Second of a 5-part series as a model for student work.

American Original Sin: The Sacred Ka’Kaw


Part Two:
The Sacred Ka’Kaw

Steve Chisnell

27 March 2020

“It’s really heavy,” my student said, surprised. She braced her knees a bit in order to roll an ancient round boulder across a concave stone bowl, crushing the roasted/fermented cocoa beans in the jungle heat of Costa Rica. Somewhere, 3700 miles from a fresh batch of cookies that my mother was undoubtedly pulling from a farm kitchen in Michigan, we were meeting the holy Mayan origins of chocolate. Each of us took a turn at the boulder, this altar of the transmutation of bean to paste.

We had been invited to participate in the sacred creation of chocolate, just as it was practiced by the ancient Mayan discoverers of chocolate. The descendants of that tradition, indigenous peoples who would change into jeans and t-shirts at 5:30 that afternoon, explained the history, the process, the meaning. As they did, my childhood memories of nomming on Hersheys became something shallow, insipid. I was in awe, but I was also–at least partly–ashamed.

Tracing the mythology of the Mesoamericans is difficult because we have only a combination of oral histories, archaeological carvings and architectures, and remnants of codexes on bark, one of which is the Popol Vuh (“Book of Counsel”). Nevertheless, it’s clear that cacao has been a central part of the culture from its beginnings 3500 years ago. Four different gods bled into cacao pods to give them power, and cacao is an essential ingredient to the creation of mankind. In other words, cacao and the blood of the heart are linked to the eternal itself. For the Aztecs, human sacrifice and the consumption of blood and cocoa were all bound up in the idea of the divine. The cacao tree sits as an essential component of the universe (“History and Spirit”). Cocoa became a “godly potion that would grant energy and power” (“Medicinal Benefits”).

Our group journeys across an old suspended bridge to reach the ancient site of chocolate.

Spiritual significance is at least partly about time. The “fulfillment” part of any experience perhaps comes from investment of time and skill in its preparation. Certainly this is true of Mayan chocolate. Besides the cautious and careful cultivation of cacao, the beans are dried and slowly fermented across a few weeks until they reach a point where their pulping beneath the holy stone will be successful. Never in my life could I imagine such an endurance becoming necessary. I live in the age of microwaves, impulse M&M buys, and chocolate which will ooze out of a dozen different kinds of machines for toppings and syrups. I am a Choco-On-Demand economy. The Mayans, by contrast, nurse their desire as a sustained prayer. What have we lost, I wondered, as one by one we rolled the stone across the beans, scraping patiently away with a small spoon, and then preparing the paste with various herbs to flavor it?  It can only be. . . . reverence.

The Mayans understood: we are cacao. 

The Mayans understood: we are cacao. Some pop psychologist somewhere said, “You are what you eat.”  It’s the same idea. If we want to understand and nourish our connection to the world, to touch nature, to embody the divine of the grand design, some investment in reflection, in self-conception, in introspection, is pre-requisite. We can condemn the Mayans self-importantly for their practice of drinking blood, of human sacrifice–”Oh, how advanced we are!” we cry, as we blow each other up with more efficient machines and consume “flesh and blood” in some of our own religious rituals.

No, the Mayans practiced the metaphor of connection to the world intimately–call it sympathetic magic if you wish to speak academic anthropology. They knew that the slow taking of chocolate–not in giant Hershey kisses, not from vending machines, not from public fondues and fountains–was the Way, the Path, of the gods.  We have even corrupted its name: “cacao” which is the bean of the cacao tree, became “cocoa” for us when a dictionary misprint combined two words, an error never repaired (Chocolate in Context).  


…  slowly, …

… we build a relationship with the cacao. 

Slowly we took the cacao paste back to the preparation tables to roll it into small balls. I took three home with me; they lasted months, so cautious was I to savor each bite. They were dark, even bitter unless mixed with a berry or herb, but also unique. (When Hershey added milk to cacao (not until 1879!), the divinity was forever compromised, washed out of existence (“History and Spirit”).)  They are gone now, these succulent relics of ancient wonder. I taste our American cookie and–while I feel the brief pleasure of the taste–I feel shame at what we have done to the eternal. And so I eat another, a matter merely of convenience.

Itzamna, the young earth goddess Ixik Kab’ & the flower god (Ahaw/K’uh? Nik, let blood from their ears onto two containers (cacao pods) on the ground. Drawing after Villacorta C. and Villacorta (1976:414).

(“History and Spirit”)

Works Cited

Chocolate in Context: Chocolate Linguistics: You Say Cocoa, I Say Cacao. 12 June 2007,

“History & Spirit.” Cacao Mama,

“Medicinal Benefits of Theobroma Cacao: Contemporary Studies of Chocolate as a Health Food and the Historical Use of Cacao in Healing.” Chocolate Class, 10 May 2016,


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