Tag Archives: symbolism

Chocolate, Religion and Hierarchy: Chocolate’s Religious Symbolism in Pre-Columbian Mayan Culture and its Evolution under Colonialism

The widespread availability of chocolate today hardly hints any relation to hierarchical systems. The mass production of it as a confection and how it readily available for consumption at different quality levels reveals little about its rich history. Long before the European settlement in the Americas, chocolate, or rather the fruit it is borne from, symbolized wealth, and social and religious status in Mesoamerica societies. Here, I will briefly discuss how its hierarchical symbolism with respect to religion evolved in Mayan societies before and during colonialism.

The hierarchical symbolism of chocolate in Mayan culture can be traced through an ethnographical study of Mayan celebratory rituals. In his essay “The Language of Chocolate”, David Stuarts writes about how such ethnographical studies from Central Mexico reveal that chocolate was enjoyed by the elites (Stuart 184). Feasting rites among the elite, in particular, in Mayan Yucatan were heavily documented in chocolate vessels, which describe chocolate’s involvement in extravagant gift-giving formalities in its cacao bean form (Reents-Budet 207). This was viewed as a method for forging sociopolitical alliances among the elite (Reents-Budet 209). In its drink form, cacao was consumed during “ceremonies to seal important social contracts and confirm the legitimacy of dynasties” (Martin et al. 39). Moreover, the use of cacao beverages did not only exist in worldly rituals. Mayan glyphs and art show that the Gods also used cacao beverages to honor guests in divine rituals such as seen in figure 1. Thus, it is apparent that the use of cacao in Mayan rituals reflects how chocolate itself was a symbol of extravagance and hierarchy. 

Figure 1: Mayan God L with Hero Twins, servant behind the God pouring a chocolate beverage.

However, cacao beans and chocolate also possessed religious symbolism that contributed to their hierarchical symbolism. Evidence from Mayan vessels reveal in their hieroglyphs that the Maize God is often embodied as a cacao tree (McNeil 155). Gods in the Mayan tradition are portrayed as trees to show a celestial cycle of death. The roots are in the underworld, the trunk in the middle world and the branches in the heavens. The Maize God is highly regarded in that maize is a staple Mayan crop, thus the association between the Maize God and the cacao tree shows a highly esteemed religious connection and divinity that is possessed by cacao. Beyond representation in religious glyphs, the religious symbolism of cacao can be extended to the notion of “court dwarfs” in Mayan culture. Christian Prager writes that dwarf figurines were placed in Mayan courts to symbolize social power and religious authority (Prager 279). This is rooted in the pre-Mayan Olmec belief that four dwarfs were tasked with propping up heaven. Moreover, dwarfs were seen as companions of the Sun and Maize Gods, thus further solidifying their divine symbolism. Hence, these dwarfs were placed in Mayan courts to further this symbolism. However, it is important to note that these dwarfs would sometimes be sculpted as carrying cacao pods, as seen in figure 2. This further displays that cacao possessed divine value and reflected a type of religious symbolism so that it can be manifested in Mayan society as a hierarchical instrument. 

Figure 2: A Mayan figurine of court dwarf bearing a cacao pod.

This religious symbolism of cacao did not end with colonialism but only transformed under it. The initial European interaction with cacao upon their settlement in Mesoamerica was through the introduction of the cacao bean as a form of currency (Martin et al. 40). However, with the spread of Catholicism by the European settlers in Mayan territory, specifically Mexico, cacao beans soon crossed over into the realm of religiosity. The conversion of indigenous Mexicans led them to create offerings to Jesus. These offerings were often in the form of cacao beans, as was done to indigenous God (Aguilar-Moreno 276). A prominent example is the statue of “Christ of the Cacao” in Mexico City as shown in figure 3. While these offerings were not consumed by Christ, but by the priests of the cathedral, they were converted into wealth, such as in the case of seventeenth century friar in Mexico and Guatemala Thomas Gage (Aguilar-Moreno 276). Here, we see that the symbolism of cacao is multifaceted: it showed a relationship to Jesus and also remained a symbol for wealth. 

Figure 3: Christ of the Cacao: A 16th century colonial Mexican sculpture in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City.

