Sacred Smoke of Copal
From Mesoamerican Religion to Chicanx Ceremonies
Dozens of Mexican-American women stand in front of their computers at awkward angles. Most are muted per proper Zoom etiquette; many have their eyes closed and hands outstretched. Turning to face each cardinal direction, the elders call out prayers while drumming. These women are fire-keepers, water-pourers, herbalists and curanderas. The facilitators sing in Nahuatl, with English with Spanish phrases sprinkled in. I join in, whispering the words I can remember into my dark, empty apartment.
This online ceremony is the sort of space that I hunger for most: one in which learning is embodied and intergenerational, where wisdom of the margins is at the center, and where I feel connected to my Mexican roots. These gatherings give a context to my “formal” Harvard education. As a graduate student in my first year at Harvard Divinity School, I was also in the process of writing of a 25-page research paper for the course Moctezuma’s Mexico—intellectually postured, taking notes and observing carefully. My research explored the use of copal by the Aztecs before colonization and by modern Indigenous and Chicanx communities.
It wasn’t just theoretical. I had been intrigued, long before coming to Harvard Divinity School, watching Grupo Tlaloc perform in Denver, Colorado. At that time I didn’t know the significance of the copal, but the dancers kissed the earth and purified all participants with its smoke. While my more recent experiences were virtual, I could still imagine the scent as I observed copal incense wafting across the “gallery view” on Zoom.
Copal is an ingrained part of Mexican-American identity, a smell that permeates both sides of the border. It has long been carried in sacred bundles through many migrations. Modern communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border burn copal in communal temazcales (sweat lodges) and in private sessions with healers. We find copal in abundance on Día de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—altars and in the opening ceremonies by Aztec Danzantes. In one YouTube video titled “13 Beneficios del Copal,” various benefits of copal are listed over footage of a smoking brazier. The video closes with the phrase: “El copal es parte de tú identidad, toda Mesoamerica lo ocupaba.”—Copal is part of your identity; all of Mesoamerica uses it. That was true in ancient times and it is also true in contemporary spiritual practices—why understanding the spiritual use of copal now and then can also help us understand transculturation in the Mexican-American community.
Copal, a resin extracted from living trees across the Americas, can be sold as a varnish or molded into figurines. I was most interested in its use as an incense and copaltemaliztl, “the act of burning of copal,” a ritual grounded in Mexican religious cosmovision in both ancient and modern contexts (Nahuatl Dictionary). Reading early Spanish accounts about Mesoamerica, I found repeated references to copal—clearly there was something noteworthy about this ritual to the foreigners. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador under Hernán Cortés, describes incense filling the air between the Spanish and Indigenous peoples in their first encounters: “The priests of the Idols… brought us incense of a sort of resin which they call copal, and with pottery braziers full of live coals, they began to fumigate us” (The History of the Conquest of New Spain). Later in his writing he elaborates, “With every sign of respect [they] made three obeisances to Cortés and to all of us, and they burnt copal and touched the ground with their hands and kissed it.” The pattern of fumigating, kissing the earth, and carrying copal to meetings with the Spanish intrigued me. Professor Davíd Carrasco, who taught the Harvard course on Montezuma’s Mexico, explained these rituals as acts of honor both to the earth and as acts of negotiation.
Compelled by these many interactions, I wanted to follow the sacred scent of copal through history. I found that following one’s nose back to the 15th century is both a metaphorical endeavor and a sensory one. Amazingly, archaeologist Leonard Lopez Lujan wrote that the chemical makeup of copal carries a surprisingly durable scent. After 500 years buried beneath modern day Mexico City, excavated copal maintains its characteristic fragrance!
Copal in Mesoamerica: The Blood of Trees
According to creation mythologies, the primordial gods Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl made the earth out of the goddess Tlaltecutli—and they themselves were transformed into four cosmic trees representing the four quarters of the universe. Radiating spiritual forces as channels of divinity, these trees hold up the stars and reach down into the underworld. For the Aztecs, trees are both sentient and sacred and there is a relationship of reciprocity between humans, deities and non-human entities.
After watching videos of copal extraction from trees, I could see how the Aztecs would conceive of copal as the blood of trees. Ancient and modern copaleros (those who extract copal) use a wooden mallet and large metal knife to cut the tree. Below these abrasions, the copalero uses rope and maguey spikes to catch the resin as it oozes from the branches. The use of the maguey spike is particularly fascinating considering that this part of the agave plant was used in Aztec rituals of human sacrifice, spilling blood as offering to the gods in order to keep the cosmos from chaos. Maguey spikes were used to lacerate ears and blood was sprinkled directly onto burning copal.
