Copal Incense: Gift for the Gods

The sweet-smelling blood of trees

Copal (Pom) tree with bamboo growing alongside it

(NOTE: I highly recommend the PBS Nova program “Ancient Maya Metropolis.” It focuses on Caracol in Belize. The program is exceedingly well done).

The process of making copal incense begins by scraping the bark with a blade. When the sap comes out it’s collected on a piece of bark or corn husk. The resin, which wards off insects from the tree, is thick and sticky and has a white to yellow color. In contact with the air, it becomes hard like a shiny rock, so saliva is applied to keep it malleable.

Copal was traded locally as a resin in maize husks, and for long-distance transport it was shaped into hard nuggets that could be ground into powder for sprinkling onto a burnt offering or for burning in a censer. It was also traded as hardened, dusty granules. Here’s a nugget on a piece of bark.

Pom is the Maya word for the tree. It was tapped during a full moon when the yellow resin flows most readily. The bark of the tree, when boiled, made a tea that could help relieve stomach pains and kill intestinal parasites. The powdered bark was used as an external antiseptic. And the trees is able to survive burning.   It grows wild throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.

The ancients believed that a person’s breath constituted his soul essence, and that it continued after death. So incense coming out of the mouth of a god-faced censer was considered the god’s sacred breath. In ritual offerings, the spirits consume the “sweet-smelling blood of trees” and because it contains their ch’ulel or “soul, they are nourished by it. Sprinkled onto a burning offering such as a blood-soaked cloth, the smoke carried the sacrifice to the heavens. Other aromas that fed ch’ulel to the gods & ancestors included dried blossoms, alcohol, tobacco and the blood of animals and men.

In addition to god-faced censers, there were effigy censers considered to be the living representation of an ancestor, viewed as a conduit to the gods to solicit favors. To be close enough to smell the incense was to be in the spiritual presence of the god or ancestor.

Ritually, the burning of incense “activated” or “enlivened” the spirits, so burning censers were placed at the four corners of a pyramid to represent the four corners of the cosmos. When ancestors are portrayed on the upper parts of monuments such as stelae and altars, they’re often surrounded in curls of smoke that represent “precious wind,” or the perfume of flowers and incense, the carriers of ch’ulel.

Copal was shaped into little hearts to symbolize the seat of the soul and residence of ch’ulel. The powder was mixed with pigments to make them shine, and it made the paint adhere better to limestone, stucco and ceramic surfaces.

Copal Used In A Hallucinogenic Journey

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 121 )

Inside the temple, White Grandfather set the torch in a holder on the wall and tied back the doorway drape a little to remove the thin veil of ash that lingered in the air. Following his gesture I sat on an ocelot pelt with my back against a side wall. Painted black on the wall across from me was a medallion, a large circle with inset corners that framed the cross-eyed, shark-tooth face of Lord K’in. Taking fire from the torch with an ocoté stick, he lit some tinder in a censer. When it flamed, he added the stick and three others before setting it in front of me. He took a blue-painted calabash from under the medallion and nodded for me to take one of the many rolled-up leaves it contained. Inside the leaf was a cigar. “We wrap them with bits of copal bark,” he said, and scrapings from the backs of frogs.” It releases the ch’ulel to go through the portal.”

Sitting next to me, White Grandfather removed his headgear and re-tied the three-leaf headband so it fit snug on his forehead. After adding another stick and some copal nuggets to the censer, its sweet smoke replaced the acrid smell of burnt ash, and it wafted to a hole high in the back wall. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I noticed a round feather-standard leaning against the wall next to the doorway. Tied to crossed lances in front of it was a ceremonial shield with the face of a laughing falcon on it. Beside me, arranged on a reed-mat, were ceramic cups, an incense bag and an offering bowl containing strips of cotton and square leaf-packets that were tied with string and painted red. Next to my teacher was a bundle of ocoté sticks, an incense bag, a carapace drum, rattle, grinding stone and two gourds with stoppers.

White Grandfather took one of the burning sticks from the censer and lit a cigar. “This is the holy portal,” he said, puffing to get it lit. He handed it to me and told me to take several strong puffs, each time breathing it in. I’d smoked cigars with Thunder Flute and my uncles before, even inhaled, but this was very different. It was thick and tasted like a combination of tree sap and burnt thatch. The smoke stung my nose and bit my tongue. White Grandfather set the drum, rattle and incense bag in front of him. “Keep breathing it in, grandson.” I did, but I kept coughing. “Blow some smoke to the medallion,” he said pointing. “That is the place of entry, the doorway.” I noticed that it was shaped like the bottom part of a turtle shell, rounded except for inset corners. And it seemed to have been painted blue. “Fix your eyes on it,” he said, tapping the little drum with a thin white bone. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap. On and on, always three taps and a pause. “Breathe it in, grandson…”


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

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