Chocolate and the Maya Underworld

November 18, 2006 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118


2006 Land Lecture

by Simon Martin

  Reviewed by Winfield Coleman

This year’s Land Lecture, held in the new de Young for the first time, was attended by a record audience. Following are some highlights of the absorbing talk by Simon Martin.

Cacao, originating in South America, has been an important food source in the New World for millennia. In the wild, cacao bears few fruits, consisting of two parts: the soft flesh, eaten raw, and the beans, which are dried and processed. Originally, the sweetish fruit was eaten. The Maya appear to have turned from the flesh to the beans. The beans had tremendous value, and were used as currency. They were ground and whipped into a frothy liquid, often with chili powder added; it was not sweetened. Cacao is one of the few natural stimulants in the New World.

Maize and chocolate are closely related in Mayan  mythology. A stone bowl in the form of a gourd, now at the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Washington, D.C., represents the Cacao God: its tassel headpiece is archetypal of the Maize God, yet it is sprouting cacao pods.

Another vase in Berlin contains unique information in two distinct scenes. Below, mourners surround Sustenance Mountain, within the Underworld. Corn sprouts from a crack in the mountaintop. Jaguars, monkeys, and other game abound. The fleshless corpse of the Maize God lies wrapped on a bier within the mountain.

Above, the rayed Sun God, a flaming seed atop his head, is seen within the Moon. Between him and the Maize God is a wing sign, one of the more important glyphs for death: k?a a’yii u sak, “lose seed” [seed equals breath]. The Maize God has been attacked by Chac of the South, i.e., drought. His seed essence escapes through the pierced earth.

Three anthropomorphized trees represent the Maize God, his mother and father. All kings follow in the Maize God’s path, which is the model of the World Tree, holding up the four corners of the world. The four directions of the world are here represented by giant, inverted caimans, cacao pods sprouting from their tails. The Maize God is also represented as inverted, and sprouting pods—an image related to the “Diving Gods” of post-Classic art. By analogy, the sacrificed Maize God sustains the world through his sacrifice.

Pakal’s tomb, in the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, was found in 1952. Pakal is depicted at the moment of his apotheosis, dressed as the Maize God, a flaming torch on his forehead, standing on an altar before a cruciform tree—a sacrifice to the creation of new life. He is enclosed in the pincers of a giant centipede, carnivores that eat flesh—the quintessential symbol of death and rebirth. The tree, of green jade, is growing in the east, which is also the center, the first or green ceiba tree. At Palenque, in the Temple of the Cross, the tree is named Wakah Chan, the “raised up sky.” It symbolizes the Milky Way, and it is the World Tree, the pivot of the world, around which the seasons revolve in an endless cycle. It grows through the 9 Underworld levels, the Middle level, and the 13 regions of the Upper World, its trunk extending into the heavens toward the North Star, while its roots delve deep below the earth’s plane. It serves as a portal between the human world and the other two worlds, through which the gods and shaman-priests freely pass. Atop the World Tree is Itzam-Yeh, the Principal Bird Deity, pivot point of the heavens about the North Star. In one guise he is known as Seven Macaw, the “false sun” that the hero twins of the Popul Vuh shoot from his perch atop the World Tree, in order to prepare for the raising of the sky of the present world. The Quiché Maya identify the Big Dipper as Seven Macaw.

On the lid of the king’s sarcophagus are depicted ten scenes. The mother of Pakal is sprouting as a cacao tree, joined by her husband and a whole series of ancestors, all as fruit; but only the mother is depicted as cacao. The ancestors have converted to vegetal life, symbolizing the way his death renews life.

The Popol Vuh, the great text of the Maya, tells the story of One Hunahpuh, the post-Classic hero as Maize God. Killed by the lords of the Underworld, his head was placed in a tree; in the Popol Vuh, a gourd tree, but originally, a cacao tree. The head comes to life, and with its spittle impregnates Blood Moon, a maiden of the Underworld. She produces twins, Hunahpu and Xbalenque Six, who revenge him on his enemies, later becoming the Sun and the Moon.

