Mesoamerican culture is perhaps most well known for its religious rituals. Celebrating baptisms, comings of age, marriages, and deaths, the Maya recognized cyclical patterns, and valued the circle of life. Many of their religious beliefs revolved around nature—the Maya worshipped gods of maize, rain, moon, and other earthly entities which granted them life and prosperity (Martin, 2020). Though rituals for various occasions differed in structure and setting, each almost always incorporated cacao into their festivities. Served as a decadent drink or traded as currency, cacao held a prominent and sacred place in Maya culture. In this essay, I examine various ancient rituals and show the ways that the Maya used cacao to celebrate and understand three core aspects of their religion: life, death, and rebirth. Weaving cacao into their religious ceremonies, the Mayans strove to connect the ethereal and the earthly.
One of the most prominent entities in Maya rituals was the Theobroma cacao, or the cacao tree, which was viewed as the connection between earth and the afterlife (Martin, 2020). Requiring high humidity, luscious soil, and thick shade, the cacao tree was cultivated riverside, and its abundant, colorful pods, shown in the picture below, served as a paradigm of natural prosperity (Garthwaite, 2015). The Mayans believed that the plumed serpent Kukulkan gifted the cacao tree to the earth, and celebrated this event by worshipping their god of cacao, Ek Chuah, annually (Hunt, 2013). This idea of a sacred “World Tree” was a recurring motif in Maya culture—they believed that the roots, trunk and branches of a tree created a link between the underworld, the earth, and the sky (Miller & Taube, 1993). Additionally, gods were often depicted as emerging from trees upon birth; Mayan monarchs, such as Lady Zac-Kuk, also embodied trees, which symbolized royal bloodlines (Martin, 2020). Through these images and myths, we can see the incorporation of cacao into ancient rituals as a way to connect with the surrounding natural life. Primarily worshipping nature, the Maya deeply appreciated the gifts of the earth, and used cacao to show this reverence.
Cacao was also a prominent feature in burial rites among the Maya; its purpose as an aid in the afterlife indicates the way that the Mayans used cacao to come to terms with and conceptualize death. During life on earth, cacao was often taken as a stimulus—whether used for war or pleasure, cacao provided energy to those who consumed it (Martin, 2020). The Maya incorporated this concept into their burial rituals. Popular and extravagant ceremonies most commonly practiced for the wealthy elite, burial rituals aimed to prepare souls for the afterlife and equip them with tools they might need to get there (Coe & Coe, 1996). Along with special garments, jewelry, and pottery, the dead often received a cacao beverage, held in a vase like the one shown below. The vase, often decorated with beautiful colors and designs, was meant to provide energy in the afterlife to the soul (Martin, 2020). Life after death is a complex idea, and the Maya deeply believed in the existence of an afterlife. We can view the employment of earthly uses of cacao (such as its stimulating properties) to aid the dead in their quest for eternal life as a Maya attempt to understand the meaning of death.
The idea of rebirth was also central to Mayan ritual, and was rooted in their reliance on the earth for sustenance. The fertility of the earth was essential for survival, as the Mayans were an agriculture-based society. Many myths and legends centered on deities, such as moon goddess IxChel or rain goddess Chac, working together to maintain Earth’s prosperity, and cacao was often involved (Martin, 2020). For example, the image shown below depicts Ixchel and Chac trading cacao beans to ensure the fruitfulness of the earth. This idea of fertility in nature was also mirrored in Mayan females. Coming of age rituals, particularly for women, celebrated the beginning of a woman’s the fertile years, and involved the presentation of two cacao beans and a sacrificed chicken to the deities (Faust, 1998). Additionally, cacao beverages were often served at ceremonies associated with fertility; ancient marriage rituals centered around the drinking of a chocolate beverage and exchange of cacao beans. According to historians, cacao-inspired beverages made up part of the dowry, and the preparation of the ceremonial cacao drink by the bride “sealed the marriage” (Garthwaite, 2015). Overall, the Mayans’ use of cacao as a way to celebrate fertility indicates their reverence for the earth and natural reproductive processes.
Mesoamerican expression of culture and worship was largely based in their rituals; worshipping nature, its gifts, and the circle of life, the Mayans celebrated life, death, and reproduction. As we examine a select few of these ceremonies, we can see that cacao was heavily involved in the festivities; offering it up to the gods and worshipping it as a symbol of prosperity, the Mayans held cacao as a sacred entity in their society.
Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (1996). A True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson.
While chocolate may just seem like a dessert food to most people today, its main ingredient, cacao, and the tree from which the fruit stems played essential roles in the lives of the people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It was associated with fertility rites, marriage rituals, and even rites of death for the Maya people. As illustrated through their mythology, the cacao tree connected generations. Cacao brought people together by being a part of their religion illustrated through vases and by bringing together communities during feasts and celebrations. It established the Mayan hierarchy, and during the feasts of the elite, the people in the local community were able to exchange goods with others outside of the community. The cacao tree and the fruit it bears played a significant role in the religious and community life of the Maya people in the Pre-Columbian era.
The religious significance of the cacao tree for the Mayan people is illustrated through their creation myth. In this myth, the twin sons of the couple who created the universe are beheaded in the Maya underworld, Xibalba, by the lords of the underworld. One of the severed heads, which is now known as the Maize God, is hung up in a cacao tree, like the figure depicted by the lidded vessel below. As the daughter of an Xibalban ruler holds her hand up to the tree one day, the severed head is able to impregnate her. This woman then gives birth to the Hero Twins named Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These twins go on to accomplish a number of exploits and eventually defeat the underworld. They then resurrect their father, the Maize God, as their final task. With their final task completed, they become the sun and the moon (Coe). The cacao tree in this story allows the Maize God to “pass on his procreative seed and to eventually triumph through the heroic deeds of his offspring” (Martin 178). The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit were also passed between communities and generations.
The tree and its fruit connected each generation of the Maya people and permeated Mayan religion in rites like baptism and funerals. During the baptismal ritual, the noble giving the ceremony would dip a bone in a vessel filled with water, flowers, and cacao. With this mixture, “he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between the fingers and toes, in complete silence” (Coe). Like the tree that the Maize God manifested himself in allowed him to have children and reconnect with the world, the Maya people would bury people with vases that were used to drink cacao with inscriptions of cacao on them. As the dead traveled to the underworld, the cacao would continue to provide for the Maya as it did when they were alive and would ensure their safe travel (Martin). In addition to rituals, the cacao tree and its fruit played an essential role in the celebrations and community interactions of the Maya people.
