By Kenneth Johnson
Though various kinds of incense are used in Mayan ceremonies, copal is the most important. Sculpture and ceramic art from the Classical Period show that it has been known to the indigenous people of Mesoamerica for centuries.
Copal comes from the resin of the tree Protium copal (Burseraceae). The word “copal” itself is from Nahuatl, the language of central Mexico, and was originally copalli, meaning “incense.” The Maya call it pom. There are several different varieties, most notably the hard yellow copal which resembles amber, and white copal, which is also hard, but milky and rather sticky to the touch. Although the word copal means “incense” in Nahuatl, I have never heard the Maya refer to it as incienso. This means frankincense, which is frequently mixed with copal, which I always heard referred to simply as pom.
Though copal has many uses, one of its most important functions is to honor the encantos. In conventional Spanish, the word encanto means a charm or a magical spell, though it can also mean “someone or something which is charming and delightful.” In the dialect of the highland Maya, however, an encanto is a guardian spirit which protects a shrine, altar, or sacred place in nature. Copal is an offering to the various encantos or spirits associated with the place where a ceremony is being held.
Copal can be shaped into many forms. Cuilco Copal is in the form of small round black copal chips, about the size of a penny. The chips are wrapped in banana husks, which are opened and cast upon the sacred fire during ceremonies, especially when the daykeepers are calling upon the twenty nawales or day signs of the sacred calendar. Cuilco copal may also be thought of as a payment, an offering to the divine powers and forces. Ensarte Copal refers to copal pressed into a small cup-like shape; sometimes these items are called “cakes for the gods.” They are frequently offered as a payment for having received good health. Large balls of copal are used to obtain the strength to work. One can mix tree bark with copal resin; this is called storax or, in Spanish, estorace, and is used to attract the gods and encourage them to give us good health.
Everything has its magical correspondence with certain day signs of the calendar, and copal is associated with the day sign No’j (Yucatec: Caban), which is the sign of our thoughts. It is said that the smoke of the copal incense carries our thoughts and spiritual intentions to heaven, to the gods. While the term “Zuyua” or “Zuvuya” has acquired all kinds of meanings in the New Age community, it was originally a kind of ritual language which is best described in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, a Yucatec manuscript compiled from the 16th through the 18th centuries. In Zuvuya language, copal is called “the brains of heaven,” in keeping with the concept of the day sign No’j as the sign of “thought.” Copal is like a sacred bread which is filled with the energy of Nature itself. It is one of the most essential foods for the sacred fire, and at its deepest level it is a symbol of the fire itself.
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