One Hunahpuh was killed by One Death (God L) and Seven Death. God L is depicted with a wide-brimmed hunter’s hat decorated with feathers and an owl’s head, a jaguar cape, and a feathered staff, smoking a cigar. God L literally has a “money tree,” having benefited from killing the Maize God, from whose body grow cacao pods—the currency of the Maya.

For maize to be reborn, the gods of death must be slain. The hero twins, accompanied by the thirteen gods of the Upper World, go under the ground to defeat the lords of the Underworld. One of the gods, Kawil, has a serpent foot, representing a streak of lightning. Three gods fused together–rain, lightning, and storms—break the mountain asunder and seed the earth. Kawil brings forth an abundance of food, including a bursting bag of cacao seeds glowing like jewels. The seeds must come out of the earth: people are made out of maize.

God L and his companions are defeated. God L is stripped naked, despoiled of his insignia, robbed of his wealth. His staff is taken by Rabbit, associated with the Moon Goddess and equivalent to the European Man in the Moon. The humiliated God L talks to the Sun God, and complains that Rabbit stole his tribute. The Sun God hides Rabbit, and subjects God L, his father’s murderer. The Sun God thus becomes Lord of Tribute, having in his possession all the wealth of the defeated lords of the Underworld.

This cosmology is represented in a building at Tikal. Centipede jaws enclose the space of the building. The column at the front of the building represents the magical World Tree with pods, in which owls and other natural symbols appear; this is a late form of the Maize God. Inside the building, therefore, we should find God L’s palace. The building is a recreation of God L’s palace in Sustenance Mountain, wherein priests enact a festival of renewal.

The glyph sequence “Maize Tree-like Cacao” is common on vessel inscriptions. The head of the Maize God is depicted on the lid, the embodiment of the tree-sacrament of the Maize God/Cacao. Cacao was enjoyed by the elite; almost every surviving vessel was intended to contain spicy cacao. The vessels represent how fertility came into being, through sacrifice and rebirth.

Allen Christenson works with and photographs the Tz’utuhil Indians of Santiago Atitlán in the Highlands of Guatemala, a very conservative area of the Maya.     Maximon, “Venerable Ancient Grandfather,” is there depicted as an image with two felt hats, smoking a cigar, famously lascivious, and dressed in silk scarves. This is not a Christian story. God L was bad and obnoxious, responsible for illness and death; but he was also necessary. Without decay, there was no new life.

When not in use, the figure of Maximon is broken apart and stored in rafters, then brought down at Easter. He is a syncretic figure. As Holy Week begins, Christ goes into the Underworld—placed in a glass coffin. Maximon has new power. He is marched out of the church with baskets of fruit, which are piled around him in a chapel across from the church. The mayor surrenders his insignia of office, notably his staff, to the figure. Maximon is influential over childbirth and fruitfulness. His altar, piled high with fruit and money, becomes Sustenance Mountain, source of goodness, fertility, and sustenance.

Good Friday for the Maya symbolizes Christ’s rebirth. The cross, symbolizing Christ’s regeneration, is a direct analog of the World Tree. The veils covering the glass coffin are now removed, and the Christ figure emerges and engages in an all-day fight with Maximon, in which the Christ figure emerges victorious.

The Maya of today are not relict people; there is a continuity between the Maya of 5,000 years ago and the Maya of today. Theirs is a dynamic culture, adapting  motifs to their own use. Christianity, in their view, belongs more to them than to the missionaries and other non-Maya. The Maya still plant a tree atop a grave, emblematic of the World Tree. Centeotl, the Maize God who generated life, is now associated with Jesus by the Quiché Maya; in images of Jesus, maize, beans, potatoes and other food sprout from his back. Itzam-Yeh, their Principal Bird Deity—the Big Dipper–is seen as a maize bringer. The immemorial struggle of life and death continues under the wheeling stars; and each spring, life begins anew, when the tender corn cracks open the soil of Sustenance Mountain. ♦