INDIGENOUS ROOTS OF CACAO
& recommended sources
IS THERE ACTUALLY SUCH A THING AS A TRADITIONAL MAYAN CACAO CEREMONY?
According to my indigenous Mayan teachers, no!
However, cacao does have great importance in Mayan culture:
- one of several sacred offerings (along with maize, flowers, copal incense, fire and more) always present in traditional fire ceremonies
- a ritual beverage consumed at certain significant celebrations including weddings and births; one of the Mayans I met when visiting a cacao farm compared cacao's role in his own community to how westerners celebrate with champagne, since cacao is very uplifting, opens people up and encourages bonding
- a healing medicine with many uses (including helping to nourish and fortify women during childbirth and afterwards, giving heart-strength and energy to warriors, and as a stimulant for appetite and digestive problems; and as a natural mood-booster -cacao contains many serotonin-boosting compounds)
- the feminine counterpart to maize in the traditional Mayan cosmovision...Human beings' bodies were made from corn and then animated with cacao.
The closest thing to any kind of special, traditional cacao celebration which can still sometimes be found in a few Mayan communities, is a "ka'kaw kotzij'". In a few places, ancient cacao farms and traditions were successfully hidden from the Spanish invaders who did their best to destroy all of the native culture including all their sacred places and plants (Cacao cultivation was banned and replaced with coffee, a non-native cash crop which then as now serves to grease the wheels of industrial capitalism and productivity, rather than encouraging a contemplative relationship with others or the earth... ). A ka'kaw kotzij' is a special agricultural celebrations (kotzij' means a flower, gift or offering) which honours the planting, first flowering and harvesting of cacao trees. Cacao was and is considered one of the most sacred gifts from nature and therefore the most sacred to offer back. These celebrations last several days, involve the whole community, and honour the trees and the earth (most of the cacao beverage which is prepared is offered to the earth and fire - the people drink a little cup at the end). I think the closest equivalent in Britain would be wassailing, where communities celebrate and honour the apple trees and gather in orchards for the harvest.
The concept of a specific "cacao ceremony" did not exist more than 20 years ago - it's the invention of an American living in Guatemala, inspired by the presence of cacao all around but not rooted in a Mayan tradition. Now that there is interest in cacao, any many people travel to Mayan areas hoping to experience an "authentic Mayan cacao ceremony", there are plenty of locals happy to cater to this interest. Some of these are based partly on traditional fire ceremonies, with some extra rituals around sharing and drinking cacao - but this is apparently something that has been created only very recently, for the sake of the visitors hoping to commune with cacao in her homelands. This doesn't mean such ceremonies have no value; simply that they are not the ancient Mayan traditions they are sometimes presented as but a new offering inspired by / catering to the interest of outsiders.
In Mesoamerican culture, cacao is the feminine duality of maize (corn). Maize is central to creation myths and diet of peoples throughout Mesoamerica (and beyond); maize, beans and squash are the "three sisters" - the dietary staples providing all the necessary nutrients to feed the native peoples. In Mayan myth, humanity was created bodily from maize - and then animated with the drink of cacao. They associate maize with the sun, and the masculine - the plant grows upwards towards the sky, requires much sunlight, and has seeds on the outside; whereas cacao requires shade, the seeds grow inside the moist sweet fruit pods which hang down from the tree. (Fun fact: cacao pods start off as tiny little flowers which grow all over the trunks and branches of the trees!)
ETHICAL CACAO WHICH SUPPORTS INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
Sourcing cacao ethically is also a very real way to support indigenous people in cacao's homelands, whether Central or South America. I can recommend these sources highly:
FOREVER CACAO - I am going to start with this lovely, ethical, very small family company based in Wales as they were the first to bring ceremonial cacao to Europe, and theirs was the first ceremonial cacao I ever consumed (and the only one I shared, for many years), and the one I have now returned to.
Pablo, founder & owner of Forever Cacao, creates this lovely ceremonial cacao paste using cacao harvested by Ashaninka indigenous peoples in the Rio Ene region of the Peruvian Amazon. (Cacao is also native to South America - the trees are actually likely to have originated in the Amazon, rather than Central America). The Ashaninka face a lot of threats from the encroaching cocaine and logging and oil industries; cacao is native to their lands and these people are very deserving of our support, so I continue to enjoy and recommend their cacao, from wild, ancient native forests. (I also have a discount code you can use: "CACAOFOX" - when buying from them. Click here.)
During my time in Guatemala, I was able to explore much of the local cacao and these are the two I really recommend (& wish I'd brought back more of!) - they are not the easiest to source if you are not in Guatemala, but they are my favourite Mayan varieties for sure:
RAICES MAYA CACAO - heirloom organic cacao grown in southwest Guatemala; this cacao will be forever special to me because I visited the little family-owned farm/forest,and met the farmers Juan, Byron and Cheyo - their courage, humility and integrity left a deep impression on me. This is my favourite Guatemalan cacao but hard to source in the UK - I wish I'd brought more back!
If you're visiting Lake Atitlan you'll find blocks of this brand for sale in some local shops - it's very small scale, as it's handmade by Byron himself. They also supply beans to Cacao Source, a wonderful ethical company who work with 6 small cacao farms in Guatemala; their "Springs" variety, which you can buy via the Cacao Source website is made from these beans. (Although it is shipped worldwide, it's pricey for those of us in the UK, but if you're in San Marcos La Laguna, you might be able to pick some up at their little HQ.)
KA'KAW CHINIMITAL - this is truly traditional, entirely hand-produced, cacao for kotzij', farmed and produced by the Chinimital del Ka'kaw collective, which includes my teachers K'at and Tzik'in. Their commitment to cacao as a sacred ancestral medicine, and to the preservation and promotion of their own culture, is profound. For a while, K'at and Tzik'in worked with an organisation which sold their cacao internationally; however, they no longer work with them, so you'll probably need to be in Guatemala to source their cacao now.