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Divinely Delicious: Chocolate and Religion

Chocolate has always been associated with religion. Religious beliefs direct how people use chocolate, from Aztec blood rituals to Catholic fasts, Easter eggs to Hanukkah gelt, and the Quakers who commercialised chocolate in Britain. Even the name of chocolate itself, Theobroma cacao, roughly translates to ‘food of the gods’! Find out more about how food and faith intertwine in this deep dive into chocolate’s divine history.

Chocolate’s Beginnings: A Ritual Drink

The earliest links between chocolate and religion are pretty gruesome. Excavating sites related to the Olmec civilisation, archaeologists discovered traces of cocoa in burial pits alongside the remains of human sacrifice victims. This suggests that cocoa played some role in Olmec religious rituals.

In Mayan religion, cocoa played a foundational role. The Mayan creation story recounts that humans were created from a mixture of the blood of the gods and cocoa pods. Cocoa was part of the fabled myth of humanity’s birth. The cocoa tree was also associated with death in Mayan spirituality. The Mayans buried cocoa alongside their dead, to help them on their journey in the underworld. The cocoa tree acted a bit like the ‘world tree’ in Norse mythology. In Mayan codices it is depicted as an axis growing through and connecting all the realms. Its roots are in the underworld, its trunk in this world, and its leaves in the heavens. 

In the Aztec world, cocoa was valuable and was connected to sacrifice. It was drunk as part of religious rituals, but it was also used in sacrifices as a substitute for blood. Chocolate was mixed with berries to give it a red colour, allowing it to stand in symbolically for blood. Cocoa had spiritual and ritual power. It’s even said that the Aztecs prepared drinks made from chocolate mixed with blood washed from a sacrificial knife. These were given to sacrificial victims to bind them, almost magically, to their fate.

(Left, an Aztec ritual involving drinking chocolate, pictured in the white vessel.)

Chocolate & Catholicism

With the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, chocolate spread to Europe. It first became popular with missionaries in the New World, who used it to treat minor illnesses and keep their strength up. These Catholic priests played a key role in bringing chocolate over to Europe. The first record of chocolate’s arrival in the Old World is in 1644, when Dominican friars brought over a group of Mayan nobles. They were presented to the Spanish court, and brought gifts to Prince Philip of Spain, including chocolate!

Once it got to Spain, chocolate was quickly taken up by religious communities. Monks drank chocolate before religious services, to fortify them and give them energy. Benedictine monks were also involved in the import of chocolate into Spain from the New World. A quote from the Benedictines of the time was: ‘Do not drink the cocoa, anyone but friar, sir or brave soldier.’ Chocolate was reserved for the nobility, the military – and religious leaders. Records also tell us that  in 1585 a Japanese ambassador to Philip II of Spain was very impressed when he visited a convent of Poor Clares of Veronica. The nuns gave him chocolate they had prepared themselves! (Spanish and Italian Poor Clares, as well as Cistercian nuns in Francce, still make and sell chocolate confections today to support themselves.)

Chocolate & Catholicism II: Feast & Fast

The biggest role chocolate played in Catholic life was as a source of energy during fasts. Fasting was a common practice in the 16th and 17th-century Catholic church. The religious calendar contained over 100 days of fasting! Nobody could decide, though, whether it was lawful to consume chocolate while fasting. It was hard to tell if this filling beverage should count as a food or a drink. 

In 1636, Antonio de León Pinelo, a Spanish colonial historian, dedicated a whole book to the subject, titled Whether Chocolate Breaks Ecclesiastical Fast: A Moral Question. Pinelo didn’t reach a conclusion: opinions were just too divided! The religious order of the Carmelite friars banned chocolate as an immoral luxury that was incompatible with a life of holy poverty. On the other hand, a letter sent in 1683 reveals that Franciscan friars drank chocolate even on fast days! The argument got so hot that in 1666 Pope Alexander VII had to step in. Apparently, he was given some chocolate to drink, and disliked it. He declared in disgust, ‘liquidum non frangit jejunum’ (liquids do not break the fast). This was taken as a Papal decree, and it’s still lawful for Catholics to drink hot cocoa during periods of fast.