During religious ceremonies and celebrations, the Maya would drink from vases that had inscriptions of cacao and the cacao tree. These inscriptions and drawings “made even a sip of chocolate a sacramental act” (Martin 179). The cacao was celebrated by all in the community, but the inscriptions reinforced the Maya rulership as many portrayed Mayan rulers among the deities. The cacao vases demonstrated the order within the community by establishing the power of the elite as they were compared to supernatural deities as shown in the image of a Maya vessel below. They would be exchanged among elites during feasts that “created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation” (Reents-Budet 209). These feasts then extended to the local community where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds were able to exchange goods which extended their relations beyond the local community. The vases were still present in the lower tier society, although they were not as elaborate as the elite vessels. While the people would offer cacao to the gods for gifts like fertility and rain, it also reinforced “their sense of community by way of a fabric of overlapping rights and obligations developed between sponsors and participants” (Reents-Budet 209). Cacao and the practice of drinking from and giving vases were a central part of the lives of the Mayan people.
Overall, the cacao tree and fruit were central aspects to the religious, social, and economic lives of the Maya people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In their creation story, his manifestation in tree enabled the Maize God to give way to the next generation which then resurrected him from the underworld. The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit permeated the Mayan religion and played essential roles in the religious rituals of the people. Cacao was present in the baptismal rites and in the tombs of people, illustrating a connection between cacao and religion. The drinking of cacao and exchange of vases that held cacao and also had inscriptions of the elite and cacao during feasts and celebrations demonstrated order within the Maya community. From these feasts, different people were able to connect and extend relations beyond their local community. Cacao connected people in the community through its role in religious stories and rituals and celebrations among elites.
The Mayan civilization existed on the Yucatan peninsula and rose to its peak influence during 250-950CE. During this time, the Mayans discovered and created calendars, pyramids, and hieroglyphs. They were central to the very architecture of Mesoamerican history and culture, and the civilization was the epicenter of Mesoamerican cultural production during its time (Mark 2012).
One phenomenon particularly salient in Mayan culture was the consumption of cacao. While the Mayans were not the first to consume cacao (the Olmecs pre-dated the Mayans), our understandings of chocolate in Mesoamerica–where the consumption of cacao is believed to have started–are largely influenced by the Mayans. According to ancient Mayan texts, cacao was thought to be a health-promoting elixir, even a gift from the gods. Cacao was also believed to be nourishing and to contain aphrodisiac qualities. Thus, the consumption of cacao was integral to Mayan culture: the food was often consumed in religious ceremonies, marriage celebrations, medicinal practices, and also used as currency (Lippi 2009). I argue in this blog post that by examining how cacao was prepared/consumed and the artifacts left behind depicting cacao usage, cacao was both consumed very differently than how we think of chocolate today and also held deep significance at the time to the Mayan civilization.
So how exactly did the Mayans consume cacao? It is not exactly how we think of chocolate today–or even hot chocolate (which is closer to how the Mayans consumed cacao; chocolate bars were only created in the last couple of centuries). We think of hot chocolate today as being enjoyed hot, sweetened, and with milk—but almost none of these things are true of how it was prepared by the Mayans. Mayan “xocolatl”–which means “bitter water” and is part of the source of the word “chocolate”‘s etymological roots–was served lukewarm, spicy, and bitter (Burill).
Here’s a closer examination of what producing Mayan xocolatl entails: according to scholarship (such as Coe and Coe’s The True History of Chocolate (2000)), Mayans would open cacao pods and leave them to ferment over a period of three to six days. In some circumstances, the beans were cooked over a fire, although this was not always the case. Then, after the husks were removed, the Mayans would grind them into a paste using a metate, a ground stone tool used for processing seeds and grains. This paste would then be used in conjunction with other flavoring elements—such as flowers, vanilla, cornmeal, or chilli—and mixed together, back and forth between two vessels at room temperature until they began frothing (Coe and Coe 2000). By transferring the mixture repeatedly between two pots, the flavors would mesh and the top layer would be covered by a thick foam (The Field Museum 2007).
This is clearly very different from how we currently conceive of today’s hot chocolate. Interestingly, when the Spaniards conquered Mesoamerica, they actually did not like its taste in its original form. Jose de Acosta, a Spanish missionary in Mexico in the 16th century, described consuming cacao as an unpleasant experience:
“Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this chocolate. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that “chili”; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh.” (Exploratorium Magazine 2020).
While we know little about the Mayans, we do know chocolate was incredibly important to them. According to Coe and Coe, in 1996, a tomb in now-Guatemala contained seven large cylindrical containers with hieroglyphs corresponding to cacao. The insides of these vases were sent to anthropological labs where they tested positive for cacao beverages. Moreover, residue analysis from several different Mayan tombs in Mesoamerica demonstrate the pervasiveness of cacao: caffeine and theobromine—both elements largely specific to cacao—were found on various surfaces and in the containers found inside tombs and graves. Most of these also had hieroglyphs (Coe and Coe 2000). The fact that these were in tombs of the wealthy demonstrate how integral they were to society.
Cacao also had religious significance to the Mayans. In fact, the Mayans even had a cacao god called Ek Chuah and developed an annual festival to honor him (Jean 2018). Further, in depictions of religious creation, such as the Fejérváry-Mayer, Codex (seen below), cacao pods and trees are often present.
Thus, the way the Mayans consumed cacao is very different than how we think of hot chocolate today. While both were liquids, Mayan xocolatl did not have milk, it was spicy and bitter rather than sweet, and it was served at room temperature. Moreover, I hope to have shown that not only was it prepared differently, but it was also perceived differently in Mayan culture: it was a significant cultural artifact–so much so that it was brought with people into their tombs–as well as holding significance in religious traditions and beliefs. In a broader sense, studying Mayan xocolatl also demonstrates how food can be an integral lens in understanding cultures of societies.
For 16th-century Mesoamericans, specifically Mayans on the Yucatán peninsula, chocolate played a substantial part in rituals and ceremonies including baptism and marriages. However, that was not the only way that Mayans incorporated chocolate into their lives. Before Europeans arrived and co-opted cacao for their own use and benefit, “cacao became the small coin in a monetizing economy” in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.Cacao beans, or “happie money” as Milanese chronicler Peter Martyr termed it because it “groweth upon trees,” was exchanged for work and other goods like turkey hens, avocados, and tomatoes.Now, the only time chocolate is used as a currency is when children trade chocolate bars for Skittles after a night of trick-or-treating.
Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate(London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2019), 99.
