Tag Archives: ritual

The Myth of Separation

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.

800px-valentines_chocolates1Like 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.

5430175617_6328bbd2d7_z-1Wheaton 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.


Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Wheaton, Angie. Revulsion and Palatability: The Staying Power of Death Penalty Rituals – Last Meals and Beyond, Eastern Kentucky University, Ann Arbor, 2013, ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1433293088?accountid=11311.

Robinson, Melia. “San Franciscans are obsessed with ‘cacao ceremonies,’ where they claim to get high on chocolate.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 19 May 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/cacao-ceremony-san-francisco-2017-5.

Izeki, Mutsumi (2014) The Aztec Ritual Sacrifices, Performance Research, 3:3, 25-32, DOI: 10.1080/13528165.1998.10871623

Last Meal Photo credit John Dalton on Flikr, Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Cacao Drink Photo credit Julie Gibbons on Flikr, Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Other images in public domain

To chokola’j – Chocolate’s History as a Connector of People

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 theobroma cacao 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.

tac haa
A vessel of chocolate at the center of the marriage ceremony of “tac haa”, illustrating chocolate’s centrality in bringing individuals and families together in Maya culture (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

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.

From the Codex Zouche-Nuttal, Lady Thirteen Serpent offering Lord Eight Deer a cup of chocolate to seal the marriage union in Mixtec society (1051 CE) (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

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).

The presence of theobromine found on vessels from Chaco Canyon, New Mexico suggesting Maya and Pueblo relationship through trade of chocolate (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).

Chaco Canyon Map
Distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America showing closest major areas of production 1,200 miles from Chaco, Canyon, New Mexico CE 1502 (Crown and Hurst).

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.

17th Century painting underscoring the significance of coffee and chocolate houses as forums for political and cultural exchange (Wikimedia Commons).

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.

Works Cited

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.

Haederle, Michael. “Mystery of Ancient Pueblo Jars Is Solved.” New York Times, 3 Feb. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/us/04cocoa.html. Accessed 1 Mar 2018

Martin, Carla D. “Introduction.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 24 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 31 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Mozdy, Michael. “Utah’s Ancient Cacao: A Surprising Find.” Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, 4 Aug. 2016, nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/08/04/utah%E2%80%99s-ancient-cacao-surprising-find. Accessed 02 Mar 2018

Presilla, Maricel. 2009 The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press. Berkley, CA. Print.

Unknown. Artist “Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century”. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. 01 Mar. 2018 http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~sajamato/description.html

Let Us Raise a Vessel to Cacao… Mayan Style!

Do you remember the last time you had a cup of hot chocolate? Was it served in a mug, topped with whipped cream? Or maybe you sipped it from a to-go cup from your favorite drive-thru restaurant. Most of the time we don’t fuss with what we’re drinking our hot chocolate from because we’re too busy enjoying the aroma and experience this time honored beverage provides us. Yet, ancient cultures, alike the Mayans, respected their cacao drinking methods and admired the cup they drank from just as much as they prized the drink itself. In many cases, cacao wouldn’t have been drunk if it wasn’t out of an artistically treasured and symbolized vessel… a far cry from how we view and present our version of hot chocolate today. Nevertheless, this customary beverage and the material in which it was once presented in was systematically ritualized throughout the ancient Classic Maya culture, proving a frothy cup of cacao was more than just something to cheers with.

The Classic Maya period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.) was considered to be the most influential and profound stage of the ancient Mayan civilization. Fabulous accomplishments, such as towering pyramids and vast palaces throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, beautifully decorated ceramics, and a distinguishable writing system flourished during this time. This was also a time when the Maya elite prospered, and their admiration for the finer things in life influenced their daily lives and dietary intake, ritualizing items such as cacao and the vessels they were ingested from. David Stuart, an archaeologist and epigrapher who specializes in Mesoamerican cultures, describes in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, the ways in which the Maya civilization upheld the role of cacao within their society. Stuart suggests, “The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate” (Stuart 184).

Around the same time those descriptive discoveries were uncovered, much excitement arose when two vessels were found in Guatemala containing chemical remains of cacao (Theobromine), a study that was performed by W. Jeffery Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center (Carla D. Martin, Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,” January 31, 2018). By identifying the Maya word and glyph for cacao (ka-ka-wa), including the remains of Theobromine, archaeologists soon realized the extensive amount of Maya vessels which were artistically depicted with the kakaw glyph, symbolizing the importance of cacao within their culture, alongside the vessels in which they were consumed from (Stuart 184). In most early cases, a vessel that depicted the kakaw glyph was considered to be apart of a Maya elites collection, illustrating the consumption of cacao was reserved for those of importance within the community.

The Kakaw Glyph
Figure 1. The kakaw glyph (ka-ka-wa) in the Dresden Codex. a. The individual syllables of ka-ka-wa. b. The representation of the God of Death holding an offering of a bowl of cacao. Drawings by Carlos Villacorta from the Dresden Codex (1976).