However, does the link between colonial Catholicism and symbolism in cacao extend beyond the borders of the colony? In 1577, Dominican friar in Chiapas did write to the Pope asking for some guidance as to whether chocolate could be appropriately consumed on days when oen is fasting. The Pope never offered a written reply but it is told that he simply laughed with his cardinals. The link to Catholicism in Europe extended beyond this lone interaction, the status of chocolate has long been debated by Catholic scholars in the 1620s and 1630s, with reservations appearing on how to incorporate this seemingly pagan product into the Catholic Church. While here there is a recognition of religious value, it is hard to determine whether or not this religious value was accepted by the Catholic Church in Europe. Nevertheless, the role of chocolate and cacao as a status symbol did cross over into the European continent: it is told that Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were prescribed chocolate by their physician to consume daily during breakfast, seemingly due to chocolate’s energizing benefits. The heavy royal consumption of chocolate and its high regard within the royal court deemed it a luxury item, showing that it did remain a status symbol beyond the Mesoamerican realm. 

Nevertheless, it is important to note that beyond colonialism, Mesoamerican cultures still regarded chocolate highly. Their reverence of cacao beans and their products shifted and adapted to the colonial influences that were introduced into their territory. While it failed to have the same religious symbolism in Europe, chocolate did enter the continent as an item symbolizing social hierarchy. Thus, one can say that the evolution of chocolate as a religious symbol remained within Mesoamerica but its hierarchical symbolism was able to cross the Atlantic into the European continent. 


  1. “Dwarf Figurine.” Wikimedia Commons, Baltimore, MD, 25 Mar. 2012, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_-_Dwarf_Figurine_-_Walters_20092036_-_Three_Quarter_Right.jpg.
  2. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72-95.
  3. Anagoria. “ El Señor Del Cacao.” Wikimedia Commons, Mexico City, 22 Dec. 2013, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2013-12-22_El_Señor_del_cacao_anagoria.JPG.
  4. Lacambalam. “Tonsured Maize God and Spotted Hero Twin.” Wikimedia Commons, 25 Sept. 2014, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hero_Twins.JPG.
  5. Manuel, Aguilar-moreno. “The Good and Evil of Chocolate in Colonial Mexico.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 13.
  6. 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.
  7. Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 8.
  8. Prager, Christian. “Court Dwarfs – The Companions of Rulers and Envoys of the Underworld.” Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest, by Nikolai Grube, Konemann, 2001, pp. 278–279.
  9. Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among of the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 10.
  10. Robicsek, Francis. “God L with the Hero Twins.” Wikimedia Commons, Princeton, NJ, 31 Oct. 2009, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God_L_with_the_Hero_Twins.jpg.
  11. Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.”Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 9.

Symbolism and Story in Contemporary Confection: A Profile of Alma Chocolate in Portland, Oregon

The Alma label is built around a nineteenth century botanical image of theobroma cacao by the Dutch artist, Berthe Hoola Van Nootenn. Visually connecting plant product to value-added product is a conscious choice for a business like Alma, particularly because cacao is not a plant most people outside of the tropical belt recognize. The illustration doesn’t note the variety of theobroma but its characteristics match that of the Cundeamor variety, a type of the treasured Criollo, with its deeply ridged and warty exterior and that curved, pointy tip (Presilla 2009, 62). The external characteristics of cacao pods vary hugely, even within a single variety of the species, but none of them are recognizable to the unfamiliarized eye. And chocolate is not a commodity most people think much about beyond gustatory pleasure. So I went to talk to Sarah Hart, owner of Alma Chocolates, about that Cundeamor pod on their label and the other subtle ways the company pays homage to the complex history of cacao. I wanted to know if Alma’s aesthetic nods to that history are meant to incite curiosity and conversation about its cultural significance.


The Makery, a Storied Space

The Alma Chocolate Makery in Portland, Oregon, is situated in a large and lofty space in a chic industrial corner of the city. I immediately noticed the cacao print hanging on the wall just inside the shop doors, framed in a slender and slightly chipped wood frame that looks like it may have hung in a grandmother’s dining room. The print hangs above shelves neatly lined with Alma’s signature caramel and complements the piquant aroma of steamed chocolate that hangs in the air. The production space is set behind two massive, blue-tinted, hanging wooden doors that look like they could have come straight from a sixteenth century mission in cacao country. Alma’s signature gold-leafed chocolates are displayed in a case lined with roasted cacao beans. The space was clearly designed with a reverence to the product and craft, and all who walk through the unassuming doors are encouraged to think about what exactly it is that they’re buying.


