Cacao: A History of Religion, Spirituality, Superstition, and Healing
Sep 6th 2022
From ancient rituals to the modern cacao ceremony and healing with the food of the gods.
Whether you are a chocolate maker, a tea brewer, or a wellness or healing coach, you will come with several forms of cacao being used in some spiritual rituals or cacao ceremonies. In the beginning, you start wondering if this is just another gimmick or if there is actually substance behind this concept. There is no doubt that cacao has a long history of being part of religious ceremonies and tied to special events, but why did ancient people believe cacao was a magical gift from the gods? Why did people think cacao could heal them? Why was cacao used in religious ceremonies? How do ancient cacao rituals relate to modern cacao ceremonies? What are people referring to when they mention cacao spirituality or cacao magic?
These are some questions this story will answer. These answers may surprise you. Ancient civilizations weren’t wrong to revere cacao, as many modern humans would believe.
The History of Cacao
Cacao trees grow in the wild in South America and Mesoamerica. But, there are genetic distinctions between the wild cacao plants in the two regions.
The first evidence of cacao in pottery was from the Mayo-Chinchipe tribes approximately 5,300 years ago in the Amazon region of Ecuador. We know little about how ancient South American tribes used cacao.
The peoples of southern Mexico and Central America have a long history with cacao. It served as medicine, ceremonial drinks, and even currency. The Aztecs valued cacao more than gold.
The Olmecs are the earliest known users of cacao in Mesoamerica. They used cacao as early as 1500 BCE. The Olmecs only had oral history. So, we aren’t sure how they used their cacao drinks. It’s believed they used cacao for ceremonial purposes.
Later civilizations like the Mayans and the Aztecs left us a better understanding of their beliefs and uses for cacao.
We know how the Mayans used cacao from their written history. Their cacao drinks were mixed with chilis, honey, and water.
They used cacao for celebrations, religious ceremonies, and finalizing important transactions. They believed cacao was a gift from their gods and cacao was part of their creation story. Mayans consumed cacao beverages widely throughout all classes of their society. Many Mayans enjoyed cacao with every meal.
Like the Mayans, the Aztecs believed cacao was a gift from their gods. Unlike the Mayans, only the upper classes of Aztec society enjoyed cacao regularly. But the lower classes consumed cacao drinks at celebrations like weddings. The Aztecs also gave cacao to one type of prisoner used in religious ceremonies. There’s more on that in the section on religion.
The Aztecs didn’t think cacao drinks were suitable for women and children. Because of the “intoxicating effects” of cacao, the drinks were for men only. The Aztecs gave their warriors cacao to strengthen them before a battle.
The Aztecs placed such a great value on cacao, that they used cacao beans as currency in their society. Archeologists have found price lists with the prices in cacao beans instead of currency. The price list showed that a turkey hen was worth 100 cacao beans, while a turkey egg was worth three cacao beans.
In 1544, Dominican friars brought some Mayan nobles to meet Prince Philip. The nobles brought cacao with them. From there, the popularity of cacao drinks quickly spread through the Spanish aristocracy. The Spanish sweetened their cacao drinks with cane sugar and cinnamon instead of the chilis and honey used in Mesoamerica.
The Spanish were the first to create cacao plantations. They used Mayan and Aztec labor at first. But, because of the loss of population in these civilizations due to the spread of European diseases, the Spanish turned to African slaves.
The Spanish kept their method of chocolate production a secret. It wasn’t until 1635 that chocolate production spread to Belgium and then throughout Europe.
As in Spain and among the Aztecs, chocolate was only for the European elites. That is, until the invention of the cacao press in 1828. This new device decreased production costs so that chocolate was finally affordable for the masses. By the mid to late 19th century, British, Swiss, and American companies were mass-producing chocolate.
Cacao Cultivation Expands Across the Globe
European nations established cacao and sugar plantations in their colonies around the world. Any colony near the equator was a good place for a cacao plantation. These colonial empires found West Africa to be an especially good place for cacao cultivation. Today, Africa produces most of the world’s cacao.
Medical Uses of Cacao
Cacao didn’t become a part of religious ceremonies just because it had a pleasant taste. The Mayans and Aztecs believed cacao had various healing properties. And modern science confirms cacao can help prevent some illnesses and ease the symptoms of some illnesses.
The Aztecs used cacao to treat childhood diarrhea, stomach and intestinal issues, dental problems, hemorrhoids, angina, gout, fatigue, heart issues, and lactose intolerance. Cacao was also used to enhance the taste of some other Aztec medicines.