Maricel E. Presilla, a cultural historian, chef, and author of the book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, reviews the ways in which the kakaw glyph was depicted on Maya pots and drinking vessels, and goes on to say, “Dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars, included along with other furnishings in burial chambers, depict chocolate as a crucial, central element of opulent feasts” (Presilla 12). Archaeologists have also come to believe that the vessel in which the cacao drink was drunk from had different levels of significance and cultural value, through the means of the artwork depicted on the cup and the individuals utilizing this piece of material culture (Presilla 12). Realizations as such have contributed to many other professionals from a plethora of academic fields, such as anthropologists and art curators, into the mix, creating a vast amount of research conducted around this specific topic. Dr. Dorie Reents-Budet, an Art Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, describes the functionality of these impressive vessels in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, and considers these vessels, “Function as containers for edibles and also as portable props whose myths-political imagery lent power and prestige to their owners and the event during which they were used” (Reents-Budet 210).

As a result, these elaborate cacao drinking vessels served up a frothy-drink of dualism between the vessel itself and the individual enjoying this influential beverage. Illustrations of exclusive banquets held by the Maya elite were plentiful, and according to Reents-Budet, these elite banquets which included fantastic kakaw serving vessels, “Transcended their primary function as food service wares and were transformed into indispensable status markers and essential gifts; that is, they became social currency” (Reents-Budet 213). The aftereffect of these frequent banquets lead to those creative kakaw drinking vessels to be perceived as social currency and a higher status, and soon after, production of cacao drinking vessels by “highly trained artisans and renewed painters” (Reents-Budet 214) was off and running.

A Late Classic Maya Vase
Figure 2. A Late Classic Maya period polychrome vase for serving chocolate beverages and giving as gifts during elite feasts. Collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K2800).

As a result of this newfound kakaw drinking vessel popularity, the Maya civilization never looked back, and the ideals around this foamy, ritualized beverage flourished for the rest of their reign. Through mysterious circumstances, the decline of the Maya culture happened sometime between the late eighth and ninth century, creating a sense of wonder around this distinguished ancient civilization. While we may never know what truly happened to the Mayans and their artistic culture, the remnants of their treasured vessels and love for cacao has overcome their deterioration, and continues to thrive in our modern day society through academic means and pure curiosity for what was once a fascinating and complex society.

Depiction of a Cacao Beverage Being Frothed
Figure 3. Classic Maya period depicting the aerating of a kakaw beverage by pouring the liquid from one jar to another placed on the floor. Collections from the Princeton Art Museum (acc. no. 75-17, the Hans and Dorthy Widenmann Foundation). Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K511).

References Cited:

Martin, Carla D. Mesoamerica and the “food gods.” Harvard University, Jan. 2018, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_18

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 202-223.

Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 184-201.

Dumbledore Loves Chocolate
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Warner Bros., 2001. DVD.


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-



The Tea Habit and The Dramatic Increase in British Sugar Consumption in the 17th and 18th Centuries

British sugar consumption dramatically escalated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Records show that British per-capita annual consumption grew from 4 lbs. in the early 1700’s to 18 lbs. in the early 1800’s representing a 400 percent increase in just one century (Mintz). While the figures are astonishing, the increase in sugar consumption can be attributed to several things including the decrease in price, the democratization of use, and most notably, the ritualization of drinking tea.  Henry James once said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” And with tea, came sugar.

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 12.47.25 PM.png

But let’s go back to sugar’s not so humble beginnings.  Initially, sugar was considered a luxury item afforded only by the noble and wealthy. In Britain, sugar served 5 different purposes – as a medicine, a spice, a decorative material, a preservative and as a sweetener.  And it commonly served more than one such purpose at a time (Mintz).  Cookbooks of the late 16th and early 17th century even treated sugar as a sort of drug to help balance the “humors” — energies that were believed to affect health and mood (Godoy). Like other spices, sugar was used to enhance the flavor of foods.  When combined with various ingredients, sugar was molded into fantastic shapes and structures to decorate noble dinner tables as a symbol of the host’s wealth and standing. Sugar’s preservative qualities extended the life of perishable fruits and meats and prevented spoilage.  But it was with the introduction of chocolate, coffee and tea that sugar’s use as a sweetener became relevant.  Interestingly, the British enjoyed a long-standing familiarity with sweetened beverages such as ale and wine so it is understandable that they would chose to sweeten these otherwise bitter beverages with sugar.

Sugar was expensive and relatively rare, making it a perfect object of conspicuous consumption for the status chasing elite (Goody).  Tea, an exotic import first made fashionable by a Portuguese princess, quickly gained popularity with the rise of coffee houses in London. As the price of tea and sugar dropped, they gained wider appeal across all socioeconomic lines and daily consumption per person increased. Over a relatively short period of time, the habit of drinking tea with sugar became ritualized.  In the chocolate and coffee houses of London, gentlemen and wealthy merchants took their tea sweetened with sugar. Women of privilege enjoyed tea accompanied by pastries, breads and jam at home with their friends often using their finest china and tea pots.

