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The Ceiba, the Mayan sacred tree

Posted: 2010-12-09

The ceiba, a giant tree symbol of life, longevity, greatness, beauty, strength and union, entered the divine world on precolonial times when it was considered sacred by the natives who used to celebrate their rituals under its shadow. For ancient mayans, the ceiba represented the communication between the heavens and the underworld. Mayan people of today also respect it as a synonym of wisdom and resistance.

Una antigua ceiba

It also portrayed the foundation of the universe, with experts saying that this belief comes from the thought that the ceiba’s branches are close to the heavens, the trunk in our world and roots in the underworld. Other mayan cosmologists said that the ceiba opens its major branches towards the four cardinal points, aligning itself with the gods who rule the winds and rains. As taught by the legends, its roots are said to divide in the underworld where spirits lie, also determining the destiny of the physical world.
In Cuba, there is a monument called El Templete, built in 1828 where the first mass and the first cabildo was supposed to take place in 1519 in La Habana. Near the Templete there is a ceiba linked with the tradition that every 15th of november at midnight on the evening of La Habana’s anniversary, people walk around the tree three times and ask for a wish.
Beliefs aside, the Ceiba Pentadra Gaertin as its scientific name says, is one of the greatest trees in tropical America, where these species of trees can reach 50 or more meters high, having its trunk and foliage span all over 1600 square meters.

La flor de la ceiba

The ceiba’s fruit produces a type of cotton called “kapoc”, used in the world mainly for life saving jackets for its properties. Also, its seed is used in the production of consumable oil and soaps. The ceiba’s fiber is short, smooth, elastic, and does not cause any allergic reaction, thus it is used for filling pillows, cushions and bed mats. For its lack of nutritive substances, it lacks parasites and thanks to its flammability, it is used in pyrotechnic pieces.

All these facts support the mayan wisdom to catalog the ceiba as a sacred tree.