Belize Snapshot: Ceiba Tree

Ceiba Tree – Belize

The Silk Cotton or Ceiba Tree [Ceiba pentandra] is one of the largest trees in the American tropics. The Ceiba Tree not only played a significant role in the physical world of the Mayas, as a multi-purpose tree, but it also was a pillar in their spiritual world.

For this reason, this tree, known as Wacah Chan by the Mayans, was referred to as the Tree of Life.

The ancient Maya believed the earth, or the Middle World, to be flat and four-cornered. Each corner was supported by trees and at the center was the Ceiba tree.  Each corner tree had a color and meaning.

The white tree represented the ancestral dead and the North, the red represented the rising sun and the East, the yellow represented the right hand of the sun and the South, and the black represented the underworld and the West.Cotton Tree, Belize

Finally, the Ceiba represented the center and the three levels of the Mayan universe (cosmos, middle world, and underworld).

The branches were believed to hold the 13 layers of the cosmos, or the heavens (supposedly the tree has 13 layers of branches. I haven’t counted them, though.), and the roots were believed to reach the 9 layers of the underworld.

The Mayas believed caves were the underworld, and they associated the stalactite formations with the roots of the Ceiba tree, believing they were one and the same.

Aside from its spiritual significance, the Ceiba had an importance in the Maya economy.  Its trunk was used to build canoes, which were used for navigation and commercial trade between cities and settlements.

The Ceiba Tree is the national tree of Guatemala, another Central American country with a rich Maya heritage.

The tree pictured below is one of the twin Ceiba Trees found at Caracol Archaeological Site.  They both stand tall and impotent, one next to the other, dwarfing all the trees that surround them.

Cotton Tree, Belize

Cotton Tree, Belize

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6 thoughts on “Belize Snapshot: Ceiba Tree”

  1. Ceiba insignis and Ceiba speciosa are added to some versions of the hallucinogenic drink Ayahuasca used in shamanism or ones personal ” sacred journey.” The last shot on the page is my favorite. Wonderful! Did you notice the energy around it?

    1. Thanks for sharing that interesting detail Terry! The twin trees located in Caracol do have a “strange” environment around them. Not sure if it is energy or just my association of their meaning with their location and the Maya relationship that made me think these two trees must have been very sacred for the Mayas.

  2. Interesting- I’d always heard about ceibas in Puerto Rico (a guide in Ponce loved to point out the crazy shapes and figures that appear in the trunk), but walked right past the trees here in Belize without realizing they were ceibas!

    1. You know, at first I thought they were the same kind of Ceibas but then I learned they are different. The one in Puerto Rico are shorter and “fat” while the Central American ones are taller and “skinny”. I’m not completely sure, but I think the Ceiba had a meaning too to the Tainos in Puerto Rico. Interesting how two different cultures can associate a similar tree with life and deities.

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