April 6, 2024
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Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

TULUM, Mexico – Amid the heights of Balsas in Guerrero, the Mixteca regions of Puebla and Oaxaca, and the Infiernillo region of Michoacán, entire families of “copaleros” migrate to the mountains during harvest seasons. There, they carefully select suitable trees from which they collect the precious resin of this typical plant found in low deciduous jungles, characterized by their enduring droughts.

In Mexico, there are over 100 different species of Burseras, the botanical family to which copal belongs. These species thrive mainly in the states of Guerrero, Michoacán, and Oaxaca. Depending on the specific species and region, copal goes by various names such as “copal virgen,” “copal santo,” “tecomaca,” and “almárciga.”

The aromatic Mexican resins that have enriched rituals and temazcales (traditional sweat lodges) since pre-Hispanic times are collectively referred to as “copalli.” This Nahuatl term encompasses the various Bursera species from which more than 20 types of copal are harvested in Mexico. Examples include the “copal chino” or “santo” (Bursera bipinnata) and the “copal ancho” (Bursera copallifera).

Numerous historical sources indicate that ancient Mexican codices unveil the frequent use of copal among our forebears. They burned copal twice daily, once in the morning and again at night, to offer incense to the gods, cleanse temples, during funerals, and in ceremonies to pray for bountiful harvests. Virtually no significant celebration occurred without the presence of copal.

The Significance of Burning Copal

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

In the present day, these trees are communal property that requires preservation. The “copaleros” take great care not to overexploit or harm them with excessive incisions. After extracting resin, they allow the trees two to three years of rest to prevent weakening or death.

The use of copal resin was widely practiced in pre-Hispanic Mexico. This is evident from the impressive copal offerings recovered from the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itzá, the ancient Maya city in Yucatán, and the Laguna de la Luna in the Nevado de Toluca in the State of Mexico. Sculptures made from this resin have also been found in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlán in Mexico City.

The qualities of copal resin were well-known and extensively exploited by pre-Hispanic cultures for ritual, ceremonial, festive, therapeutic, medicinal, and adhesive purposes. Its significance managed to endure even through the era of the Spanish Inquisition. It continues to be used today among numerous indigenous and mestizo communities. The vitality of its tradition is reflected in the fact that each language spoken in Mexico has a word to refer to copal in some form – tree, resin, or smoke. For instance, “copalli” in Nahuatl and “poom” in Mayan languages are two of the most widely recognized terms due to their extensive use.

Ancient Mexicans regarded copal as a protective deity, often calling it “Iztacteteo,” which translates to “white god” – a reference to the white smoke it emits when burned. Aztec and Maya offerings contained copal in the form of small tortillas, tamales, or maize grains, suggesting that copal was considered sustenance for the gods.

We’ve inherited ceremonial and ritual objects from pre-Hispanic cultures, which now constitute part of our archaeological heritage.

The Use of Copal on the Yucatán Peninsula

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

Copal is an aromatic exudate that has been used as incense in various rituals by different human groups in Mexico. It’s known by different names depending on the region of its use – “copalli” in Nahuatl, “hom,” “homté,” “jom” in Huastec, “pum” in Totonac, and “pom” in Maya (Lucero, 2012). Ethnobotanical and historical evidence confirms that most copaliferous species belong to the Burseraceae family (Case et al., 2003).

In Mexico, the species primarily exploited for copal come from the Bursera genus: B. bipinnata (DC.) Engl., B. copallifera (DC.) Bullock, B. vejar-vazquezii Mi- randa, B. excelsa (Kunth) Engl. (Lucero, 2012). None of these species have been reported as native to the Yucatán Peninsula (Carnevali et al., 2010). However, there is a possibility that Bursera simaruba (L.) Sarg. has an ancestral use as copal. This species is indeed native to the peninsula. Bursera simaruba is a tree that can reach up to 15 meters in height and is characterized by its papery bark, which peels off in scales. It has a broad distribution, appearing in various types of evergreen and deciduous vegetation, as well as secondary vegetation (Pennington and Sarukhán, 2005). In Yucatecan Mayan, it is called “chakaj,” “chacah,” “chacah colorado,” “chakack,” “chakchakh,” “huk’up,” “sakchakah.” The term “chacah” implies meanings of “the scaly” or “the resinous” (Cabrera and Sánchez, 2000). It’s used as a remedy for burns caused by contact with “chechén negro” (Metopium brownei (Jacq.) Urb.), a plant native to the Yucatán Peninsula (Cabrera and Sánchez, 2000).

