Theobroma Cacao: “Food of the gods”
In 1753, Carl von Linne, more commonly known as Linnaeus, gave the
scientific name to the cacao tree. As a chocolate lover, Linnaeus named the
cacao tree Theobroma cacao; the first part he took from the Greek meaning
“food of the gods.” As a chocolate lover myself, I chose Theobroma cacao as
my topic to explore the sociocultural history of the flavorful product made from
the cacao bean, chocolate. The word “chocolate” is said to derive from the
Mayan “xocoatl” and cacao from the Aztec “cacahuatl.” Chocolate begins with a
cacao bean. It has been mashed and eaten for centuries. The cacao bean’s
popularity has not dwindled since before the time of Christ when it was prized in
Mesoamerica. This paper will trace the sociocultural history of the cacao bean
and it’s product, chocolate, from it’s beginnings in Mesoamerica to it’s spread
The Olmecs was the America’s first civilization to use cacao (Topik,
1996). Some linguists have reconstructed the word “cacao” originally
pronounced kakawa as a vocabulary item in the prot-Mixe-Zoquean by about
1000 BC, just when the Olmec civilization was at its height (Empty, 1997). The
Olmecs passed kakawa on to the Maya.
The ancestors of the Maya entered the lowlands of northern Guatemala
around 1000 BC. Until then, they lived in the highlands of Guatemala and the
Mexican state of Chiapas where cacao must have been very rare, if known at all.
If they found a use for the wild cacao they found growing in the lowlands when
they arrived, they must have had another word for it. It was not until some time
between 400 BC and AD 100, they used the word kakawa (Empty, 1997).
Approximately AD 600, the Central American Maya tribe migrated deep
into South American’s northern region and established the first cacao plantations
in Yucatan. The fruit of the cacao tree played an important part in ceremonial
rituals and cacao beans were offered to gods during puberty rites, marriages
and funerals. Before the sowing of the crop, the tillers of the soil slept apart from
their women for 13 nights so that the night before planting they could fully
indulge their passions. As the first cacao seed was placed in the soil a chosen
few were appointed to sexually perform at the same time. Perhaps this ritual has
some bearing on the fact that chocolate was considered an aphrodisiac for many
It was believed that Tonacatecutli, the goddess of food, and
Calchiuhtlucue, the goddess of water, were guardian goddesses of cacao. Each
year the Maya performed human sacrifices for the goddesses (Godiva, 1997).
This unfortunate victim was served a cup of chocolate which supposedly turned
his heart into a cacao bean; the heart was then ripped out and offered to the
gods (Anonymous 1, 1997). Because cacao beans were valuable, they were
given as gifts at ceremonies such as a child’s coming of age and at religious
ceremonies. The Maya had very many complicated religious beliefs with many
gods. Ek Chuah, the merchant god, was also closely linked with cacao and
cacao fruits were used at festivals in honor of this god (Cadbury, 1997).
Chocolate was a luxury among the Maya, not only in life, but also in death. Even
in death the Maya nobles should not miss chocolate. Vessels containing
chocolate drink were found in a tomb at Rio Azul, Guatemala (Empty, 1997).
The drink called “xocoatl” was made from roasted cacao beans, water and a little
spice. It was their most important use, but cacao beans were also valued as a
currency (Cadbury, 1997).
Ransoms were paid and purchases made in cacao beans. A pumpkin
cost 4 cacao beans, a rabbit 8, a good slave 100, but a prostitute was worth just
10 cacao beans (Annonymous1, 1997). Maya farmers transported their cacao
beans to market by canoe or in large baskets strapped to their backs. When
Christopher Columbus encountered a large Maya trading canoe in 1502, he
knew he had stumbled upon something of value. Some of the Maya traders
“…dropped almond-like objects and began to furiously scramble to pick them up
as if their eyes had fallen out of their heads (Cadbury, 1997).” These curious
beans were known in Mayan as kakawa. Wealthy merchants traveled further
employing porters to carry their wares as there were no horses, pack animals or
wheeled carts in Central America at that time. Some ventured as far as Mexico
and the land of the Aztecs, so introducing them to the much prized cacao beans
The Aztecs were an ancient nomadic people who took over control of
Mexico and the surrounding areas around AD 1200. They founded the great
city, Tenochititlan, in 1325. In most books about chocolate, it is the Aztecs who
are given the credit for domesticating the cacao tree and inventing the chocolate
drink. As we have already seen, this is not true. The Aztecs have however,
played a great role in the development of the use of cacao in “The New World”
(Empty, 1997). Because of their dry climate, the Aztecs were unable to grow
cacao trees themselves so they had to obtain supplies of cacao beans from
tribute or trade. Tribute was a form of taxation paid by provinces conquered by
the Aztecs in wars (Cadbury, 1997). Chocolatl was consumed in large quantities
by the Aztecs as a luxury drink. The Aztec version of this much prized drink was
described as “finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter with chili water, aromatic
flowers, vanilla and wild bee honey (Cadbury, 1997).”
