Copal is a tree resin derived from trees in the Burseraceae family. Trees and other types of flowering plants in the Burseraceae are known for the aromatic saps and oils, also known as incense trees. The people of Mesoamerica received their copal from the Protium copal tree. The word copal comes from the Nahuatl word “copalli”, meaning incense. Copal is not the same as amber, though they are both just sap from a tree one difference is amber is derived from a coniferous tree that went extinct during the Tertiary period. The earliest evidence of copal was discovered at the Olmec site of El Manatí.
The significance of collecting copal relates to the indigenous fascination of blood. The sap from a tree was symbolic of blood. In the PoPol Vuh, the creation myth for the Quiche Maya, there is a reference to copal and its similarities to blood. In the creation myth the lords of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, want to sacrifice Xquic, but Xquic convinces the henchman to use copal as a substitute for her blood. Copal was red in color like blood, and the natives believed the sap gave life to trees like blood gives life to people. Collecting copal from trees was very similar to bloodletting of humans and animals.
Copal was burned at bloodletting ceremonies to add to the symbolism of blood. Bloodletting and autosacrifice were crucial parts to the native’s tradition. Autosacrifice was seen as a form of gratitude from the indigenous people to their deities. Bloodletting was done by the people for a multitude of reasons like gaining knowledge, proving bravery, and receiving visions among other reasons. To draw blood, the indigenous used stingray spines, sharpened flint or obsidian blades, and stone needles. Blood would typically be drawn from piercings or cuts in the ears, tongue, genitalia, and legs.
To burn copal, the indigenous people made incense burners in the shape of heads or animals, for symbolistic purposes. Archaeologists found a large amount of the head shaped burners at Palenque. Also other popular styles of incense burners were shaped like a bowl, and the bowl would be attached to a stick. This style was design to spread the incense around the room to purify an area. Copal was also used to make figurines; some were found at the Templo Mayor. In the modern era indigenous people are still burning copal for their religious ceremonies. For instance, at the church San Juan Chamula, copal can be smelled from far away. When you walk in there are pine needles on the floor and copal being burned all throughout the church.