Another member of the same Burseraceae family on the peninsula, from the Protium genus, is P. copal (Schltdl. & Cham) Engl. This species is used for its aromatic exudate in religious ceremonies both on the Yucatán Peninsula and in Guatemala. Protium copal is a tree that can reach up to 20 meters in height, with a pyramid-shaped crown, irregular branches, and ascending branches. It is characterized by its colorless, milky resin, which appears when it comes into contact with air. Native to Mesoamerica, its distribution spans from Mexico to Panama (Pennington and Sarukhán, 2005). In the Yucatán Peninsula, it is limited to the southern and eastern portions (Carnevali et al., 2010). In the Yucatecan Mayan language, Protium copal is referred to as “pom,” which alludes to the action of “something that is going to be burned” (Cabrera and Sánchez, 2000). It is used in religious rites for its fragrant aroma. Marianne Gabriel (2007) has identified that copal is used in Mayan agricultural ceremonies to express gratitude, to ask for rain, for the protection of ranches or villages, or for the protection of land. As with many species in the Burseraceae family, it also contains volatile compounds like terpenes and terpenoids, which are also found in turpentine (Fuentes, 2009).

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

Now, the present-day use of copal as an offering or antidote (Gabriel, 2007) has been linked to the survival of certain ritual practices since pre-Hispanic times (Lucero, 2012). In this regard, Diego de Landa wrote about the Maya’s copal practices:

“They raised the tree of incense for the demons, and they extracted the gum or resin from it by cutting the bark with a stone, causing the gum or resin to flow out. It is a fresh tree, tall, provides good shade and leaves, but its flower blackens the wax where it touches it” (Landa, 1566).

In recent years, the chemical analysis of copal artifacts from ritual deposits in the Templo Mayor in Mexico City and the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itzá, Yucatán, has been conducted (Lucero, 2012). Lucero (2012) developed an analytical protocol to characterize the molecular composition of triterpene fractions in archaeological copal samples and in modern resins from Bursera species. This was done to ascertain the potential botanical origins of the archaeological resins. Lucero (2012) included samples of modern resins from Bursera simaruba due to its possible pre-Hispanic use. The archaeological resin samples from Yucatán were collected during the first explorations of the Sacred Cenote between 1904 and 1911 by Sir Edward H. Thompson and are preserved in the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. Thompson’s findings encompassed various artifacts, including ceramic vessels with copal inside, prepared in different ways (Figure 1D) (Coggins and Shane, 1989; Lucero, 2012). However, the results of Lucero’s analyses (2012) dismiss the notion that the archaeological resins from the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itzá originate from Bursera simaruba. This suggests a different botanical source than the Bursera species traditionally used in central Mexico.

This bears historical implications as the extensive use of incense in contemporary Maya ceremonies and rituals indirectly supports the hypothesis of the pre-Hispanic use of Protium copal.

A Diverse Spectrum of Aromatic Treasures

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

In the heart of Mexico’s rich biodiversity, a captivating tapestry of copal trees thrives, each weaving its own aromatic tale. From the rugged highlands of Chihuahua to the tropical embrace of Guerrero, these resinous wonders have captured the imagination of cultures across centuries. In this exploration, we dive into the realms of the diverse copal species that grace Mexico’s landscapes, revealing their unique stories, significance, and the scented legacies they carry. Join us on a fragrant journey through the pages of time as we uncover the captivating world of Mexican copal.

White Copal (Bursera bipinnata)

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

The vast geographical distribution spanning from the southwestern regions of Chihuahua and western Durango to Honduras and El Salvador contributes to the multitude of names attributed to this species: bitter copal, amargoso, Chinese red copal, wild, crystal, black, sacred or virgin’s copal, copalillo, chichiacle, tetlate, torote blanco, chutama, incense, and jaboncillo.

Described in the Florentine Codex, this species finds its historical roots and usage as the foundation for creating inks used for writing. Its origins trace back to the localities of Cuixco, Tepecuacuilco, and Youalla, which is modern-day Iguala in the state of Guerrero.

The resin extracted from it serves as both incense and medicine. Renowned as the most widely used copal throughout Mexico and Central America, its popularity extends beyond its native regions. Each year, before the Day of the Dead celebrations, pure, fragrant, and exquisite white copal is sold as “copal de penca” at traditional fairs in Xochitepec, Puebla, and Tepalcingo, Morelos. It is then further distributed and traded across markets in the country.

Elemi (Bursera citronella)

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

Due to its delicate fragrance, this species is also known as xochicopal or lináloe, although they are distinct botanical species. Endemic to Mexico, its habitat encompasses the basins of the Armería, Coahuayana, and Coalcomán rivers in Michoacán, Jalisco, and Colima, as well as a small population flourishing in the Papagayo river basin in Guerrero. The Papagayo populations thrive amidst arid, rocky terrains within lowland jungles characterized by warm subhumid climates.

Notable differences exist between the B. citronella populations of the western regions and those of the Papagayo. The resin from the latter is referred to as “almárciga,” and it is identified as Bursera aff. citronella, acknowledging the possibility of it being a distinct species. The collection of almárciga resin has only been recorded in the communities of Omitlán and El Tepehuaje, Guerrero.

The term “almárciga” is thought to be a variant of “almáciga,” which is synonymous with gum or resin. The crystallized resin is gathered by removing the tip of the branch that produced it, typically after it has been perforated by a weevil. This method ensures the tree’s vitality remains unaffected.

