Copal - Botany And History

The term 'copal' is a vague one which encompasses two distinct varieties of aromatic resins or gums, long employed by ancient cultures for various esoteric and medicinal purposes. Copal was, and still is an integral part of the spirituality of a number of Mesoamerican First Peoples, and to this day plays an integral role in various industrial and a handful of medicinal applications. There are generally two distinct varieties of copal, although this specific substance is unique in that, unlike myrrh and frankincense (to which it is strongly associated with and often employed as) which are produced by a specific species of resinous trees expressly grown and harvested for their resin, copal is produced by any number of different resinous plants outside of the genera where frankincense and myrrh belong to.

In the broadest possible sense, copal is any resinous substance which is obtained from trees outside of Boswellia sacra (from where frankincense is derived), and Commiphora myrrha (from where myrrh is derived) and is employed as incense. In the strictest sense of the word, copal is any resin derived from any tree from the genus Agathis. Copal, either ones derived from any other resinous tree, or those obtained from the genus Agathis come in two distinct varieties - the tapped, 'fresh' copal, which is not 'true' copal, and fossilised resin - the latter being true copal in the strictest sense. [1]

The harvesting of both false and true copal is as distinct as the two differing substances. The former, false copal, is generally harvested much like any resinous sap employed for fumigation. The trees which produce the resins are tapped or scarred in order to elicit the natural production of resins, which are then allowed to dry and 'scab over' the injury. After it has sufficiently dried to the point of being solid or semi-solid, it is then harvested by hand, most often using picking tools which chip away at the point of contact until a moderately-sized to semi-large chunk of the solidified resin is removed. This is then air-dried in racks or allowed to mature (that is, to sufficiently solidify) under shade for some weeks to up to five whole months for some stickier examples, and it is then either ground up or pulverised into small granules and packed for shipment in large burlap or cotton bags, if not packaged in tiny sachets for immediate sale. [2] False copal tends to vary in colour, with some examples being a dull yellow (somewhat akin to myrrh), while some others border on a dull black, with an almost mud-like quality. White 'copal' also exists, but it is usually found bonded to the darker varieties. White 'copal' un-bonded to the darker kind is not truly 'white' in the literal sense of the word, but veers between very pale yellow to a darker amber-like hue, with a profuse dusting of white particles which are in and of themselves a natural occurrence (it being no more than highly pulverised particles of the larger body). A very popular variety of white 'copal' is called dammar gum - a resin which is extracted from the Agathis dammara and from several species of trees under the family Dipterocarpaceae. It is commonly obtained in several parts of India and East Asia, and is typified by its semi-opaque, pale-yellow appearance replete with a liberal dusting of white particles. It is strongly popular in Malaysia and Indonesia, where it comes in two distinct varieties, batu (lit. 'stone') and mata kucing (lit. 'cat's eye'). [3] The latter is dammar which is collected off the ground, and can vary between semi-round to a rough pebble-like shape, with inclusions of soil (generally brushed off in the higher varieties prior to sale), and may or may not be of the fossilised or sub-fossilised variety (those that do not meet the criterion of either fossilised or sub-fossilised resin are not 'true' copal); the latter being tapped varieties of the resin which is shaped by hand into round balls and allowed to 'age' in order to solidify into a crystalline state.