Legend has it that the Aztec king, Montezuma II, consumed 40-50 cups of cacao beverages per day. He believed it was an aphrodisiac and gave him energy. He would use it as a type of ancient Viagra before meeting with members of his harem.
Europe Before the 20th Century
The Spanish and other Europeans quickly learned cacao could provide relief to medical conditions just as the Aztecs had before them. Europeans used cacao to treat many of the same illnesses as the Aztecs. They believed cacao/chocolate was a miracle drug. In the 20th and 21st centuries, science showed us why cacao could be so helpful.
Cacao: A Modern Superfood
Nutritionists consider cacao a modern superfood. The ancient people of Mesoamerica and Europeans were right about many of its qualities. Of course, today, we have access to more elaborate and efficient medicine due to scientific discoveries and developments. Still, it’s better to eat right to prevent illnesses, so cacao is a food most people should incorporate into their diet. It’s also an excellent source of iron, potassium, and magnesium.
The fiber in cacao powder may help with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome. Studies show that the flavonoids in cacao powder increase insulin sensitivity — which may help to reduce the risk of diabetes. Cacao powder has a high concentration of potassium which may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Cacao’s flavonoids reduce inflammation — which may decrease your risks of cancer, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Modern science can explain a lot of the magical healing properties of cacao. But what about the way it makes you feel? Caffeine isn’t the only stimulant found in cacao and is actually present in minimal quantities. There are three other important components worth mentioning:
Theobromine stimulates without affecting your central nervous system. For this reason, you might not feel as jittery after drinking chocolate as after drinking coffee. But you still need to remember that cacao also has some caffeine, although in fewer quantities.
Phenylethylamine activates the brain’s pleasure centers. If you need your brain to release dopamines, here’s the reason you’ll often turn to chocolate.
Anandamide can have psychoactive effects. But, it occurs in very small amounts in chocolate. Anandamide can also work as a pain reliever.
As you can see, our ancestors weren’t wrong for thinking cacao could do so much. As substances that have such miraculous effects often make their way into our religions, and cacao had many tangible effects that made them believe it was divine. Consider peyote with some Native American tribes, cannabis with Rastafarians, and other hallucinogens used by shamans around the world.
Even mainline Christian denominations use red wine in our rituals — though in such small amounts as not to intoxicate. The Mesoamerican civilizations also used a mild substance with medicinal properties in their religious ceremonies — cacao.
Cacao and Religion
The Spanish recorded a lot about cacao ceremonies in ancient Mesoamerica. Some of these ceremonies created a great deal of controversy. It took years for Catholic theologians to determine if Catholics could consume chocolate because of its connection to such ceremonies.
Common Beliefs/Superstitions About Cacao in Mesoamerica
Both the Maya and the Aztecs feature cacao as a gift from the gods in their creation stories. The Maya believed the grandmother god, Xmucane, created them from maize. The god, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, gave cacao to the humans.
In the Aztec religion, their god, Quetzalcoatl (also known as Sovereign Plumed Serpent) gave them cacao. Both the Aztecs and the Maya believed in a strong connection between cacao, blood, and the heart.
The Maya and the Aztecs had a ceremony similar to Christian baptisms. The Maya baptism involved water mixed with cacao and flowers. Mayans also used cacao in their wedding ceremonies.
The Maya held a festival in April of each year to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah. These celebrations included chocolate beverages, blood-letting, animal sacrifices, and dancing.
Mayan rulers pierced their penises with obsidian blades to draw blood at these festivals. Then they drizzled the blood over the ceremonial cacao and offered it to the gods.
Mayan priests would lance their ear lobes to draw blood. They dressed cacao-colored dogs in feathers and then sacrificed them at these festivals.
One Aztec religious ceremony involved dressing up captured warriors as Quetzalcoatl, the god who had given them cacao. They dressed these prisoners in colorful feathers and jewelry. For 40 days, they treated the prisoners like gods. But every night, they put them in cages.
Every day, they ordered the prisoners to dance to please the god of war and the sun, Huitzilopochtli. These men knew things would not end well for them, but they were required to entertain the god of war. To help make it easier for them to fulfill their entertainment duties, they gave the prisoners a beverage made of chocolate mixed with other intoxicating substances. The beverage was the color of blood.
After 40 days of dancing to please the gods, Aztec priests would cut the living heart out of the captured warriors as sacrifices to their god of war.