“We can imagine them then that while seventeenth century men were

at coffee houses drinking tea and exchanging gossip, their wives

gathered at one another’s hoes to do exactly the same thing – justin a more

refined atmosphere” (Tea.co.uk)

The first sugar habit learned by the English poor was part of the tea habit, and the tea habit spread downward from the rulers and outward from cities at a rapid rate (Mintz).  For the working class, tea with sugar often served as a break from their backbreaking jobs.  In homes of the poor, men who were the primary bread winners dined on meat while their wives and children subsisted on tea with sugar, bread and preserves.  Regardless of wealth or social status, the amount of sugar consumed at each meal continued to rise.  Tea sweetened with a strong dose of sugar was an affordable luxury: It gave workers a hit of caffeine to get through a long slog of a day, it provided plentiful calories, and it offered the comfort of warmth during a meal that otherwise often consisted only of bread (Godoy).

It is important to acknowledge that the dramatic increase in domestic demand for sugar was intertwined with the rise of the slave trade. Britain relied heavily on her sugar colonies to sustain her rabid consumer base, and forced labor allowed more sugar to be produced at a fraction of the price (Sheridan). They conquered the most colonies and went the farthest and fastest in creating the plantation system to satisfy growing demand for sugar (Mintz).  In the British West Indies, the number of enslaved Africans grew to 263,000 by the mid 1700’s (Martin). They were required to work 18 hour days and received only minimal food, clothing and shelter from the plantation owners. As a result, their life expectancy was only 7-8 years (Martin).

Sugar consumption levels continued to rise during and after the Industrial Revolution. By the 1900’s, annual per capita consumption approximated 80 lbs. climbing to an astonishing 120 lbs. in the 2000’s (Martin).   As processed food manufacturers gained a better understanding of taste preferences, they increasingly added sugar to everyday consumables like ketchup, cereals and dairy products. Currently, soft drinks are the biggest single source of added sugar for young people, with boys aged 11-18 getting 42% of their intake this way; and for adults aged 19-64, the main sources are also confectionery and jams, soft drinks and cereals (Jeavans). Clearly, the British love for sweet beverages survived and flourished throughout the centuries.

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 5.04.49 AM.png

In conclusion, the significant increase in British sugar consumption in the 17th and 18th centuries was a direct result of the increasing affordability of the commodity, the democratization of use, and the ritualization of tea time. Today, the British remain some of the greatest consumers of sugar in the world and are taking great steps to encourage people to limit their daily added sugar intake to ward off obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.


Works Cited

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition and Forced Labor.” Lecture

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.  New York:Penguin, 1985. Print.

Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and Slavery: An economic history of the British West Indies, 1623-1775.  University of West Indies  Press, 1974.  Web.

Jeavens, Christine. “How Much Sugar Do We Eat?” BBC News, BBC, 26 June 2014.  22 Feb. 2018.  http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays – How Tea + Sugar Reshaped the British Empire” The Salt. NPR. 7 April 2015.  22 Feb 2018. https://www.npr.org.sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire

“Tea – A Brief History of the Nations Favorite Beverage” UK Tea and Infusions Association 2018.  22 Feb 2018. http://www.tea.co.uk

Ward, J.R. “Oxford History of the British Empire.  The Eighteenth Century. The British West Indies, 1748-1815” Oxford University Press.  New York. 1998 https://books.google.de/books?



Containing Chocolate and Culture

The instruments used to hold chocolate reveal more about the history and culture of the time period than one might first assume. Chocolate consumption began with the Olmecs, a civilization who lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1500 BC and 400 BC (Presilla, 46). Around 500 AD, the Mayan people also embraced chocolate as a drink and as part of traditional rituals like marriage, funerals, and religious ceremonies. Over 1000 years later, chocolate had made its way to Europe as a luxury enjoyed by the elite members of society (Coe and Coe, 158). The transformation of chocolate from a religious food to an indulgence for the wealthy is reflected through the vessels used to contain cacao. The culture and beliefs surrounding chocolate are reflected by a vessel found in a Mayan tomb discovery and the French silver chocolatière.



In 1984, archeologists uncovered a Mayan tomb from the late 5th century containing 14 decorated vessels. This tomb was found at Rio Azul, a Maya city located in Guatemala (Presilla, 46). Specifically, one artifact found in this tomb helped researchers to discover Cacao’s importance in Mayan funeral traditions. In their book, Michael D. Coe and Sophie D. Coe describe the artifact:


“There was a single example of an extremely rare form, a stirrup-handled pot with a screw-on lid. This strange object had been surfaced with stucco and brilliantly painted with six large hieroglyphs, including two which read ‘cacao.’” (Coe and Coe, 46)

Kakaw_(Mayan_word).pngFigure 1:  A close up of the glyph that helped identify this vessel. This symbol meant “cacao” in the Classic Maya period. 

Figure 2 (on left): The pot found at Rio Azul that Coe describes.


