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“One can argue that the Maya turned the consumption of cacao into an art form.”

- Dr Cameron McNeil, archaeobotanist 


According to my indigenous Mayan teachers, no!

However, cacao does have great historical and ongoing (perhaps even revived) importance in Mayan culture:
- one of several sacred offerings (along with maize, flowers, copal incense, fire and more) always present in traditional fire ceremonies. Cacao pods, blocks of cacao paste and cups of cacao beverages are all offered to the flames and the earth in such rituals - the emphasis here is on offering cacao to the elements and spirits, not on humans consuming the cacao themselves. This is perhaps the biggest misconception a lot of contemporary cacao practitioners perpetuate! It's about offering thanks in the spirit of reciprocity, rather than taking from the earth for our own enjoyment. 

- 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 (it contains many natural mood-boosting compounds and gentle stimulants which work particularly on the cardiovascular system ie heart & blood circulation), opens people up and encourages bonding. In this sense, there is some connection between the traditional use of cacao and some contemporary styles of cacao ceremony.

- 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 kind of anti-depressant (cacao contains many serotonin-boosting compounds). Again, there is some connection between the ancient knowledge about cacao's medicinal potential and the ways that contemporary understanding of cacao's benefits are being more widely understood.

-  the feminine counterpart to maize in the traditional Mayan cosmovision...Human beings' bodies were made from corn and then animated with cacao. It would be easy to write a whole essay on the cacao/feminine connection! But this is perhaps one reason why even when cacao's medicine has been most debased, turned into chocolate confectionery, she's always been strongly associated with women. In Mayan traditional cacao farming, women play the main role in the cultivation of the trees and production of the cacao paste/licor, and men lead the fire ceremonies and kotzij' (see below) in which cacao is used as an offering or celebrated as the harvest fruit.

Mayan traditions have evolved over the last few thousand years! Theirs is an ancient and living culture and, as you would expect, some traditions have survived, whilst others - such as, for example, the elite classes' blood-letting rites, appear not to have.

In fact, there are three occasions where Maya communities in some areas of Guatemala do hold what could, in a sense, 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 Mayan "cacao ceremonies" 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.


It's important to remember that Maya culture is not homogenous - there are over 30 languages and different communities have their own traditions: some communities have entirely lost their cacao traditions, whilst others have been able to carefully preserve them over not just hundreds but thousands of years. Maya history extends back several thousand years, spread across an area spanning what's now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and part of Honduras and El Salvador. It's more accurate to speak of diverse Mayan nations, and different nations have different practices and beliefs. You'll often see things written about how "I'x Ka'kaw" (or some other variant eg Ixcacao) is the Mayan goddess of cacao...And she is indeed mentioned in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the K'iche Maya...but there are actually several sacred energies associated with cacao. The Maya are not theistic so the notion of "goddesses" and "gods" doesn't accurately reflect their beliefs. Sometimes more "masculine" figures are connected to cacao eg Ek Chuah, but it IS true to say that there's a strong feminine association: the word "I'x" refers to the sacred feminine energy which forms one of the 20 sacred energies of earth & sky found in the Mayan cosmovision. "I'x" is also associated with the jaguar - a powerful feline energy indeed!

The way westerners share cacao in ceremony is a contemporary fusion practice, one way or another, these ceremonies can all be traced back to the "cacao ceremonies" which were invented by Keith Wilson, an American living in San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala, back in 2003. Some stuck closely to his new age way of working with cacao, others wove in more traditional approaches to plant medicine such as shamanic journeying; others drew on the authentic tradition of Mayan FIRE ceremonies (which include cacao along with many other elements) but ramped up the emphasis on cacao and heart-opening, emotional healing, in a way not part of traditional Mayan fire ceremonies.

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.


As a plant, cacao's roots have recently been traced back to the Amazon jungle in South America (it's not clear whether she travelled by her self or via humans up into Central 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. However, the sacred and ritual cultural associations of cacao are most clearly linked to Mesoamerican cultures: the Olmec, Maya and later Aztec/Mexica peoples are the ones who so valued the beverages made with cacao seeds. (Traditionally in the Amazon, fermented drinks were made using the fruity pulp of the cacao pods, rather than the seeds.)



Sourcing organic, fairly-traded, biodiverse & indigenous-farmed cacao "licor"/paste (this is the form known as "ceremonial-grade cacao") is a very real way to support indigenous people in cacao's true homelands, whether Central or South America.


FOREVER CACAO -  based in Wales, this lovely small family company were the first to bring ceremonial-grade cacao to Europe - theirs was the first I ever consumed; I have been enjoying and sharing it ever since.

This cacao is made from beans cultivated & harvested by Ashaninka indigenous peoples in the Rio Ene region of the Peruvian Amazon. 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.) 

RAICES MAYA CACAO -  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. It is also delicious and vibrant; I wish I'd been able to bring 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. (They also supply beans to Cacao Source, which is used for their "Springs" variety.)

KA'KAW CHINIMITAL  - this is truly traditional, entirely hand-farmed and produced by the Chinimital del Ka'kaw collective, which includes several of my Mayan teachers. Their commitment to cacao as a sacred ancestral medicine, and to the preservation and promotion of their own culture, is profound. This cacao is now hard to source outside of Guatemala sadly.

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