The History and Uses of Copal Incense

Copal incense is made from tree resin that has been used since pre-Columbian times in various ceremonies and as an ingredient in varnish for wood and trains. It originated in Mexico, but now it grows all over the world. The word copal is a shortened version of “copalli” which is a Nahuatl word that means incense; to the Mayan people it was called pom and others have nicknamed it young amber. The resin itself was also popular in East Africa which enabled the Indian Ocean to fulfill its demands for this ever popular resin based incense. In modern times copal is still used as fragrant incense and also in sweat lodge ceremonies by some in Mexico and those residing in Central America.

Copal incense is available in different forms each with a similar scent. Black copal is considered by some the most desirable for its rich and heavy scent. Golden copal has the sweetest scent and offers a good balance. White copal is sweeter smelling than black varieties but not as rich, nor as sweet as golden copal. All three can be used interchangeably, and the choice is up to the individual. However, the scent can be overpowering, so use only as much as you need.

The incense can also be used in ceremonies or rituals that call for frankincense, as copal incense has been referred to as the Mexican Frankincense. It’s even possible, after cultivation on other continents, which it served as more readily available incense for other indigenous people. The choice is up to each individual though many have found that copal is more readily available.

The magical properties of copal incense differ depending upon which type is chosen. Black copal, for example, is commonly associated with grounding and night-time. It was also commonly used as an offering to the Mayan deities as it was considered by the people to be the food of the Gods. They would collect the sap, turn it into a paste, and store it in the “God’s house.” This symbolic practice has changed over the years, but in Guatemala copal is sold in disk form to resemble wafers and they’re wrapped in either banana leaves or husk packaging to symbolize food.

Copal has also been used as a method of divination as shamans would burn the incense and interpret the smoke. At other times, depending upon belief, the shaman would cast grains of maize after holding them in the smoke and chanting. The Zapotecs in Milta, Oaxaca would burn the copal under water for finding the cause of fright as it was thought the underside would reveal a picture.

However, the most common use for this incense today is its use in ceremonies. It is used to purify objects, enter trances and or chosen for a specific use in a ceremony.  The second use would be the use in sweat lodges where it’s commonly used to cleanse the body, mind and soul. This practice is still in use today and has been used specifically by the Native Americans as well as the indigenous people of Mexico and South America. The process is a lengthy one that must be performed at night, but each tribe or people have their own specific ceremonies.

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