During a dinner at a local restaurant that uses copal to keep the mosquitos away, a visitor asked what copal was and where it came from. Our answer, embarrassingly, was incomplete. ‘It is a natural resin that keeps mosquitos away’. (eyes rolled and forks went into the plates of food) This prompted an investigation of the copal incense we use in Tulum and which tree does copal come from, and why it is used so much in this land of the Maya and what other purposes are there of copal.
What is copal and where does it come from?
Copal is a generic term used for tree resin that is neither in gel/gum form nor amber form. Copal is a tree resin that in between these two states, hard, honey in color and can come from any tree, as it is term used for the hardened resin, it is not the name of a resin from a particular tree. The term is derived from the Aztec Nahuatil word ‘copalli’. The Mayan term for Copal is ‘pom’ which translates to incense not resin.
In the south states of Mexico, Mayan communities use trees from the Buresa family, a flowering shrub or tree that is linked to the torchwood or elephant tree that is found in the area. The Buresa family has over 100 different species of trees that provide resin to the Mayas in southern Mexico. The tree is also a medicinal tree that is used for clearing the body of diseases, used to ward off mosquitos and can be used as a glue.
In the mayan ruins in the southern part of Mexico, copal from the Buresa family of trees has been discovered in burial grounds which proves the spiritual uses of this tree resin.
Uses of copal in ancient traditions and contemporary society
There are many uses for copal that are documented in anthropology journals, but in Tulum, copal is still used for three very distinct and significant purposes – natural mosquito repellant, cleansing of ill persons and spirits, natural glue for leather, ceramics and natural woods.
The Buresa family of trees have specific medicinal advantages that clear the body and the environment of unwanted mosquitos, ailments and for some unwanted spirits. The burning of the copal resin as an incense or resin rock in a wood fire will help the cleansing of all of the above. The Mayas would use copal to clean the spirit of dead animals prior to eating, cleanse public spaces to ensure all spirits are driven from the area, and use copal to ward off mosquitos. This natural cleansing agent is used in contemporary Tulum as a natural agent to help with mosquitos, ailments and more. It is a great sustainable mosquito repellant that is no toxic and does not damage the environment, the indigenous plants or people.
In the back of the restaurant of Don Cafeto in downtown Tulum, a natural tree resin is used to protect and cover the photos that are the highlight of this Tulum tradmark, a unique and contemporary way to use tree resin for purposes other than cleansing.
Copal has a distinct smell and aroma that will link you back to Tulum or other Central America locations that still use Copal as a natural cleansing agent. Unlike other incense, copal is not as invasive as a smell and can be burned in a home without the lingering smells experienced by other tree resins like frankincense and myrrh.
The diversity of this natural cleansing agent goes back centuries in the Mayan culture and ironically is still used today. Traditions continue in Tulum, though sometimes we don’t even know it.
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