Honoring Chocolate

Sarah Hart moves quickly, smiles easily, and loves chocolate. She got the idea to start Alma almost fifteen years ago when she was putting together an Easter basket for her son and lamenting the fact that, despite how much and for how long she’d loved chocolate, most of the chocolate products available paid little mind to the cultural value of cacao or chocolate as craft. That Easter basket was a turning point in her life. Alma is not a bean-to-bar chocolatier but a confectioner with chocolate at its core. Hart learned the craft and built Alma out of the simple thought that “what is made out of chocolate should be amazing.” If we give chocolate that care and attention, Hart believes, we can change the industry.


The Story

Alma is driven by a reverence for the cultural history of cacao and a mission to honor its sacred beginnings. The about page of their website states “Its Latin names, theobroma, means ‘food of the gods.’ We are believers.” The plant name speaks of the sacred connection honored by Mesoamerican civilizations in their depictions and uses of cacao. Long before chocolate was made into hollow bunnies that taste more like milk than chocolate, it was a beverage and product that was treated with the utmost reverence. These first imbibers of cacao reserved the valuable beans for sacred rituals and as offerings to deities, kings, and people with whom they wished to win favor. For the Maya, cacao was perceived as connected to and representative of their gods, and consumed during their most important rituals connected to death, birth, and marriage. In the codices of the Classic Maya period, as well as in some Aztec renderings, we see cacao pods growing on the bodies of gods, the cacao tree in scenes of deities interacting, and hot, foamy cacao being poured and shared in the midst of sacred rituals.

Image by Mat Jones (http://mexicolore.co.uk) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the year she spent learning to make chocolate and thinking about what it meant to her, Hart recognized a particular thread in the way we talk about chocolate that suggests its sacred past. As the daughter of a minister, “It was not lost on [her] that a lot of how people talk about chocolate is really religious and spiritual language, it’s the language of sin and redemption.”


While Alma doesn’t use imagery of Maya or Aztec rituals, those striking, gold-leafed icon chocolates are influenced by the Mexican Catholic traditions of the farmers she met while working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. The gold leafing also calls to attention the value and symmetry of the two materials – cacao and gold – and cacao’s historic usage as currency by MesoAmerican civilizations. It’s a different kind of sacred imagery, but sacred all the same, and allows Hart to fulfill the Alma mission while standing out from the ever-growing crowd of artisan confectioners and chocolatiers.

Left Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Drinking Chocolate

The Maya word chokola’j refers to the drinking of chocolate together, an interaction that often carried great ritual and social significance. In their two shops, Alma offers a repertoire of traditional and signature drinking chocolates. The Mayan Milagro is made with ingredients typical to the Maya region of what is now modern-day Mexico – dark chocolate, ground almonds, chiles, and cinnamon. The drink’s description reminds me of the Mexican mole sauce. The Jasmine tea-infused version calls to mind the once-secret recipe created by Francesco Redi, physician and apothecary to the Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici of seventeenth century Italy. Redi’s delicate jasmine-infused drinking chocolate became famous and highly sought after in European courts a the time (Coe and Coe 2013, 145).


The Chocolate Pause

Alma chocolates cannot be chosen or enjoyed without a moment of pause because they are divine but also because they are unique in their inspiration. A sip or bite of an Alma product demands reflection. That’s what Hart wants, that’s part of the mission of Alma – for chocolate to be a pausing point. My frothy cup of Mayan Milagro did just that – the almonds were left in tangible pieces, the mixture was barely sweet, and the chile and cinnamon interacted in such a way as to create a flavor all their own. It seemed more akin to Mayan drinking chocolate than what we now know as hot chocolate. Alma chocolate drinks differ from those ancient drinks to appeal and be palatable to a modern audience, of course, but the recipes are a respectful nod to cacao’s culinary history.

Hart says about chocolate, “If you stop and really taste it, there is something almost meditative [about it]. You have to stop and really pay attention and that actually brings you to yourself and the present moment.” The taste of an Alma chocolate will undoubtedly bring a discerning palette to the present moment but that old illustration of cacao and all of Alma’s distinct aesthetic choices spark a critical curiosity about the long road between pod and mug.




Citations & References

“The Flora of 19th Century Java.” 1996. BusinessWorld: 32. ProQuest.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Hart, Sarah. 2017. Recorded oral interview, March 6, 2017. On file with author. Portland, Oregon.

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 1: Mesoamerica and the food of the gods.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 1 Feb. 2017. Lecture.

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

*All photographs by author. Photographs are not public domain.