14 Apr Cacao: The Sacred Liquid of Ancient Mesoamerica
For the ancient civilisations of Mesoamerica, chocolate or rather Cacao was a prized beverage and achieved a sacred status. Believing that the Gods had discovered the Cacao tree high up in the mountains and had thus gifted it to them following their creation, the ancient Maya and Aztec paid a special reverence to Cacao. It was a spiritually, ritually and medicinally important drink for them. Here are 11 facts you probably didn’t know about the special relationship the ancient Mesoamericans held with one of our all-time favourites – chocolate!
- The ancient formulation and serving techniques of chocolate were somewhat different than they are today. As the region had been a mother lode of spices, chocolate drinks could have been anywhere from mild to scalding. Given the grinding techniques of various other additives, they could have also been thick, lumpy or watery. Additionally, whilst the Aztecs consumed Cacao as a cold liquid, the Mayans preferred to heat it.
- Cacao had also been the drink of choice for the elites. Hot chilies, maize, peanut butter, vanilla and other flavour and texture enhancers, all made the beverage a spicy and sultry drink, which was only enjoyed by those who could afford it. It had been, if you will, the “champagne” of the time. Among the Aztec royalty and upper classes, the concoction was customarily served after a feast in an elaborate goblet – xicalli, which was made out of calabash gourd.
- Mesoamerican elites would froth their chocolate drinks by pouring it from one vessel at an exceeding height into another on the floor. Following the arrival of the Spanish, they adopted a Spanish technique and began using the molinillo, (a wooden whisk) which allowed for a much thicker and foamier texture.
- For the ancient Mesoamerica civilisations, Cacao had been much more than just a food. Its seeds were so valued; they had even functioned as a mode of currency. According to a 1545 Mayan document, a turkey was worth 100 beans, while a hare was worth 100, a turkey egg worth 3 and a large tomato worth 1 bean.
- Chocolate was offered to the deceased. Several vessels, used were used to hold the chocolate drink, were unearthed from ancient Mayan burial sites, which were perhaps intended for the dead to utilise in the afterlife.
- When it came to ritualistic use of chocolate, it had been only the male, elite and royals who consumed Cacao in its liquid form. As it was deemed an intoxicating drink, it was a forbidden food for both women and children in ritualistic settings.
- The Mayans held a yearly festival to honour the Cacao God Ek Chuah. Among several of the offerings had been chocolate beverages. As blood had also been considered sacred, it too was offered alongside chocolate. Priests would lance their earlobes and drizzle their blood upon Cacao seeds.
- The ritualistic use of chocolate also extended to baptisms of newborn babies and marriages. Mayan baptisms consisted of anointing a child’s head, feet, hand and face with grinded Cacao seeds mixed with flowers and water. As for wedding ceremonies, chocolate was mixed with corn gruel and offered in special clay pottery.
- Medicinally, chocolate was used to disguise the foul-taste of certain medicines, but it too had healing and preventative properties. The Florentine Codex, prepared by Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagun in 1590 C.E. lists that chocolate lessened agitation, reduced fevers, relieved hoarseness, quenched thirst and reduced cancer! It was also believed that consuming the fruit pulp of the Cacao pod facilitated childbirth and when applied externally, Cacao bark helped to soothe burns and bronchitis.
- Cacao also helped to increase sexual appetite and fertility and had also abetted longevity, which was probably why Montezuma, prior to visiting his grand harem, consumed up to 50 goblets of a hot chocolate drink to ensure a suitable visit. As it also improved energy, Aztec soldiers were also given chocolate beverages to fortify and sustain them during battle. They had even used the leaves of the Cacao tree as an antiseptic to heal their battle wounds.
- The Cacao tree got its modern name from the eighteenth century Swedish biologist, Carolus Linnaeus, who assigned the tree its botanical name Theobroma cacao. Theobroma, in Latin, meant ‘Food of the Gods’ whilst Cacao referred to the native word for the plant, both reflecting the importance it held with the ancient Mesoamerican civilisations.