Mmm, chocolate: the world’s most popular sweet treat

By Hayley White

Reading time: 14 minutes 

Every now and then, I get a craving. The craving has me standing in the confectionary aisle staring at the wall of chocolate bars, and the chocolate bars stare right back at me. As I reach for my usual Caramilk and Top Deck, it hits me that maybe people did not always have this craving and it might be as old as time. How and where did we get the chocolate that we love so much?

Even though chocolate was made by Spanish Europeans in the 19th century, the origins of what chocolate itself is made of – a little bean called cacao – comes from ancient Mesoamerica. The word cacao originated from the Olmecs; the first major civilisation based in the lowlands of the Gulf of Mexico. They were thought to be the first distributors of cacao before the Mayans and Aztecs, but it was these later civilisations that would proliferate the ritual use and cultural significance that continues today. To these civilisations, cacao was what made the world go round. The Mayan and Aztec religions believed that cacao had origins in the divine. It was what connected them to their gods and was used for

By Hayley White 

Reading time: 14 minutes 

Every now and then, I get a craving. The craving has me standing in the confectionary aisle staring at the wall of chocolate bars, and the chocolate bars stare right back at me. As I reach for my usual Caramilk and Top Deck, it hits me that maybe people did not always have this craving and it might be as old as time. How and where did we get the chocolate that we love so much?

Even though chocolate was made by Spanish Europeans in the 19th century, the origins of what chocolate itself is made of – a little bean called cacao – comes from ancient Mesoamerica. The word cacao originated from the Olmecs; the first major civilisation based in the lowlands of the Gulf of Mexico. They were thought to be the first distributors of cacao before the Mayans and Aztecs, but it was these later civilisations that would proliferate the ritual use and cultural significance that continues today. To these civilisations, cacao was what made the world go round. The Mayan and Aztec religions believed that cacao had origins in the divine. It was what connected them to their gods and was used for myriad important events spanning from birth to marriage.

According to Mayan and Aztec legend, the gods found cacao and other delectable foods in the mythical Mountain of Sustenance.

Ek Chuaj

Mayan humans were mythically created out of a mixture of cacao, maize, and other plant foods by divine grandmother goddess Xmucane, but it was the god Sovereign Plumed Serpent (also known as the Feathered Serpent Kukulkan, Q’uq’umatz or Tohil) who gave humans cacao. The Maya later assigned a specific cacao god, Ek Chuaj the trader god, for whom they have an annual festival every April. This was especially important for people who owned cacao groves who would hold special festivals and ceremonies in his honour as well. Every year in April, known in the Mayan calendar as Muan, the Mayans would honour Ek Chuaj with cacao offerings, feathers and incense, an exchange of gifts, and by sacrificing a dog with cacao-coloured markings, among other animal sacrifices (Dillinger, Barriga, Escárcega, Jimenez, Lowe, Grivetti, 2000).

Yacatecuhtli

The Aztecs had similar beliefs. The Mexican Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, is the Aztec version of the Mayan Plumed or Feathered Serpent. Because of the link to divine beings, cacao was offered regularly to a pantheon (temple) of Mexican deities. Just like with the Mayans, cacao was linked to the Aztec patron deity of traders, Yacatecuhtli, and so they had rituals dedicated to him. During the month of Banner Raising, known as Panquetzaliztli (November 21 to December 10), the Aztecs had an annual festival that honoured their god of war and the sun, Huitzilopochtli, and prepared sacrifices for Yacatecuhtli. On the eve of the festival, they would give cacao beverages to the people who were chosen as sacrifices to help calm their nerves (Dillinger et al., 2000).

Throughout Mesoamerica, and especially to the Aztecs, cacao symbolised blood. The Madrid Codex, one of the oldest surviving documents of the Mayan and Aztec civilisations, describes four young Maya gods piercing their own ear lobes to cover cacao pods with their own blood. Priests used to mimic this by piercing their own ear lobes to drip blood onto the cacao as a sacrifice to the very gods they were copying (Seawright, 2012; Dillinger et al., 2000). This combination of cacao and bloodletting was a sacred offering to the gods and was practised throughout the Aztec and the Mayans. The Aztecs likened the cacao pod to a heart ripped out in sacrifice and came up with the metaphor “heart, blood” that described cacao (Coe and Coe, 1996 as cited in Seawright, 2012).

Raw white cacao pulp still in the fruit

One of the most interesting things about cacao in Mesoamerica was that cacao beans were used as currency for trade. This is echoed in a number of accounts by different Spaniards in various places around Mesoamerica. Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was a Spaniard who travelled to Mexico and led the expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire. It was Cortés who brought to attention that they had been using cacao for money, saying “… this fruit they sell ground, and esteem so highly, that it is used instead of money all over the country, and with it everything can be bought in the marketplace and elsewhere” (Million, 1955, p. 159). This is corroborated by an anonymous conqueror who says that cacao grains were valued at half a marchetto (a copper coin, the equivalent to around 2 French sous, 1 sou being 1/20 of a Franc) and were used all over Mesoamerica (Million, 1955). It was believed that this was why cacao was linked to the trader god. It is interesting to think that something we love to eat was once a livelihood for an ancient civilisation.