To the Aztecs, cacao was considered to be a stimulant, intoxicant,
hallucinogen, and aphrodisiac. The drink also served as a cure for anxiety,
fever, and coughs. Warriors would count on cacao’s caffeine to steel them in
battle. Others would drink fermented chocolate and feel intoxicated by the
beans, especially if they were still green and consumed in conjunction with the
psilocybin mushroom as in some religious festivities. And men such as the
Emperor Montezuma would imbibe the potion before going to make love with
their many wives (Topik, 1996). Montezuma would consume up to 50 cups of
xocoatl a day before repairing to his harem. Cacao beans were so precious they
were also used as money.
Since the Aztec’s economy mostly was on the basis of face-to-face barter,
cacao represented an important opening to monetarization. That cacao really
was thought of as a form of money was demonstrated by the fact that cacao
beans were sometimes counterfeited. Empty cacao shells were filled with clay.
It might seem absurd to have money growing on trees, but in fact, the Spanish
continued this tradition in central Mexico for decades and in parts of Central
American for centuries (Topik, 1996).
The Aztecs were very superstitious; they had many gods and believed
that their world was constantly threatened by catastrophe. One story says that
one of these gods, Quetzalcoatl, creator god and provider of agriculture, was
particularly associated with cacao beans. Quetzalcoatl is further linked with the
story of cacao and chocolate (Cadbury, 1997). An old Mexican Indian myth
explains that Quetzalcoatl was forced to leave the country by a chief god, but he
was lovingly remembered by his devoted worshippers who hoped that we would
return. Until that time they still had his legacy, the cacao tree (Cadbury, 1997).
Great temples were built to honor him in Tenochititlan. Montezuma particularly
revered him. Another legend has it that cacahuatl was first cultivated on earth
by the Aztec man-god, Quetzalcoatl, from seeds he carried out of the lost
paradise of the children of the Sun (Van Epen, 1996). Another ancient chronicle
reports that the Aztecs, believing that the god Quetzalcoatl traveled to earth on a
beam of the Morning Star with a cacao tree from paradise, took his offering to
the people. They learned from Quetzalcoatl how to roast and grind the cacao
seeds, making a nourishing paste that could be dissolved in water. They added
spices and called this drink chocolatl, or a bitter-water, and believed it brought
universal wisdom and knowledge (Godiva, 1997). Yet another story is of an
Aztec myth that the feathered serpent god of light, Quetzalcoatl, came to earth
as a fair-skinned man with a white flowing beard. He bestowed upon his
worshippers the cacao bean and taught them how to make the divine chocolate
drink. The human trait of growing old horrified this glorious god, so he returned
to heaven and took the cacao tree with him, promising to return to earth again.
By unfortunate coincidence, 1519 was predicted as the year the god
Quetzalcoatl would return to free the Aztecs from the terrible burden of having to
perform human sacrifices in order that the sun would continue to rise
(Anonymous 2, 1997). Cortes’ white skin and beard fulfilled the legend of the
return of Quetzalcoatl, as well as the year of his return, and the local people truly
believed he was the reincarnated god (Anonymous 1, 1997). Which ever story
is correct, Montezuma and the Aztec people welcomed Cortes.
Hernando Cortes, while conquering part of Mexico, was most impressed
by the cacao bean. Lured by visions of wealth, he established plantations in
Mexico, Trinidad, Haiti, and generally all over the Caribbean to grow money in
the form of the cacao bean. When Cortes first landed he was received with
great reverence by the Aztec Emperor Montezuma because he was thought to
be Quetzalcoatl returning.