Nowadays, Catholics enjoy chocolate as part of religious celebrations, especially at Easter and during advent. And in 2014, Pope Francis was given a statue of himself made entirely from chocolate, which weighed a whopping 1.5 tonnes!

Chocolate & Judaism

Chocolate enjoyed decades of popularity in Catholic Spain before it spread to the rest of Europe. There were two main ways in which it spread around Europe. Amongst the nobility, chocolate spread through marriages and diplomatic gift-giving. Chocolate was given as a wedding gift when the French King Louis XIV married a Spanish princess, for example. Amongst the emerging middle classes, and outside of courts, chocolate spread due to religious strife.

Catholic Spain was a hotbed of antisemitism and religious persecution. In 1415, after years of pogroms and forced conversions, the Catholic monarchs of Spain passed the Alhambra Decree, ordering the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. This led to a mass migration of Jewish people from Spain to the rest of Europe. Some of those who fled were chocolate makers. Several of these Jewish chocolatiers settled in Bayonne, introducing Spanish-style drinking chocolate to southern France. Bayonne is still known for its chocolate! 

During the religious festival of Hanukkah, children are often given chocolate coins with the image of a menorah stamped onto their foil wrappers, as a festive treat! These coins are called Hanukkah gelt, and have been popular since at least the 1920s.

Chocolate in Britain: a Quaker Business

In Britain, the religion most associated with chocolate making was Quakerism. Many of the entrepreneurs responsible for the success of commercial chocolate in Britain were Quakers. Cadbury, Rowntree, and Fry’s chocolate companies were all founded by Quakers.

Quakers got into chocolate for religious reasons. In the 19th century, many Christians considered alcohol to be a social evil. Quakers were at the forefront of the temperance movement, moved by their consciences to seek alternatives to alcohol. Chocolate, then universally consumed as a beverage, seemed like a wholesome, viable option. 

To begin with, these Quakers infused their businesses with their values. Rowntree invested in public libraries in York, and studied poverty in the city. In 1902, they founded the village of New Earswick for low-income families, and pioneered the new field of adult education. Even now, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation continues to advocate for social justice and campaign for an end to poverty. Cadbury famously built a village for their workers in Bournville, in the Selly Oak area of Birmingham in 1915.

However, as Quaker Jon Martins has noted, ‘Quaker ethics are now historical footnotes for these vast corporations’. Even in 1915, when Cadbury were building Bournville, they were benefiting from slave labour from plantations in Africa. (This was discovered, leading to a boycott which forced Cadbury to find new cocoa suppliers.) For those interested in ethical chocolate, craft chocolate is the best solution. Not only does it taste ten times more delicious than mass-produced chocolate, it also has transparent supply chains. Craft chocolate allows us to consume chocolate sustainably and ethically, upholding British chocolate’s founding Quaker principles far better than those old firms do today!

(Image: Visit Of King And Queen To Bournville, 16th May 1919, painting by F. Gregory Brown.)

Chocolate in World Religions

Unlike the other Abrahamic religions, Islam has never really developed chocolate culture. Islamic countries in the 16th and 17th centuries tended to enjoy coffee rather than chocolate. (Although British chocolate houses likely owe their origins to Turkish coffee house culture.) In recent years, the increasingly complex ingredients lists of mass-produced chocolate have made it difficult for Muslim consumers to know whether their chocolate is halal (permitted under strict religious dietary laws). This is easier with craft chocolate, whose ingredients lists tend to be simple and easy to understand. (Read our handy guide on how to read labels for more info!)

However, a Muslim boy is reportedly responsible for one peculiar anecdote about chocolate and religion: a chocolate-based ritual in Kerala, India. In 2009, the boy offered up a Munch brand chocolate bar to a Hindu deity named Balamurugan, son of the god Shiva. The trend of offering Munch bars caught on, and devotees of the god now routinely bring their own bodyweight in chocolate to Balamurugan. The deity has such a taste for chocolate that he has acquired the nickname Munch Murugan!

Some Thai Buddhist monks have also taken a leaf out of the book of 16th century Catholic friars. When fasting, they allow themselves to consume chocolate. Chocolate is allowed because it is used as medicine, and because if it is allowed to melt on the tongue it can be counted as an oil, rather than a food.

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