Sunday, December 07, 2014

"Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures"

Pre-Columbian drinking vessel with
a monkey smoking a cigarette
and holding a cacao pod. Interesting
fact: the word cigar comes from
the Mayan language.
(Boston Fine Arts)
1600s: Netherlands agents became major tobacco shippers
for Europe. Dutch painter David Tenniers the Younger
 reflected this in many paintings, including this:
"Monkeys Smoking and Drinking"
The book Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World by Marcy Norton contains a remarkable joint history of two luxury substances that were tightly linked during their early history in pre-Columbian America, but are now quite separate.

The author cites an Aztec poem that describes this combination of pleasures:
"The flowering chocolate drink is foaming
The flower of tobacco is passed around,
If my heart would taste them
My life would become inebriated"
She explains: "The sensory delights -- epitomized by chocolate -- bind the gods and earthlings. In experiencing the hedonistic pleasures of the gods, the inebriation of the senses, the celebrants experience divinity." ("Song of Tlaltecatzin," cited in Sacred Gifts, p. 32-33)

Norton's choices of art works from both the New World and the Old World especially fascinated me. I can't do justice here to this complex social and commodity history, but I have chosen a few of the images from the book to include in this post.

In the world of the Aztecs, Mixtecs, Maya, and other peoples of Mexico, both cacao and tobacco were held sacred, and frequently used together in sacred rites. Drinking chocolate beverages or smoking tobacco was a privilege often limited to priests or high nobility. Tobacco spread very slowly in Spain and then Europe, at first being imported in small quantities for personal use, and eventually becoming commoditized and ultimately a major source of revenue to support the absolute kings of Spain.

Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus I: Mixtec cosmology and geneaology (National Library, Vienna).
The two central figures just left of the red line are sharing a pot of chocolate to celebrate their marriage.

Antonio de Pereda: Still life with
an Ebony Chest, 1652 (source)
The close imitation of Aztec and Mayan chocolate-drinking recipes and rituals in patterns of secular consumption in Spain and throughout Europe is one of the most surprising points made in Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures. As the native Americans did, so the Europeans began by making cacao into a rich beverage, using implements imported with the chocolate. They substituted sugar for honey to sweeten the drink, and used familiar spices like cinnamon instead of flowers as flavoring, though they did eventually use the American flavoring vanilla. Chocolate drinking became incredibly popular, first with colonial Spaniards in the New World.
Detail: Pereda depicted a chocolate pot, a "mollina" (wooden frother), and appropriate drinking vessels.
All are based on native Americans' chocolate-making utensils.
"It testifies to the enduring Mesoamerican sensory aeshetic." (Sacred Gifts p. 170)

Adriaen Brouwer: The Smokers, ca. 1636
Metropolitan Museum of Art
"The Flemish painter depicted a raucous group who bond around the impertinent puffs of smoke they blow at the viewer. The smoking clouds overhead unite them as if under an enchanted umbrella. The artist put himself in this portrait: he is blowing smoke rings." (Sacred Gifts, p. 186)

Both chocolate and tobacco were distrusted as reflecting savage and non-Christian elements. Sacred Gifts documents many struggles among Europeans, especially within the Catholic church, over the appropriate use of these products. And points out that drinking chocolate was a gateway to the later popularity of coffee and tea. A great book!


Johanna GGG said...

What a fascinating approach to chocolate and tobacco - gives me a whole new perspective and yet it also makes so much sense - sounds like a great book

Janet Rudolph said...

Love this post! Well, I love anything chocolate..maybe not tobacco..but the historical context. Thx

Vagabonde said...

I can understand that chocolate was sacred – what a wonderful treat it is. This book must be quite a treat to read, too. In France at this time stores, like super markets, are full of huge boxes of chocolate of every kind, and people buy them, mostly to give as gifts for New Year. I miss that here.