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jim fear 01-02-2008 01:32 PM

Cocao Food of the gods?
Cocao Food of the gods?

Cultivation, cultural elaboration and use of cacao were extensive and early in Mesoamerica. Studies of the Theobroma cacao tree genetics suggests a domestication and spread from lowland Amazonia, contesting an earlier hypothesis that the tree was domesticated independently in both the Lacandon area of Mexico, and in Amazonia. The cacao tree belongs to the Theobroma genus, in the Sterculiaceae family, that contains 22 species. Today, the most common of the cultivated species is Theobroma cacao, with two subspecies and three forms. Wild cacaos falling into two groups. The South American subspecies spaerocarpum has a fairly smooth melon-like fruit. In contrast, the Mesoamerican cacao subspecies has ridged, elongated fruits. At some unknown early date, the subspecies T. cacao cacao reached the southern lowlands of Mesoamerica and came into wide usage.

Aztec statuary of a male figure holding a cacao pod
The Maya believed that the kakaw (cacao) was discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods to be used by the Maya. According to Maya mythology, the Plumed Serpent gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created from maize by divine grandmother goddess Xmucane (Bogin 1997, Coe 1996, Montejo 1999, Tedlock 1985). The Maya celebrated an annual festival in April to honor their cacao god, Ek Chuah, an event that included the sacrifice of a dog with cacao colored markings; additional animal sacrifices; offerings of cacao, feathers and incense; and an exchange of gifts. In a similar creation story, the Mexica (Aztec) god Quetzalcoatl discovered cacao (cacahuatl: "'bitter water"'), in a mountain filled with other plant foods (Coe 1996, Townsend 1992). Cacao was offered regularly to a pantheon of Mexica deities and the Madrid Codex depicts priests lancing their ear lobes (autosacrifice) and covering the cacao with blood as a suitable sacrifice to the gods. The cacao beverage as ritual were used only by men, as it was believed to be toxic for women and children.
There are several mixtures of cacao described in ancient texts, for ceremonial, medicinal uses as well as culinary purposes. Some mixtures included maize, chili, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), peanut butter and honey. Archaeological evidence for use of cacao, while relatively sparse, has come from the recovery of whole cacao beans at Uaxactun, Guatemala (Kidder 1947) and from the preservation of wood fragments of the cacao tree at Belize sites including Cuello and Pulltrouser Swamp (Hammond and Miksicek 1981; Turner and Miksicek 1984). In addition, analysis of residues from ceramic vessels has found traces of theobromine and caffeine in early formative vesssels from Puerto Escondido, Honduras (1100 - 900 B.C.) and in middle formative vessels from Colha, Belize (600-400 B.C.) using similar techniques to those used to extract chocolate residues from four classic period (ca. 400 A.D.) vessels from a tomb at the archaeological site of Rio Azul. As cacao is the only known commodity from Mesoamerica containing both of these alkaloid compounds, it seems likely that these vessels were used as containers for cacao drinks. In addition, cacao is named in a hieroglyphic text on one of the Rio Azul vessels.

The first Europeans to encounter cacao were Christopher Columbus and his crew in 1502, when they captured a canoe at Guanaja that contained a quantity of mysterious-looking “almonds,”. The first real European knowledge about chocolate came in the form of a beverage which was first introduced to the Spanish at their meeting with Montezuma in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. Cortez and others noted the vast quantities of this beverage that the Aztec emperor consumed, and how it was carefully whipped by his attendants beforehand. Examples of cacao beans along with other agricultural products were brought back to Spain at that time, but it seems that the beverage made from cacao was introduced to the Spanish court in 1544 by Kekchi Maya nobles brought from the New World to Spain by Dominican friars to meet Prince Philip (Coe and Coe 1996). Within a century, the culinary and medical uses of chocolate had spread to France, England and elsewhere in Western Europe. Demand for this beverage led the French to establish cacao plantations in the Caribbean, while Spain subsequently developed their cacao plantations in their Philippine colony (Bloom 1998, Coe 1996). The Nahuatl-derived Spanish word cacao entered scientific nomenclature in 1753 after the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus published his taxonomic binomial system and coined the genus and species Theobroma ("food of the gods") cacao.
Ek Chuah
The Feathered Serpent refers to prominent serpent deities throughout Mesoamerica. Thought to have originated during the times of the Olmec(1150-500 BC), as some of the earliest known depictions of the serpent god have appeared in their sculptures. There is no surviving account of Olmec religious belief, unlike the later Maya and Aztec. It is apparent however that the Olmec had significantly influenced later mesoamerican cultures as many of the later religions and mythologies are similar to apparent Olmec beliefs, based on archeological findings of various sculptures and jade carvings of the Olmec culture and later pre-Columbian accounts. The Olmecs however did not depict their serpent deity with feather or bird-like characteristics. It is believed that the serpent deity received its precious feathers from the people of Teotihuacan, as several representations exist of a "feathered" or "plumed" serpent. Like the Olmec however, the people of Teotihuacan left little account of their belief system.
In later traditions held throughout Mesoamerica, the feathered serpent was known as a bringer of knowledge, the inventor of books, and associated with the planet Venus (Although traditions vary from different cultures). Along with the feathered serpent deity, several other serpent gods existed in the pantheon of Mesoamerican gods with similar traits.

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