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Copal (from the Nahuatl word copalli: "resin") is a type of incense that is burned as an offering to indigenous deities in Mesoamerica. In the Maya region, the same substance is called pom. The primary ingredient in copal is tree resin, most often that of species from the genera Bursera (which is found in the highlands as well as the rainforests of the region) and Protium (which is limited to the rainforest).[1]

Feeding the gods

Burning is a central part of the ritual process in Mesoamerica because it converts offerings into smoke, which may be consumed by gods and spirits.[2][3] Thus, modern ritual practitioners in the highlands of Guatemala will refer to the circular base of sugar on top of which other offerings are arranged before they are set afire as a mesa or "table". The candles, copal, sweet bread, alcohol, chocolate, tobacco, chilis, tallow, eggs, flavored soda, blood and other offerings that are burned during the course of a ceremony are the beans and tortillas of the deities.

Copal falls into the category of spiritual foodstuffs known to the Maya as itz, associated with the god Itzamna. This category includes blood, tree resin, melted candle wax, human sweat and tears, rust, milk, and dew, each of them secreted in one way or another from a variety of objects.[4][5] Ritual practitioners nourish the gods by burning these items, and in return itz, the "blessed substance of the sky," flows back "to nourish and sustain humanity in all its diversity."[6] As an analogous form of itz, the sacrifice of copal functions as a substitute for the sacrifice of human blood. Houston, Stuart and Taube point out that "in fact, most Mayan languages employ the same words for 'blood' and 'tree sap,' the raw material of incense."[7]


  1. Case, Ryan J.; Arthur O. Tucker; Michael J. Maciarello; and Kraig A. Wheeler. 2003. Chemistry and Ethnobotany of Commercial Incense Copals, Copal Blanco, Copal Oro, and Copal Negro, of North America. Economic Botany 57(2):189-202., p. 191.
  2. Linda A. Brown. 2004. Dangerous Places and Wild Spaces: Creating Meaning with Materials and Space at Contemporary Maya Shrines on El Duende Mountain. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11(1):31-58., p. 37
  3. Houston, Stephen D.; David Stuart; and Karl A. Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press., p. 125.
  4. Friedel, David; Linda Schele; and Joy Parker. 1993. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path. New York: William Morrow and Company., p. 51.
  5. Case, et al., p. 190.
  6. Friedel, Schele, and Parker, p. 51.
  7. Houston, Stuart and Taube, p. 126.