True copal is obtained from fossilised or sub-fossilised resin, and is mined in the literal sense of the word instead of tapped. While any resin which has undergone a minimum of ten thousand to a maximum of fifty thousand years of compression and eventual fossilisation can be considered true copal, there are distinct species of plants known for the profuse number of its fossilised resinous remains that are mined to this very day and referred to as true copal. In the nomenclature game of copal procurement, only the most discerning of individuals would really care whether a resin marked as copal is true or false, but as a general rule of thumb, with regards to true copal, it is often classified and graded via the specie from which it originated, by the length of time it has been fossilised, and by the country from which it was sourced. True copal comes in two distinct varieties - unpolished or 'raw' copal, and polished copal. The latter, which strongly resembles amber and can even be mistaken for such by the untrained eye, is sold as just that - 'young amber' - and in its highly polished state is it almost identical to true amber, being possessed of a number of inclusions often in the form of tiny insects and leaves, albeit 'young amber' is not as hard or as resilient as true amber, and a thin layer of the material can be readily dissolved using a drop of chloroform or acetone, leaving a thin, filmy, slightly sticky residue. 'Young amber' is also possessed of a far lighter hue than true amber, generally of a paler yellow. True amber exudes an aroma similar to musk when in its dry state, and only exudes a distinctive pine-like scent when burnt. 'Young amber' possesses a strongly pine-like scent even in its unburnt state, and, unlike true amber which looks like solid stone in its unpolished form, 'young amber' looks very much like chunks of frankincense. In terms of age, copal is by far younger than amber, and begins to solidify within fifty to a hundred thousand years, while true amber's age numbers the tens to even sixty-plus millions.

Because amber tends to be more expensive due to its age and rarity, true copal is often used in its stead, with most individuals none the wiser for it. When sold as young amber, it is priced at a generally lower rate that true amber, although some charlatans do try to pass it off to unsuspecting individuals as true amber. Depending on the size, uniformity of shape, and the brilliance of true copal, it can fetch minimal to somewhat hefty sums of money, especially if sold to the untrained and gullible individual.

In several parts of Australia as well as a large part of New Zealand, true copal is often referred to as 'kauri gum', although false copal can also be referred to by that name. Kauri gum is the fossilised or sub-fossilised resin of tree species belonging to the genus Agathis, a large evergreen tree once belonging to the ancient Araucariaceae family of conifers which are a remnant of the late Jurassic period. Kauri gum has long been employed by the Aborigines of Australia and by the Maori of New Zealand as a type of ornamental stone similar to amber, although it also fulfilled similar role to frankincense and myrrh. True copal (which went by the name of pom in various Mayan dialects and copalli in Nahuatl) also played a very strong role in Mesoamerican culture and spirituality. Kauri gum is mined by individuals called 'gum-diggers' in what is known as gumfields - stretches of land which are known to secret layers upon layers or sub-fossilised gum. In the old days, kauri gum could be picked up from the mere surface gumfields, but as the industry grew and the demand for the gum became a downright commodity, people have had to dig or 'mine' for gum, which often measure anywhere from a foot long, to a few metres in length. These were unearthed and generally broken up into more portable pieces, which are then sold to buyers. Gum-digging in Australia and in several other areas once formerly under British rule has a long and colourful history. [4]

Copal - Herbal Uses

Copal has been used for a variety of different applications in various cultures throughout the world, although areas known to have concentrated or regular usage, the material being available in East Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, a small part of Europe, Australia, India, and Central America. Copal plays a very important role in the spirituality and religion of the Mayans, as well as a number of other Mesoamerican First Peoples. It is employed most commonly as a fumigating agent (incense) as well as a medicinal compound.

In Australia and New Zealand, where true copal is referred to as 'kauri gum' the hard material (which is often mined by gum-diggers) is employed as incense, raw material for jewellery, and as a medium for indigenous art which often takes on the form of simple to ornate carvings. Interestingly, the carving of copal is not althogether unique amongst the Maori and the Aborigines of New Zealand and Australia. Similar practices exist in a number of First Peoples Nations, especially in the society of the Mayans and the Aztec, where solid pieces of copal were carved to resemble corns of maize or the faces of deities. A uniform use of both true and false copal as an offertory item exists cross-culturally, and to this day, both true and false copal are still employed as incense as an alternative to, or in accompaniment with the more expensive (and strongly similar) frankincense resin.

