Copal, a gum-resin obtained from the hymenaea tree, was to the people of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica what frankincense was to the East: an ambered, crystallized substance whose scent, when used as an incense in Aztec and Mayan ceremonies (as ‘food’ for the deities) induced feelings of transcendance, succour, and religious connection.



I have read about copal before, and like any other scent maniac worth his salt, I find perfume ingredients, raw materials with exotic names (especially ones that I have never smelled) quite mesmerizing. ‘Copal’………. it resonates. Part jewel, part metal, part unknowable unguent; what, we wonder, could it smell like?



Yesterday at an import shop in Tsujido, one train stop from where I work, to my surprised delight I came across a packet of incense that I had never seen: COPAL by VIRGEN DE FATIMA, MEXICO. The heart leapt at the sight, though I immediately checked myself, assuming that surely it couldn’t possibly be as interesting as it sounded and looked (and, wrapped up and unopened, it was impossible to sample). I of course bought it anyway, and last night when I got home late after an extremly exhausting evening of teaching in Yokohama, I burned, quite intrigued, one stick of the grey, powdering incense in the entrance, as Duncan slept upstairs.




The great similarities with frankincense were immediately apparent (and how fascinating that on other sides of the world, completely unconscious of each others’ identities, even existences, different cultures would hone in on a natural substance that has such an involved method of agriculture; wounding the tree to collect the ‘tears’ and exudations, drying it, and using it in religious ceremonies. How wonderful that this non-coincidence truly suggests that there is something inherently spiritual about frankincense and copal, no matter what the religion).



If you had asked me to identify the odour as the stick was lit I would have immediately said that it was of course frankincense….the plumes of thick, spectral smoke were just like those from a censer: pure, Catholic incense, undoubtedly frankincensian ( a smell I adore ), perhaps less bitter, perhaps a touch more mellow, but most definitely a direct, if chaste, kissing cousin.




I have written before about how I have burned Somalian frankincense in the house, and how the neighbours have complained (and who can blame them). Though strangely satisfying – the intense, pyromaniacal lighting of the corner of a piece of solidified frankincense resin with a lighter, waiting for it to catch fire, glow and begin to give off ghosts – it is in fact a painstaking and time-consuming process that can lead to singed fingertips, lots of used up lighters and matches, and vales of intensely black, acrid smoke that are not entirely what you were looking for (for what you are looking for in fact is the moment just after the resin has caught fire and you let it linger just for just enough minutes before blowing it out: that moment when the smouldering, golden coal gives off wisps of delicious, pure frankincense).








This new find, this copal, will solve all my boswellian dilemmas. I have just burned a full stick of the incense, this fine spring morning, and it is perfect. Very similar to the haunting smell we are all so familiar with, frankincense, just a touch softer perhaps, more animalic and benzoiny somewhere in its middle and heart.














It has taken me back.































In 2007 Duncan and I went to Mexico. We stayed in the capital for a few days, wandering around in a trance, went to the strange and surreal silver mining hillside town of Taxco, then travelled down to Guadalajara (for a friend’s wedding), before coming back to Mexico City via the university town of Morelia. It was an interesting holiday, intensely stimulating, even if the food didn’t agree with us at all (Duncan eventually stopped eating completely, as you can see from the pictures). It was an entirely new experience, though, and in many ways quite thrilling. I discovered, at the very worst time, that I suffer from vertigo when trying to ascend the Piramide Del Sol at Teotihuacan……. discovered an embarrassingly sentimental side to my possibly Japanized nature when I kept bursting into tears every time a mariachi band started playing one of those emotive, heartfelt songs near our restaurant table or on the street; and I was constantly fascinated by the churches, the roadside altars, the bloodish, voodoo-laced phantasmagoria (Alexandro Jodorowsky, creator of El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, is one of my favourite films directors, so I was basically in heaven).


















































