The first ceiba I ever knew was the one that stands watch over and shades La Ceiba Gráfica in the hacienda in La Orduña where we sometimes study printmaking and where I take tai chi on the upper veranda.
It is giant mothering tree, sheltering all manner of living things on its trunk and in its branches.
I thought this must be a rare tree, so magnificent is it. The ceiba is, in Maya cosmology, the axis of the world, the center of the cosmos, the channel of communication between the world of people and the world of the gods. Or maybe one could say the ceiba is the place of union between the human and the universal. Scholars also say the ceiba, the tree of life, connects the sky above with the water below.
There were people, precursors of the Maya, who thrived in an area of Chiapas called Izapa from around 600 BCE to aroundd 150 CE. They populated their space with temples and palaces and especially monumental carved stones, one of which seems to record a creation myth with the ceiba at the center.
Some scholars think in this creation scene, we see humans being pulled, not yet completely formed, from a hole in the left side of the tree's trunk. The task of the other figures is to complete them.
Here is a Mayan illustration of the ceiba tree at the center of the earth.
There are other Maya beliefs about the ceiba, including that it is actually their place of origin and the source of the abundance of their resources and of the protection of the gods. Some Maya believe that their ancestors and gods and other supernatural beings live in the ceiba.
Maya religion is not easy for me to grasp: it really does feel like looking through a glass darkly. I think, generally speaking, that the Maya understand themselves to e much more a part of nature than we do; that they are not so distinct from animals and plants...and that essences of living things are much more fluid. I think the Maya did not see such strong boundaries between what might be called heaven and earth, or between the supernatural and the natural as we do.
The Maya believe that the gods created humans to praise them, and the gods haven't yet gotten us humans right: they destroyed the first three versions of us as failures. The present version, of which we are a part, is also thought not to be so great, and it is expected that in the not so distant future, they will destroy us and replace us with something better.
The Maya, by the way, were and are certainly not confined to Mexico. They are indigenous in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as well as the Mexican states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo.
I was surprised to find that ceiba trees, specifically Ceiba pentanda, known locally as pochote among other things, are quite common. One would think such majestic creations, apparently capable of growing as tall as forty meters, would not be. Fittingly, in Maya areas they often shade marketplaces and other community spots. Here we often see them standing alone, animals resting under them in the heat of the day, as we have.
Here is a ceiba on our walk through cattle pastures not far from where we live.
And here is a picture of its trunk and the life it supports.
Ceibas have economic value. From their seeds comes kapok for insulating clothes and making pillows and the like. The wood can be used for such mundane things as plywood, packaging, light construction and pulp and paper products. It can also be used for canoes and rafts. Ceibas are good for reforestation. And ceibas are important in Cuba, too. Maybe another post for my growing Cuba section!
May you all some day have the pleasure of resting under a ceiba!