Cacao’s Connection to Christianity and Its Roots as Currency

El Señor del Cacao (Christ of Cacao).
Unknown maker, Mexico City, c. 16th century.
Painted stone.
The Cathedral of Mexico City.

This statue features Jesus Christ holding a small cacao branch with gold leaves, from which it derives its name: Christ of Cacao. The statue, located in Mexico City’s cathedral, draws devotees from across the nation, many of whom leave offerings of chocolate at the base of the pedestal, as shown in the image. While this might seem like an odd donation to leave at Christ’s feet, chocolate has a long history of religious connotation in Central America.

Amerindians in Central America in the 15th century prized cacao as a currency because of the delicacy it produced—chocolate—and for its religious significance. They utilized it as currency because of its convenience: the beans were abundant enough that people had ready access to them, yet rare enough that they could act as a standard, much like gold does today. Up until the arrival of the Spanish, the Amerindians treated the cacao like money. The tribes who had more cacao trees on their land had greater weight with the other tribes because they had more money. When the Spanish arrived, the Europeans immediately strove to seize the cacao production and thus control the market.

The cacao’s product, chocolate, however, truly gave the bean special significance. The upper classes drank the hot drink at political banquets and during religious rituals; its presence was required during the signing of treaties. The Amerindians demanded chocolate’s appearance at these important events because they believed it had mystical powers.

The Popol Vuh is a Mayan epic that prominently features cacao. It tells the story of the maize god—the main Mayan god, whose crop provided their daily sustenance—whose skin is often depicted as being embedded with cacao pods. His journey requires him to spend time in the underworld, and when he emerges to the light once again, he comes through a grove of cacao trees, which often grew by the entrances to caves. For the Amerindians, then, the cacao was an important symbol of rebirth.

The Spanish, upon, their arrival, instantly recognized the similarities in the maize god’s journey and that of Christ, and manipulated those similarities to help spread Christianity and more easily control the local populace. They integrated the maize god’s story into Christ’s, forever connecting the two alongside the idea of cacao’s relationship with rebirth. This integration of religions came with numerous advantages for the Spanish. Specifically, it meant that when Amerindians left cacao offerings at the feet of statues of Jesus and saints, the priests could collect those offerings, amass them, and grow wealthy. Conquest for the Spanish came more easily when they could buy the people rather than fight them.

Thus Christ and cacao are forever intertwined in Central American history, and the statue of Christ holding cacao still draws offerings of chocolate today.


Image: Unknown. c. 16th century. “El Señor del Cacao.” Mexico City, Cathedral of Mexico City. “Weaponizing Cacao.” Chocolate Class: Multimedia Essays on Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. (20 February 2015). Accessed 6 Dec. 2018.

Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. “The Good and Evil of Chocolate in Colonial Mexico” In Chocolate in Mesoamerica : A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, 273-88. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Aliphat, Mario and Laura Caso Barrera. “The Itza Maya Control over Cacao” In Chocolate in Mesoamerica : A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, 289-306. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Earle, Rebecca. The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion” In Chocolate in Mesoamerica : A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, 273-88. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

The Chocolate Cup

De español y negra, mulato, 6. (detail)

José de Páez, Mexico, ca. 1770-1780

Oil on canvas

Private collection

de Páez, José. No. 4. De español y negra, nace mulata (From Spaniard and Black, a Mulata is Born). 1774. Oil on canvas. Museo de América, Madrid. In Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, 24.

This detail is a part of a casta painting produced by José de Páez in Mexico. In the painting, a woman of African descent is being depicted as a preparer of hot chocolate for her Spanish husband. This hot chocolate would be served in a jicara or chocolate cup that was used specifically for drinking hot chocolate. This detail is an example of how chocolate and the chocolate cup would become associated with women who were the common preparers of the beverage.

Hot chocolate was a beverage that was the most universally embraced by European settlers of the New World. Colonial writers almost unanimously praised the beverage and declared that it was “the healthiest and most sustaining food in the world”.[1] Since the consumption of chocolate constituted European’s first exposure to the caffeine, it is likely that Europeans thought chocolate was stimulating and beneficial to one’s health. Hot chocolate, in fact, became immensely popular to the point that it was considered a geographically appropriate substitute for wine.

In the mid-sixteenth century, chocolate consumption was widespread because there was a shortage of Spanish women in the New World. This shortage motivated settlers to depend on indigenous women for meal preparation. However, when colonial settlement was established for a few decades, chocolate was seen as a drink that was favored by women in particular. With this association, Europeans’ attitudes towards indigenous women as welcomed preparers of chocolate transformed into a fear of the power they could exert with the product.

For Europeans, their reliance on indigenous women to prepare, serve, and drink chocolate transforms into a fear of their spirituality. Chocolate became associated with sexual witchcraft and had aphrodisiac qualities that women took advantage of to exert power over the men in their lives. Women were therefore placed on Inquisition trials by the Church for preparing and using of chocolate as a mechanism for controlling men’s sexuality. While clergy members like the English priest Thomas Gage privately prepared and consumed chocolate for themselves, the Church fearfully condemned women’s use of chocolate in a contradictory manner.


[1] Rebecca Earle, The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 131.


Earle, Rebecca. The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Few, Martha. “Chocolate, Sex, and Disorderly Women in Late-Seventeenth- and Early-Eighteenth-Century Guatemala.” Ethnohistory, vol. 52, no. 4, Fall 2005.

Gage, Thomas. The English American: A New Survey of the West Indies, 1648. New York: Routledge, 1928. Accessed October 8, 2018.

Norton, Marcy. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.