Those cathedrals…….. with the flowers, the icons, the incense – which I had assumed was frankincense, hanging in the corners of the cool, interior atmosphere – but which I now realize, geographically and economically, was far more likely to have been copal. And this morning, with that smoke lingering anonymously but tenaciously in the rafters, my house smells the same. Strangely transformed, like the atrium of a cathedral.










































































Actually, while we are (kind of) on the subject, trawling through some of Duncan’s facebook albums (hence the graininess here of these Mexico photos- I had to take them off the screen), I have just come across some more photos vaguely connected to this theme, of a fantastic evening we had at the Italian Institute in Tokyo, where Duncan won second prize in the costume competition as a bishop on a skateboard (inspired directly by the ecclesiastical fashion show in Fellini’s Roma). It was utterly brilliant, that costume, assembled in a week entirely from bits and bobs from the 100 yen shop, pieces of lace and plastic, and then just at the very last minute, the skateboard, which a friend called him up excitedly to say that she had found in a recycle shop.










































He was waiting in the wings, an irreligious prankster.




I pressed play.




And when the soundtrack began, to the delight of the audience, his eminence skateboarded in, a whirling pope, going round and round them in circles as they clapped and cheered.



Surreal. I loved it.






Filed under Flowers

24 responses to “Instant cathedrals….. INCIENSO ARTESANAL COPAL, VIRGEN DE FATIMA

  1. I’m picturing people bursting into tears each time a Mariachi band pops up… 😀

    • Only me…

      Duncan had no patience for it at the end …. ” oh for GOD’s SAke pull yourself toGETHER !!! “, though by the end I thought that if I heard another trumpet I would slit my own

      I literally did keep crying, though, and I am usually not the type.

  2. What wonderful fun to read, and I wish that I had been invited to your party! I love copal (I like to burn the pure lumps on little rounds of charcoal) and at our annual Day of the Dead parade it is burned in huge quantities. Heaven! I long for a perfume that captures it. There are a couple of copal perfumes, but they are faint and wimpy to my nose. I want great clouds of it.

  3. Incense always conjures up images of cathedrals to me. I thought Duncan’s dressing up as a bishop on a skateboard was hilarious! 🙂

  4. Lilybelle

    I’ve always wondered about copal! I used to like to read and fantasize about all those exotic substances – still do. Yesterday I bought some frankincense & myrrh bath salts and soap (from Whole Foods grocery store) and I’m looking forward to a good soak with that. It smells wonderful. As usual, your images are wonderful. I could hug you for crying at the mariachi bands. I like knowing that about you. It’s very endearing. I completely understand, and had I been there with you I would have joined in. 🙂 I visited Guadalajara and San Miguel de Allende in the early 90s. I loved it.

  5. Veritas

    Love the pictures! and I hope you force fed Duncan upon your return to Japan!

  6. K.C.

    To those wanting a copal-based fragrance…I will let you in on a secret I found stumbling through the back of an issue of Bust magazine a few years ago. A company by the name of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab does a copalesque oil-based scent called “El Dorado”. So far, besides Amarige (a scent I do not wear but which I find breathtaking), El Dorado is my favorite scent on myself. It is rich and dark and lingering and esoteric and just gorgeous. The company does a lot of interestingly named novelty scents, many of which I’ve sampled and have no inclination towards. El Dorado resonates with me…I just thought I’d share!

    • I have only just seen this comment ( I know I miss so many, and fail to reply, which is why I have lost people on here, because of my manners and flitting attention span), but how hilarious: Amarige/ Copal. Such an intense contradiction.

  7. Stoking the fires of my fangirl love for your writing and photos!

    In Vancouver at New Age shops we can buy all sorts of resin chunks to smoulder (and the charcoal bases to facilitate the process; easier on the fingers than a lighter!) including frankincense, myrrh, Sumatran benzoin, peru balsam, local fir sap, amber, labdanum and styrax, and the copals — white, gold and especially the black Mayan – are among of my faves. I’ve bought those same copal sticks at a Mexican store here and find them nice and easy to use. Glad you found them. I fell in love with the scented air of a local Ethiopian restaurant and the owner was kind enough to give me a handful of the resin blend he uses. Not sure what it was; it wasn’t the usual black Ethiopian resin blend that’s out there.

