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Ceiba: The tree that connected the Mayas with the heavens

The ceiba tree was sacred to the Maya people, for everything in it represented life itself and the connection of the three worlds.

Ancestral civilizations lived in complete harmony with nature, from China to the Amazon. It has been proven that indigenous peoples have taken care of Mother Earth for millennia. Pre-Hispanic cultures were no exception, and proof of this is the chinampas systems developed by the Mexica. The Mayas also saw in nature the sacredness of life and took the ceiba tree as the divine being that communicated with heaven and the underworld.

The connection between the three worlds

The Mayan cosmovision is not only based on gods but also included flora and fauna in their understanding of reality. For the Maya, some animals and plants were endowed with divine powers that played an important role in their culture. This is the case of the ceiba tree, which for them was the sacred tree representing life itself.

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The whole constitution of the ceiba was loaded with important symbolisms for the Mayan culture. Its branches represented the sky because of its large size that embraced the heights, while the trunk alluded to the earthly plane, and finally, its roots go beyond 20 meters deep, weaving the underworld.

In this sense, the ceiba was the sacred entity that symbolized the completeness of reality because it connected, and therefore communicated, the three levels of the Maya cosmogony. The branches that extend gracefully towards the sky, open towards the four cardinal points, joining with the divinities in charge of controlling the rains and the winds, which, in turn, marked the courses of the physical world.

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As far as archaeologists have been able to glimpse, there is no special glyph for the ceiba. However, in some Maya vestiges, the word Yaxhe has been found written as a reference to ‘green tree,’ so some researchers believe that this is the term used for the ceiba.

The tallest tree of all

The Mayan belief that the branches of the ceiba tree point to the four cardinal points is no coincidence. The ceiba is, in fact, one of the largest trees in all of tropical America. The average specimens reach 20 to 40 meters, but ceiba trees up to 70 meters tall have been found.

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The sacred Mayan tree, whose scientific name is Ceiba pentandra (L.) Gaertn has actinomorphic flowers with whitish petals that are also close to pink. Its flowering season is from December to March and, after the flowers reach maturity, fruits appear in the form of oblong or elliptical capsules that are responsible for spreading the seeds.

It is found throughout most of Mexico, as well as in Central America and other countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Ecuador. It grows easily in different types of soils, from humid to sandy, although it requires tropical climates to survive.

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Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera

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