For the Mayans, chocolate was more than just a substance to consume. Chocolate held spiritual power. This connection between religion and chocolate is clear when we take into consideration the location of this pot. This artifact was found in a tomb, surrounding the body of the deceased ruler. When tested in a lab, this screw-top jar had traces of caffeine and theobromine—the two trace compounds found together only in chocolate (Martin.) This discovery confirmed that the ruler was buried with chocolate. For further proof that the vessel contained chocolate, researcher David Stuart decoded the glyphs along the outside to read “a drinking vessel for witik cacao, for kox caco” (Coe and Coe, 46).

Funerals and chocolate were also linked in Mayan scripture.  The Mayans believed that chocolate eased the journey to the underworld. Chocolate is mentioned in conjunction with different religious rituals in the Dresden Codex, a Maya text that still exists today (Martin).

Not only does the Rio Azul discovery reveal the connection between religion and chocolate, it also clues us into the consumption process. Some of the other vases are tall and narrow. They were picked up and poured into other pots to increase the foam.
Figure 3: This image is found on the Princeton Vase, and it depicts the process in which people made the chocolate drink. The chocolate was poured from one jug to the other to add froth, as the foam was considered the most important part. 



Luxury in the 18th century France

In France in the 17th and 18th centuries, the vessels used to contain chocolate also reflect the attitudes towards chocolate and the way it was imbibed. Chocolate was heralded as a beneficial delicacy with many health benefits. The French “are usually credited with the invention of the chocolatière, the chocolate pot ”(Coe and Coe, 156). Many of the elite took chocolate daily to cure a number of ailments (Coe and Coe, 156). The vessels from which hot chocolate was poured reflect the extravagance of the segment of society who embraced chocolate.


Figure 4 and 5: This chocolatière, currently on display in the Metropolitan museum of art, was made in the 1760s and  is typical for the time period.





“The French innovation seems to have been fix a straight wooden handle to the metal pot at right angles to the spout; this handle was usually unscrewed clockwise so that it would remain tight while pouring from the pot in a counter-clockwise motion. At the top was a hinged lid, with a central hole under the swiveling (or hinged) finial to take the handle of the moussoir (“froth maker”), as they called the molinillo.… Of course, this would have been in silver, as would the chocolatiers of all the nobility.” – Coe 


The extravagance of this pot highlights how only the wealthy had access to chocolate at the time. The average citizen would have never been able to afford such an intricate piece of silverware (Righthand). Chocolatières were also used as gifts between royalty. Coe cites the first appearance of a silver chocolatières in France as a gift from a Siamese mission. “It was not that the Thai had suddenly turned into chocolate drinkers (they never did so), but [the minister to the King of Siam] had obviously instructed the royal metalsmiths to turn out something that would appeal to the French court.” And the metalsmith’s idea of what would appeal to the French court was an extravagant set of chocolatières. The chocolatières given to the French court incuded “two chocolatières in silver, one with golden flowers and the other Japenned” as well as another “entirely in gold” (Coe and Coe, 158). Chocolatières were brought as a gift and to signify diplomacy. This incident establishes the way chocolate was viewed in society—something for only the elite to enjoy for pleasure.



Figure 6:  “La Famille du duc de Penthièvre en 1768” a painting by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier illustrates how chocolate was for the wealthy.


Same food, different cultures

For the Europeans of the 17th century, chocolate was a status symbol. As the price was still expensive, only the wealthy could afford to take chocolate. The intricacies of the chocolatières highlight their function in society. For the most part, chocolate no longer held any spiritual affiliation. While the Mayan pots were decorated with glyphs and drawings depicting what was inside and religious rituals, the chocolatières were ornately decorated illustrating the wealth and class of those who used them. Although both pots hold chocolate, their uses and sociological function were very different, illustrating the adaptation of chocolate as it spread to Europe as a secular delicacy, rather than a religious artifact.


Works cited:

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

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

Righthand, Jess. “A Brief History of the Chocolate Pot.” Smithsonian.com. February 13, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/brief-history-chocolate-pot-180954241/.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009 Print.







Significance of Cacao in Mayan Civilization: Exposing the Divine Origins of Chocolate and its Mysticism

Cacao and chocolate were important aspects of Mesoamerican civilizations’ customs and beliefs. In addition to drinking chocolate, Mayan societies utilized cacao for ritualistic purposes, an interesting aspect of chocolate’s history that deserves further exploration. While the Olmecs, active from 1500 to 400 BCE, were most likely the first to make chocolate from cacao beans, the focus will be on the Mayans’ utilization of chocolate. Evidence suggests that cacao was an integral part of their society as it was embedded in their religious beliefs. Understanding these historical uses and origins of cacao illuminates the reasons chocolate is represented as a luxurious item in today’s society. The representation of cacao in the Mayan religion established chocolate as a powerful entity, which shaped the ways that chocolate was utilized, and contributed to its essence of purity.

