For most of its long history, chocolate was consumed as a bitter, spicy ritual beverage. It was recognized as a powerful aphrodisiac that conferred both mental and physical vitality on those who consumed it. Brides and grooms drank it on their wedding nights, warriors drank it to enhance their strength before battles and priests drank it to communicate with the gods.
The Serpent God of the Air
Chocolate's mystical powers were linked to its supernatural origin. According to legend, Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god of the air, gave it to the Toltecs - people who lived in ancient Mexico.
Quetzalcoatl assumed human form and traveled to earth on a beam of light from the morning star. He was very tall and thin. His skin was pale and luminous and his beard was long and white. His appearance frightened the Toltecs, but they soon realized he had come to help them.
Under Quetzalcoatl's guidance artists produced colorful masterpieces, architects designed elegant pyramids, and priests learned to chart the movements of stars. He taught the Toltecs about agriculture and how to predict the cycle of the seasons. When the crops were flourishing, Quetzalcoatl told the Toltecs he had one more gift for them, something he had secretly removed from heaven. He opened his thin, white hand. Several glossy brown beans from the divine cocoa tree lay on his palm. He showed the Toltecs how to cultivate cocoa and to produce xocolatl (pronounced "chocoatl"), the sacred drink of the gods.
The other gods watched with anger as the Toltecs enjoyed the drink that had been exclusively theirs. They sent the god of darkness disguised as a chocolate merchant to punish Quetzalcoatl. He descended from heaven on the thread of a black spider's web and tricked Quetzalcoatl into drinking a poisoned cup of chocolate. The poison made Quetzalcoatl believe he had to leave his beloved earthly home.
Burning with fever and overwhelmed by sadness, Quetzalcoatl made his way to the coast of Tabasco. Promising to return, he boarded a small raft, drifted out to sea and disappeared over the horizon. The widespread belief that Quetzalcoatl would eventually return to Mexico led to disaster later on.
Secrets and Magic
The Toltecs passed the secret technique of growing chocolate from generation to generation. By the time the Aztecs migrated to the Valley of Mexico, enormous chocolate plantations were thriving throughout the tropical areas. Magic and ritual surrounded the cultivation of the cocoa trees. Men working on the plantations abstained from sex for the first thirteen nights of the two weeks leading up to planting time. On the fourteenth night they returned to their wives. The next morning as the men sowed the beans, priests in feathered headdresses prayed to Quetzalcoatl and waved smoldering cocoa branches over the fields.
Although chocolate was plentiful in the Aztec world, its distribution was tightly controlled. It was the ultimate luxury substance and only the very wealthy had regular access. Cocoa beans were so valuable they were used as currency. Archaeologists have even found evidence of chocolate counterfeiters. They duped the unsuspecting by selling hollowed out cocoa beans filled with dirt.
Whispers on the Breeze
The process of preparing chocolate for drinking was elaborate and time-consuming. It was critical that the guardian goddesses of cocoa bless the undertaking. The beans were roasted and ground into an intensely bitter powder which was mixed with water spiked with hot chilies. The liquid was then poured from one cup to another until it became frothy. The magic resided in the froth. Without it, the drink was powerless. If the cocoa goddesses were properly honored, Aztec priests believed they would hear the voice of Quetzalcoatl whispering on the breeze as they sipped the foam.
The Aztec emperor Montezuma was a great believer in chocolate's power. He always drank a golden goblet of chocolate before visiting one of his many wives. Each goblet was used only once. When Montezuma finished drinking, he tossed the goblet into a sacred lake next to his harem's quarters. This ritual was repeated several times a day. Though this story sounds apocryphal, archaeologists found hundreds of golden goblets in a dried lake bed near the ruins of Montezuma's palace.
Montezuma not only believed in the magic of chocolate, he believed in the legend of Quetzalcoatl's return. When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez arrived in Mexico during Montezuma's reign, the Aztecs thought he was the returning serpent god. Cortez and his band of followers were tall compared to the Aztecs. They had white skin and long beards like Quetzalcoatl, and they came from the sea. Montezuma welcomed them into his palace and served Cortez chocolate from a golden goblet. By the time the Aztecs realized the conquistadors were not benevolent gods, it was too late. The destruction of the Aztec empire had already begun.
Cortez returned to Spain with the riches of the New World - including cocoa beans. He regaled the Spanish court with tales of chocolate's amazing ability to boost energy and libido. The beans were entrusted to monks skilled in the cultivation and use of pharmaceutical plants. The monks analyzed the cocoa beans and reported that chocolate soothed digestive difficulties, pepped up sluggish metabolisms, and cured tuberculosis.
The monks modified the Aztec recipe to suit European tastes. They omitted the chilies, added sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, and served the drink hot. Before long, the monks and the Spanish royal court were as addicted to chocolate as the Aztecs had been.
Although the king of Spain tried desperately to keep the existence of chocolate a secret, his attempts were doomed. Aristocratic women took their cooks and favorite foods with them when they married. Cocoa beans and chocolate spread across Europe with Spanish brides.
Chocolate houses, which coffee houses were later modeled after, opened everywhere. The fashionable ladies of Paris served it in their salons, Cassanova drank it before visiting his lovers, and Catholic cardinals drank it as they elected new popes. Attempts to ban chocolate surfaced from time to time, but the church consistently ruled in chocolate's favor. Catholic officials were simply unwilling to give it up.
In 1897 the Swiss invented the milk chocolate candy bar. Mass production techniques followed, and soon inexpensive chocolate was available to everyone. Chocolate lost its allure. People considered it a junk food that caused acne and tooth decay. But chocolate's reputation has changed once again. It may actually be good for us. It is full of healthy antioxidants, and nutritionists recently acknowledged what chocoholics have always known - eating chocolate produces a mild euphoric state similar to the feeling of falling in love. The Aztecs knew chocolate was a precious gift from the gods. Perhaps modern science is finally catching up.