The industrial employment of both true and false copal came to its zenith well into the height of the Victorian Era, with a few remnants of such employ remaining to this day. Both true and false copal were once strongly employed as raw material for the creation of high-end varnishes. Depending upon the variety of copal employed (true or false) dictated the fineness of the varnish. True copal chunks were often diluted with linseed oil and employed as a varnish for decorative inlays, violins and other stringed instruments, and as a general preservative for all sorts of woodwork, and even as a fixing varnish for daguerreotypes. Like shellac, copal-based varnishes create a wonderful semi-waterproof gloss that is highly reflective, and provides wood a wonderful deepening of hue, making the grain of it all the more visible and visually appealing. Both true and false copal is still employed today in most high-end oil-based varnishes, and can usually be found in expensive veneer woodwork. The true height of copal's use in the West came about during the time when carriages and steam locomotives were still the primary means of transportation, as it was the preferred varnish for such modes of transport, both for its unparalleled gloss and sheen as well as for the lasting durability that it imparts to wood. [5]

True copal is not without its semi-edible uses, as many tribal cultures have employed it as a sort of chewing gum, combined with the essence or juices of other plants. The Maori and the Aborigines of Australia in particular has employed true copal in just such a manner, combined with the juices extracted from thistles or mashed berries. In Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, true and false copal is employed as a fire-starter due to its highly flammable nature. Pieces of dried wood were often soaked in a solution of oil and copal powder, it being employed for kindling. When bound in flax, rags, or cotton-wool, it makes for an excellent torch. In time, the gum would crust over the combustible material, creating a lasting torch that could be lit easily even after years of prolonged storage.

When it is mixed with animal fat and ashes, true copal (and sometimes, even false copal) has even been employed by a number of tribal peoples as an early type of tattooing pigment - most commonly demonstrated by the Maori's employment of the gum for just such a purpose in their traditional tattooing art of ta-moko, and in the Filipino tattooing art of pik-pik and batok.

The medical usage of copal (both true and false) is rarely explored in modern alternative medicine, although remnants of tribal societies and post-modern neo-shamanic practices nevertheless continue to employ copal gum medicinally. When chewed as a type of chewing gum, true copal can help to relieve halitosis, toothaches, mouth sores, and even gingivitis. [6] The mastication of copal gum is even prescribed in some tribal societies as a remedy for whooping cough, often when combined with decongestant herbs, although because of its relative hardness prior to having been fully masticated and for its slightly tangy-spicy flavour, it is not favoured by young individuals, especially children. True copal possesses powerful antimicrobial and antibacterial properties that act as an excellent vulnerary and analgesic. When diluted in oil, both true and false copal can be employed as a topical analgesic for the treatment of various skin disorders of either bacterial or fungal nature. Applied to joints, it has long been employed by tribal societies as a remedy for arthritis, rheumatism, gout, and general aches and pains. True copal is said to be 'dry and hot', making it an excellent topical analgesic for individuals who suffer from rheumatism and arthritis. [7] Due to its potent vulnerary (wound-healing) properties, it has even been employed by some tribes to help treat and disinfect open wounds which would otherwise have been fatal if treated with some other substance. There is reason to suggest that the gummy nature of white copal (which is stickier than yellow copal) may even have been used to 'sew' or bind open wounds to prevent blood-loss and allay the onset of sepsis and eventual infection. Folkloric use of copal as a fumigating agent also suggests a possible decongestant employment for the gum, as it was often given to individuals who suffer from nasal congestion, colds, bronchitis or asthma. Unlike myrrh and frankincense which may trigger an asthma attack if employed as a decongestant in highly sensitive individuals, copal, particularly true copal, is relatively safe and triggers no such reactions. [8] Ground false or true copal may have, at one time, even been employed as type of binder or glue. In most period Mesoamerican structures that remain to this day, there is evidence to suggest that it may have even been employed as a type of mortar.

The aroma of burnt copal is said to not only fortify and invigorate the body, but also soothe the mind and relieve symptoms of anxiety, stress, and even depression. There is however no essential oils derived from the distillation of copal, and the practice of distilling its essence is not commonplace, so all aromatherapeutic applications for it subside in its being employed as an incense.

