Ceiba trees and the Mayans

Most cultures will have their important trees. Historically, perhaps more so, as cultures are so diluted today that the only thing worshipped with any ferocity is money and power (a generalisation, yes). An interesting relationship of trees and a culture is that of the ceiba tree and the Mayans (in the Mayan language, the ceiba was called the ‘yaxche‘, which translates to ‘the first [blue-green] tree’), and thus we have to go back a good few thousand years for this factoid.

We must first understand that, back in time, trees were so critically important. They provided food for humans and livestock, shade and protection from the harsh elements of nature, had medicinal properties and were thus used to treat illnesses, and were harvested for their timber, which could be used for construction (or burned as firewood). Therefore, there was a very strong connection between man and trees, and this was the case for the Mayans and the ceiba tree. The ceibas provided food through their edible fruits, of which the fine silk-like thread from the mature fruits could be harvested and spun into cloth, and the seeds crushed to make oil. The species also had wood soft enough to carve into canoes, and, in addition, numerous parts of the tree could be harvested for their medicinal benefits. For example, the leaves of the ceiba could treat skin burns, swellings, and rashes, whilst the bark could heal ulcerations, encourage ‘menstrual flow’ and expel placentas, amongst other more earthly ailments such as treating gonorrhea. The sap was also used as a weight-gainer (quick, someone inform the supplement industry!).

parakeet ceiba fruit
A parakeet feasting upon the fruit of the ceiba. We can also see the silky threads that would have been spun to make cloth. Source: The Internet Bird Collection.

The ceibas were also important for locating water sources. In dry regions, ceibas were found where there was water near to the surface, and therefore their presence indicated that sustaining a human population nearby was at least somewhat feasible. Often, settlements were built around the ceibas, meaning the trees had a particular status, which obviously fostered the relationship they had with the Mayans. Beyond growing in arid regions, their abundant presence in the forest was also a reason for them being so revered – their commonality is probably a factor that allured the Mayans into worshiping the tree. In fact, in forest settings, other trees would be cleared and ceibas retained, sometimes also the younger ones, and settlements were constructed around them.

The Mayans revered the ceibas so much that they made stone carvings of the trees (known as tree stones or stelae). Where these tree stones were placed in temples, they were situated in the central regions atop the pyramid, and around the tree stone would, at times, sit four ceiba trunks. In this sense, the tree stones and surrounding trunks suggested great power and status (in the religious and political sense). Despite this (arguably very masculine) power display, the ceibas were actually considered to be quite feminine. The trees had maternal characteristics, such as how it was seen to care for deceased children by feeding them milk from its fruits, which actually resembled female breasts (in the eyes of the Mayans). The swollen trunk of the ceiba, particularly when growing within the forest, also had similarities to a pregnant woman. Some Mayan groups also claimed to be descendants from the ceiba tree.

There is also cross-over (pardon the pun) with the Mayan view of the ceibas and Christianity. In Mayan culture, the ceiba was sometimes depicted as a cross (usually in a green colour). When the Spanish invaded the Americas many centuries ago, this depiction actually enabled for the ‘easier’ conversion of Mayans to Christianity.

ceiba cross
The ceiba cross, green in colour. Source: Travelblog.

In modern times, whilst the culture has been diluted, ceibas are still respected. Generally only much older trees are revered in modern day, whilst younger ones are ignored. Unfortunately, however, even at times the older trees are ignored. For those communities situated within the lowlands, the ceiba is more respected than it is in the highlands. Despite this, young ceibas are still felled in the lowlands to allow for agricultural practices to take place – an act that may have been hugely frowned upon (or perhaps banned) in historic times. The link with Christianity still exists, too, as the ceiba is linked with the Catholic Church and can therefore be found within the grounds of churches across the land (a bit like yew trees in churchyards across the UK).

Source: Anderson, K. (2003) Nature, culture, & big old trees: live oaks and ceibas in the landscapes of Louisiana and Guatemala. USA: University of Texas Press.

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Ceiba trees and the Mayans

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