Who doesn’t love chocolate? We give it to children to make them happy and to our sweethearts as a token of affection. We sip hot chocolate in winter and enjoy chocolate ice cream in the summer. It’s a part of our every day lives, but Europeans didn’t know about chocolate until they came to the New World. It was here, according to archaeologists, that the Mayans began to cultivate it around 900 AD.
If you were able to travel back in time, you might be surprised how the Mayans, and then the Aztecs, consumed xocolatl, which is the Mayan word for chocolate. It actually translates to “bitter water”. That’s because the Mayans did not sweeten it. Instead, they mixed crushed cocoa beans with chili peppers and then added water. They poured this mixture from one cup to another to create a frothy drink.
The Mayans believed xocolatl was a gift from the gods. Everyone in their society enjoyed it. However, the Aztecs, who had to trade for cocoa beans, had a different viewpoint. In their society, only the nobility and priesthood could afford to drink chocolate. In fact, it was served in gold goblets that were only used once.
The Aztecs were just one of many civilizations that traded with the Maya for cocoa beans. Over time, the beans became a form of currency. For example, the Mayans might pay 4 cocoa beans for a pumpkin. When they were conquered by the Aztecs, they were forced to pay a tax in cocoa. This even led to an underground network of counterfeit beans!
In addition to being used for trade, xocolatl was also used in divine rituals. The Mayans annually had a festival to honor Ek Chauh, the cocoa god. They offered him cocoa beans and blood sacrifices and had ritual dances. The Aztecs also had an annual festival to honor the god who had given mortals xocolatl. During their festival they sacrificed an enemy warrior at their capital, Tenochtitlan.
Chocolate was not only associated with death. It was also used in weddings and at births, when Mayans would daub their newborn babies’ heads with clear water mixed with ground cocoa and flowers.
Mesoamericans also believed in the healing power of chocolate. They thought it could cure many illnesses such as headaches, fever, fatigue and even cancer. Xocolatl was thought to calm an upset stomach and aid in the healing of wounds. Among the Aztecs, warriors would drink chocolate before battle to give themselves courage and strength, and their king, Montezuma, apparently drank 50 goblets before he visited his harem.
When the Spanish came to the New World, they were not impressed by xocolatl. They weren’t even sure they wanted to take the beans back to Spain with them. When they did, the Spanish monks made the chocolate drink more palatable by adding sugar. This is the origin of the sweet hot chocolate we love today. Later, other Europeans found ways to turn chocolate into candy bars, ice-cream and all the other ways we enjoy it today.