Like cacao is no longer used as currency today, chocolate is not a part of baptisms, and is only a part of a marriage if a couple decides to have chocolate cake at their reception. However, the involvement of chocolate in Mayan ceremonies and rituals was a big part of what chocolate meant to Mayans.Chocolate was not just consumed for enjoyment during these practices; it was assigned a certain spiritual meaning, a meaning which was lost when Europeans arrived and made the presence and cultivation of cacao as well as the making of chocolate in Mesoamerica more associated with trade and wealth than ritual.
Mayans used cacao to “connect with the divine and distinguish themselves” in their rituals, including in their baptismal rite.Bishop Landa, a Spanish Franciscan priest and bishop who lived amongst, learned about—and tortured—16th-century Mayans, included a description of this baptismal rite in his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán.Having a baptismal rite at all was surprising to the Christian Landa because he had observed that the Mayans were pagan, but he observed nonetheless. What he observed was an intricate ceremony. The priest was “gorgeously arrayed,” the children were “gathered together inside a cord held by four elderly men representing the Chacs (rain men),” and the children were all anointed by the noble conducting the ceremony.This liquid was made up of “certain flowers and of cacao pounded and dissolved in virgin water.”Though it was a custom to drink chocolate, especially amongst wealthy or noble Mayans, the cacao used in the baptismal rite was not meant to be consumed at all. Its use here was simply spiritual and ritualistic.
The ethnohistory of Mayan civilizations show that cacao and chocolate were also used in Mayan betrothal and marriage ceremonies.Coe and Coe’s A True History of Chocolateexplains that “when a Quiché Maya king was looking for a wife, his messenger was given… a vessel of beaten chocolate,” and at wedding banquets, a popular activity was chokola’jwhich means “drink chocolate together.”The photo below, an illustration found in the Codex Nuttall, a pre-Columbian document containing native pictography, shows King 8 Deer, the groom, pointing to a cup of chocolate in the hands of his bride, Princess 13 Serpent.The chocolate in the drawing is frothing, clearly beaten like Coe’s description mentions. Both Coe’s explanation of a Quiché Maya king and the Codex Nuttall illustration point to the use of drinking chocolate in Mayan wedding festivities.
Kathryn E. Sampeck and Jonathan Thayn, “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism,” in Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), 92.
Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 60.
Coe and Coe, 60.
Eric Thompson’s “Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Maya,” published in a 1938 edition of American Anthropologist, noted that “the form of the marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool… and also gives him five grains of cacao, and says to him ‘These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband.’”Cacao beans themselves, before being ground into chocolate liquor, were also, evidently, a part of Mayan marriage rituals. Although this use of cacao was more associated with currency because it resembles a dowry, it is also related to the betrothal process and therefore is ritualistic in nature.
Once Europeans arrived in Mesoamerica, they coopted the cultivation of cacao for trade purposes and chocolate became more and more separate from its original, spiritual state. When the Spanish first arrived to Mesoamerica, though, they “did not alter chocolate to the predilections of their palate,” and instead “sought to re-create the indigenous chocolate experience in America and in Europe.”Early European chocolate recipes had similar flavor profiles as Mesoamerican ones, but with some added ingredients “acquired through trade or produced in Europe,” and Europeans embraced the native tools of chocolate beverage making, recreating them in copper and silver instead of wood.However, as wealth from cacao cultivation grew, European began to be interested in chocolate as a drink “not because it was a curious food or drink, but because it was an engine of commerce.”This idea of cacao and chocolate being an engine of commerce was reinforced when Europeans started to enslave Africans for cacao cultivation, a shift meant to bring in more profit in response to the shortage of native labor due to disease. At that point, “a new foodways regime that was predicated upon capitalism” was created.Due to this strong association of chocolate and commerce, the association of chocolate and ritual diminished and mostly disappeared for producers as well as consumers.
J. Thompson, “Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Maya,” American Anthropologist40 (1938): 584–604 quoted in Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate(London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2019), 61.
Marcy Norton, “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” The American Historical Review111, no. 3 (2006): 660, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660.
Martin and Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 42–43.
Martin and Sampeck, 44.
Martin and Sampeck, 45.
Although our relationship with chocolate has strayed from Mesoamericans’ original ritualistic and spiritual associations, in large part due to the capitalistic hunger of early European settlers of the Mesoamerican region, there has been a recent movement to return to Mayan ceremonial uses. With a simple YouTube search, one can find many people, usually white women, explaining their experiences with what they call “cacao ceremonies.” In the video linked here, Ksenia Avdulova describes to her audience of 3.8K subscribers, and anyone else who googles “cacao ceremony,” how to “make ceremonial cacao at home and make it really a ritual that helps you connect with your heart that nourishes you not just physically but also energetically.”
On the word “energetically,” Avdulova does spirit fingers and blows at the camera, seemingly trying to pass some kind of energy to her viewers, and includes a very stereotypically “tribal”-sounding music in the background to accompany these motions. Avdulova does not combine crushed cacao beans and flowers to anoint children or chokola’j with family members at a wedding feast, but instead uses a blender to blend “ceremonial cacao” with sea salt and cayenne to drink hot in the morning while holding her “favorite crystal” or “lighting sage.”Though her idea of chocolate as ritual is very different and distanced from Mayan rituals, and is definitely cultural appropriation on some level, Avdulova, and many other people, are rediscovering the original ritualistic and spiritual meaning of cacao that started in 16th-century Mesoamerica that we as a society had strayed from long ago.
WHAT IS CACAO CEREMONY | How To Create A Cacao Ritual.
“CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods.” Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library. Accessed
Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review111, no. 3 (2006): 660–691. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660.
Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” In Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition., 72–95. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.
Thompson, J. “Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Maya.” American Anthropologist40 (1938): 584–604.
At 2AM each morning Harvard student activist and writer Minahil Khan, awakens from her deep sleep. She describes this disruption in her sleep schedule as “inevitable;” no matter how hard she tries, she wakes up each night, reaches to the ground beside her bed, and grabs a piece of chocolate. Minahil’s nightly chocolate routine began about one year ago, while she visited her parents in their home in New York City, NY and suddenly found herself having a mid-night craving for her mom’s famous chocolate mousse. The seemingly random craving quickly became a consistent necessity in her life, and Minahil has now eaten chocolate every night since. While Minahil’s case is quite extreme, many people have experienced some form of her chocolate “addiction.” So, what is it that makes chocolate such a beloved food product? Through my interview with Minahil, I attempt to uncover the various ways cultural, economic, and emotional factors have influenced consumers relationships to chocolate.