Copal - Esoteric Uses

Both true and false copal's greatest and perhaps most prolific employment remains in the field of the esoteric, where it has been employed since time immemorial as an offertory incense and deistic tribute. The Mayas, Aztecs, and other neighbouring First Peoples Nations have long-employed copal as an incense for their deities, even so far as shaping the easily-carved substance into ears of maize and other shapes considered sacred by their society and religion. The Plains Native Americans such as the Sioux and the Apache used to trade other goods such as spear points for copal, which was used extensively and exclusively in sweat lodge rituals. Both true and false copal (tribal societies of the time placed no true distinction or importance in the distinction of either) were believed to be the 'food of the gods' just as maize was considered the food of humans. With the later influx of Christian-oriented belief-systems, the practice of using copal for rituals remained, albeit it was integrated into Church services, were it played the role of frankincense, then a highly expensive and almost impossible-to-procure commodity for the growing Churches in the New World. [9]

Because Christian-oriented belief systems employ incense not only as an offertory item for their god, but also believe it to be placating substance for the spirits of the deceased, it purpose then hybridised with the remnants of animalistic culture and, to this day, both true and false copal are strongly employed in the Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, particularly in Mexico and its neighbouring areas as a means to 'ferry the dead and direct them' to the afterlife as well as to placate the troubled and restless dead. This may suggest that copal can be employed for exorcism rites and rituals, although, the Catholic Rite, being exacting, always calls for frankincense for such rituals. This does not preclude the possibility that the hybridised tribal-Christian religion that arose after the Spanish Conquest would not prescribe its use for just such purposes, as remnants of tribal societies that exist to this day employ copal for banishing, smudging, cleansing, and exorcism. [10]

The ancients also carved true copal into an assortment of shapes to be worn as accessories, but these generally possessed an esoteric or magickal meaning, and can be understood from an anthropological perspective as serving the role of talismans or amulets more than just mere accessories. Most modern magickal practices associate copal jewellery with its capacity to promote healing, the balancing of all the chakras, increasing fertility and virility, and the dispelling of negative energies. Some schools of thought lump copal with the same metaphysical properties as amber, which is said to provide protection, healing, cleansing, and enhance fertility.

Copal - Contraindications And Safety

While true copal is considered relatively safe for topical and oral applications, the ingestion of true copal is not advised. Some individuals may be allergic to the volatile compounds found in both true and false copal, so patch-testing prior to first-time topical employment is advised. Because both true and false copal are not in any way cleaned after harvested (save for a quick wash in jets of water), they can harbour pathogens that originate from the earth, although it may be countered by its natural antimicrobial properties. Nevertheless, a thorough washing true and false copal prior to medicinal employment is advised. When used for oral applications, only true copal can be considered relatively safe, and it is not advised that one employ false copal as a natural chewing gum, nor is it advisable to apply false copal to open wounds. Both true and false copal have been used by a number of tribal societies as an emmenagogue, and so the liberal topical employment of products containing it is discouraged for pregnant women, albeit its aromatherapeutic purposes is deemed safe.

Copal - Other Names, Past and Present

Various Mayan languages: pom (lit. 'incense')
Nahuatl (attributed): copalli (lit. 'incese')
Maori: kapia (commonly referred to as kauri gum)
Malay / Malayalam: mata kucing (lit. 'cat's eye') / batu (lit. 'stone') / dammar (lit. 'stone-resin') [the former two are names for grades of copal, and are marketed specifically as 'dammar gum']
Spanish: copalli (pronounced koh-pal-yee, derived from the Nahuatl tongue) / copalli oro (lit. 'gold copal') / copalli rojo (lit. 'red copal') / copalli blanco / puro (lit. 'white / pure copal) [the latter three being copal grades, measured by colour, red and white being the most fragrant and perhaps most prized, yellow being more commonplace]
English: copal / white copal / gold copal / kauri gum / dammar gum
Latin (scientific nomenclature): several species of resinous trees, although commonly Agathis australis (kauri) / Agathis dammara, Agathis philippinensis (dammar gum) / Hymenaea courbaril, Hymenaea verrucosa (copal-proper)










Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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