The Catholic Church
The Mayan blood-letting and Aztec human sacrifices didn’t impress Catholic missionaries. They associated these ceremonies with cacao. For this reason, there was great concern about whether Catholics should be allowed to consume chocolate. For decades, theologians debated the place of chocolate within the Church.
Some wrote in favor of chocolate’s place in Catholic society. A Franciscan friar wrote about how the feast of All Souls was celebrated in the indigenous towns. These people made many offerings for the dead, then they used chocolate in place of wine.
Some theologians, concerned about the shortage of wine in Mesoamerica, even considered replacing wine with chocolate drinks at Mass.
After nearly 100 years of debate, the Jesuits, who were involved in cacao production and distribution, convinced the Church that cacao wasn’t sinful.
If you want to read more about the history of cacao and the Catholic Church, click here.
Modern Cacao Ceremonies
Throughout its history, people have associated cacao with religion and spirituality. But what about modern cacao ceremonies? Part of the good news is that you need not worry about blood-letting and human sacrifices. Humanity has come a long way since those days.
Once you remove the blood and gore, the ancients got some things right with their cacao rituals. Cacao, combined with other practices, can lead to a powerful experience,
Modern cacao ceremonies are mind-body spirituality combined with liquid cacao. Unlike a single sip of wine at some Christian ceremony, you’ll drink considerably more cacao at one of these ceremonies.
The ceremonies may involve ecstatic dance, yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation. There is no set way to perform a cacao ceremony.
A common way for these ceremonies to work is for a small group to sit in a circle. They pour the ceremonial cacao and pass it around the circle. An intention is set for the ceremony. Then the participants drink the cacao. The ceremonial leader guides the group. They may choose meditation, other mind-body practices, ecstatic dance, or some combination of these practices.
Participants have described these ceremonies as heart-opening, mood-boosting, and focus-increasing. It’s called cacao magic or cacao spirituality.
We all know yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation are good for us. We know cacao is good for us. But what is ecstatic dance? Ecstatic dance has been part of religious ceremonies for thousands of years. The Shakers’ shaking was an ecstatic dance. Pentecostals perform ecstatic dance when the spirit moves them. Some Muslim Sufis practice ecstatic dance in their rituals.
A story of an ecstatic dance is told in the Christian Bible in 2 Samuel 6:14-20 (DRA). It says King David “danced with all his might before the Lord.” It also says, “When Michol, daughter of Saul, saw him leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.” She scolded him, saying, “How glorious was the king of Israel today, uncovering himself before the handmaids of his servants, and was naked as if one of the buffoons should be naked.”
So, ecstatic dance has been around for a long time. There have been reports of it being practiced within all major religions and shamanism movements. The word ecstatic comes from the word ecstasy. You’re basically losing yourself to the spirit and letting it guide your movements. There are no set steps to perform — you’re just moving wildly.
Cacao drinks can provide a lot of energy from caffeine and other stimulants. It isn’t a surprise that as the ceremony progresses, you’ll feel the urge to move your body.
The Mind-Body-Spirit Experience
Intentional mindfulness and meditation help you focus your mind in ways many people wouldn’t think possible. By clearing your mind with meditation techniques, you’ll eventually become open to focusing on a single intention. The chemical compounds within cacao will increase your awareness and focus. Meditation and cacao are a winning combination.
Breathing exercises in a cacao ceremony enhance the flow of blood. It is similar to the blood and heart part of the ancient ceremonies. But, our modern ceremonies are much more constructive than what the ancients did for blood and heart — self-mutilation, animal sacrifices, and human sacrifice.
Yoga is another mind-body-spiritual practice common in cacao ceremonies. Yoga heightens the release of muscular tension while cacao does the same thing. The combination of the two is greater than the sum of the parts.
The mental state these practices provide when they’re combined puts your mind in the right place for a spiritual experience.
Do You Need a Group Ceremony To Enjoy the Benefits?
You can mix cacao with these other practices such as meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises on your own. During the early days of the pandemic, being alone was the only safe way to enjoy a cacao ceremony. Of course, if you live in an apartment and you’re performing your own cacao ceremony, it’s a good idea to skip the ecstatic dancing part. Your downstairs neighbors will thank you.
As we can see, cacao has a very long history of being part of spiritual and religious rituals. The practices were part of the perceived relationship between cacao with the blood and heart, although it included some real blood in the past. Modern science proves cacao has a positive impact on the heart, so maybe there is some type of relationship between both. For that, it is an interesting fact that different cultures, different religions, and different continents somehow all found that cacao was a special bean. Whether magical, divine, or a nutritional superfood, cacao has certainly earned his name: the food of the gods!