The importance of Copal for the Maya

The importance of Copal for the Maya

Copal is a tree resin that comes from several trees in the Burseraceae family. Its name derives from the Nahuatl word, copalli, meaning incense. Though widely used for spiritual practices, copal is also also known for its numerous benefits in healing skin disorders, the respiratory system, infections and viruses, the nervous system, and mental imbalances. It can be used topically and internally, as it contains properties that are “analgesic, anti-fungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, astringent, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, expectorant, vasodilator, and insect repellent”(Sylliaasen, 2020). Harvesting copal is accomplished by making superficial cuts on the trunk of the tree, allowing the sap to be released. A maguey leaf is then situated in place to collect the sap that is released. Sometimes drying on the tree itself. 

There are two types of resins that have officially been named copal that come in two varieties, hard or soft. However, one of them is not actually copal, though it is widely sold as such. In fact, they have completely different properties, histories, and uses. True Copal is of the soft variety that only comes from the Americas, while fake copal is hard and clear, coming from Africa and Asia. Some true copal varieties from the Burseraceae family are those such as Protium Copal. This variety is more fresh, sticky, and wrapped in banana leaves sold in markets. Another is Bursera Bipinnata, also known as Copal Blanco or White Copal. Next is Bursera Heteresthes, called Copal Negro or Black Copal. Protium Paniculatum, known as Copal Negro Peru, is another wonderful resin that can produce an emerald green oil. Lastly, Bursera Heptaphyllum, or Brue copal, is usually found in the Amazon rainforest and is also used as incense or to treat skin conditions. Varieties that are not copal are Hymenea Verrucosa (Zanzibar copal), Shorea Javanica, Angola copal, and Borneo Kauri. 

Copal was first used by the Indigenous Americans of the Mesoamerican region of North America. The first peoples of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, the extensive Central American region, and South America, would utilize copal for medicine, spiritual practices and cleansings, glue, jewelry, and carvings. “The Apache and Sioux nations would trade their crafts” and products for Copal from current- day Mexico that were brought by groups such as the Pochtecas, to use in sweat lodges (Sylliaasen, 2020). The ancient uses of copal are still in practice to this day, especially with traditions of those that keep the fire, called Sahumadoras. The common way to burn the sacred resin is to light a charcoal disc and place it in the incense burner. Afterwards, copal can be placed onto the charcoal, immediately releasing a rich and earthy aromatic smoke. It is a powerful resin that is grounding and purifying, as it cleanses and opens up space for spiritual practice. People who have truly learned the ways of copal even have the ability to read the smoke. 

The medicinal uses of copal are numerous! It has been proven to be beneficial in the treatment of skin conditions like eczema, dermatitis, rashes, burns, insect bites, fungal and bacterial infections, arthritis, rheumatism, gout, and muscular aches and pains. Apart from the topical, internal, and spiritual benefits, it is also great aromatherapy. The scent of copal calms stress, anxiety, depression, and soothes an over-active mind. It offers an uplifting fragrance that generates a rejuvenation of the spirit.

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