indigenous roots OF CACAo...

ANCIENT & INDIGENOUS ROOTS OF CEREMONIAL CACAO 

The history of cacao and her ancient & continuing connection to the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica is a huge and fascinating topic! I can't begin to cover it all here and my own learning in this area is ongoing, so what follows is really just an introduction, and one I'm constantly revising the more I learn...I have chosen to focus mostly on the Maya people as they are the ones whose connection is the oldest, deepest and still strong today - communities particularly in Guatemala are also beginning to share some of their ancient ancestral wisdom with those of us from other cultures who are feeling called to learn more as we connect with this ancient sacred plant, and do so with respect for not only the medicine but the original keepers of this medicine.)

I am in the process of rewriting this section of my website as I integrate the learning from my most recent cacao training...I am deeply grateful to my teachers Kajib Tzik'in Chuj (Jessica), W'ukub K'at Saq'ik (Jerico) and Yasmira of the Chinimital del Ka'kaw collective, to Tata Mario, Tata Juan and Tata Miguel, to Cecilia Mendoza Chiyal, founder of Ruk'u'x Ulew women's collective of artisanal cacao producers, and to Solveig Barrios, founder and guide of the Mayan Wisdom Project, for the priceless opportunity to listen to and learn from this wonderful group of indigenous Mayan teachers. 

In the ancient Mesoamerican civilisations of the Olmec, Maya and, later, the Aztec peoples, cacao was sacred and precious. 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 revere cacao as a sacred plant.) Cacao was often associated with the sacred life force of blood; with cycles of birth and death; 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 (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. This was a sacred, respectful exchange, nothing like the sensationalised (and inaccurate) depictions of eg human sacrifice sometimes wrongly associated with the ancient Maya.

There's a tendency by colonisers to justify the seizure of land and genocide of indigenous people by depicting their cultures and beliefs as horrific and therefore needing to be stopped.

In fact, such rituals of offering sacrifice in return for the favour of the "gods", and for successful harvests, for example, can be found in the histories of many cultures around the world, including British and other European cultures. When studied in their context, there are profound reasons for such practices: David Carrasco explores this challenging topic in his interesting book "Religions of Mesoamerica".)
 

Centuries after the classical Maya civilisation, the Aztecs gained control over more of Mesoamerica, and cacao became an important part of their culture too, although it did not grow in their lands. Because of this, they had to trade with communities in the south, and so 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) The Aztecs (not the Maya) also sometimes conducted sacrificial rituals involving the cutting out of people's hearts, and cacao was served to the "victims" before this act; it's not know whether this was because of cacao's heart-stimulating power or even perhaps to flood them with serotonin-boosters to help them somehow face their ordeal.

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.)

WAT

WHAT IS A TRADITIONAL MAYAN CACAO CEREMONY? IS THERE ACTUALLY SUCH A THING?

Mayan traditions have evolved over the last couple of 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 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 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.

 

My Mayan teachers, experts in the history, culture and traditions as well as cultivation of cacao, are very clear that  really, there is no such thing as a "Mayan cacao ceremony" in the way that these events are often now presented. 

There are, however, other sacred rituals which involve cacao (and other traditional elements of Mayan sacred offerings such as fire, corn, flowers and copal incense) - these are known as "kotzij' ", meaning "flower" or "offering" - since cacao is regarded as a sacred gift, to be first offered to the earth and other sacred energies, the ancient Elders and ancestors, before being received with thanks as the gift and blessing cacao is.

The only reason I currently call my offerings "cacao medicine circles" rather than "cacao kotzij' " is because it's easier for us who are not Mayan to understand what this is!

More broadly, it's worth noting 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.

 

The way westerners  are sharing cacao in ceremony is a contemporary fusion practice, whether inspired by accounts of Mayan traditions, traditional Amazonian plant medicine ceremonies, or the eclectic new age approach of those inspired by Keith Wilson at Lake Atitlan. Different approaches will speak to different people. 

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. Indigenous peoples in South America do consume the fruits of the theobroma cacao tree, but they historically used the fermented pulp rather than the seeds, and any sacred rituals relating to drinks made from the seeds have long-since disappeared, although some contemporary South American cacao practitioners are now seeking to return these practices to their own countries, inspired by the surviving Mesoamerican traditions and resurgence. 

Buying ethical, fairly traded organic cacao varieties from Amazonian indigenous peoples is also a way to support communities who have faced genocide, the theft and destruction of their land, and pressure to work for the cocaine, logging and oil industries - so even though for some of these indigenous Amazonian cacao farmers, cacao may be more a cash crop than an ancestral medicine, they are still indigenous earth-honouring people, facing many of the same challenges as their fellow indigenas further north, so it's also certainly good to support them! This is why I still happily recommend the Ashaninka cacao from Forever Cacao. 

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 chocolateCacao'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). 

Learn more:

What is "ceremonial-grade" cacao?

What happens in a cacao medicine circle?

FAQs

Maya Cacao edited pic from True History