Harvard student activist and writer Minahil Khan, awakens from her deep sleep. She describes this disruption in her sleep schedule as “inevitable;” no matter how hard she tries, she wakes up each night, reaches to the ground beside her bed, and grabs a piece of chocolate. Minahil’s nightly chocolate routine began about one year ago, while she visited her parents in their home in New York City, NY and suddenly found herself having a mid-night craving for her mom’s famous chocolate mousse. The seemingly random craving quickly became a consistent necessity in her life, and Minahil has now eaten chocolate every night since. While Minahil’s case is quite extreme, many people have experienced some form of her chocolate “addiction.” So, what is it that makes chocolate such a beloved food product? Through my interview with Minahil, I attempt to uncover the various ways cultural, economic, and emotional factors have influenced consumers relationships to chocolate.
Minahil’s chocolate dependence begins
with its sentimental value, manifested in its preparation process and
centrality to her childhood memories.
LR: Do you remember the first time
you ate chocolate?
MK: “I feel like the earliest
memory I associate with chocolate is definitely related to birthdays. I’m from
Pakistan and when I was younger we lived in this little engineering township,
and I remember my mom just always made these chocolate cakes shaped like a
gingerbread man. It’s weird because part of those memories only comes from the
pictures of those birthdays. I look back at them now and realize, oh ‘that’s
when I first had chocolate.’”
Although Minahil does not completely recall the experience of eating chocolate for the first time, she feels as if she remembers the experience, and notes the reconstruction of that early chocolate memory by her family photos. Her earliest chocolate memories were also significant because they revolved around an important event: birthdays. Chocolate has been a fixture of cultural rituals since it’s Mayan and Aztec origins. In A True History of Chocolate, Sophia and Michael Coe discuss the significance of chocolate in the Dresden codex, a Mayan book dating back to the 13th or 14th century. They write that “in several sections of the Dresden which deal with ritual activities tied in to the Maya’s sacred 260-day cycle, seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe 42). The Maya viewed chocolate as an essential part of various ceremonies, including celebrations of life and death. Minahil’s birthday chocolate memory, therefore, illustrates a much longer history of chocolate as a center piece in ritualistic events. Chocolate has even become the centerpiece of the modern birthday party itself, with many choosing to have chocolate-themed birthday parties. In this video, for example, a woman throws her young daughter a chocolate-themed birthday party where the children excitedly get a behind the scenes look at chocolate production at a local chocolatier.
Minahil, a Pakistani woman, chocolate has come to represent not only a symbol
of celebration and ritual, but also of foreign or “westernness.”
What’s your favorite kind of chocolate?
MK: “My mom’s chocolate mousse.
That’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten. It’s just really airy.
LR: It sounds like a lot of your
chocolate memories are associated with your family and childhood. How did
chocolate become a part of your food culture in Pakistan? Is chocolate a part
of Pakistani cuisine?
MK: “No. Really, not at all. The
Pakistani desserts we have are very sugary, but there’s no chocolate involved.
I don’t know if I know any dessert that has anything to do with chocolate. It’s
the very western side of our upbringing even there.”
LR: Did chocolate represent
something foreign to you?
MK: “At the time, no. Now, thinking
about it, yeah, the fact that at one point, my mom made a chocolate barbie
cake, where the cake was the dress of a barbie doll and she stuck a blonde,
white barbie into the middle of it. I hadn’t even ever seen white foreign
people in real life.”
As a child, Minahil considered chocolate to be an excited treat because, in addition to its sweet taste, it represented a distant and alluring west. Minahil’s mother paired the chocolate cake with a white barbie doll, demonstrating the consistent association of chocolate with white people and Western society. This association is ironic because, as Professor Martin and Kathryn E. Sampeck discuss in the Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe, the West and Central African nations of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon collectively produce approximately 70% of the world’s cacao today (Martin, Sampeck, 50). Cacao is then processed in factories and craft chocolatiers in Europe, eventually becoming the recognizable chocolate product. Chocolate is, meanwhile, continuously branded as a luxury product, which is often not intended for consumption by nonwhite people. As Sampeck and Thayne write in Translating Tastes “In some ways, and as part of the colonial protect, chocolate was never meant to be familiar… Europeans maintained the sensory experience of chocolate—sweetness, spices, a simulation of the taste—an embodiment by colonists of Mesoamerican values but framed within the vicissitudes of the humoral scheme” (Sampeck, Thayne, 92). Through effective branding, slow recipe shifts, and colonialism, Europeans managed to construct chocolate as something unattainable to nonwhite people and victims of colonialism, like Pakistanis.
his article in Candy Industry, Saif
Dewan clarifies the increasing accessibility of chocolate in Pakistan, from a delicacy
enjoyed by the English and the wealthy, to a product available to the masses. He writes that until the mid 1980’s, “chocolates
were supposed to be the domain of the upper and upper-middle class segments in
Pakistan” (Deiwan 1). In 1983, the chocolate company Mitchell created a product
called Jubilee that sold for R.S 3.50 per bar. Its attractive packaging,
quality, affordable price and focused media support, gave the brand
unprecedented consumer reception, revolutionizing the accessibility of
chocolate to the general Pakistani population. It currently exists at varying
price points and remains popular in Pakistan. I asked Minahil about her
personal chocolate preferences and developing tastes when she immigrated to the
LR: How did your relationship to
chocolate change when you came to the U.S.? Or did it at all?
MK: “Oh actually, in Pakistan we
used to have Mars bars, but you never find that here. That’s one noticeable
difference. Like, I used to remember every time I went to Pakistan, I used to
be so excited to see Mars bars. Actually, it’s funny but now I think it’s
become more accessible here. I have some Mars bars here in the corner of my
room right now. Oh also, dairy… you know that one… dairy cow dairy cream? The
purple wrapper? Cadbury! Yes, I had that all the time in Pakistan. I could
never find that here. I think Mars is also European? I guess it was more of a British
thing, you know, colonialism, so coming here I was more exposed to different
brands of chocolates.
LR: What was your favorite chocolate?
Minahil is particularly passionate about Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate, one of the most popular chocolates in Pakistan today. Deiwan explains Cadbury’s place within the chocolate market, writing that that in the early 2000s, Cadbury’s introduced products like Dairy Milk at varying price points and marketed it as “making chocolates the choice for everyone.” He adds that “The role of Cadbury in expanding the chocolate market in Pakistan will become a primer on how to penetrate and grow a fledging segment in an underdeveloped economy.” Cadbury is on the cutting edge of popularizing chocolate in Pakistan, with efforts that began when Minahil was a child in the early 2000s. Today, Cadbury still holds a reputation from people like Minahil and other native Pakistanis as being accessible and delicious. In this Cadbury commercial, a young woman, anxious on the day of her wedding, quells both her and her father’s anxieties with Cadbury chocolate. The commercial illustrates how Cadbury chocolate is not only enjoyable, but also contains healing powers, mending the bride and her father’s relationship and giving them a moment of piece in a stressful day. Cadbury’s prevalence illustrates the globalization of chocolate and its shift towards becoming as an accessible and increasingly culturally essential product.
is also an activist, who has been heavily involved in organizing efforts on
campus. However, when it came to her chocolate consumption, Minahil was fairly unacquainted
with chocolate’s violent histories and exploitative present.
