Copal is the name given to the aromatic resin derived from the sap or “blood” of certain trees from the Torchwood family that hardens when in contact with the air. A process of tree selection is done by “copaleros” or experts on discriminating whether the tree is robust and healthy enough for it to flow well throughout the harvesting season. Traditionally, cuts are done on the bark of the copal tree and a maguey stalk is placed underneath to receive the resin that will turn into the aromatic, sacred incense.
Throughout Mesoamerica, and especially in Mexico, copal has a long history of use. Recent research found evidence of the use of copalli (Náhuatl term from which the Spanish “copal” derives from) that stretches for thousands of years in different prehispanic sites such as the Templo Mayor of the capital city of Tenochtitlan, the Cenote Sagrado in Chichen Itza, and the Laguna de la Luna in Toluca, Mexico.
Copal was highly valued and was used in different rituals, celebrations, and offerings throughout the year given the belief that the white smoke enabled communication with deities and several natural forces. The uses of copal in ancient Mexico and amongst native cultures nowadays can be divided into four functions: divinatory, preventive, therapeutic, and divine offerings. The Otomi people “read” the copal’s smoke with the aid of a candle to diagnose disease; copal smudging is one of the most common preventive and therapeutic practices in traditional medicine; the Lacandon people craft receptacles dedicated to a particular god(des) in which copal is burned, thus “feeding” the divine abode of such deities. Copal’s importance was such that not only survived the arrival of the Spaniards but was adopted by them, becoming a common element in Church services.
Copal, when burned, produces a white smoke that Native Mesoamericans associate with Iztacteteo or “White Gods.” These gods, in turn, are believed to aid in the communication between humans and the Great Mystery. The column of white smoke created by copal burning represents the cosmic axis out of which the universe and all its creatures emerged and acts as the connecting thread between the worlds, between heaven and earth. The burning of copal calls upon the wisdom of the heart of all things and symbolizes the Mysterious center ever pulsating toward greater consciousness and connection.
Copal was also associated to the god Tlaloc (“He who Makes Things Grow”) and the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue (“She of the Jade Skirt”) both rulers of water and associated with fertility and creation. Small copal figurines representing these deities have been found in the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. Copal as an offering is related to the activation of the waters of life and the processes of creation that allow us to further explore the Great Mystery of existence. The primordial waters within us are acknowledged and honored by copal burning.
Copal’s resin was well known for its therapeutic and medicinal uses and reports suggest that it was also used as glue. Lore has it that copal’s white smoke helps with headaches and relieves diseases associated with cold and humidity. Given its positive effects on the limbic system, copal oil is used in aromatherapy to treat a number of diseases. In some cases, the resin is used in tea to treat bronchitis and applied locally for coughs and rheumatism. With many contemporary uses, copal is a true ally for body and mind.
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