It was Montezuma who introduced Don Cortes to his favorite drink,
xocoatl, served in a golden goblet. The Spaniards were dazzled by the splendor
and mystique of Montezuma and they basked in the glory of being the group of a
god returned to earth. All the cacao beans consumed by the Aztecs were grown
on the Yucatan peninsula by the Mayas, who were subjects of the Aztecs by AD
1200. Within a year, Cortes had repaid the Aztec’s hospitality by imprisoning his
gracious host and declaring the country a colony of Spain. The conquistadors
returned home in 1528 and introduced the cacao bean and its preparation as a
drink to the royal Spanish court.
Chocolate’s Introduction to Spain
The conquistadors were not the first to bring the cacao bean to Spain. In
1502, Christopher Columbus is said to have brought back cacao beans to King
Ferdinand from his fourth visit to “The New World.” Columbus, himself, did not
enjoy chocolate in this form. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella did not care
much for it either, and dismissed it as a bizarre native drink (Anonymous 2,
Cortes brought chocolate back from Mexico to the royal court of King
Charles V. Monks, hidden away in Spanish monasteries, processed the cacao
beans. Monks, known for their pharmaceutical skills were chosen to process the
beans and perfect the drink to Spanish tastes. Cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar
were added and the chili pepper was omitted and it was discovered that
chocolate tasted even better served hot. Soon chocolate became a fashionable
drink enjoyed by the rich in Spain. It made a profitable industry for Spain, which
planted cacao trees in its overseas colonies. It took nearly a century for the
news of cacao and chocolate to spread across Europe as the Spanish kept it a
closely guarded secret (Cadbury, 1997).
An Italian traveler, Francesco Carletti, was the first to break the Spanish
monopoly having visited Central America where he saw how the Indians
prepared the cacao beans and how they made the drink. The drink still
contained hot peppers and spices (Anonymous 2, 1997). By 1606, chocolate
was well established in Italy (Cadbury, 1997). From there, the drink quickly
spread to the aristocratic societies of Germany and Austria. Chocolate, in any
form, was still to much of an expensive South American luxury to be consumed
by the working class.
Anne of Austria, a Hapsburg-Spanish princess who married Louis XIII of
France in 1615, introduced many Spanish customs to the sophisticated French
court, including drinking chocolate (Anonymous 1, 1997). History repeated itself
in 1660, when the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa was betrothed to Louis XIV
of France, she gave her fiance an engagement gift of chocolate, packaged in an
elegantly ornate chest. Their marriage was symbolic of the marriage of
chocolate in the Spanish-Franco culture (Godiva, 1997). The French court
adopted this new exotic drink with great fervor and it was considered to have
medicinal benefits as well as being a nourishing food. The spread of chocolate
from the French court to the rest of French high society took no more than a few
years. The supply of cacao beans to the French market greatly improved after
1684, when France conquered Cuba and Haiti and set up their own cacao
plantations (Cadbury, 1997). By 1687, there were at least three chocolate
makers in Paris, selling their hand-made wares in their own shops, and by 1692,
French wine merchants were complaining that chocolate was cutting into their
business (Anonymous 2, 1997).
While the royal courts of France ensured its success, across the Channel,
an enterprising Frenchman opened the first chocolate shop in Bishopsgate
Street, London in 1657. At the same time famous London coffee houses serving
Spanish-style cakes and rolls containing chocolate to their learned and wealthy
clientele. Only the rich and noble could afford to drink chocolate. Chocolate
increased in popularity not only as a drink, but also as a flavoring for other foods
(Anonymous 1, 1997).
By the eighteenth century, chocolate was indelibly associate with
decadence, aristocracy, and the Catholic Church. Chocolate was considered a
Catholic drink just as coffee was first a Muslim drink and then a Protestant
beverage (Topik, 1996). Pope Pius V was served a cup of chocolate and found
it so disgusting that he could not imagine anyone wanting to drink it. He
therefore declared it permissible to drink though the Lenten feast. Fashionable
women of the day could not last through Mass without a cup of chocolate, and it
was a common sight to see legions of maids serving chocolate to their
mistresses, thereby interrupting the Mass (Anonymous 1, 1997). Chocolate
could also effectively disguise poisons. The Bishop of Chiapa Mexico tried to
ban the practice of drinking chocolate during Mass, but soon after met an
untimely death. Some gentlewoman poisoned his own morning cup of chocolate
(Anonymous 1, 1997).
