Tag Archives: witchcraft

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)

Servility and Witchcraft: Women’s Gender Roles in Relation to Chocolate in Ancient Mesoamerica

By now we’ve covered the different ways in which chocolate has historically been prepared, consumed, and depicted in anthropological, medical, and spiritual accounts, but not much attention has been paid to who, historically, has been responsible for preparing it. While the demography of chocolate consumption in ancient Mesoamerica allows insight into people’s developing relationship with chocolate ¾ what it meant in its “home” societies and, eventually, to other parts of the world ¾ who most often prepared or gave chocolate can offer insight into people’s developing relationships with each other. Specifically, I’ll be discussing how women’s relationship with chocolate preparation throughout Mesoamerican history may have served to interact with and perpetuate female subjugation and domestication during pre-colonial and colonial periods, primarily through an examination of images (and modern videos) depicting chocolate preparation and chocolate’s connection with female “sexual witchcraft”.

In Mayan society, chocolate was consumed by people of a variety of social classes, genders, etc., whereas the Aztecs later adopted cacao and chocolate as food of the gods, of the elite, and of wealth (Coe and Coe, Martin). Both cultures included cacao or drinking chocolate in religious, marital, and medicinal affairs (Coe and Coe, Martin). But when observing codex and print images of chocolate-making, chocolate gifting, and chocolate consumption, there appear to be strong gender trends: men are most often depicted as receiving or consuming chocolate, and women as making it. Few points out that current evidence suggests that women were, in fact, primarily responsible for chocolate preparation at least in post-classic Maya culture (675). For example, the three images below are all from different eras and different contexts, but the woman’s role in the cooking (and/or gifting) of chocolate is present in all three:


[ Image Credit: Blake, Edgar. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology, Vol. 63, No. 6 (November/December 2010), pp. 20-25. Archaeological Institute of America. Accessed via JSTOR, 20/02/2014 12:56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41780626 ]


[ Image Credit: Taken from an article on GourmetSleuth.com, which in turn credits the photograph as follows: ” RCI Endless Vacation, March/April 2002. This is from an exhibit at the Field Museum, in Chicago, Illinois.”  Citation for article: Bowman, Barbara. “Mexican Chocolate.” GourmetSleuth.com. Accessed 02/20/14. <http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/Articles/Coffee-Tea-Chocolate-650/mexican-chocolate.aspx&gt; ]


[Image Credit: “Cacao/Chocolate.” National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for the Humanities, Oaxaca 2014. Accessed 02/20/14. <http://blogs.uoregon.edu/mesoinstitute/about/curriculum-unit-development/stem/ethnobiology/sample-chocolate-curricular-materials/&gt; ]

In the bottom-right corner of the first image is a woman who was revealed to be, when the image was restored, pouring chocolate into a basin to create froth, presumably for the male god in the top-left. The image is of Mayan origin, 8th century C.E. (Edgar, 24). Then, the woman in the second image is preparing a traditional chocolate drink on a metate ¾ it is nearly impossible to find a video or an image of a man, even in the modern day, doing the same; captured depictions of native peoples making these drinks are so overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the gendered chocolate-making trends from ancient Mesoamerican tradition have carried over, at least to some extent. Finally, that the princess, in the Mixtec codex, is presenting her husband with chocolate, and not the other way around, seems to allude to the woman’s subject status. The overwhelming prevalence of past and present representations of native women as chocolate-preparers implies that chocolate-making was highly gendered in that culture, and likely viewed as a feminine, and quite servile, activity in line with other forms of cooking and homemaking. In fact, to Spanish colonists in Guatemala who had adopted natives’ chocolate-making practices, the idea of men routinely preparing chocolate for women, even for a wife, has been described as “unnatural” and something only a “coward” would do (Few, 678). Chocolate may have been, in many ways, a respected beverage, but the means of making it still seem to be confined in the domestic, womanly sphere in a way that participated in their historical subjugation. That is to say, reinforced a colonial society where native women were “an indispensable part of the household as domestic servants” (Norton, 15).

In some regions of colonial Mesoamerica the 1600s and 1700s, kinds of “sexual witchcraft” transformed women’s position as the key makers of chocolate into one with some amount of (often destructive) power (Few, 674-675). Since women held the primary role in chocolate preparation, and as local customs allowed them a variety of opportunities to serve that chocolate to men, many took the opportunity to lace or poison chocolate drinks ¾ or, more commonly, infuse them with ingredients meant to sexually sway or deter their men (Few, 677, 679; Ardren, 13). Women would, for example, wash their genitals in water and use that water as the base for a chocolate beverage meant to aid in seduction or “sexual control” (Few, 679). In turn, men also became aware of these practices, and would occasionally try to seduce women who had just given them chocolate, claiming that the women had put some form of sexual witchcraft in it. Here, it looks like women had transformed their confinement to the domestic sphere and therefore the preparation of chocolate into a source of power, but the power is subversive, sexuality-based, and (aside from the poisonings) relatively benign. That, and the act of adding strange secret ingredients is here referred to as “witchcraft”, an oppressive title saturating the understanding of women in many parts of North America during this period. Women’s “power” over chocolate ¾ and what went into it ¾ ultimately served as another means to perpetuate female stereotypes.

Overall, gendered trends in chocolate preparation evident through ancient and modern visual representations seem to align with, and likely contribute to, the establishment of women’s “place” in the domestic sphere, and, perhaps, their social position beneath the men in those societies, something that has bled through time and appears in the media today. As a closing note, I’ve provided a video of several Mexican women teaching a man how to prepare chocolate ¾ again, on the internet, women are overwhelmingly shown making these traditional drinks.

Works Cited

Ardren, Traci. “Studies of Gender in the Prehispanic Areas”. Journal of Archaeological Research 16. 1(2008): 1-35. JSTOR. 20 February 2014.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996. Print.

Few, Martha. “Chocolate, Sex, and Disorderly Women in Late-Seventeenth- and Early-Eighteenth-Century Guatemala”. Ethnohistory 52. 4(2005): 673-687. DukeJournals.org. Web. 18 February 2014.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”. AfAm 119x. Sever Hall, Cambridge. 5 February 2014. Lecture.

Norton, Marcy. “Conquests of Chocolate”. OAH Magazine of History 18. 3(2004): 14-17. JSTOR. Web. 18 February 2014.