Theobroma cacao
Tuesday, December 23, 2008 - by Keith Edley


Over four thousand years ago, the cacao tree was first cultivated in Central America where it was held in high esteem as a food of Divinity.  Consumed during rituals, the raw cacao would be offered as sacraments to the gods. Its botanical name, Theobroma cacao, refers directly to the cacao tree’s relationship to the divine.

Theobroma means “gods’ food” and cacao is a word borrowed from the Mayan language referring to the tree itself, its fruit and the drink that is made from its fruit. This beverage is known as xocolatl, taken from the Aztec culture, wherefrom the word “chocolate” is derived. The Aztec held cacao beans in high esteem as food, as stimulants, as medicine and as currency (particularly in the sex trade).

Cacao truly is a "Food of the Gods", especially now that it's been clinically-proven to be extraordinaily good for our bodies.  One of the best places we've found both Vegan Chocolate AND raw cacao is Kona Kava Farm.  Yes, chocolate is indeed derived from cacao and has extraordinary nutritional properties, including significant levels of protein, tryptamine and serotonin. It also has preventative properties in terms of balancing cholesterol levels when used frequently in the proper amounts, and has been known to be recommended as a regular component of a healthy diet.  This is not even taking into consideration the well-known aphridisiac qualities of this wondrous fruit.

When cacao beans were first brought to Europe, they were initially used almost exclusively in the making of love potions. Religious ritual use of cacao emerged in the form of an offering or as incense. Often it was also taken orally by worshippers and/or shamans as an inebriant. Numerous archeological artifacts have shown that this spiritual, ritual use of cacao dates back to ancient Mesoamerica. The prehistoric Toltecs would place cacao branches in the hands of each person who would make a public smoke offering to the gods as sign of religious respect.

The cacao tree was looked upon by the Aztecs as a gift from their peaceful god Quetzalcoatl (“feathered serpent”). The Aztecs would ingest cacao together with Psilocybe (enthogenic mushrooms), in religious rituals, a practice still conducted today by numerous tribes throughout the region. The Yucatec Maya venerate a black god named Ek Chuah as their cacao deity and local cacao farmers hold a festival in the god’s honor during the month of Muan in the old Mayan calendar. 

Cacao’s psychoactive material manifest in the cacao beans, the cocoa shells, in the cocoa butter and in the fresh fruit pulp. Inebriating effects described by Aztec sources may likely be due to the cacao additives, or to a synergism with added substances such as psilocybe mushrooms. Folk lore has described the traditionally prepared Indian drink to be very stimulating and euphoric. These effects, however, cannot be expected from modern day’s commercially produced cocoa.

An Aztec text from the early colonial period provides a precise description of the tree and of the drink, which it noted to be inebriating. The Aztecs described the cacao tree as being simply round in shape with broad branches. They portray the tree’s fruits to appear much like dried ears of maize, thus they often referred to the fruit as “cacao ears.” Ranging in color from reddish brown to whitish brown to bluish brown, the heart of the fruit looks much like an ear of corn. 

When the ceremonial drink made from cacao is imbibed in moderation, especially from those ears which are green and tender, one benefits by feeling happy, refreshed, comforted and stronger than before.  If too much is drunk, then the effect upon one is quite the opposite: feelings of illness, nausea and confusion will result.

During times of travel, incense consisting of cacao beans and copal would be given over to the gods  as offerings for the travelers’ secure passage and safe return. The Mayan god Ek Chuah was often depicted on incense vessels. The glyph of the god’s name was a free floating eye. It has been reported that the Maya and Lacandon used freshly whipped cacao as an additive to balché, the drink of divinity.

The shamans of the Cuna Indians of Panama also used cacao beans as a ritual incense. The Cuna burn cacao beans as incense at nearly every ritual occasion and tribal ceremony. Healers use it as a means to diagnose a patient’s illness. To prepare for these diagnostic ceremonies, the shaman would first fill a two sided, two handled incense vessel with glowing, hot coals. From there, the shaman would sprinkle cacao beans onto the burning charcoal and concentrate with intense focus, peering through the rising smoke. The shaman could then determine the patient’s illness by interpreting the action and formation of the smoke as it rose.

Cacao smoke is also employed medicinally by mixing the cacao beans with chili pods and then burning them in the same way as in the diagnostic rituals, over glowing coals contained in an incense vessel. Inhaling the resulting potent and pungent smoke is proclaimed to promote healing for all types of fever diseases, including malaria.

The Maya of the Classic Period (300-900 C.E.) left behind a wealth of ritual drinking vessels. These polychrome ceramics are artistically decorated with hieroglyphic texts and various depictions of visionary experiences and ritual activities.  The hieroglyph for cacao is a stylized monkey head.

Today, many of the hieroglyphic texts found on these drinking vessels have been deciphered. The owner of the vessel is often named, depicted in pictographs. The text goes on to describe that, for example, the vessel “was used for cacao freshly picked from a tree,“ indicating that these drinking vessels were directly associated with the ritual ingestion of cacao.

In ancient America, cacao was esteemed as a general health tonic and aphrodisiac. In Indian folk medicine, cacao is drunk to treat diarrhea and scorpion stings. Cuna women imbibe a concoction of the fruit pulp as a pregnancy tonic. Children exhibiting fatigue and listlessness are given a tea made from the dried leaves.

Fresh, new cacao leaves can be mashed into a paste and applied topically as an antiseptic agent to flesh wounds, as well as utilized a salve for skin conditions such as eczema and other rashes.  Peruvians drink a decoction of cacao primarily as a diuretic and to treat kidney and bladder infections. Homeopathically, a mother tincture is obtained by macerating roasted cacao beans. This tincture is used to treat a variety of ailments, from stomach and intestinal problems to skin lesions.