Copal and Prehispanic Rituals

Copal and Prehispanic Rituals

Copal and prehispanic rituals in Mexico April 2011. Introduction The history of scents starts with mankind; good and bad odors come from skin itself. When primitive man by mistake burned some herbs, he realized the influence they could have in his personal odor. Without any question copal is the most important essence for prehispanic cultures, it was used for religious offers, to keep away evil spirits and diseases and as a communication medium between man and their Gods since pleasant odors pleased the divinities and invited them to favor their prayers; they used copal also to farewell and remember their dead ones.

Nowadays, copal is still used in traditional offers for the Death’s day or in rituals to clean bad vibes that are performed by traditional priests. Incense was also known and much appreciated. Since the time when perfume was manufactured in an artisanal way, with the sole idea of giving the body a pleasant smell that could seduce, attract or please others, a long way had to be walked to get passed the idea that using perfume was a sinful act that should not be done by good and Christian people. The middle age was then the beginning of the great industry that perfume is nowadays.

Copal in mexican culture The word copal comes from the nahuatl copalli that was the name given to fragrant resins like incense no matter the source they came from. Since prehispanic times in the warm dry areas trees called copalquahuitl were exploited and with the arrival of the Spanish, Don Francisco Hernandez, botanist and doctor of Felipe II reported around 20 types of this tree. Some of the figures representing Gods like the water Gods found in the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan were elaborated using this resin. Copal was associated to Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlique so as with water and plants.

The use of this resin had great relevance in the social, economic, religious-ceremonial and daily life aspects. During prehispanic times it came as a tribute from Tlachco, Tepequacuilco and Tlacosauhtitlan in the state of Guerrero. Only the first two delivered 400 baskets of refined copal and 8000 pellets of unrefined. Its importance remains nowadays for example in the ceremonies of the temazcal the participants are perfumed with copal smoke before going into the bathroom and in churchs as part of religious rites as a purifying fume.

The use of this resin was widely practiced in ancient Mexico, as evidenced by the impressive offerings of copal rescued the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, ancient Mayan city in Yucatan, and Laguna de la Luna, the Nevado de Toluca in the State of Mexico, as well as the sculptures of this resin found in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City. The qualities of copal were widely known and used by pre-Hispanic cultures use for rituals, ceremonies, holidays, therapeutic and medicinal purposes and as a binder.

Its relevance survived the Inquisition itself, being still used to this day among many indigenous and mixed towns. Its strong prevalence is reflected in the fact that every language and variant spoken in the country has a word or the copal in some form: tree, gum or smoke, being copalliin in Nahuatl or poom in Mayan languages?? , the most representative for its wide distribution. Ancient Mexicans considered copal like a protective God, they called him “Iztacteteo” that means white God, name given by the white smoke produced when it is burned.

In Aztec and Mayan offers copal has been found in the form of small tortillas, tamales or corn grains which may be considered s food for the Gods. The copal we know actually is a solid resin obtained from different species of the genus Bursera. In Alto Balsas, one of the most important areas of extraction in Mexico, around 15 species of Bursera are exploited being the most important Bursera bipinnata (copal blanco) and Bursera copalifera (copal santo).

The regions that are still producing copal are the same as reported since prehispanic times including Oaxaca and Puebla where lots of families still complement their income from planting and collecting the resin. Extraction Is a difficult task that involves hard work including migrate to the mountains during the season of its obtention. Complete families with children and animals move to the mountains where the men do the extraction while the women take care of the children and prepare the food and the kids take care of the animals.

These people are named “copaleros” and they know very well the species since they have to walk through the forest and pick the trees they will work on during the season. The trees are common property which generates a series of trouble, for example, if they have been exploited recently then a period of rest of three years should be allowed and if the copalero is not skilled enough he can hurt the tree enough for it to dry out, get weak and die. The trees to be selected would be the most robust, rested and healthy.

There is this believe that when a tree “flows well” is because it wants to help with the income. Once the trees are selected they start working on them during the rainy season that is the season when they flow the most but if the rain is too much then there will not be a good season for copal since as the copaleros say the tree “gets cold”. The trees are marked making an incision in the bark in a place that appears good for flowing. In this incision an oak leave (Quercus glaucoides) is introduced folding its edge lengthwise to act as a guide for the resin when it starts to flow.

Maguey (Agave angustifollia) leaves are tied up to receive the liquid resin that solidifies slowly and in this way they avoid the resin to spill and get lost. When a tree is flowing good a stop is made with cow excrement, ashes and clay soil that is formed with water or saliva to mold it and make the “little shoe” as they call it. Incisions are made in the place of extraction every third day with a separation of 0. 5 mm in order to keep the resin flowing because it solidifies as it goes out. These sections of bark covered with resin will become in myrrh.

At the end of the season the sections are detached from the tree and the whole section is cut leaving a gap in the log that is called “cala”. Types of Copal In general a good copal is built from 10 to 12 incisions which fill the maguey leave and can weigh between ? to ? kg depending on the species. The trees of copal santo produce a heavier and earlier resin than the trees of copal blanco. There are are three different types of copal in the market: 1. The best is white or slightly green like copal almarciga that has a light lemon odor. They are big full bars preferably with the “little shoe”.

They have very small amount of impurities since the expert copalero cleans out all the insects and particles that get into the resin before it solidifies. 2. The second grade copal comes from broken maguey leaves, the bars are thin and small and sometimes have impurities. 3. Myrrh is composed of bark sections of bark full with the resin between curs resulting from all the season. It is collected at the end when the trees don’t flow anymore. 4. The gum or black copal is the resin collected directly from the trees which is produced by scratches or insect bites without the intervention of men. 5.

The “tear” or “lagrimita” is the solidified resin that slowly increase its size by runoff from the droplets prior complete blasting and do not reach the maguey leaf. This type of resin is greatly appreciated and is usually attached to the oak leaf. 6. Stone copal or tecopal. For some ethnic groups it has a symbolic significance as it is collected by a group of insects (wasps)  and is  cemented with clay grains with which they build their nests. Conclusion Copal is a very used resin since prehispanic times with ritual motives placing a slice of copal incense with coals, smoke is produced with a refreshing  aroma.

Currently  used  in the same way by the communities in Day of the Dead, when the offer is placed, the incense is added at the bottom so that the dead can  find their way free and fair. The traditional healers also use with copal incense to make purify the soul and take away the bad vibes from people. Bibliography http://www. biodiversidad. gob. mx/usos/copales/cultura. html http://www. percano. com. mx/RM_feb09. pdf http://era-mx. org/biblio/Copal_en_Mex. pdf http://paranatinga. blogspot. es/1245611520/