LR: Where do you get the chocolate
from for the chocolate mousse?
MK: They are Nestle chocolate
LR: Do you ever think about where
the chocolate you eat comes from?
MK: Yeah sometimes and it makes me
really sad, and I hate it. Like Hershey, Nestle, Nestle’s really messed up.
LR: Why is Nestle messed up?
MK: I think they just like take
advantage of their workers and are buying lands and not compensating the people
where chocolate is coming from fairly. Chocolate wasn’t as accessible in the
west but now it’s more accessible because corporations. But with corporations
As a civically engaged person who is
immersed in activist circles, Minahil has adopted an understanding of the chocolate
industry as problematic. Beyond that initial understanding however, her evaluation
stops short. She is correct in saying that Nestle and Hershey most likely utilize
exploitative processes, and that a large amount of that does in fact stem from
corporate practices. In Bitter Chocolate,
Carol Off explains the continuation of slavery far past emancipation in the 19th
century on Cacao Plantations. She highlights a 2000 documentary, Slavery: A Global
investigation which exposed indentured servitude in Cote d’Ivoire. The young people
in the film were purchased by the plantation owners and described experiencing “beatings,
starvation diets and foul living conditions” (Off 134). Off also mentions the continuation of slavery
in Sao Tome and Principe of the coast of West Africa. Minahil didn’t seem to
know this connection between chocolate or slavery, despite her understanding of
chocolate’s complicated reputation.
After addressing some of chocolate’s
unjust history, I was curious to see if Minahil would be willing to become a
more conscious consumer.
LR: So, when you think about where
your chocolate comes from, does that make you want to buy other types of chocolate?
Does it make you choose between different brands based off of ethics?
MK: I haven’t. That’s not an area where I’ve invested that energy. But maybe it’s something worth thinking about. Um, yeah. I feel like in my home, I didn’t buy the chocolate. It’s just there and I eat it. Part of it is that so much of it is just sold by the same company, right? Like so much of it is just Hershey. So, I guess I’m not thinking about it because I know that already. But maybe between the two or three companies we can choose from.
enough, the same sentimental connection to chocolate which makes it so
significant to her, is also the connections which prevents Minahil from feeling
mobilized to become a more conscious consumer. She understands that she could
alter her taste to choose companies that use better practices but feels
helpless in committing to that direction. She wants to preserve chocolate as something
she can enjoy and not have to think about morally or ethically. She also seems
to have convinced herself that no one buys the chocolate in her home, that she
just arrives there and it’s waiting for her. She prefers to not confront the
reality of her chocolate consumption, with its complicated ethical
As a Pakistani immigrant and student
activist, Minahil is a particularly unique consumer of chocolate. She’s
culturally conscious and frequently motivated to enact change. However, she is
also extremely attached to chocolate for both its emotional and physical
benefits. Ideally, my peers and I could mobilize to become conscious and active
consumers of chocolate and other foods, but the personal connection and
dependency we often feel towards these items calls into question the extent to
which true progress can eventually be made.
Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.
Dewan, Saif. “PAKISTAN:
Despite Odds, Pakistan’s Confectionery Industry Continues to Grow.” Candy Industry,
Mar. 2011, pp. 18–22.
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn
E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in
Europe.” Socio.hu, no.
special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s
Most Seductive Sweet. New Press,
Sampeck citing Clarence-Smith, W. G. Cocoa and Chocolate,
1765-1914. Routledge, 2000.
Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and
the Ethics of Business. 1st ed., Ohio
University Press, 2005.
Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. Substance and Seduction:
Commodities in Early Modern
Mesoamerica. First ed., University of Texas Press, 2017.
It is no secret that cacao beverages were utilized extensively throughout Ancient Mesoamerica. The Maya were most famously known for using cacao and cacao beverages for a variety of different societal and cultural uses, as well as economic and trade uses. However, this essay will explore the exact known origins of cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica, as well as their relationship to ancient rituals and then end by discussing their context within more modern-day rituals within what used to be the Mesoamerican region.
The Origins of Cacao
Beverages in Ancient Mesoamerica
Before the relationship between cacao beverages and rituals in ancient Mesoamerica can be examined and discussed, the origins of these beverages within the region must first be explained. That is, how cacao beverages came about and rose to social, cultural, and ritual prominence within ancient Mesoamerican societies. It is not exactly known to researchers, anthropologists, and scientists how Theobroma, which are a genus of flowering plants that include the type of cacao present in ancient Mesoamerica, arrived in the region. That is, “all wild relatives of domesticated Theobroma are native to northern Amazonian South America, although cacao was not cultivated there in pre-Columbian times…” (Henderson et. al. 18937). Thus, “whether cacao arrived in Mesoamerica through human agency or whether the natural range of Theobroma once extended through Central America is a controversial issue” (Henderson et. al. 18937). However, the best way in which to approach the issue of determining the specific origin of cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica is through the scientific examination of artifacts that were used to make, store, and present cacao beverages. However, this process is very difficult due to the fact that, “the process of cacao preparation destroys the pods and seeds, making recovery of macrobotanical remains rare” (Henderson et. al. 18937). However, scientists can determine the ancient presence of cacao beverage by chemically analyzing pottery artifacts for the remanence of Theobroma. Through this chemical analysis, the origins have cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica has been determined through the analysis of sherds of vessels from Puerto Escondido in what is now Honduras. That is, chemical analyses of residues extracted from pottery vessels from Puerto Escondido show that cacao beverages were being made there before 1000 B.C., extending the confirmed use of cacao back at least 500 years (Henderson et. al. 18937). Thus, “the preparation, serving, and consumption of cacao beverages in the Early Formative period at Puerto Escondido is the earliest documented context for what became a central dimension of social life in Mesoamerica” (Henderson et. al. 18937).
