history & health benefits
ANCIENT & INDIGENOUS ROOTS OF CEREMONIAL CACAO
In the ancient Mesoamerican cultures of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec peoples, cacao was sacred and precious. The Maya in particular revered cacao, the sacred sister plant to maize in their mythology. Cacao was most often associated with the feminine, with darkness, with water and caves and night.
During the Classic period, Maya communities cultivated cacao trees in their gardens and people from all social groups were allowed to drink cacao for certain occasions such as weddings; cacao was also strongly associated with childbirth, and newborns. Kings and priests also consumed cacao (mixed into a frothy bitter chocolate drink with ground maize (cornmeal), chile peppers, vanilla beans & black pepper) as part of their royal and religious ceremonies.
Mayan blood rites of the nobility and priests involved blood-letting (both self-inflicted and sacrificial), and as part of the ritual, their blood ran through a portal representing the physical and spiritual realms. This blood was "itz" - cosmic sap, believed to contain "ch'ul", the soul or spirit, which spoke to and nourished the gods and animated and invigorated the world. In return for the offering of blood, the gods sent maize - the most sacred food to the Maya, central to both their creation stories and their way of life.
As the Aztecs gained control over more of Mesoamerica, cacao became an important part of their culture too. In Aztec society, cacao became more of a luxury drink, reserved for members of the elite: rulers, priests, decorated warriors and honoured merchants were the only ones allowed to drink cacao , and the only ones who could afford it - everyone else used cacao for money as it was so valuable. (The main Aztec lands were too far north to grow cacao, which needs tropical latitudes & plenty of rain, so they traded for it)
Cacao's status as both literal and symbolic food for the gods inspired its western scientific name, "theobroma cacao" - in ancient Greek, "theo" = god and "broma"= food"; "cacao" came from the Mayan word "ka'kau". It also gives its name to the cardiac-stimulating compound theobromine, the main alkaloid found in cacao. (Learn more about cacao's many compounds & nutrients here.)
It's my understanding that there was never a specific "Mayan cacao ceremony" focusing solely on communing with cacao as a plant spirit, but rather, cacao was and still is one of several sacred plants whose medicine is used ritually during different ceremonies - often those performed for births and marriages - as well as being consumed in daily life. (I highly recommend the book "Chocolate in Mesoamerica" edited by Cameron McNeil for a really in-depth study of cacao's cultural history.)
AMAZONIAN ROOTS OF CACAO?
As a plant, cacao's roots have recently been traced back to the Amazon jungle in South America; the greatest genetic diversity of cacao trees is found in the Amazon, which points to this as being the original birthplace of cacao; and in 2018, traces of cacao were found in 5000 year old ceramic vessels in Ecuador. It's possible that both the tree and the sacred traditions travelled north from the Amazon several thousand years ago.
THEOBROMA CACAO: FOOD OF THE GODS
Cacao is essentially the most pure, raw form of chocolate, and comes from the seeds of a tree, Theobroma cacao, which is indigenous to South and Central America. The cacao tree produces large, colourful pods containing fleshy pulp and large seeds, commonly known as cacao beans because of their size, though they are really a seed or nut, and they form the basis of chocolate. Cacao's status as both literal and symbolic food for the gods inspired its western scientific name, "Theobroma cacao" - in ancient Greek, "theo" = god and "broma"= food"; "cacao" came from the Mayan word "ka'kau". (this also of course gives Theobromine, a cardiac stimulant, its name - it's found almost exclusively in cacao.)
The Maya knew about cacao's curative properties; but, as with the ceremonial value of this plant, the nutritional power was unknown in the west for a long time, perhaps because until very recently, in most of the world, cacao was only consumed in its most processed form, after being fermented & heated, which destroys most of its nutrients, and then heavily processed.
Besides having a subtle energetic quality which assists inner journeying, cacao is rich in nutrients; it's one of the most complex foods (as long as you consume the raw rather than heated & fermented form).
Cacao contains the following compounds:
* tryptophan - a powerful mood-enhancing amino acid, essential for the production of serotonin (the "happy hormone" - so it can work as something of a natural antidepressant.
* anandamide - the "bliss chemical", an endorphin produced after exercise
* phenylethylamine (PEA) - which we make naturally when we're excited, & when we fall in love; it helps us stay focused & alert.
* theobromine - a stimulant, almost unique to Theobroma cacao, theobromine is gentler than caffeine: it doesn't stir up the nervous system, it stimulates the heart & cardiovascular system. Ancient Mesoamericans were well aware of cacao's properties as a heart tonic in this respect and used it medicinally as well as ritually. (A lot of heart & blood-related rituals involved consumption of cacao.)
* caffeine - stimulates the nervous system - cacao only contains a fraction of the amount found in coffee though, so people (like me!) who find coffee too much tend to find cacao much gentler on the nervous system.
Cacao is also high in the following nutrients:
* antioxidants (highest levels of any food - more than blueberry, acai, pomegranate, goji & red wine combined)
* magnesium (great for supporting organs such as the heart, brain & muscles which need lots of energy; magnesium helps relax muscles & is essential for nerve & muscle function (so a great complement to your yoga practice!), improves blood circulation & gut peristalsis so it's great for digestion & elimination.
* iron, manganese, & copper - all essential for healthy blood formation - and chromium, which helps balance blood sugar. * zinc & vitamin C - great for boosting the immune system
In a typical chocolate bar, you'll be eating a highly processed remnant of what was once cacao, after a lot of fermentation, heat-treatment, and processing to separate the cacao/cocoa solids from the fat (ie cocoa butter) - the brown solids are then mixed with cheaper fats, milk and lots of sugar...It's a very diluted form of what, in its pure, raw, unprocessed form is one of the most complex & nutritious foods on the planet.