            The common association of cacao with godly figures derives from its origin story. According to Mayan religious beliefs, their gods discovered cacao.[1] Consequently, cacao, or chocolate, is termed “food of the gods.”[2] There are two Mayan Gods worth mentioning to emphasize the importance of cacao in their society. The first, Ek Chuah, was supposedly honored by the Maya in an annual festival.[3] While some chocolate historians term Ek Chuah the Maya Merchant God, others refer to Ek Chuah as the Cacao God.[4][5] Regardless, Ek Chuah was an important deity to the Mayans, and commonly presented with cacao or a cacao tree.[6] The second, the Maize God, was an important deity, as maize was necessary to sustain life.[7] The image below illustrates the Maize God, on the right, presumably conversing with the figure on the left (Image 1). The Maize God is depicted as older and in control of the discussion, compared to the younger, timid being on the left, suggests he is authoritative in the Mayan religion. In another recreation of the Maize God, he is portrayed as a cacao tree.[8] That cacao is associated with this powerful god signifies the importance of cacao in Mayan religion and justifies its use in significant Mayan rituals.


(Image 1)

            The strong connection between cacao and the gods established chocolate as a mystical and highly valued substance. Records from Mayan society, written in hieroglyphics, reveal the significance of cacao in the Mayan rituals. One document, called the Dresden Codex, describes rituals in which the gods consume cacao.[9] Another document, called Popol Vuh, also mentions cacao in combination with godly rituals.[10] That cacao was used by divine beings qualifies chocolate as a divine entity as well. Labeling chocolate as “food of the gods” implicates cacao as a substance worthy to unworldly beings, which has resulted in mystical and pure connotations being attached to cacao. These associations have extended to the present-day, demonstrated by the chocolate named “Food of the Gods,” displayed in the image below (Image 2). This brand name implies this chocolate is pure and of high quality. That this phrase and idea is employed in chocolate marketing strategies today validates the historical significance of cacao’s divine origins, and is representative of expectations that chocolate is pure and of high value.


(Image 2)

            The symbolic importance of cacao is exemplified by the Mayas’ incorporation of chocolate pottery vessels in their burial rituals. Cacao was included in numerous different ceremonies in Mayan society, including baptisms, banquets, weddings, and funerals.[11] Fascinatingly, archaeological excavation of ancient Mayan graves found tombs filled with chocolate pottery vessels.[12] Noteworthy, these vessels are only found in tombs of the Mayan elite presumably because only those in the highest social circles consumed chocolate.[13] The image below pictures a pottery vessel from Classic Maya society that contained chocolate (Image 3).[14] This presents a characteristic chocolate pottery vessel buried in a tomb of a Mayan elite. The delicate shape and intricacy of the images on the side of the vessel indicate that not only was chocolate highly valued, but the container the substance was consumed from was also of high value, probably only affordable by the wealthiest Mayans. The purpose of burying these formerly cacao-filled pottery vessels with the deceased resided in the Mayan belief that chocolate assisted the soul’s travel to death.[15] Perhaps Mayan society only buried these pottery vessels with the elite because they were the only individuals worthy of cacao’s powers in the afterlife. Again, this represents the mystical abilities of cacao, attributable to its divine origins and association with the gods.


(Image 3)

            The use of chocolate for medicinal purposes in Mayan society also exemplifies the mystical abilities associated with cacao, attributable to its discovery by the gods. In most modern western societies today, chocolate is not used as a medical treatment, but rather is detrimental to health when consumed in large quantities. The Mayans utilized chocolate for health ailments such as digestive issues, fatigue, and inflammation.[16] Similar to the argument made for chocolate’s powers in the afterlife, the belief in cacao’s healing powers also arguably originates from its divine origins. The belief that chocolate possessed healing abilities portrays it as a mystical substance. This is historically significant because while the Mayans may have been the first society to utilize cacao for medicinal purposes, it is certainly not unique to their society now, as this treatment was adopted by cultures and societies as cacao spread throughout the world in subsequent centuries.[17] The Aztecs and even doctors in 16th and 17th century Europe placed faith in the healing powers of cacao.[18] The medicinal use of cacao helped cement the illusion of chocolate as a pure, mystical, and powerful substance, These mystical abilities established chocolate as a special, highly-valued, and pure substance, perceptions of cacao that have persisted to the present-day.

Thinking of chocolate probably triggers happy memories for most people, but for most individuals in modern western societies today, it most likely does not elicit symbolic or religious meaning. However, for the Mayans, chocolate was strongly associated with their gods and played an active role in their rituals. Cacao possessed powerful skills, able to help the dead pass into the afterlife, and cure health ailments. The association of cacao with divine beings established chocolate as a special substance, and set a precedent for it as a highly-valued, pure, and luxurious item, only to be consumed by worthy, elite individuals. The symbolic significance and use of cacao in Mayan society plays an important historical role in how chocolate would be used and by whom in the following centuries, and the connotations attached to it in present-day cultures.

[1] Teresa L. Dillinger, Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti, “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate,” The American Society for Nutritional Sciences 130 (2000): 2057-72, accessed March 7, 2017, http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf+html.

[2] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,” in The True History of Chocolate, (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013), 33-64.

[3] Dillinger et al., “Food of the Gods.”