I found anthropologist Inga Clendinnen’s comparison especially vivid in her book Aztecs, as she bridges the gap between resin and blood: “Human blood jets vivid and wet, then darkens, becomes viscous, crumbles; human skins dry and crumble to earth as they shroud the warrior dancers…. Human skin, darkened by the sun, also darkens in the fire, and then bubbles and boils like water before it blackens and peels away.… Copal resin sweats and bubbles and then transforms to a heavy sweet smoke.”
Copal was burned at the ceremonial center of the Aztecs, at The Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan. Notably, atop the sacred pyramid a large statue of Tlaloc (god of fertility and water) held a “leather bag full of copal in its left hand.” Beyond the Templo Mayor the multidimensional, magical properties of copal were applied by commoners, farmers, hunters and healers. For example, archaeological evidence shows that deer jaw bones were burned with copal so their spirits could return home and permit another successful hunt, and farmers burned copal offerings to protect their fields.
Copal was thought to both ward off illness and evil spirits as well as treat various ailments. The range of ailments copal was used to remedy was surprising. Various sources list toothaches, bloated stomach, female hemorrhage, poisonous animal bites, blisters, diarrhea and even hiccups. No wonder copal was demanded as tribute—currency funneled from the surrounding regions to the economic and social center of the empire.
The surviving evidence of copal’s role in Mesoamerican society offers priceless insights into the Aztec cosmovision, mythology and ritual practice, but I can’t help reflecting on all that we cannot know because of the destruction of so many Aztec writings. Nevertheless, archaeologists continue to fill in our gaps with artifacts dating back to 1430-1520 CE (known to some as AD). Copal tells an ancient story, but it also tells a story of Indigenous survival, transculturation, and the longue durée of Mexicanidad—which brings us to modern spirituality.
Copal and Chicanx Communities: Commodification and Reclamation
I found that one of the most helpful ways to understand the bridge between ancient and contemporary copal practices is to recognize processes of transculturation. “Transculturation recognizes that although subjugated peoples cannot readily control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what they absorb into their own and what they use it for” (The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures). This term acknowledges the agency and adaptive skills of Indigenous peoples in maintaining a connection to their heritage more than the term “syncretism,” which imagines a more passive role of the colonized.
Much like copal smoke, this type of transculturation is hard to capture. While I join in ceremonies and appreciate the presence of sacred and ancient incense, I wanted a deeper look at how rituals and cosmologies are formed and sustained. In my research I focused on two forms of modern copal use in the United States—commodification and reclamation.
A quick Google search revealed ancient Mayan medicinal benefits advertised with stamps signaling eco-friendly, fair trade options for a modern seeker like me. For less than US$20, Amazon Prime offers free two-day shipping of “Copal Resin Incense for cleaning, meditation, yoga, home aromatherapy.” I quickly felt queasy. The sacred blood of trees was bought and sold as any other commodity—objectified and divorced from its spiritual and physical source. It seemed distinct from the tribute system at Tenochtitlan. In our modern imperial economy precious goods, services and ideas flow to the center. Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory offers a social analysis of a global market that extracts labor and raw materials from the global periphery in order to create wealth for the core countries.
In a world where we have ritualized commodification and capitalism, modern Mexican copaleros harvest copal for an expanding clientele—specifically what religious studies scholar Brett Hendrickson calls the “American spiritual marketplace.” This market operates from colonial consciousness as it objectifies Indigenous peoples and rituals as a “simple, spiritual, and ancient” platform onto which “Anglo settlers project their own future.” The romanticization of Indigenous people ignores the history of violence and colonization while repeating the harm in new packaging.
Hendrickson, along many other scholars, concedes that there is a delicate distinction to be made between those who are reaching into religious traditions and cultural lineages that are not their own and those who are reclaiming a heritage or ritual to which they belong. This is part of a much larger conversation on cultural appropriation and spirituality. Whether yoga, Reiki, Ayahuasca, or copaltemaliztl we must wrestle with acknowledgement and appreciation, appropriation and allowance. While often times this conversation reverts to questions of intensions or authenticity, a better framing might come from a complex power analysis and understanding of the colonial context.
