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The Chocolate-Brewing Witches of Colonial Latin America

Although nobody expected it, the Spanish Inquisition reached outward from Europe to persecute those who practiced "witchcraft" in the New World. Penn State professor Martha Few noticed how the victims of the Inquisition in Latin America tended to be women, who, being relatively powerless even among their own people, turned to magic spells to solve their problems. And they used chocolate.

Chocolate was an everyday drink, as common then as a morning cup of coffee is today. But, Few noticed, it often emerged in the records as a vehicle for women’s magic spells, and, in turn, for European anxieties about ruling a majority non-white population, filled with women who wouldn’t do what they were told. “It also became this flash point between social conflicts that were racial and gender conflicts,” says Few.

At root, the Inquisition’s crackdown on chocolate-related brujería, or witchcraft, was a campaign to eliminate indigenous and African spiritual practices from colonial society. It was an attempt that failed: Despite persecution, Latin American communities continue to practice folk healing and magic to this day.

Based on chocolate’s history as a ritual beverage in pre-colonial society, it makes sense that the drink became a receptacle for Spanish fears of sorcery. Indigenous people have cultivated chocolate in the Americas for at least 3,000 years, and archaeologists have identified chocolate residue on Mayan vessels from as early as 250 BC. Chocolate was a high-status drink, shared by diplomats and served to couples in marriage ceremonies. When the Spanish colonized the Americas, chocolate’s striking taste, caffeinated buzz, and indigenous ritual significance made it an object of European adulation and paranoia.

While we still joke about the bewitching effects of chocolate, the witch hunts in colonial Latin America were brutal. Read how religion, Spanish rule, and chocolate came together in an attempt to crush unruly women at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Carmen Deñó for Gastro Obscura)

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