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Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and other Tales from the Underworld

In the forthcoming book “Chocolate in the Americas: A Cultural History of Cacao” (University of Florida Press) Simon Martin sets out a mythological narrative for cacao among the ancient Maya.  He describes how cacao is intimately involved with the story of the Maize God, whose journey into the Underworld andultimate resurrection serves as a metaphor for the cycling of the seasons and the triumph of life over death.  Texts and images from the Classic period (AD250-900) add details missing from the surviving account of this story in the Popol Wuj, the epic tale recorded by the K’iche’ Maya in the 16th century. 

In the Classic era story the death of the Maize God leads to the ascent of his soul to heaven, while his corpse is transformed into fruit trees and all the crops humans will eat (with the exception of maize).
This equates to the episode on the Popol Wuj where the severed head of Hun Hunahpu is set into a calabash tree and comes to life.  For the Classic Maya the most valuable tree was cacao, and it is as a cacao tree that he first returns from death and reproduces himself, inseminating an Underworld maiden and giving rise to his sons and avengers, the famous Hero Twins--as the Popol Wuj describes.  His sons ultimately defeat the lords of death and fully restore their father, who is reborn on earth as the young and beautiful maizestalk. 

As Martin points out, the finely painted ceramic vases of the Classic Maya contain the phrase yuk’ib iximte’el kakaw “Drinking vessel for Maize Tree-like cacao”.  Here the precious chocolate drink of the ancient Maya is compared to the mythic “Maize Tree”, the first cacao created in the Underworld from the sacrificed body of the Maize God.

Updated: Nov 03, 2005 - 01:10
Created: Jul 25, 2005 - 23:37

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