Cleopatra, Mayans, and Chocolate Addictions …Plus an Excerpt

On a long ago vacation in Cozumel I attended one of those dinner and a show tourist events – a banquet with performances depicting Mexico’s history. I enjoyed the dancers with antlers and loved the hot chocolate. Returning home I tried to recreate the drink I tried a combination of chocolate, cinnamon, and coffee.  Hint: Instant coffee may be a better choice than coffee grounds.

As far back as 1900 BCE chocolate known in South and Central America.  Archaeologists have found evidence of chocolate beverages, perhaps a frothy bitter hot drink, made from the seeds Linnaeus called Theobroma cacao. Translated from the Greek as food o the gods). Mayans even used ceremonial vessels for chocolate drinking, emblazoned with the cacao glyph.

Aztecs valued cacao seeds so highly they were required as payment for taxes. They drank cacao cold, seasoned with chili peppers, allspice, vanilla, and honey.

Chocolate Addiction

The theobromine, anadamin, and tryptophan found in chocolate message the brain to release mood enhancing chemicals. One expert claimed if you eat eight or more chocolate bars a week you are officially a chocoholic and may experience uncontrolled cravings. (Eight, because that is more than one per day?) Other scientists say chocolate mimics the effects of marijuana, or it may just add needed magnesium to your diet.

In The Pharaoh and the Librarian, Cleopatra fakes her death and escapes from Egypt. Addicted to power, she expects to rule the Mayan Empire. When that doesn’t work out, she falls into an addictive relationship with chocolate. Previously, she may have had an unhealthy interest in wine and the Egyptian blue lotus, but in Chichen Itza her life spirals into mood swings and lethargy.

Discovery of Chocolate by James Runcie

Excerpt from The Pharaoh and the Librarian

Here’s an excerpt where, before Cleo arrives, her prospective husband’s family celebrate a Mayan chocolate ceremony:

Chichen Itza, Yucatan

Chi’s steps were uncharacteristically unsteady. First, news that Cleopatra had arrived in Maya had turned his world to spinning. Now Lula’s cenote vision foretold they must leave their homeland.

Entering Lula’s Caracol, each donned a robe of royal Mayan blue and prepared for the sacred cacao ceremony. Kaax lit the copal incense. Peek unwrapped a packet of fermented, dried, and roasted cocoa beans. Lula ground the seeds into a dark brown paste with her mano on her matate, chanting the traditional chocolate prayer. On a smaller matate she ground a bit of maize with three dried beans of the vanilla plant and two tiny, pungent peppers. Using a stick cut from an ancient mesquite tree, she scraped both mixtures into a pot of water drawn from the sacred cenote. Last, she added four delicate white blossoms. She heated and stirred the liquid in a small brazier in a right-to-left motion until bubbles rose.

Chi watched Lula step onto a stone block and lift the pot high. With a practiced twist of her wrist she upended the pot and a steaming stream cascaded five feet down into a bowl set on the floor. As the aromatic fluid frothed, she sank to her knees and decanted the rich liquid into four cylindrical cups, each decorated with a black and white geometric pattern. Chi, Peek, and Kaax approached, inhaling the heady brew. Lula drank deeply. She nodded and her brothers followed her lead.

Chi savored the chocolate’s complex flavors. Lula’s drink never tasted like the ordinary chocolate others prepared. He wondered if Lula snuck in secret ingredients like bat wings or macaw feet. When they were young, Kaax told Chi chocolate was made out of crocodile testicles and iguana droppings, hoping he could drink Chi’s share.

Their cups drained, Lula settled into her chair. “Now, let the gods speak.”

Lula could be a pain, but when she went into one of her prophetess trances she became a powerful seeress of the divine.. Her eyes glazed over and her face appeared as impassive as a stone-carved glyph.

Chi inched closer. Musty air and mossy stone walls closed in upon him. He gulped for breath. Light-headed, he reached out to steady himself. Lula touched his arm and a lightning bolt shot through his body. He staggered back. As his eyes closed and before he lost consciousness, he glimpsed his sister’s look of concern.

As if in a dream, ocean waves swirled around him. First, he thought he was back in Tulum, then realized he stood on the deck of a vessel larger than any coastal trading boat watching men don metal clothing. He could not understand their language, but their words sounded full of anger and greed.

Suddenly he was flying above the jungle, watching those same men slaughter the people of an entire village. Following their bloody tracks to Chichen Itza itself, he watched in horror as they ransacked Lula’s precious library, piled her codices in the plaza, and set them aflame. Helpless as a ghost, his body shook, aching to stop them. He looked for Kaax and his warriors or for Lula and her scribes and priestesses. Chi stared into the eyes of the metal-clad men and could not tell if they were more gleeful at the killing or the conflagration. One brute’s eyes blazed in triumph as he hid a gold ingot in his filthy clothing.

Chi inhaled the smoke of blazing parchment and vellum co-mingled with the stink of the foreigners’ urine and the blood of Mayan dead and collapsed.

Awakening, he felt Lula washing his face with cool water. Peek offered him a honeyed drink. He pushed away the cup and stood, eyes burning with tears. “I couldn’t stop them. They ruined everything.”

Lula stroked her youngest brother’s back. “It’s all right. It’s not now.”

He looked up into her eyes, his face skewed in confusion. “What did I see?” He truly wanted her to tell him it was not a portent of the future.

She sighed. “Devastation that is to come.”

“I cannot see the future. I’m a ballplayer, not a seer.”

“You shared my vision.”

Chi rubbed his eyes and shook his head. He stood and paced the circular room. He felt his world had changed and he could never again be the light-hearted ballplayer. When he stopped, he stood tall. “I will dedicate my life to saving our books from fire and those vicious men.”

“You will become our great leader.” Lula embraced her brother. “Now, the letter.” She opened the packet and unfolded a stiff parchment. She studied hastily inked letters. She faced her brothers. “Armies prepare to invade our land.”

Kaax straightened, hand on sword.

Peek touched his money pouch.

Chi looked to Lula. But she’d already answered. The vision was the future.

Lula switched to her librarian voice. “Scribes must copy the most vulnerable manuscripts onto thin gold plates, more permanent than parchment or velum, and prepare the Egyptian codices, as well as all important treatises of this land’s history. We will leave lesser documents. Records of tribute, crops, and almanacs, but no true genealogies or histories. Nor the most valuable astronomies in the old languages. None of our true art, nor any work or pictures of our heritage.”

“But where will we go?”

Lula smiled. “Peek has found the valley where we will settle. We will call it Chaac, after our precious god of rain. Let us prepare to go north with our families. Our journey will be long and the work hard when we reach our peaceful valley. Now the captain comes by foot bringing the final shipment of Egyptian books.” Lula’s face softened. “And—your bride.”

Chi closed his eyes and exhaled. “If Cleopatra, the most beautiful woman in the world, is to be my wife, I will not protest. If she will have me, I will brave foreign lands and build a repository for the books in the Valley of Chaac.”


 Anyone have a recipe for becoming addicted to Mexican hot chocolate to share in the comments?

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3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Yay chocolate! I’m allergic and still love it. Dark chocolate causes fewer problems for me than milk chocolate. The allergy is mild but prevents my total addiction and dissolution, LOL!

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