuccessful. Chocolate remains a sinful, beloved luxury.

Works Cited

“13 Desserts: A French Christmas Tradition.” Analida’s Ethnic Spoon. N.p., 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson: U of Arizona, 2008. Print.

Forrest, Beth Marie, and April L. Najjaj. “Is Sipping Sin Breaking Fast? The Catholic Chocolate Controversy and the Changing World of Early Modern Spain.” Food and Foodways 15.1-2 (2007): 31-52. Web.

Mortimer, Caroline. “Lent 2016: 10 Things Most People Will (try) to Give up.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

“FAQs About Lent – Easter / Lent.” Catholic Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

Prinz, Rabbi Deborah R. “Fathering Chocolate.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 June 2013. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

Image Links