Cacao Beverages and
Rituals in Ancient Mesoamerica
The vast importance of cacao beverages in ancient Mesoamerican societies is well-documented and well-known. However, one of the most important uses of these beverages was to facilitate rituals. That is, following the use of cacao beverages in the Early Formative period at Puerto Escondido, cacao beverages continued to be an essential component of important social ceremonies and ritual events throughout Mesoamerica over the past two and a half millennia (Henderson et. al. 18937). Furthermore, “from 1000 B.C. to the sixteenth century, kakaw [the Mayan word for ‘cacao’] drinks remained a primary component of social and political events among the indigenous peoples of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and as far south as Nicaragua and Costa Rica, its consumption crossing nearly all socioeconomic and political boundaries” (McNeil 206). These cacao beverages were utilized in various important rituals within ancient Mesoamerican societies. More specifically, cacao and cacao beverages were primary objects of exchanges between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals (McNeil 151). Although these particular ritual events were extremely important within these societies, cacao beverages held their most significant role within the facilitation of ritual feasts and communal eating. These beverages’ importance to ritual feasting within ancient Mesoamerica can be confirmed by portrayals on vessels of palace feasts wherein cylinder vases brimming with frothy cacao are offered by attendant women or sit next to the host and close at hand to the gathered guests (McNeil 211). The connection between cacao beverages and the rituals of feasting and communal eating is extremely important because feasting has been linked to emergent sociopolitical complexity in discussions of, “political strategies available to would-be local leaders in societies in which social stratification was not institutionalized” (Joyce and Henderson 650). Feasting allowed local leaders to establish obligations from people who would not otherwise have owed emergent leaders anything (Joyce and Henderson 650). Thus, the feasting system not only created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation, but it also was an essential mechanism wielded by Mesoamerica’s ruling elites (McNeil 209). And the essential role that cacao beverages played within this vastly important ritual of feasting acts as a case study depicting the inextricable link between cacao beverages and rituals in ancient Mesoamerican societies.
Beverages and Rituals in a Modern Context
Along with the vastly important case study of the ritual of feasting, cacao beverages have been, and continue to be, an essential aspect of religious rituals within Mesoamerica. Within the modern context, cacao beverages are still utilized by the Ch’orti’ Maya who live in eastern Guatemala near the Classic period Maya site of Copan in western Honduras (McNeil 384). That is, the Ch’orti’ make and consume cacao beverages during their Rain Ceremonies, which occur during the end of April and into the beginning of May. The Rain Ceremonies are rooted in ancient Mayan culture and the rituals performed during the ceremony are done so that the rain gods may be worshipped (McNeil 384-386). Cacao beverages, along with fermented and alcoholic maize beverages, are consumed throughout the rituals of the Rain Ceremonies (McNeil 390-392). Thus, the Ch’orti’ provide a modern example of the inextricable relationship between cacao beverages and rituals within Mesoamerica.
Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 48, 2007, pp. 18937–18940.
Joyce, Rosemary A., and John
S. Henderson. “From Feasting to Cuisine: Implications of Archaeological Research in an Early Honduran
Village.” American Anthropologist, vol. 109, no. 4, 2007, pp. 642–653.
McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida, 2006.
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 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.
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.
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:
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).
A sociohistorical analysis of ancient Mayan chocolate recipes
Food and recipes are a glimpse into the intimate cultural customs and beliefs of a civilization. Chocolate, the ever-popular sweet treat, beverage, and flavor, has a culinary history that is as rich and complex as the food itself. The ancient Maya and their Olmec ancestors introduced drinking chocolate to Mesoamerica, and later to the entire Old World (Coe Kindle loc. 914). Historians have deduced recipes of these original beverages, which enhanced cacao with indigenous flavorings, additives, and techniques. These ingredients, methods of preparation, and contexts of consumption reflect not only Mayan culinary tastes, but also the cultural and social customs and beliefs of the time. Through the analysis of two particular recipes from the Lacandón Maya, this work will examine the connections between the culinary, cultural, and historical aspects of cacao in Mesoamerica.
The Lacandón Maya lived in the
cacao-cultivating regions of Chiapas, Mexico and Petén, Guatemala. The Lacandón
were not direct descendants of the Classic Maya; but rather, developed from inter-indigenous
interactions between Classic Maya and other cultures (Cecil 261). Despite their
dwindling numbers, the Lacandón have maintained many traditions, particularly culinary
practices, from their original Classic Mayan roots. This is especially significant
considering the lack of written documentation of Classic Maya chocolate recipes.
Any references to cacao preparation were typically illustrations and scenes of cacao
consumption or social use. Despite their artistic value, these hieroglyphs lacked
culinary detail, as they translated simply to “cacao,” only indicating the purpose
of the vessel (Coe Kindle loc. 608). The subsequent work of anthropologists and
historians have uncovered two Lacandón recipes for chocolate beverages, demonstrating
the various uses, additives, and social contexts of chocolate.
Secular cacao recipes and uses
One of the most significant aspects of chocolate in Maya culture was its versatility and ubiquity in a variety of different social contexts. Cacao-based beverages were enjoyed regularly as an everyday drink, in secular settings or for practical purposes. The Maya termed this chacau haa, meaning “hot water” or “hot chocolate.” Another type of common beverage was saca, which evolved from the traditional sak ha drink made of corn gruel (Coe Kindle loc. 875). Saca incorporated cacao with the traditional cooked maize and water, providing body and substance to the otherwise watery chocolate drink. Combined with cacao’s caffeine, this chocolate maize drink served as an excellent source of fuel and calories. Mayan warriors were also depicted with cacao pods, referencing the invigorating, sustaining properties of such cacao beverages (Martin slide 52).
The first Lacandón recipe presented by Sophie and Michael Coe was claimed to be for “ordinary consumption” (Kindle loc. 885). The basic ingredients and techniques of this secular recipe were the foundation from which more culinarily complex and socially meaningful recipes were developed. The main components were cacao beans, maize, and suqir. The preparation involved first grinding the cacao beans with a metate, mixing the grounds with water to form a paste, straining the mixture, and finally adding more water while heating and beating to produce foam (Coe Kindle loc. 896). The addition of maize mirrors the basic saca recipe, using corn to increase the beverage’s value as caloric fuel. Despite the practical aspects of chocolate consumption, the Maya most highly valued the delicious taste and sensation of the foam. This was created with the addition of suqir, a vine that acted as a foaming agent, and the technique of beating the hot chocolate (Cook 257). This preparation would have taken a significant amount of time and effort, especially in comparison to the modern-day electric tools developed for the same purpose of foaming beverages. Thus, it is evident that the Maya valued even their ordinary chocolate drinking enough to put forth the effort in its foaming and preparation.
