Copal and Prehispanic Rituals

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  • Topic: Mexico City, Copal, Incense
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Copal and prehispanic rituals
in Mexico

April 2011.
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 náhuatl 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 Hernández, 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 Tlacosauhtitlán 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...
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