Mayans Really Loved their Chocolate
Written by Andres Salazar
Every holiday has its signature snack. Halloween is known for its wide celebration of candy, eggnog and everything peppermint screams Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations are often full of alcohol. Valentine’s Day is no exception. With the holiday of love and friendship just around the corner, many are loading their shopping carts with all sorts of chocolate. Whether it’s for a single person watching Netflix alone, or for a special someone, those sweet, bite-sized cacao treats go hand in hand with the day of romance. Leading up to February 14th, it seems that everywhere we look, we are completely surrounded by Lindt, Ferrero Rocher, and anything Nestlé.
We associate chocolate with holidays and cheat-day snacks. As a result, it’s easy to forget how valuable chocolate can be in different contexts. In Japan, chocolate is a signature piece of romantic confession and is one of the key cultural ingredients in places like Belgium. However, for centuries, chocolate had a much deeper significance in Central America. Mayans held cacao in a very high position, making it a staple of religious practices, the economy, and daily life. Perhaps, by looking into the past, we can learn to appreciate those sweet supermarket treats a little bit more. Though an analysis of chocolate’s importance in the new world yields an interesting snapshot of an ancient culture, one thing is undeniable: Mayans really loved their chocolate.
These days, chocolate is seen as a delicious treat to be eaten when one craves a sweet snack. On some occasions, such as modern Valentine’s Day, it’s also seen as a symbol of love. The tender and smooth taste of something like a Hershey’s kiss is now symbolic of romance and deep friendships. Mesoamerican religious beliefs often employed cacao in a variety of rituals and festive celebrations. Known as “the food of gods”, cacao was used in rituals celebrating life. Similar to how important the growth and cultivation of corn were to Mayan beliefs, cacao was often also depicted as under the protection of multiple deities, notably that of the god of prosperity and the goddess of fertility (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). The ancient Mesoamerican peoples revered the value of the cacao bean, with it being enjoyed in a drink form, even by Aztec royalty later in history (Motagna et al., 2019). Looking at its use in ceremonial and royal contexts, it’s clear that they did not take chocolate lightly.
While cacao was used in the celebration of new life, it was also employed as a symbol to help the transition into the afterlife. Examinations of ancient murals, pottery, and sculptures will reveal copious amounts of chocolate imagery in the context of funerals and the afterlife. Cacao drinks were common at funerals and many ancient Mayans were even buried with personalized chocolate drinking cups (Seawright, 2012). All of this goes to show that chocolate had a core place in Mesoamerican spiritual beliefs. To us in 2023, chocolate is rarely seen as more than a flavor or an ingredient in a dessert. Hundreds of years ago, however, it was much more important, being a symbol that quite literally, helped you go to paradise after death.
It’s clear that to the ancient Mesoamericans, chocolate had an incredibly important spiritual role, though it also had an incredibly important role in the ancient economy. More than just a valuable resource, cacao beans themselves were actually used as a form of currency. Unlike our modern money, those in Mayan civilizations used a variety of materials, such as maize and textiles as forms of payment. However, one of the most common types of currency was that of cacao beans. It was used for everything from paying for goods and services and was even used as a method to pay one’s taxes to the royalty (Learn, 2018). This idea shows up across ancient art, with depictions of locals delivering bags of dried cacao beans spread across all sorts of murals and pottery. Most of us have paid friends in pizza for helping us with mundane tasks, though I don’t think the Canadian government would be happy if we paid our modern taxes with Lindt chocolates.
With the importance of the chocolatey bean being so evident in Mayan times, it may seem that it was exclusively available to those of higher classes. This is not the case. A variety of social classes used cacao for multiple reasons. As mentioned before, it was a common form of currency for trade and tax payments, though it was, of course, celebrated for its culinary potential. Most commonly enjoyed as a thick, warm beverage, it had quite a different flavor profile to our modern-day hot chocolate (McNeil, 2009). It was often mixed with servings of peppers and cinnamon, both of which helped the hot drinks have a spicy kick that would throw off most chocolate enthusiasts of today. It was also sometimes consumed as smaller, harder dishes, which could be used as a quick snack while people were working on different tasks. Unlike the processed treats of modern times that are full of sugar, Mayans kept it hardy. This only makes me wonder how a Mayan king would have reacted to eating a white chocolate Ferrero rocher ball that is covered with almonds, with a creamy and gooey milk chocolate center.
It’s crazy to think that chocolate was so important. To us, cacao is just that: an ingredient to be used for a variety of desserts and flavored edible goodies. While to us, it seems like a mundane ingredient, to the Mayans of ancient Mesoamerica, it held incredible spiritual, and economic power, on top of being a good ingredient. While this is only a sample of how influential it was, one thing is certain: Mayans really loved their chocolate.
Dreiss, M., Greenhill, S. (2008). Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=tEFsZuKRbNcC&oi=fnd&pg=PP11&dq=maya+chocolate&ots=5ydysUG2TC&sig=lsk5CEnJTxahet3Cg9o5RJj0DV8#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Harris, K. (2019). Xocolatl: The Mayan Food Of The Gods. History Daily. Retrieved from https://historydaily.org/xocolatl-the-mayan-food-of-the-gods.
Learn, J. (2018). The Maya civilization used chocolate as money. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from https://www.science.org/content/article/maya-civilization-used-chocolate-money.
McNeil, C.L. (2009). Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/book/17463.
Montagna, M. T., Diella, G., Triggiano, F., Caponio, G. R., Giglio, O. D., Caggiano, G., Ciaula, A. D., et al. (2019). Chocolate, “Food of the Gods”. History, Science, and Human Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24), 4960. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16244960
Seawright, C. (2012). Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate?. The Keep Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Caroline-Seawright/publication/274837640_ARC2AZT_Essay_Life_Death_and_Chocolate_in_Mesoamerica_The_Aztecs_and_the_Maya_Where_did_the_Ritual_Use_of_Cacao_Originate/links/55f8b47908aec948c4864629/ARC2AZT-Essay-Life-Death-and-Chocolate-in-Mesoamerica-The-Aztecs-and-the-Maya-Where-did-the-Ritual-Use-of-Cacao-Originate.pdf.