Monday, July 23, 2012

Copal Resin -- Sacred Incense

Copal resin (called pom in various Maya languages today) was one of the various substances the ancient Maya held to be sacred but also used in everyday taskes. Commonly, they used it as incense  -- other incense substances being rubber, chicle, and pine resin -- and as an adhesive.

The ancient Maya used different kinds of trees for copal resin, and today various kinds of tree resins are called copal. Via infrared spectometry, it is now understood that the most common kind of copal resin that the ancient Maya (as well as Mesoamerica in general) used comes from Bursera bipinnata, a tree with tiny leaflets. Other names for this tree include copal amargo, copalillo, copal santo and copal cimarrón. (However some sources write as though the most common copal is from the species Protium copal.)

This incense burner was made in the 300s AD, and
was uncovered in Guatemala. There are two parts:
the part with the ruler on it is a chimney for the
incense's smoke to go up as it burns in the base.
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sacred Offering
The ancient Maya believed that copal resin was very sacred. The ancient Maya burned the resin in balls or lumps, both lower and upper classes. Incence burners that the ancient Maya used ranged from ceramic and wooden burners to ones made from gourds. When the incense burned, the ancient Maya thought the gods came down to eat the smoke.

On a side note to this, one kind of glyph shows a god diving down with a ball of copal in each hand. This may have something to do with the idea that the gods came down for the smoke.
Unburned copal also seems to have been given as an offering. When the Well of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza was excavated, one of the things they found was balls of copal. These balls had been painted blue-green and sometimes had shaped pieces of jade -- such as disks and balls -- set into them.

Practical Uses
Copal resin also had other uses. In order to get cinnabar to stick to greenstone carvings, the ancient Maya would use copal as a glue. They would place a thin layer of copal where the wanted the cinnabar to stick. Similarly, they used copal as a binder in their paint.

Copal resin was also part of the ancient Maya's medicine. In the Yucatan area, before European contact, copal was used for various things such as curing headaches.

University of Texas at Austin: Mesoamerican Copal Resins

"Gardens on Hills: Ancient Maya Terracing and Agricultural Production at Chan Belize"; Andrew R Wyatt; 2008

"Plants and Animals of the Ancient Maya: A Guide"; Victoria Schlesinger; 2001

"Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices and Visions of the Living Maya"; Dennis Tedlock; 1993

"The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, & Ancient Cities"; James D. Nations; 2006

"Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley"; Jennifer P. Mathews, Gillian P. Schultz; 2009

"Historical Dictionary of Ancient Mesoamerica"; Joel W. Palka; 2000

"Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture:A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 7th and 8th October 1994"; Stephen D. Houston; 1998

"Words of the True Peoples/Palabras de Los Seres Verdaderos: Anthology of Contemporary Mexican Indigenous-Language Writers: Volume Two/Tomo Dos: Poetry/Poesía"; Carlos Montemayor, Donald H. Frischmann, George O. Jackson, Jr.; 2005

"Trees of Guatemala"; Tracey Parker; 2008

Image Credit:
Metropolitan Museum of Art:  Censer, Seated King

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