For Regina Marchi, a researcher of media studies and Latino studies, these cultural practices performed by Latinx communities are an act of political protest. For example, Day of the Dead ceremonies become more than spiritual festivals and stand in opposition to “decades of Euro-centric race and class hierarchies.” Marginalized communities, whether diasporic or Indigenous, can enact religious resistance by reclaiming and adapting spiritual practices of ancestors—calling out to the blood and soil that have been the site of colonial violence. This stands in contrast to the gratuitous commodification of trends that are “ethnic chic” or “southwest boho.” Paying attention to issues of extraction and coloniality in the use of copal allows us to envision a pathway for Mexican and Mexican-American people to respectfully burn this incense. How this applies to others outside the Mesoamerican lineage? I can’t say how this might emerge in light of the complexities described, though I imagine it requires careful self-awareness and the exercise of prudence. Perhaps exploring what types of sacred incense or elements are part of our own ancestries can help us deepen our connections with the earth and with one another? I have yet to purchase copal myself, out of a deep concern for the immeasurable consequences of unsustainable consumption in our neocolonial context. This restraint is part of my process of reclamation too.
One resource that has helped me explore reclamation is Voices from the Ancestors: Xicanx and Latinx Spiritual Expressions and Healing Practices, an anthology edited by Lara Medina and Martha R. Gonzalez. The book offers practical ways to guidance on the use of copal in individual and communal ceremonies to connect with the elements and learn about the shamanic worldviews of our ancestors. Some authors provide more straight forward instructions for building an altar, with guidance such as: “burn sage or copal and include the four elements—water, earth, fire, and air—on the altar.” One prayer struck me as a drawing on Indigenous cosmology: “We are blessed with this copal. As the smoke encircles us, we are wrapped in the protection of Mother Earth, Grandmother Moon and Yemayá, the power of the ocean. Remember that we are part of them and that we are equally sacred. May they always illuminate our paths, speak to us through our intuition, wisdom, and discernment, and keep us safe and protected.”
Intertwined with commodification, capitalism and neoliberal extraction is the sacrality of copal in our Chicanx communities. In modern ceremonies, such as the virtual circle I attended this past fall, copal is part of a broader spirituality which seeks to root our religion in remembering ancient stories while branching into the future, carry the wisdom forward.
Copal as Teacher: A Message to the Gods and Ourselves?
From the clay pre-Hispanic sahumador and popoxcomitl to the modern mass-produced incense burner, copal tree resin continues to burn. As the fumigation ritual intrigued Bernal Díaz del Castillo, so it continues to arouse my own curiosity. As a modern student of religion, this research project was an opportunity to deconstruct colonial accounts through creative methodology and to center Indigenous wisdom across time and space. Many questions remain as I consider how to reclaim this sacred element in both my research and in my spirituality.
Certainly, the role of blood has faded in the contemporary application and appreciation of copal. Human sacrifice, as the Aztec practiced it, is no longer permissible. Yet I notice how human sacrifice continues to exist through the brutalities of neocolonial extraction of labor and raw materials. Is it not human sacrifice that plays out in military industrial complex, in immigration and refugee policies at U.S.-Mexico border, and especially in the current Covid-19 pandemic? What would it mean for modern communities to critically engage our own mythology and cosmovision as it relates to human blood? And finally, what of the role of trees? Alongside modern viruses and other issues of human mortality is the real threat of climate change and our gross exploitation of natural resources—including the trees which give us this resin. Perhaps copal can become our teacher.
Copal has been the sacrificial blood of trees, food for the gods, smoke signal to the heavens and both a spiritual and physical medicine. This precious commodity plays its part in dynamic rituals, cultures and cosmovisions—and I’m eager to see where the smoke will take us next. If we carefully follow the fragrance and begin to respect and remember Indigenous ways of existing, copal may nourish human spirits and feed our deities for yet another century.
This cycle is sacred too:
four posts of the earth
channels of divine.
we follow your medicine
you are healer in
We dance as you rise
to warrior stars,
Sacred scent eternal,
With blood and
We return to your scars and ours.
Original poem by Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato
Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato, a first-year master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, was born and raised in Colorado and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rebecca is passionate about decolonial spirituality, particularly through Latinx exploration and reclamation of earth-based ancient practices. She seeks to honor indigenous wisdom through scholarship in Mesoamerican culture and religion.
Personal website: rebeccamendozanunziato.com
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