Sacred cacao recipes and rituals
Despite its widespread consumption among the Maya and their descendants, cacao was also a culturally sacred, ritualistic comestible. The second Lacandón recipe was intended for sacred purposes, as seen in the additives and special techniques that carried religious significance. The ritual sponsor’s wife prepared the drink “in a special cooking hut next to the ‘god house’ where the clay effigy ‘god pots’ are kept” (Coe Kindle loc. 896). These god pots were essential in Lacandón spiritual practices. They were called ol, translating to “center” or “heart of,” presumably because they served as otherworldly portals (Dreiss 57). This corresponds to the Mayan belief that the cacao tree was the center of the universe and source of all life, connecting the Sky, Earth, and Underworld (Martin slide 44). These god pots were sculpted with the likenesses of cacao gods and were used as vessels to transmit the Lacandón spiritual offerings.
Before the ceremonial offering and “feeding” of the cacao to the god pots, there were several other critical components distinguishing the sacred cacao from the secular. Aak’, a soft grass, was added to enhance the frothing process while beating the liquid. Additionally, to ensure that the beverage had sufficient foam to please the gods, the women preparers would simultaneously sing a special frothing song (Dreiss 58). The frothed cacao would then be poured into the god pots, which contained either sak ha, the aforementioned corn gruel, or balché, another ceremonial drink. In a ritualistic context, the Maya offered sak ha to the gods of various crops, to protect them from plagues and ensure a substantial harvest. Balché was made from water fermented with the bark of the balché tree, which was supposed to impart sanctity and protection against evil, as well as provide hallucinogenic effects to the drinkers (Cano 4). The addition of these two beverages for ritual offerings reflects the Classic Maya belief in cacao’s role in fertility. As another example, the Madrid Codex depicts the Mayan moon goddess and rain god exchanging cacao to maintain the earth’s fertility (Martin slide 38). This combination of sacred beverages highlights the importance of cacao in Maya rituals and the inherent assumption that gods too, love chocolate.
The juxtaposition of the secular and sacred Maya chocolate recipes reveals the stark differences in cacao consumption based on social context. The addition of corn as maize may be interpreted as a caloric enhancement when cacao was consumed as fuel. In a sacred preparation, this maize could also serve as a godly offering to protect the cacao crops. The consistent practice of beating the liquid and adding frothing agents was also a vital technique to please both human imbibers and gods. These recipes demonstrate the versatility of cacao and its ability to embody different cultural meanings through its preparation, method of serving or consuming, and its spiritual synergy with additional ingredients. Cacao was a delicious foundation that could be adapted to fulfill both humans’ gastronomic and spiritual appetites, contributing to its persistent popularity throughout history.
Works Cited: Scholarly Sources
Cano, Mirtha. Sacred Food and Drinks. FLAAR
Cecil, Leslie G., and Timothy W. Pugh. Maya Worldviews at Conquest. University
Press of Colorado, 2009.
Sophie D and Michael D., Coe. The True
History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.
Suzanne. The Forest of the Lacandon Maya:
An Ethnobotanical Guide. Springer US, 2016.
Meredith L., and Greenhill, Sharon. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University
of Arizona Press, 2008.
Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA,
Harvard University. 6 Feb. 2019.
Works Cited: Multimedia Sources
72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate – Monsieur
Truffe AUD5. 5 Mar 2011. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/9prH1J.
Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
The Aztec culture is notorious for their often bloody rituals, which are now widely thought to be egregiously barbaric. We look upon Aztec sacrificial practices as evidence of a sadistic and morally bankrupt culture, of a people who are terrible in ways we could never be; but assuming this inherent separation keeps us from exploring the breadth of human connection and commonality.
In The true history of chocolate Coe & Coe explain that the view of Aztec society as barbaric is handed down to us by the Spanish conquistadores as an excuse for their terrible treatment of the Aztecs (Coe, 65). While the Spanish had their own motivations to portray the Aztecs as barbarians, it’s easy to imagine that they might have also felt genuine shock at Aztec practices which included ritual human sacrifice.
An example of one such ritual, which was carried out yearly, proceeded as follows: A slave was chosen to be dressed and treated as the god Quetzalcoatl for 40 days, after which he was told that he would be killed the following day. He was then required to dance with perfect happiness, as a sorrowful response was thought to be a bad omen. If he was not able to remain cheerful he would be given a drink of chocolate which was mixed with bloody water from the washing of sacrificial knives. This drink, known as itzpacalatl, was said to bewitch him and bring about renewed happiness and dancing (Coe, 103). One fascinating element of this ritual is the importance placed on the sacrifice’s happiness (or at least the display of it). Another fascinating element; the function of nourishment and fortification from the chocolate having a transformative role in the experience of being sacrificed.
It is important to note that bloody Aztec rituals were not done merely for sadistic entertainment. In “The Aztec Ritual Sacrifices,” Izeki explains that sacrifice was integral to Aztec religion and considered necessary for maintaining order in the universe. It was believed that humans were created to give their lives to the gods in order to maintain creation. Izeki notes, too, that death was not thought to be permanent but rather cyclical— the Aztecs believed “that sacrificial victims became divine beings after being slain, that the dead lived an afterlife, and that each part of a soul went back to its provenance”(Izeki).
Solely looking voyeuristically at Aztec rituals as evidence of barbarism allows us to foster a comforting sense of moral superiority. However, this sense of superiority and separations may be a misconception. When we study the history of chocolate we uncover a deep historical connection with the Aztecs. This connection can be seen first through the consumption and ritualization of cacao.
Like the Aztecs, we love chocolate, and like the Aztecs, we imbue it with symbolism. The Aztecs sometimes used cacao pods to ritualistically symbolize the human heart— we sometimes gift heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to symbolize love (Coe 103).
Might there be a connection even in the dark specifics of the discussed ritual to aspects of our culture today? In her thesis Revulsion and Palatability, Angie Wheaton explores the topic of rituals surrounding the death penalty, with a special focus on the ritual of giving the condemned a choice of last meals. This ritual has been the subject of several art projects, like the one shown in the below image.
Wheaton explains that this ritual of providing nourishment and comfort to those we put to death in the form of favorite foods has a longstanding tradition, and is still common practice in most places (one notable exception being Texas) (Wheaton, 6). This tradition has much in common with the Aztec ritual of providing sacrifices with the culturally favored form of nourishment, cacao. Wheaton argues that in the context of the death penalty, “rituality has helped cushion the revulsion that is inherently present when taking the life of a human being” (Wheaton, v). Might this effect also be one explanation for the specifics of Aztec rituals?