Chocolate also appears to have been used as a medicinal remedy by
leading physicians of the day. The king’s doctor, Henry Stubbe wrote a book
praising the beneficial qualities of chocolate, called The Indian Nectar. He
advocated that one ounce of chocolate contained more fat and nourishment than
a pound of meat and he wrote medical prescriptions made from chocolate. He
also wrote that chocolate “becomes provocative to lust upon no other account
than that it begets good blood.” Coincidentally, a French medical student wrote
a thesis “On the Healthful Uses of Chocolate (Anonymous 1, 1997).”
Christopher Ludwig Hoffmann’s treatise Potus Chocolate recommends chocolate
for many diseases, citing it as a cure for Cardinal Richelieu’s ills (Godiva, 1997).
Like other mysteriously alluring substances, chocolate has from time to
time been regarded as an aphrodisiac. Montezuma consumed up to 50 cups a
day before visiting his harem. Casanova was said to find chocolate more
effective for his purposes than champagne (Anonymous 3, 1997). For Geronimo
Piperni: “Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital
sea, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine
(Maxwell, 1996). The French literally worshipped this new drink, applauding its
virtues and attributing it with amazing properties. By the time Louis XV
ascended the throne in 1723, it was an institution of the royal court, and his
mistresses, Madame Du Barry and Madame de Pompadour, carried on the royal
chocolate connect. It was said of Madame Du Barry that she plied her lovers
with chocolate to whip up their ardor in gratifying her lust. The opposite was
said of Madame de Pompadour who was frigid, “…to warm a temperament that
was by nature cool, to stir a sensuality that was at best sluggish, she had
recourse to curious aphrodisiacs and diets (Anonymous 2, 1997).” At breakfast
she drank truffle and celery soup washed down by hot chocolate.
The last queen of France, Marie Antoinette, had a personal chocolatier
from Vienna who made such delicacies as chocolate mixed with powered orchid
bulbs to charmingly plump out her figure (Anonymous 1, 1997). The Marquis de
Sade, a chocoholic who became grotesquely obese during his long captivity,
when denied other outlets, he spent his time overindulging in all manner of
chocolate delicacies, of which he was always demanding more from his loyal
and long-suffering wife. ” asked…for a cake with icing, but I want it to be
chocolate,” he demanded in 1779, “and black inside from chocolate as the
devil’s ass is black from smoke. And the icing is to be the same (Maxwell,
We have seen how chocolate progressed from a primitive drink and food
of ancient Latin American tribes, a part of their religious, commerce and social
life, to a drink favored by the elite of European society and the many different
uses European’s found for chocolate, including medicinal, aphrodisiac and
religious. To this day, chocolate is still very popular. By the 1990′s, annual
world consumption of cacao beans averages approximately 600,000 tons and
chocolate consumption is on the rise (Neft and ResSeguie, 1996). The United
States consumed an average of 11.5 pounds of chocolate per person per year
(Neft and ResSeguie, 1996). Theobroma cacao is still the “food of the gods.”
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Anonymous 2. (1997). A brief history of chocolate. World Wide Web.
Anonymous 3. (1997). Healthy calories. Economist. 344 (8028), 68-69.
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World Wid Web.
Empty, T. (1997). Emptys page of the history of chocolate. World Wide
Godiva. (1997). An age-old obsession: A brief history of chocolate.
World Wide Web. http://www/2.godiva.com/resources/history.html
Maxwell, K. (1996). The road to kisses. New York Review of Books. 43
Neft, R. and ResSeguie, D. (1996). Clear accounts and thick chocolate.
World Wide Web.
Topik, S. C. (1996). From coin to commodity. World Trade. 9 (2), 80.
Van Epen, K. (1996). Sustainability — chocolate addict: The cacahuatl
eater by Jonathan Ott. Whole Earth Review. (89), 43.