There were other smaller traditions surrounding cacao, too, though no less important. One of them was the exchange of cacao for marriage ceremonies. For example, the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, depicts a ceremony where Lady Thirteen Serpent gives Lord Eight Deer a bowl of cacao to finalise and celebrate their marriage (Seawright, 2012). Of course, with the belief that cacao is symbolic of blood and the birth of humanity, it seems only fitting that there would be cacao present at birthing and baptism ceremonies, as well. There are various accounts of Mayan naming rituals where priests and mothers present a baby with cacao. It was also common for baptisms to be performed with a mixture of virgin water, cacao, and crushed flowers (Seawright, 2012). The Aztecs and Mayans thought cacao was an intoxicating food, so it was also only given to men; more specifically, important government officials, military officers, priests, distinguished warriors, and occasionally sacrificial victims. The fact that it was also seen as a prestigious food meant it was off-limits for women and children and reserved for nobility (Dillinger et al., 2000).

Cacao was also known to have medicinal effects. A manuscript dated back to 1552 contained paintings of medicinal plants and a large chunk of text that helped provide an understanding of Mesoamerican disease, nutritional problems and healing. The Aztec and Mayan peoples used cacao to soothe a sore stomach, treat fevers, and when mixed with liquid from the silk-cotton tree, it was said to cure infection (Dillinger et al., 2000). Cacao was occasionally present either as a medicine or as a component to improve flavour, usually coupled with other spices or plants like vanilla or chilli. The Mayan Codex the Ritual of Bacabs (known as the Princeton Codex) showed a whole host of incantations used to treat illnesses. At the conclusion of these incantations, the ill were offered a bowl of chacah to drink – a medicinal chocolate that contained two peppers, honey and tobacco juice (Dillinger et al., 2000).

It was in 1528 when Hernán Cortés brought cocoa beans back to Spain on account of its potential commercial value, described as “brown gold” (Lippi, 2015, p. 9936). Very quickly it spread throughout Europe and as it did, many tried to find medicinal and nutritional uses for it with varying success.

European and colonial medical research on cacao and chocolate from the 17th to 19th century was extensive. Cocoa was found to improve mental and emotional states and make people more amiable. Research also found that it helped to cure consumption (tuberculosis), aid digestion, reduce cancer, slow the growth of white hair, extend life, and aid in conception, childbirth, and delivery (Dillinger et al., 2000; Lippi, 2015). It was also claimed that chocolate was only okay to drink in the morning for breakfast rather than the afternoon because of how stimulating it was. It was well documented that cacao could cause weight gain and prevent thinness. Cacao and chocolate were particularly popular because it was rare and reserved for the upper class who could afford it.

The first official chocolate bar was made in 1847 by an English company called Joseph Fry & Sons who found a way to solidify what was only ever known as a drink. Cadbury began producing their own solid chocolate in 1879. As the popularity of chocolate spread throughout the world, countries each came up with their own spins, especially the court in Tuscany. They were the first to infuse their chocolate with flavours like jasmine, citron, cinnamon, vanilla, and amber (Buchanan, 2015). 20 years after the first bar was made, Nestlé came onto the scene with their chocolate bar made with powdered milk which completely changed the traditional taste that the Aztecs and Mayans valued.

The introduction of chocolate into Europe and the creation of solid chocolate gave birth to myriad traditions.

Chocolate coins and Hanukkah gelt are both little chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Chocolate coins are a tradition that stems from the 4th century where Saint Nicholas was said to give out gold coins to poor children. Christmas coins are given to children as part of Saint Nicholas Day in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. Hanukkah gelt traditions come from the 17th-century practice of children giving money to their teachers as well as keeping money for themselves. It is also believed that it has ties back to the victory of the Maccabees over the ancient Greeks where they minted coins to celebrate their freedom.

Valentine’s Day and chocolate have always been closely linked since chocolate is an aphrodisiac, but where men usually give women the chocolate, in Japan it is the other way around and women give men chocolate.

The pagans had never discovered cacao or chocolate, so for Easter, they would paint eggs brown to symbolise rebirth and fertility. Once chocolate was created and chocolatiers started creating hollow chocolate eggs for Easter that tradition was quickly overtaken.

As soon as the first sweet, chocolaty goodness was made, it was all over for us. It became so popular that it immersed itself into our everyday. From the culturally rich and significant cacao drinks from the Aztec and Mayan to the modern-day chocolate bar, cacao and chocolate have an extensive history. Chocolate has reached such heights that some people just cannot seem to live without it!

 

Sources: 1. The politics of chocolate: Cosimo III’s secret Jasmine chocolate recipe 2. Food of the gods: Cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition 3. Sin and pleasure: The history of chocolate in medicine. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 4. When money grew on trees: A study of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica 5. Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate. Essay for Archaeology of Ancient Mexico, culminating with the Aztec Empire at LaTrobe University

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