The use of chocolate as an intoxicant in the discussed Aztec ritual is somewhat perplexing. Though cacao beans do contain caffeine and theobromine which cause a stimulant effect, this effect is moderate and insufficient to cause extreme euphoria. Despite this, there are also people today who consume chocolate in ritualistic settings for the purpose of intoxication.
In the Business Insider article “San Franciscans are obsessed with ‘cacao ceremonies,’ where they claim to get high on chocolate,” author Melia Robinson details currently trendy rituals where people gather to drink concentrated cacao drinks. Participants report “a wide range of reactions, from feelings of connectedness and ecstasy to hallucinations” (Robinson).
The common concept of superiority and separation between people today and the Aztecs is a myth. Through the lens of chocolate, food, and ritual, we can uncover striking similarities between these cultures. These common threads of practice and perception between the people of today and the Aztecs may serve to remind us that however different we might like to think ourselves from those that commit atrocities, we are more alike than we are different. We are all human and capable of both great things and terrible ones.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.
The word “chocolate” potentially traces its etymological roots back to the Quiché Mayan verb chokola’j – translated “to drink chocolate together” (Coe and Coe 118). While there remains debate over the exact origins of the word, there is no question the processed seeds from the fruit of the theobromacacao tree that we now call chocolate or cacao has been a unique connector of individuals, groups, and cultures throughout its history. By examining the historical record: Depictions of ancient Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, vessels from the ancestral Pueblo of North America, and paintings portraying New England and British chocolate houses of the 1600s and 1700s, we will see chocolate’s historical significance as a connector of people.
While the first evidence of chocolate cultivation traces back to the Mokoya and Olmec of early Mesoamerica, it was through the Maya (250 CE to 900 CE) and Mixtec (1000 CE to 1500 CE), where we first see chocolate’s significance as a social connector of individuals and families particularly through marriage ceremony (Presilla 10-11). The first example of cacao’s centrality to marriage can be seen through a Maya ritual called tac haa, roughly translated “to serve chocolate”. In this ritual, the family of the groom-to-be would “invite the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serve him (chocolate) drink” (Martin “Mesoamerica”). The image below illustrates the communal and ritualistic aspects of the marriage ceremony with a vessel of chocolate clearly at the center.
The next example recorded from the Codex Zouche-Nuttal shows the Mixtec marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent (1051 CE) (Dreiss and Greenhill 64). Lady Serpent holds a cup of chocolate with two hands offering it to Lord Eight Deer as a gesture to cement their marriage union.
A similar example from the Chol Maya elevates the cacao bean itself as a key element of the marriage union. As described by Eric Thompson:
The form of marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao, and says to him “These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband.” And he also gives her some new skirts and another five grains of cacao, saying the same thing. (Coe and Coe 61)
It is clear through the examination of these Maya and Mixtec artifacts that cacao was essential in knitting together the fabric of early Mesoamerican families and society. As we travel north, we will next examine ancient Pueblo artifacts discovered in pre-colonial New Mexico and Utah that suggest the surprisingly early presence of cacao in North America.
Until very recently, it was thought there was very little interaction between the Maya of Mesoamerica and the Pueblo of southwestern North America but recent chocolate research suggests otherwise. These two cultures may have been more interconnected than ever imagined – with chocolate being at the center of this cultural exchange (Haederle). In 2009, University of New Mexico researcher Patricia Crown observed similarities between drinking vessels found at the historic Pueblo site of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (1000 – 1125 CE) and those used in Maya ceremony (Crown and Hurst). Crown turned to W. Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist for the Hershey Company, to test for the possibility of cacao residue on the Chaco Canyon vessels. Hurst tested five shards of pottery, three of which confirmed the presence of theobromine – a biomarker unique to cacao (Crown and Hurst).
Building on Crown and Hurst’s findings, in 2016 University of Pennsylvania researcher Dorothy Washburn examined pottery fragments originating from another historic Pueblo site located at Blanding, Utah. The vessel fragments tested also returned strong traces of theobromine, pushing the potential timeline for Maya and Pueblo interaction back 300-400 years to around 750 CE (Mozdy).
Considering the closest cacao source at that time was 1,200-1,400 miles away in Mesoamerica, these findings suggest the incredible lengths at which cacao traveled north. Says Crown of the New Mexico findings, “The only way for this material to get [to New Mexico] is [that] either people from Chaco walked down to get it, or it was traded hand to hand from Mesoamerica to Chaco, or people from Mesoamerica came up and traded it” (Haederle). The great distances a delicacy like cacao traveled and exchanged hands between the Maya and Pueblo elucidates chocolate’s connectivity and its social impact. From the ancient Pueblo culture of the southwest, we move next to New England and Britain of the 1600s and 1700s where we find paintings depicting coffee and chocolate houses as a forum for the vibrant exchange of ideas.
In both Boston and London, coffee and chocolate houses were at the center of political and cultural life where men of the emerging merchant class would “gather to discuss the news of the day and dangerous ideas like democracy or things that threatened the political elite of the time” (Martin “Introduction”). In Boston, we find the establishment of the first North American coffee and chocolate house as a political declaration in and of itself. Two women, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard, successfully petitioned the city “to keepe a house of publique Entertainment for the selling of Cofffee and Chucaloette” (Martin “Introduction”). In London, members of nascent political parties would often gather at these houses and would eventually turn them into a virtual headquarters (Coe and Coe 223). These establishments were so threatening, King Charles II attempted to shut them down calling them “hotbeds of sedition” (Coe and Coe 167). However, equally reflective of the social position these houses had come to have in British society, public outcry prevented their suppression and they continued to grow in importance.
In the 1600s and 1700s of New England and Britain, we see chocolate’s fundamental role in society as a reason for communal and political gathering and the debate of important ideas, not unlike the role coffee houses serve today.
Through examining the historical record depicting Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, ancient vessels found in Pueblo North America, and images portraying coffee and chocolate houses in Boston and London, we see chocolate’s importance in binding together individuals and families, bridging different groups and cultures thousands of miles away, and serving as a reason for people to come together to discuss the important issues of the day. Reverberating from chocolate’s communal past is perhaps a paradigm to best view chocolate’s current social, economic, and environmental sustainability challenges. To chokola’j – to bring together disparate individuals and groups to have meaningful discussion and debate over the important issues surrounding chocolate itself – is perhaps the vessel we drink to in order to secure chocolate’s sustainable future.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.
Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “The distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America and Mexico in A.D. 1502, relative to Chaco Canyon” Digital Image. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018
Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Evidence of Cacao Use in the Prehispanic American Southwest.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018
Dreiss, Meredith L. and Greenhill, Sharon E. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2008. Print.