[4] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[5] Dillinger et al., “Food of the Gods.”

[6] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[7] Donatella Lippi, “Sin and Pleasure: The History of Chocolate in Medicine,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 63 (2015): 9936-9941, accessed March 7, 2017, doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.5b00829.

[8] Coe and Coe, “The Tree,” 43.

[9] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Carla D. Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods,’” lecture for Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food course, Cambridge, MA, February, 1, 2017.

[12] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Coe and Coe, “The Tree,” 47.

[15] Martin, “Mesoamerica.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lippi, “Sin and Pleasure.”

[18] Dillinger, “Food of the Gods.”


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods.” In The True History  of Chocolate, 33-64. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.

Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The American Society for Nutritional Sciences 130 (2000): 2057-72. Accessed March 7, 2017. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf+html.

Lippi, Donatella. “Sin and Pleasure: The History of Chocolate in Medicine.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 63 (2015): 9936-9941. Accessed March 7, 2017. Doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.5b00829.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods.’” Lecture for Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food course, Cambridge, MA, February, 1, 2017.

Multimedia sources

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maize_God_and_Itzamn%C3%A1.JPG

Image 2: http://www.foodofthegods.org.uk/

Image 3: http://www.artehistoria.com/v2/contextos/3850.htm

Native Culture in Relation to Our Perception of Chocolate

Our understanding of chocolate and the context in which it is consumed has evolved since chocolate was first “founded or created” by the Olmecs. The Mayans and Aztecs had specific customs and beliefs regarding cacao and its consumption in society. These practices have long since been lost in America’s contemporary relationship with chocolate. In this short essay, I will contrast the Mayan and Aztec traditions from our current traditions regarding chocolate; and further, argue that the ritual and religious aspect of cacao has evolved in today’s popular society.

Cacao originated in the north-west of South America and thus this area is the cultural center for cacao. Although the Aztecs and Mayans differed slightly in their consumption habits and practices, the cultural significance of cacao still held the same value in their respective societies. Cacao carried both social and religious prestige among the indigenous people. Not only was it called “the food of the gods”, but it was also prized enough to be used as currency.

Maya Cacao God. Retrieved from Cornell University.

The photo shown to the right depicts the cacao god. Gods were often associated with trees, linking the cacao trees and gods together. Vessels and bowls that once held cacao have been preserved and show us hieroglyphs representing both Gods and cacao; further exhibiting the religious significance of chocolate in their society (Coe 43). Cacao was also revered for its magical and god-like powers. Chocolate was linked to concepts of strength and power; for example “the warriors, the backbone of the Aztec state, were another group permitted chocolate. Cacao, in fact, was a regular part of military rations” (Coe 98). Cacao was an integral part of the Aztec and Mayan religious practices. In rituals the cacao pod was used to symbolize the human heart torn out for sacrifice (Coe 103). However, cacao’s power in Mayan and Aztec society extended beyond that of religion and military. Cacao played a significant role in banquets, baptisms, weddings, and burials. Cacao was also integrated in marriage rituals. For example, it was normal for the father of the potential bride to invite the father of the boy to discuss the marriage proposal over a chocolate beverage. Additionally, cacao was often given as a dowry. These practices show what a compelling force chocolate was to the Aztecs and Mayans.

While chocolate still has a strong presence today, it does not carry the same significance to us as it did to Aztecs and Mayans; yet, I would argue that we still have a ritualistic connection to chocolate. The industrialization of the food industry, while benefiting the capitalist side of the chocolate industry, took away the religious and traditional aspect of chocolate. With the invention of preserving, mechanization, retailing, and transporting, chocolate and other food stuffs become readily available and easily accessible to the public at large. Not only did industrialization make foodstuff less perishable but it also made it easier to disperse; “critical to the growth of the overseas trade was the development of large cargo ships capable of transporting  the raw materials to the metropolitan country in exchange  for the mass export of manufactured goods” (Goody 82).


The graph depicted on the left is from 2009 and shows the consumption of chocolate each year, consumed per person in pounds. The industrialization, mass production, and exportation of chocolate has led to a completely different public sentiment towards chocolate. In comparison to during the Aztec and Mayan era, because of its affordability, chocolate has become less of a luxury item. The invention of technology like the conch, the five roller refiner, and the hydraulic press have made chocolate manufacturing more efficient. The Mars company was famous for its efficiency in chocolate production. They employed engineers to improve the efficiency of their machines and “the result of this effort was the most efficient candy-making operation in the business” (Brenner 83). Mars additionally, created the Snickers bar that was only coated in chocolate, reducing its price and increasing its affordability; thereby, making their chocolate bars even more competitive in the free market. But despite chocolate lacking its previous characteristic as a luxury item, it still retains the quality of being an indulgent good. Thus, one could argue that the ritualistic aspect of chocolate is its mass and quite often consumption. Further, chocolate still carries significance on certain religious holidays.

For example, chocolate is central in the victorian creation of Valentine’s day. Chocolate has become an essential consumerist part of the festivities.

