Happy Halloween! Only a few days left until that spookiest of holidays, though how we celebrate today would be very unfamiliar to those used to experiencing a colonial All Hallow’s Eve. But in the spirit (pun intended) of how we celebrate today, we’re going to take a look at the somewhat creepy – even disturbing – symbolism of chocolate for the ancient Mesoamericans. You have been warned…
Both the Mayans and the Aztecs incorporated chocolate into rituals and ceremonies marking the cycles of life and death, for they believed that drinking chocolate symbolized blood. Though the colonists continued to add the natural food coloring annatto to their chocolate to make it more visually appetizing, the Mesoamericans were using larger quantities of the red dye to help their chocolate more closely resemble blood.
The Classic Mayans believed that the sap of trees and the blood of humans contained the same essence of life. The cacao pod, which grows directly from the trunk of the tree, was therefore also imbued with this life-giving essence, invigorating those that consume it. The physical effects of this stimulating beverage further reinforced these associations between human blood, red-dyed drinking chocolate, and the essence of life.
The Aztecs took this symbolism even further. They saw the cacao pod itself as a metaphor for the heart torn out during human sacrifice rituals – the seeds inside like blood then spilling out of the body. The beverage made from those beans would also be associated with blood and played a role in these sacrificial ceremonies.
Since both the Classic Mayans and the Aztecs closely associated blood with drinking chocolate and cacao, an argument could be made that these beliefs descended from an earlier culture, the Olmecs. Little evidence remains as to what symbolic use, if any, the Olmecs made of chocolate, but it seems likely that it was also associated with blood and the rhythms of life and death.