    I find the easiest way to smoulder resins is on top of one of the burners on my electric stove. A little chunk or two in an empty foil tea light cup set over the burner on low-to-medium heat, easily adjusted depending on the resin, does the trick quickly and safely.

    I did find a copal perfume oil once in a small shop and still have a part-full bottle. It’s at Ric’s so I can’t confirm where it is from at the moment. It smells beautiful. It’s simple, though, and doesn’t project or last long. It was $30 CAD, about 2600 yen, for about half an ounce.

    I know this may be off-topic, but I really like burning the infused Saudi bakhour wood chips. You might like them too. Not sure if they’re available in Japan but certainly in England.

    I find your mariachi-driven teariness sweet.

    • The mariachi thing got out of hand though, after a while. I am a person who very rarely cries – except through sheer aesthetic pleasure : I usually shed tears of melancholic joy- unless something truly traumatic and upsetting has happened. Here, though, I was like floodgates. And it got to the point where Duncan was getting exasperated and sending me packing to the toilet to ‘get a hold of myself’. I don’t know what it was: maybe some kind of maudlin paternal masculinity that pricked me in some way, or just the sheer natural outflow of emotion after living so long in such an emotionally controlled place… any case, after two weeks of it I felt that I would scream if I ever hear a trumpet again, and I practically kissed the ground when I got back for the food after eating all that fried up stodge that was SO WRONG for our personal guts.

      As for the incense and resins and balms you describe, all I can say is that I am extremely jealous. Nothing like that available here…..

      (and let me know the second you light your first Japanese incense stick or coil: I am dying to know your reactions)

      • Japanese cuisine and Mexican cuisine: can’t think of two more fundamentally different food cultures. I’m sure your stomachs calmed down once you got away from all that boiling pig lard.

        I’ve wondered what effect traditional Japanese music has on your tear ducts. I haven’t been exposed to much more than the pseudo stuff (where guys like John Williams compose soundtracks for Memoirs of a Geisha et al). Sometimes that can move me to tears, possibly because at the core it expresses emotion in a way the western ear can respond to quite naturally. I don’t know enough about it.

        I’m sure when you and Duncan visit your families you can find an English head shop for fancy resins. I’ve never been, but in my Canadian’s fantasy world (yes, I saw the Amy Winehouse documentary!!!) Camden is crawling with them.

        I look at the Landmark shipping website every day to watch the progress of my precious package of Japanese incense northwards . . .

      • I really like traditional Japanese music,

  8. Thanks for reposting this, I really enjoyed it as I have been going to Mexico since I was 6 years old as my parents are drastically archeologically oriented. It’s fun to read about other’s impressions.

    I adore the smokey copal infused intensity of the churches. In fact, I think I smelled copal before frankincense. Great commonality you find between the two. I miss the the old copal. Big weird chunky disc things wrapped in a sort of bark. I’d see it being sold on the streets and in markets so readily. Seems harder to find now. I bought some once and it lasted forever! Did you see that anywhere?

    I know what you mean about the food. It’s so hard to get anything without tortilla… Or beans… Though I do love the seafood and mole…

  9. I missed this post the first time round. So fascinating I had no knowledge of Copal whatsoever. And the photographs!! so powerfully evocative and kind of haunting, utter aesthetic bliss, the graininess only adds to the sense of being another time and place. And mole? really?

    • Have you tried it? I am a chocolate lover to the max as you know, but in a savory, oily context with spices and chicken I just found it nauseating. I tried it twice in two different places- Duncan felt the same. Our stomachs were a MESS. Not the usual thing that happens on holidays but the opposite. You could see it in my bloated, bilious face. Even the SALADS felt somehow heavy. We were dying.

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