Starbucks Valentine’s Day Commercial

The video featured above was Starbuck’s 2017 Valentine’s day commercial, starring: chocolate. Generally the celebration of Valentine’s day is heteronormative as well as consumerist. This Valentine’s day commercial doesn’t play off of the normal gender binary, but, it does clearly link chocolate to the celebration. Chocolate is still an important part of religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. Yet, while its place in the celebrations is solidified, its religious significance is not quite as apparent as it was under the Aztecs and Mayans.

Thus, while chocolate is no longer the star of athletics, marriages, weddings, baptisms, burials, or rituals, its presence is still prominent in many of our religious celebrations. The mass distribution and consumption of chocolate has taken away from its spiritual and traditional uses in society. Yet, this same commercialism and mass distribution has allowed chocolate to remain a constant power and presence in today’s society.


Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars.
       New York: Broadway, 2000. Print.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and              Hudson, 2013. Print.
Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge,         2013. Print.

Mayan marriage traditions around cacao and chocolate

Chocolate and cacao was imbued with religious meaning and incorporated into ceremonies in unique ways that still carry over to today. Particularly poignant examples can be found in the context of the marriage traditions of the Maya. Chocolate was used by the Maya to seal marriage negotiations and ceremonies. Coe and Coe illustrate how special a role cocoa played in Mayan wedding explaining how brides and grooms would each exchange five cacao beans along with their vows  to execute the contract of marriage. (Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 2013, Kindle Locations 868-870.)

Such an important role cacao and chocolate played in marriage traditions that it too was represented in important historical artifacts of the Maya.

Image 1. A depiction of an exchange of cacao beans during a marriage ceremony.

This post classic Maya picture comes from the Codex Nuttall and shows a Mayan wedding scene in which chocolate is being exchanged by the bride, Lady 13 Snake, and groom, Mixtec king 8 Deer “Tiger Claw” of Tilantongo. (Mixtec)

The longevity of this tradition is apparent in many Mayan wedding traditions even today. For example, the Awakateko are a Mayan ethnic group from the that reside in the Aguacatan municipality located in the northwestern highlands of modern-day Guatemala. Mayan marriage traditions practiced today by this people still feature cacao quite prominently. For example,  after marriage negotiation between families, a marriage ceremony is performed which is  known as a quicyuj. The quicyuj means “cacao beans” and referential to the Mayan custom of using cacao beans to pay bride-prices/dowries to cement the contract to marry between the groom and bride. (Brintnall, 1979, pp. 82-84) 

Final Mayan Chocolate vessel Illustration
Image 2. A depiction of a premarital bride-price negotiation and exchange.

A modern example of  a traditional Mayan wedding ceremony showcasing the role of cacao beans may be viewed here.

The relationship between chocolate and marriages would extend beyond the ceremony and negotiations; chocolate was used as a tie that could bind people and families together but it was also used to keep them together, particularly by women. Typically, chocolate  drinks were made by women rather than men and so that role was unique. An example of a woman making chocolate in the traditional Mayan fashion may be viewed here.  

After the Spanish conquest, chocolate continued to be used to treat marital difficulties by women who learned from the indigenous women of the area. For instance, in Guatemala during the 16th century when experiencing marital difficulties, like infidelity or spousal abuse, women would often turn to serving bewitched  or “doctored” chocolate drinks to their partners.(Few, 2005, pp. 673-687) These specially prepared chocolate drinks were thought to imbue women with powers over men, and so offered women who prepared this drink a certain amount of agency, particularly significant for indigenous women and African/Mulatto women that often worked as domestics or slaves in  during the Spanish colonial period of Guatemala, around the 16th century.

Understanding more about how cacao and chocolate was incorporated into rituals around marriage, both in the pre-Columbian and colonial periods, is fascinating. it is interesting to briefly explore how Mayan traditions surrounding cocoa, chocolate and marriage related to today’s customs and to women. From the exchange of cacao beans to execute a marriage contract to the preparation of bewitched chocolate drinks to preserve a marriage, chocolate and cacao played a pivotal role.


Brintnall, D E. 1979. Revolt Against the Dead: The Modernization of a Mayan Community in the Highlands of Guatemala. Library of Anthropology. Gordon and Breach. https://books.google.com/books?id=-Merrz3IoqUC. (82-84)

Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Locations 868-870). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.

Few, M. (2005). Chocolate, sex, and disorderly women in late-seventeenth-and early-eighteenth-century Guatemala. Ethnohistory, 52(4), 673-687

Mixtec. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2016, from http://www.ancientscripts.com/mixtec.html

Restall, M. (2009). The Black middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in colonial Yucatan. CA: Stanford University Press. (271-272)


  1. A depiction of an exchange of cacao beans during a marriage ceremony[Photograph found in Codex Zouche-Nuttall, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria]. (2015, December 4). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/images-ans/ans_21_06_2.jpg
  2. Mayan Chocolate vessel Illustration [Photograph found in Denver Art Museum, Denver]. (2012, November). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from http://creativity.denverartmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Final-Mayan-Chocolate-vessel-Illustration.jpg

