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Mexicolore contributor Dr. Simon Martin

Tales from the Underworld: Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion

We are indebted to Dr. Simon Martin, Associate Curator, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (USA) for allowing us to upload our abridged and simplified version of his fascinating chapter ‘First Fruit from the Maize Tree and other Tales from the Underworld’ in Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006.

Pic 1: Maya culture: mural, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 1: Maya culture: mural, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Like all people whose lives revolved around farming, the ancient Maya were completely at one with nature. Every kind of tree, plant, leaf, flower, fruit and root featured in their symbols. Above all, their crops, that fed and gave them wealth, enjoyed a special place in their religion and in their ancient myths.
Though we’ve known for some time that cacao (chocolate to you and me) was a luxury drink only the rich and privileged enjoyed in ancient Mexico and that it could serve as a basic form of money (the ultimate ‘cash crop’), we know far less about its role in Maya religious beliefs. When we start to delve into this, we find themes that were not just important to the Maya but common throughout ancient Mesoamerica – fertility and survival, sacrifice and re-birth, representing an idea and transforming into another being...

Pic 2: Early Classic period stone Maya bowl (K4331*), Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, detail (top); it shows the Maize God as a cacao tree in human form. Drawings by Simon Martin
Pic 2: Early Classic period stone Maya bowl (K4331*), Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, detail (top); it shows the Maize God as a cacao tree in human form. Drawings by Simon Martin (Click on image to enlarge)

We start by looking closely at the images on a small stone Maya bowl, now housed in Washington, USA. The two surviving scenes show a man-like figure sitting or lying on a seat covered with a mat (pic 2). His arms and legs are studded with ripe cacao pods, and his skin is decorated with wavy ‘wood’ motifs. By all accounts we’re looking at a cacao tree in human form. In the scene on the left he examines an open book, while on the right he points to what may be a chocolate pot. Experts have dubbed this young lord a ‘Cacao God’. Strangely, though, his features – sloping brow, hair cut and styled in certain parts, jeweled forehead – ally him with the Maize God. So underneath his chocolate coating he appears to be the old Maize God who has taken on the form of a cacao tree; and the accompanying text (centre) confirms this, calling the figure the ‘Maize Tree’.

Pic 3: Early Classic period stone Maya vase (K6547*), Museum für Volkerkunde Berlin (detail). The Maize God’s body is reduced to a skeleton amid trees in human form. Drawing by Simon Martin
Pic 3: Early Classic period stone Maya vase (K6547*), Museum für Volkerkunde Berlin (detail). The Maize God’s body is reduced to a skeleton amid trees in human form. Drawing by Simon Martin (Click on image to enlarge)

So what’s the connection between the Maize (God) Tree and cacao? For a start, maize or corn has always been sacred to the Maya, and for a link to cacao it’s worth exploring a famous and ‘classic’ Maya myth called the Popol Vuh, in which the life cycle of corn becomes a symbol for the life and death of human beings. For illustration, let’s turn to the images on a Maya vase, now housed in Berlin, which show key stages in how humans, maize and cacao (ex-)change forms. In the scene shown (Pic 3), the body of the dead lord, reduced to a skeleton, lies buried under a stepped pyramid, which here represents the Maya version of ‘Sustenance (Nourishment) Mountain’, original and ancient source of all foods, beginning with maize, and the idea behind the building of funerary pyramids. Above the corpse stand, upside-down, three human-like trees – the middle one bears cacao pods; they’re fed directly by the body below, their fingers spreading to form long roots underground, their bodies and legs transformed into trunks and leafy branches. There’s no doubt they represent ancient ‘World Trees’ that support the sky, grow from the earth, and stand upright in the position of vertically diving crocodiles (more about these below...)

Pic 4: Life and death/re-birth in ancient Mexico; detail from a mural by R. Anguiano, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico
Pic 4: Life and death/re-birth in ancient Mexico; detail from a mural by R. Anguiano, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

In ancient Mexico maize had a sacred spirit, which had to leave the corn cob before the crop could be harvested. For ancient Mexicans not only humans have souls, but every living thing (and this extended to natural elements such as stone and water); what’s more, we’re blessed with several spirits or life-forces, each with a different destination after death. Death itself, far from being the end, is crucial to provide nourishment for new life (when something decomposes it provides compost and food for new things to grow), and the scene on the Berlin vase shows the journey of the Maize God’s soul as it goes forth to nourish and join forces, eventually, with the sun.

Pic 5: Centéotl; detail from the Codex Borgia pl. 14
Pic 5: Centéotl; detail from the Codex Borgia pl. 14 (Click on image to enlarge)

This concept of ‘new life coming from old’ (a bit like the old English expression when someone dies ‘He’s pushing up daisies’) was at the heart of ancient Mexican beliefs. An Aztec myth recounts how the maize god Centeotl buries himself in the floor of a cavern and from his body grows corn, as well as the fruits and seeds of other useful plants:-
‘[Centeotl] put himself under the ground, and from his hair emerged cotton, and from an eye a very good seed which they eat gladly, called cacatzli... From the nose, another seed called chía... From the fingers came a fruit called camotli... From the fingernails another kind of broad maize, which is the kind they eat today. And from the rest of the body emerged many other fruits, which the men gather and sow.’