Holy Copal (Bursera copallifera)

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

This species represents a group characterized by wide distribution. Holy copal inhabits dry forests to the north and south of the Neovolcanic Axis, landscapes now dominated by annual and seasonal crops that have replaced these ecosystems.

Historically, the Mixteca region has been a primary producer of holy copal. Its resin is notably dense and ranks among the most esteemed. It’s also referred to as “copal de penca” or white copal. In Morelos, a decoction of its bark is consumed as medicinal water to treat internal injuries, bronchial issues, and as a cleansing agent.

Copal (Bursera coyucensis)

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

An endemic tree to the western depression of the Balsas River, located at the border between Guerrero and Michoacán states. It thrives on shallow-soiled hillsides. Despite being locally abundant, its geographic range is limited. As a result, it has gained protection under the Official Mexican Standard 059, which classifies its conservation status as “Subject to Special Protection” due to its rarity and the fragmentation and destruction of the lowland jungles it inhabits.

Little Copal (Bursera glabrifolia)

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

Its common names – little copal, copal, female copal, or white copal – hint at its incense use, although its resin is sticky and seldom crystallizes. Conversely, its wood is suitable for carving: when green, it’s pliable and easy to work with; when dry, it’s hard, very light, and can be polished to a fine finish. As such, it’s employed in crafting imaginative animal sculptures known as “alebrijes,” with major artisan centers in San Martín Tilcajete, Arrazola, and La Unión Tejalapan in Oaxaca.

While other species can be used, little copal is favored by artisans. The demand for little copal wood began growing in the late 1960s, reaching its peak two decades later. This exploitation diminished its abundance around the towns with the highest artisanal production.

Linaloe (Bursera linanoe)

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

Its Nahuatl name translates to “flowered copal,” though in a figurative sense, “xochitl” (flower) implies delicacy. The widely used common name in Mexico, “lináloe,” derives from the Latin words “lignum” (wood) and “aloe” (oil).

Mexican botanist Pablo de la Llave made the earliest taxonomic reference to this species in 1834, naming it Amyris linanoe, belonging to the citrus family. These names collectively allude to an essential wood oil with a lemon-like aroma.

Its cultural significance is apparent in the numerous variations of its common name: linanoé, inamé, inanué, olinalué, ulinalué, and ulinoé. Linaloe has a relatively extensive distribution, but its ecological requirements are particular: it thrives on volcanic rock-derived soils with an aspect providing some sun protection. Although once abundant, excessive exploitation in certain regions has led to few remaining trees. Plantations and reforestation efforts have fallen short of restoring the populations.

Five Uses of Copal You Probably Didn’t Know About

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On
  1. Natural Insect Repellent: The smoke of copal acts as a natural repellent against insects, particularly mosquitoes. The potent aroma also functions as an effective natural insecticide.
  2. Cleansing Home Energies: Traditional herbal knowledge suggests that copal is ideal for purifying your living space, as well as your inner energy.
  3. Calming Impulses: Copal complements relaxation exercises, aiding you in connecting with your thoughts and preventing emotions from overpowering you.
  4. Enhancing Concentration: If you struggle with concentration, incorporating copal into meditation routines, coupled with diaphragmatic breathing, can improve focus.
  5. Clearing Misunderstandings from Your Mind: When your thoughts become a source of turmoil, copal can be your ally. By focusing on its scent, you can release negative ideas that cloud your judgment.

Scented Whispers of a Timeless Legacy

Copal: From Mayan Temples to Modern Homes, a Fragrant Tradition Lives On

As we conclude our aromatic journey through the depths of copal’s history and significance, we find ourselves immersed in the fragrant whispers of the past that continue to echo in the present. From the heights of Guerrero to the lush landscapes of Oaxaca and Michoacán, the copal tree has stood as a bridge connecting generations, cultures, and rituals. Its resin, a symbol of both divine offerings and earthly purification, has not only scented the air of temples and ceremonies but has also woven itself into the very fabric of Mexican identity.

Through the ages, copal has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, the birth of traditions, and the evolution of beliefs. From its role as a protector of the gods in ancient times to its contemporary uses as a natural insect repellent and an aid to relaxation, copal’s journey is a testament to its enduring allure. The rituals it has accompanied and the fragrant trails it has left behind paint a vivid picture of the cultural mosaic that is Mexico.

As we inhale the aromatic essence of copal, we are reminded that the past is not a distant echo but a living presence, intertwining with our present. The scent of copal carries within it the stories of those who burned it as an offering to deities, those who sought its cleansing embrace, and those who continue to honor its legacy today. In every whiff of its fragrance, we encounter the threads that weave together generations of seekers, healers, and believers.

This journey has illuminated the resilience of tradition, the wisdom of indigenous knowledge, and the timeless connection between humans and the natural world. With each curl of copal smoke that rises to the heavens, we pay homage to the roots of our heritage, inviting the ancient and the modern to coexist harmoniously. The scent lingers, a fragrant reminder that the spirit of copal lives on, carried by the wind, whispering tales of reverence and devotion.


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