Friday, 23 January 2009

The legend of Chocolate

I have been researching the story of chocolatl, (chocolate in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs) because this is one of Mexico's contributions to the world. I think the story of the cacao bean and its transformation into a frothy, rich drink and wonderful dessert that delights millions of people would make a lovely to tell children in Europe. Children would be able to use the story as a launching-pad to research the history of chocolate and of the ancient people that drank it in Mexico; recipes both old, and new, as well as botanical and environmental issues surrounding the use of chocolate in the world. This image was taken by Nicole Henning .

I have personally made myself cups of steaming frothy chocolate using tablets like the ones in the photograph. The image of a Mexican chocolate tablet was taken by Rachel A.K..

Chocolatl was a drink which was consumed by royalty and the elite in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, before the Spanish conquered Mexico. It was served with water (i.e.without milk), flavoured with vanilla, spices, chili and sometimes honey; it was a bitter drink. Have a look at this wonderful recipe from the Vanilla Company. Cacao beans were currency throughout the Mesoamerican world (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize). There is an ancient Mayan myth that says that cacao beans were given to men by the Gods. The Mayas celebrated the new year with the Possum God carrying on its back the Rain God with an offering of cacao beans. A representation of the Possum God and of the cacao beans as taken from the Dresden Codex can be seen here. The Dresden Codex is one of the very few examples of Mayan books that escaped the burning of Mayan libraries performed by Spanish conquistadores....

But, back to chocolatl.... Sophie and Michael Coe have written a fantastically interesting book on the history of chocolate. Sandra Andrews-Strasko blog Chocolate Speak, presents an extensive review of the book and provides all sorts of interesting bits of information on the uses of chocolate in Mexico. But now, to the story....

Quetzalcóatl visits the earth.

Once upon a time Quetzalcóatl descended to earth by the rays of a morning star leaving all the Toltecs surprised by his coming down to earth. Everyone understood that this new comer was not a simple mortal and they broke their ugly dark clay gods, to worship him. They built for him a very large 5 storied temple with staircases. The roof was held up by four monumental stone columns carved in the shape of men. The outside of the house was decorated with large butterflies and a long line of tigers who seemed to be searching for the god. The Toltecs called Quetzalcóatl Tlahuizcalpantecutli, which means, the star that comes in the afternoon. This name was quite appropriate because the star sometimes rises in the morning and others in the afternoon. Today we call this star by the name of Venus.

The temple was located in a central square around which the city of Tollan (now Tula) was built. Tollan was a very important city in the 11th and 12th century. The main gods of the city were Quetzalcóatl-Tlahuizcalpantecutli, and the god Tláloc ("the lord that comes from the earth"), the giver of rain and life and the owner of souls estranged from their bodies. The city also had a goddess, Xochiquetzal ("plumed flower"), goddess of happiness and love. She was the wife of Tlaloc and the giver of pulque (an alcoholic drink). All the gods were good and following the leadership of Quetzalcóatl, they taught the Toltec people all their knowledge, until they were wise in the arts and sciences, and could recognise the march of the stars. The Toltecs were then able to measure time and determine the change of the seasons to plant, and harvest. The Toltecs planted corn, beans, yucca, all sorts of cereals and fruits and spend their free time studying. In time they were wonderful architects, artists, masons and delicate moulders of clay.

The gift of a plant.
Quetzalcóatl, who loved them deeply gave them the gift of a very special plant. This plant had been jealously guarded by the other gods because they extracted a drink which was reserved only for the gods themselves. Quetzalcóatl stole the small bush with dark red flowers which later became dark fruits. He planted the bush and asked Tláloc to feed it with water and , asked Xochiquetzal to tend to it and make it beautiful with flowers. The little tree flowered incessantly and Quetzalcóatl picked up the pods, roasted the kernels and taught the Toltec women to grind them into a fine powder. The women then mixed the powder with water from their jars and whipped it into a frothy drink which they called chocolatl. In the beginning it was only drunk by priests and royalty. It was drunk bitter and the mayas called it kahau, (bitter).

The Toltecs became so wise, so learned in the arts and sciences and so prosperous that the gods became jealous at first, and then, angry when they discovered that their chocolatl had been stolen from them. They vowed to make war on Quetzalcóatl and the Toltecs.

Anger and Jealousy amongst the gods
The gods called on Tezcatlipoca -"the fuming mirror"-, the god of darkness and the night. This god was the sworn enemy of Quetzalcóatl, who was the god of the morning star. Tezcatlipoca came down to earth on the thread of a spider and taking on the guise of a merchant, approached Quetzalcóatl determined to cause his downfall. The god of the morning star was in his palace that day. He was very very sad. He had dreamt that the gods were plotting against him and he was worried for his people the Toltecs.

The false merchant, got close to Quetzalcóatl and asked - Why are you so sad my Lord? - Because the gods have ordered my downfall and the death of my people, answered Quetzalcóatl-.
- I offer you this drink. It is the drink of happiness. Take it, give it to the people, and they will be happy too!

Quetzalcóatl, who loved the Toltecs, believed the false merchant and drank the juice offered to him. The juice was pulque a drink made from fermented agave. He drank and drank and drank until he was completely drunk. He danced, and jumped about, and made all sorts of hand gestures to the people outside the palace who did not know what to make of the strange behaviour 0f their beloved god. Quetzalcoatl was so drunk that he did not notice he was losing the respect of his people. Finally, exhausted, he fell asleep.

Quetzalcóatl last gift.

The following morning, Quetzalcóatl woke up with a bad headache and a foul, foul breath. He knew that the gods had made fun of him and ridiculed him. He had lost face. He then knew that the end of Tollan, the glorious city of the Toltecs was near. He could not face the destruction of his city, nor the death of his people. He was deeply, he left Tollan, walking in the direction of the evening star. As he started his walk, he noticed that the little bushes he had planted that gave the chocolatl, had transformed themselves into dry plants with thorns. They had transformed themselves into agaves. He saw that the agave was the plant that made the juice that got him drunk in the first place. He cried and cried and walked for days on end.

He walked all the way to the land of Tabasco, close to the sea. When he reached the shore, and before he left the land never to return, he placed unto the ground the last seeds of cacao he had left in this hand. The seeds, with time, flourished and became the last gift of the god of the morning star to the people of Mexico.

The image of Quetzalcoatl was taken by Kappazeta. The image of the cacao plant in the story was taken by Artonice. The image of the agave for pulque was taken by Nathangibbs.



  1. Yeah! Thanks for posting this. I homeschool my daughter and next week we are learning about Mesoamerica and I wanted to talk about Quetzalcoatl and the legend of chocolate! The only story I could find was a $50 book! Thanks so much!

  2. I am so pleased you found this useful. I am delighted your child could use this material. It is really encouraging to hear from people that are using it. please let others know. Thanks again for reading!