Pic 6: Late Classic period polychrome Maya vase, Popol Vuh Museum Guatemala (detail) (K5615*); the head of the Maize God as a cacao pod. Drawing by Simon Martin
Pic 6: Late Classic period polychrome Maya vase, Popol Vuh Museum Guatemala (detail) (K5615*); the head of the Maize God as a cacao pod. Drawing by Simon Martin (Click on image to enlarge)

Because cacao was considered so valuable in ancient Mexico, the Maya portrayed it as the first among the fruit trees grown from the Maize God’s abandoned body. But as we’ve seen, it certainly wasn’t the only one: the ‘death’ of the Maize God gave life not just to cacao or to maize but to ALL life-giving food plants. It was the very symbol of fertility and plenty. For ancient Mexicans, human beings were formed out of corn dough, and the eternal life cycle of the Maize God just ‘recycles’ the material from which all people are made. Youngsters, then and now, were called ‘sprouts’. Rather than going off to some heavenly paradise after death, the Maya in particular believed more in the old and dying being reincarnated as grandchildren.
In the Popol Vuh the sacred maize tree – under as well as above the ground – produces divine fruit (cacao) which is in itself the seed for future generations. Indeed ALL fruits are symbolic heads of the Maize God, and often in Maya art we find cacao pods shown as human faces (pic 6) (it’s interesting that in many Maya languages the word for ‘fruit’ sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘face’).

Pic 7: (L) Crocodilian World Tree: detail from Stela 25, Izapa, Mexico, Preclassic period: drawing by Simon Martin. (R) Maize growing from the back of the Aztec ‘cipactli’ earth monster: from Codex Borgia pl. 27 (detail)
Pic 7: (L) Crocodilian World Tree: detail from Stela 25, Izapa, Mexico, Preclassic period: drawing by Simon Martin. (R) Maize growing from the back of the Aztec ‘cipactli’ earth monster: from Codex Borgia pl. 27 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In Maya belief the centre of the world is a large tropical ceiba tree, connecting heavens and earth – the ‘first’ tree, a World Tree, the Maya version of the Aztec cipactli, a supernatural crocodile representing the surface of the earth, out of which plants and trees grow (cipactli was also the first of the twenty Aztec calendar signs). (Why associate crocodiles with trees – remember the diving figures we met earlier? – well think how similar-looking tree bark and crocodile skin is, and picture a half-submerged croc: it looks very much like a floating log...) At the four corners/directions/limits of the earth and cosmos stand four more trees, each a different special colour; all five combine as pillars to support the skies in a classic shape (4 corners + 1 in the middle) called a quincunx, central to ancient Mexican views of the universe and commonly found in nature.

Pic 8: A palace scene in the Underworld: late Classic period Maya polychrome vessel (detail) (K631*). Drawing by Simon Martin
Pic 8: A palace scene in the Underworld: late Classic period Maya polychrome vessel (detail) (K631*). Drawing by Simon Martin (Click on image to enlarge)

Trees are great examples of beings that feed and grow below as well as above ground (crocs too!), and from the Maya Underworld come stories of battles between powerful gods: in the Popol Vuh we read of how the Hero Twins - sons of the Maize God, who go on to become the sun and the moon - finally topple the lords of the Underworld, led by ‘God L’, the most powerful. By causing the death of the Maize God, it was God L who took possession of the Maize Tree – and so came to own cacao and all the wealth it represented. This is illustrated on another painted ceramic vessel (pic 8) - God L, an aged figure with jaguar characteristics and seated in a throne room, talks to another god who gestures towards a human-like tree weighted with cacao pods...

Pic 9: God L with merchant’s pack and cacao tree. Mural detail. Late Classic period. Red Temple, Cacaxtla, Mexico; drawing by Simon Martin
Pic 9: God L with merchant’s pack and cacao tree. Mural detail. Late Classic period. Red Temple, Cacaxtla, Mexico; drawing by Simon Martin (Click on image to enlarge)

...and in the murals of Cacaxtla (pic 9) showing God L as a trader, with his merchant’s pack (topped with his unique broad hat) and a cacao tree. What isn’t shown is how the scene continues up a stairway towards the earth’s surface, where the tree turns into a series of cornstalks on which each cob is the head of the reborn Maize God. Talk about transformation!
Going back to the palace scene (pic 8) the fiery looking god in the middle has associations with lightning, widely believed in ancient Mexican belief to be the agent that ‘frees’ maize and other seeds from within Nourishment Mountain, by splitting it open.

Pic 10: Maize and the World Tree: (L) detail from the lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus, late Classic period, Palenque, Mexico. (R) Detail from the Codex Borgia, pl. 53. Drawings by Simon Martin
Pic 10: Maize and the World Tree: (L) detail from the lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus, late Classic period, Palenque, Mexico. (R) Detail from the Codex Borgia, pl. 53. Drawings by Simon Martin (Click on image to enlarge)

The task of rescuing cacao and all the other foods that will feed human beings falls to the lightning bolt god, whose special power can penetrate different worlds with fearsome energy. As a result, the Maize God can rise up out of the split earth and be reborn in the form of a World Tree, eventually ascending to the sky – a powerful representation of the creation of humanity, and an end to earthly darkness and chaos.
So there was always something extra special, then, in the ritual act of sipping chocolate: for the ancient Maya it was a way of remembering and commemorating the old corn god on his triumphant journey up from the Underworld to the earth, the skies and beyond, a journey of death and life, of rebirth, and in the end of complete union with the cosmos.

Pic 11: A Maya elder holds a cacao pod; exhibition on the history of cacao, Choco-Story, Bruges, Belgium
Pic 11: A Maya elder holds a cacao pod; exhibition on the history of cacao, Choco-Story, Bruges, Belgium (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• All line drawings by and courtesy of Simon Martin
• Pix 2 (top), 3 (top), 6 (left), and 8 (top): photos by and courtesy of Justin Kerr (all images with *K-prefixed numbers refer to the Kerr Photographic Archive [link below])
• Pix 1, 4 and 11: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: image from Wikipedia (Cinteotl)
• Pic 7 (right): image adapted and scanned with permission from our own copy of The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, New York, 1993.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 26th 2014

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