Ceiba pentandra: The Sacred Tree of the Maya

Connecting the Upper, Middle, and Lower Maya Realms

The Ceiba tree (Ceiba pentandra and also known as the kapok or silk-cotton tree) is a tropical tree native to North and South America and Africa. In Central America, the ceiba had great symbolic importance to the ancient Maya, and its name in the Mayan language is Yax Che (“Green Tree” or “First Tree”).

Three Environments of the Kapok

Ceiba Tree at Caracol, Belize
Ceiba Tree at the Maya site of Caracol, Chiquibul Forest, Cayo District, Belize. Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet / Getty Images

The ceiba has a thick, buttressed trunk with a high canopy that can grow up to 70 meters (230 feet) in height. Three versions of the tree are found on our planet: that grown in tropical rainforests is a massive tree with spiny thorns protruding from its trunk. A second form grows in West African savannas, and it is a smaller tree with a smooth trunk. The third form is deliberately cultivated, with low branches and a smooth trunk. Its fruits are harvested for their kapok fibers, used to stuff mattresses, pillows and life preservers: it is the tree that envelops some of the buildings of Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

The version cherished by the Maya is the rainforest version, which colonizes riverbanks and grows in several rainforest habitats. It grows rapidly as a young tree, between to 2-4 m (6.5-13 ft) each year. Its trunk is up to 3 m (10 ft) wide and it has no lower branches: instead, the branches are bunched at the top with an umbrella-like canopy. The ceiba's fruits contain large quantities of cottony kapok fibers which entangle the small seeds and transport them through wind and water. During its flowering period, the ceiba attracts bats and moths to its nectar, with nectar production in excess of 10 liters (2 gallons) per tree per night and an estimated 200 L (45 GAL) per flowing season.

The World Tree in Maya Mythology

Maya World Tree, Reproduction of the Madrid Codex
Reproduction of the World Tree pages in the Madrid Codex (Tro-Cortesianus), in the Museo de América in Madrid. Simon Burchell

The ceiba was the most sacred tree for the ancient Maya, and according to Maya mythology, it was the symbol of the universe. The tree signified a route of communication between the three levels of earth. Its roots were said to reach down into the underworld, its trunk represented the middle world where the humans live, and its canopy of branches arched high in the sky symbolized the upper world and the thirteen levels in which the Maya heaven was divided.

According to the Maya, the world is a quincunx, consisting of four directional quadrants and a central space corresponding to the fifth direction. Colors associated with the quincunx are red in the east, white in the north, black in the west, yellow in the south, and green in the center.

Versions of the World Tree

Although the concept of a world tree dates at least as old as Olmec times, the images of the Maya World Tree range in time from the Late Preclassic San Bartolo murals (first century BCE) to the fourteenth century through early 16th century Late Postclassic Maya codices. The images often have hieroglyphic captions that link them to particular quadrants and specific deities. 

The best known post-classic versions are from the Madrid Codex (pp 75-76) and the Dresden Codex (p.3a). The highly stylized image above is from the Madrid Codex, and scholars have suggested that it represents an architectural feature meant to symbolize a tree. The two deities illustrated beneath it are Chak Chel on the left and Itzamna on the right, the creator couple of the Yucatec M​aya. The Dresden codex illustrates a tree growing from the chest of a sacrificial victim.

Other images of the World Tree are at the Temples of the Cross and Foliated Cross at Palenque: but they don't have the massive trunks or thorns of the ceiba.

Sources and Further Reading

Looking along a Kapok Tree into the Canopy
Looking along a Kapok Tree into the Canopy; Tel Aviv, Israel. Getty Images / Kolderol

The ceiba's seeds are non-edible, but they produce a large quantity of oil, with an average yield of 1280 kilograms/hectare annually. They are being considered as a potential biofuel source.

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Ceiba pentandra: The Sacred Tree of the Maya." ThoughtCo, Dec. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/ceiba-pentandra-sacred-tree-maya-171615. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2017, December 26). Ceiba pentandra: The Sacred Tree of the Maya. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ceiba-pentandra-sacred-tree-maya-171615 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Ceiba pentandra: The Sacred Tree of the Maya." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ceiba-pentandra-sacred-tree-maya-171615 (accessed January 21, 2018).