Multimedia Sources

Spirituality Riviera Maya: Traditional Mayan Wedding Spirituality Riviera Maya [Video file]. (2013, October 25). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xosdr-Tj_nI (Marriage ceremony showcasing the Mayan tradition of exchanging cocoa beans)

Toledo Ecotourism Association – making a chocolate drink [Video file]. (2008, May 10). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE (Mayan woman making a traditional chocolate drink of chocolate and maize)

The Role of Cacao in Aztec Customs

Introduction to Aztecs

The Aztecs were the people of the fifth sun who lived in Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) and spoke the Nahuatl language. From the 14th-16th centuries they dominated much of Mesoamerica, however, history remembers them as cruel, volatile and sadistic people. This stereotype arose because it benefited the Spaniards to paint the Aztec people in a bad light. The quote, “history is written by the victors” illuminates this point. What we study and remember about historical events comes from the eye of those who are able to live and tell the story. The fact of the matter is that we will never know everything about the Aztec culture but one thing we know for sure is that the cacao bean was incredibly significant in their everyday lives.


Making of Chocolate

Figure 1. This image shows the care and time it takes to make the chocolate drink. In this picture the women is moving the chocolate from one basin to another in order to create a layer of foam.

When we think of chocolate today we think of a sweet, brown block of food that is enjoyed as a desert or a sugary snack. This chocolate is derived from the theobroma cacao bean. The Aztecs used these theobroma cacao beans in a very different way. A man known as the Anonymous Conqueror, a gentleman of Hernan Cortez, described the way chocolate was prepared in Tenochtitlan. The seeds of cacao were ground and made into a powder that was put into basins and mixed with water. After mixing for an extended period of time they change it from one basin to another in order to create a layer of foam. When completed, the delicacy is to be served cold as a drink. (Coe and Coe, 87) “The conqueror describes this drink as the healthiest thing and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”(Coe and Coe, 87) Chocolate in the Aztec culture was not a sweet drink for everyone to enjoy; it had an intense bitter taste and was reserved for the Aztec elite.



Chocolate Drinking, A Royal Pleasure

The drinking of chocolate was primarily for the Royal house, the lords and nobility. The only commoners who had the privilege of drinking chocolate were the soldiers as it was thought to rejuvenate warriors before they entered battle. Chocolate was a delicacy that was not available to everyone in the Aztec culture. The drinking of chocolate was also a civil and ritualized process. According to Fray Bartolome de las Casas, who was one of the first Dominicans in the Americas, royalty drank chocolate out of calabash cups called xicalli in Nahuatl that were painted inside and out. Chocolate was also never drank during the meals rather it was sipped after the meal was over. “It was an ambrosia from the rich and exotic lands of Anahuac, not something to wash down one’s food.”(Coe and Coe, 94)



Role of Chocolate as Currency

The other interesting aspect of cacao that signified its importance in the Aztec culture was how it was used as a form of currency. According to the Codice Mendoza, cacao beans had taken on the status of legal money. “The cacao beans of Soconusco were particularly valued as records indicate an annual tribute of 200 hundred loads of 24,00 beans each to the capital.” (Presilla, 17) Another historical record of the importance of cacao was from Christopher Colombus’ son Ferdinand who recounted in a letter; “they dropped some nuts and immediately stooped to rescue any that dropped as if an eye had fallen from their heads” (Presilla, 17). Ferdinand was referring to the cacao beans when he said ‘nuts’ but the reaction of the Aztec people shows the importance of these beans and is testimony that they may have carried monetary value in addition to their intrinsic value.


Figure 2: The exchange of cacao beans between gods. Cacao was used in many ways and was also used as a form of currency.


Chocolate in Aztec Rituals




Figure 3. This image is a depiction of the heart extraction ritual that was performed once every year by the Aztec people. The use of chocolate in this ritual signifies its importance in the Aztec culture.

Chocolate was engrained in the culture and rituals of the Aztec people. When members of Aztec royalty and nobility hosted guests they would often invite them to partake in the drinking of chocolate. This gesture was meant as a great honor to the guest who received the chocolate. (Presilla, 19) Another specialized ritual that occurred every year among the Aztecs was the sacred heart extraction in Tenochtitlan. One slave would be chosen to dress up and impersonate the great god Quetzalcoatl for 40 days. When the 40 days came to an end the slave would be required to sacrifice himself to the gods. Throughout the process the slave had to act and dance joyously as if he was lucky to be honored as the one chosen to sacrifice himself to the gods. It is said that if the individual became melancholy he would be given a gourd of chocolate to drink. The slave would immediately forget the situation he was in and would return to his usual cheerfulness. (Coe and Coe, 102) The use of chocolate in these types of rituals shows how highly the Aztecs viewed chocolate and how important it was in their culture.





It is clear that the Aztec people viewed cacao as more than just a food or drink. Cacao was reserved for the elite of Aztec society and carried cultural and monetary significance that made it so important and so valuable to the Aztec people.



Works Cited:

  1. Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.
  2. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.