Copal is a resin incense used traditionally by Native American groups. It is used to purify a space and is seen as the food of gods by many native groups. The term copal can actually refer to many different resins that are used in various ways.
Copal comprises a wide range of genera and species of trees, all harvested for their aromatic sap. The majority of these species are in the family Burseraceae, a semi-tropical family present around the world that includes the aromatic species myrrh and frankincense, two of the most common Western resin incenses.
The genera Bursera and Protium appear to be particularly common sources of copal, however copal has been produced from as diverse a range of species as pitch pine (Pinus pseudostrobos), species of Euphorbias and many others. One study suggests that the most common forms of copal come from Bursera bipinnata (called copal blanco), Hymenaea courbaril (copal oro), and Protium copal (copal negro), though these identifications are uncertain and the diversity of copal is certainly much greater than these three species alone. This complexity of knowledge is an example of the intricate place based and experiential knowledge in indigenous medicine. What copal is changes based on place, ecology and need.
The primary way in which copal is used is as a purifying incense and an offering to the natural forces or gods. It is burnt during many rituals and ceremonies with the purpose of clearing the rooms of evil and giving an offering to the forces that are being called upon for healing. The copal is often molded into the shape of tortillas or corn cobs to indicate that they are a food of the gods.
This idea of equal exchange is extremely important in many native practices and speaks to the indigenous understanding of reciprocity in nature. The need to create an exchange whenever you ask for or take something from the earth allowed these cultures to live with an understanding of the ecological relationships that exist in nature and the need to be humble rather than aggressive in the face of nature. This intuitive understanding of ecology is integral to native science and medicine.
Copal is primarily seen as a food of the gods and is burnt as incense, however it is also sometimes used medicinally. It has been used orally to treat dysentery, diarrhea and intestinal infections. It has been used topically as a skin treatment and as a poultice for wounds. The copal tree Hymenaea courbaril has also been smoked to treat asthma, as well as being used for the treatment of rheumatism, catarrh, ulcers, and venereal diseases. It has been powdered and mixed with water for the treatment of various internal disorders. It can also be used externally to treat various skin problems.
The glue-like properties of copal have also been used for the treatment of cavities and tooth sores, as well as a general purpose adhesive. The high variety in forms and sources of this substance is likely responsible for its regard as a panacea. Different forms from different plants in different preparations have been used to treat a huge range of illnesses.
Copal is a diverse native medicine that embodies some key elements of Native American medicine. The ideas of place based medicine and healing as an exchange represent some of the unique and beneficial traits of native medicine. Copal’s use throughout ritual practice reveals the importance it holds in native traditions. The lack of information about the complexity and diversity of copal and its uses in Western literature points to the massive loss of cultural knowledge that colonialism has caused.
Case, Ryan J., Arthur O. Tucker, Michael J. Maciarello, and Kraig A. Wheeler. “Chemistry and Ethnobotany of Commercial Incense Copals, Copal Blanco, Copal Oro, and Copal Negro, of North America.” Economic Botany 57, no. 2 (April 1, 2003): 189–202. doi:10.1663/0013-0001(2003)057[0189:CAEOCI]2.0.CO;2.
Stross, Brian. “MESOAMERICAN COPAL RESINS.” University of Texas. Accessed November 2, 2015. https://www.utexas.edu/courses/stross/papers/copal.htm.
Weeks, Andrea, and Beryl B. Simpson. “Molecular Phylogenetic Analysis of Commiphora (Burseraceae) Yields Insight on the Evolution and Historical Biogeography of an ‘impossible’ Genus.” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 42, no. 1 (January 2007): 62–79. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2006.06.015.