indigenous roots OF CACAo...
IS THERE ACTUALLY SUCH A THING AS A TRADITIONAL MAYAN CACAO CEREMONY?
According to my indigenous teachers, no! Cacao is one of several sacred offerings present in traditional fire ceremonies, but really the concept of a "cacao ceremony" is a very recent invention of new age westerners. (This is not to criticise those ceremonies- just to say that they are not traditional or Mayan!) HOWEVER, there are three occasions where Maya communities in some areas of Guatemala do hold what could truly be called "cacao ceremonies": these are nothing like what is being offered in the west, they are ancient agricultural celebrations which honour the trees and mother earth - the closest equivalent in eg Britain would be wassailing.
These traditional celebrations take place over several days, in the cacao forests, and involve the entire community: they celebrate the planting, first flowering and harvesting of pods from the theobroma cacao trees. This type of celebration is called a kotzij' - a Mayan word meaning "gift", "flower" or "offering" - because to the Maya, cacao is considered a most precious gift from the earth (along with maize).
Cacao, along with maize, flowers, fire and copal (sacred incense made from a type of tree resin) are always present at Mayan sacred ceremonies - all offered as gifts to the ancestors & sacred energies.
ANCIENT & INDIGENOUS ROOTS OF CACAO AS A SACRED RITUAL BEVERAGE
In the ancient Mesoamerican civilisations of the Olmec and Maya peoples, cacao was sacred and precious. Besides being a sacred ritual offering used in fire ceremonies, cacao was widely and regularly consumed at all levels of Mayan society during the "classical" era. Several centuries later, the Mexica (more commonly known now as the Aztecs) of central Mexico became the dominant regional power for a time. Coming from central Mexico, where cacao didn't grow (unlike the more tropical Mesoamerican lands where it was abundant), the Mexica limited cacao to only the most elite levels of society. They established trade routes down to the southern Mayan lands (although they were no longer a powerful imperial civilisation, the Maya peoples were still very much present during the brief period of Mexica/Aztec dominance.
The Maya in particular revered cacao, the sacred sister plant to maize (corn) in their mythology. The modern Maya people in contemporary times continue to cultivate, consume and respect cacao as a sacred plant -as an offering, as medicine, and as food. Some Mayan communities have retained the ancient traditions and wisdom relating to cacao's spiritual and healing powers, and in places such as Guatemala, there is now much work being done by indigenous groups (such as Chinimital del Ka'kaw) to restore the ancestral teachings to those Mayan communities who lost their connection to cacao after the brutality of the Spanish invasion and colonisation process which all but outlawed cacao, often replacing cacao with coffee plantations and forbidding people from any form of nature-worship, which the Spanish perceived as satanic.
During the Classic period, Maya communities cultivated cacao trees in their gardens and people from all social groups were allowed to drink cacao: it was common at certain celebrations such as weddings (in a sense, playing a role like champagne might play in our western culture); cacao was also strongly associated with childbirth, and newborns.
Although dedicated "cacao ceremonies" are a recent invention, cacao has always been one of several sacred elements present in Mayan rituals and ceremonies - along with corn/maize, fire, copal (a tree resin incense), and flowers. Cacao's primary use in such ceremonies was & is as an offering - to the fire and to the earth - but ritual beverages including cacao were also consumed during some practices, and there are certain agricultural celebrations relating to cacao's stages of planting, flowering, and harvesting, in which cacao drinks are consumed by all in the community - this is a tradition which survives to the present day in some Mayan communities. This, according to my Mayan teachers, is the closest thing in their culture to what could be considered a "cacao ceremony" - they use the word "kotzij' ", meaning a flower, gift or offering for these events, however.
Cacao was also traditionally associated with blood in Mesoamerica - perhaps partly because it stimulates the cardiovascular system and gives a sense of increased vitality as the heart pumps harder after consuming it...
The practice of offering something precious to the earth, or the spirits, as a sacrifice - in the hope of receiving gifts such as a bountiful harvest - is found historically throughout the world, including in the British Isles incidentally! And blood has often been offered as the ultimate sacred offering (read Vicki Noble's book Shakti Woman if you want some fascinating insights into why this might be!) to appease spirits, ancestors, sacred energies...
In the classical Mayan era, blood rites of the nobility and priests involved some self-inflicted ritual blood-letting; 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. This was a sacred, respectful exchange.
Traditionally, cacao was - and is - used also as a sacred offering, perhaps partly representing this blood; especially in the cases where it is dyed red using ground annato (a practice of Mayan and also Mexica/Aztec peoples). For the Maya, cacao is the feminine duality of maize (corn), and both are typically offered to sacred fires, along with flowers, copal and other incense. These are all sacred offerings present at all Mayan ceremonies.
IS IT OK TO DRINK& SHARE CACAO IF WE ARE NOT MAYAN?
My own teachers see no inherent problem with westerners drinking and sharing cacao if it's done with respect; for them, what's problematic is if non-Mayan people are dressing up in their clothing and giving themselves titles, claiming to be Mayan spiritual guides - this is where the line into appropriation is crossed, for them.
I have personally met many indigenous teachers and cacao producers who express delight that there is growing interest in cacao from beyond the Maya world - both for the very practical reasons of giving them much-needed income (and therefore, some power & protection in the face of ongoing dangers) and for the knowledge that the world really needs a lot of heart healing, to help us remember also our true role in relationship to Mother Earth - to stop abusing nature but instead honour and respect her.
My teachers also expressed delight at the idea of people finding ways to also draw on their own ancestral cultural traditions or medicines when working with cacao - for example, adding some of your own native plants such as rose to cacao, sharing cacao to celebrate the traditional festivals of your own culture. This is something they actually really approve of: this is bringing the cacao into your own authentic culture.
What is "ceremonial-grade" cacao?
What happens in a cacao medicine ceremony?