The Ceiba Tree: Symbol Of Transformation

The Ceiba (“SAY-ba”) grows in the wet tropics of Mexico, Central and South America and West Africa, reaching heights of up to 230 ft. Growing thirteen feet a year, it’s the tallest tree in the Amazon rainforest. The buttresses that give it stability can be ten feet tall and extend ten feet from the trunk. 

Until age seven, the young trees have green stripes and large thorny spines around the trunk to discourage animals from damaging them. 

When mature, the tree produces three-to-six-inch long, elliptical fruits in the umbrella-like crown that contain many seeds surrounded by a dense mat of cottony fibers called kapok “silk” in Asia. 

Because the seeds are rich in oils and proteins the oil is edible and was also used for soap and lighting in oil lamps. Near to pure cellulose, the fibers shed water and don’t hold or conduct heat, so they’ve been used as padding for seat cushions, pillows, mattresses, saddles and life preservers. 

From December to February the tree produces numerous white, pink or red flowers that only bloom every five years or more. In the evening the blossoms open after sunset and stand out against the darkening sky like bright stars. When it’s dark, bats come to drink nectar from the flowers and eat the pollen. In the first hours of the morning, blackbirds, tanagers, orioles, brown jays, hummingbirds, oropendolas and many others by the hundreds mingle among their giant arms and blooms. 

In Puerto Rico ceibas were often planted in the center of plazas for shade. In Trinidad and Tobago folklore, there was a carpenter who carved seven rooms into a large ceiba. By tricking Bazil—the demon of death—into living there, he freed the population to live in peace. In 1492 Christopher Columbus and then Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo in 1526 were both impressed by the size of the canoes the Indians made from ceiba trees. They reported that some of them carried more than 100 men.

For the ancient Maya, the ceiba tree was sacred. With its roots deep in the underworld, trunk in the middle world and branches in the sky, it served as a model of the cosmos representing the three realms, all inhabited by gods and demons. Their ideological version of the cosmic tree, which was an imagined replica of the ceiba, was known as Sa’ache’, the “World Tree.” In an ancient myth, the Middleworld was seen as resting on the back of a gigantic, monstrous crocodile— turtle in some places—who floated on an enormous pond full of waterlilies. From the monster’s body there grew the great cosmic tree. The Upperworld or celestial realm had thirteen layers, each with its own deity. And at the highest level, there was a vainglorious mythological bird who fancied himself brighter than the sun. Called Itzam-Yeh by the Maya and the Principal Bird Deity by scholars, he dispensed the life force to human beings from his nest in the arms of the “Great Tree.”

Because ceibas undergo a dramatic change beginning it their seventh year, losing their green color and thorns to become a tall and smooth-skinned adults with a crown of hairy arms, in modern times it has come to represent transformation, a turning point in life. I’ve recently been appreciating the perspectives of Dr. Michael Meade, a renowned storyteller and mythologist in the tradition of Joseph Campbell. He describes the current crises—coronavirus, eco degradation, climate catastrophes, widening economic gap, the trend toward nationalism, ignorant and untrustworthy governmental leadership—here and abroad—as a “rite of passage.” In a half-hour podcast, To Not Miss Your Star, he unpacked the etymology of words including “disaster,” “leadership,” “nobility,” “king” and “destiny” revealing a common pattern between our story and ancient myths. He observed that, as with the ceiba trees where something is lost in order for something greater to emerge, we’re at a turning point.

In another talk, Dr. Meade described the three stages of a rite of passage or initiation that offered a hopeful perspective and addressed the question: Given what’s happening, what can we do about it? What constitutes a proper response? He began by saying the next world cannot be the same as the last one. 

“That’s the one that generated all the sickness, generated the distance between the rich and the poor, generated the bigotries and racism and xenophobia, all of those things. They were generated and becoming prolific in the world we left, and so we have to imagine and create another world that is made differently, one that is seen differently so the people in the dark begin seeing in a different way. That’s what the separation we’re going through is about—learning to see the world in a different way. It’s not that we need a better world, we need a better worldview. Like in the Native American creation story, the first four seekers stood in the dark facing the four directions asking the Creator where they would find the center. We’re collectively standing in the dark waiting for the center to be revealed. As the First People discovered, the center is within us, in how we see the Earth and cosmos.”  

In talking about the rite of passage, he identified “Separation” as the first stage. It’s where we’re required to see the world with fresh eyes. In indigenous cultures, initiates go through a second birth. The first is when they enter the world and go through the process of figuring out their environment, family and what they’re qualified to do. Dr. Meade says humanity is currently in this stage of separation. 

Anthropologists refer to the second stage as “The Ordeal,” or “Awakening of the Soul”—the full expression of mind and imagination. It begins when the initiate goes off alone to experience a vision quest where he can see more of the world and find his place in it. Today we’d call it a quest to find his purpose, his reason for being. For the first time he finds himself alone and suffering through some hardship in order to experience nature—Earth and cosmos. In this way he gains confidence in his ability to survive, and he has greater appreciation for community. Today, because of the coronavirus many people are alone, suffering both physically and psychologically.

“This is where most of us are—the space between separation and union. The space in a doorway that’s between places is called a “threshold” or “liminal” space. On one side is the old world, and the other is the next world. Today, we find ourselves in-beween the old and the new. After the separation, which is happening throughout the world, we’re left in a liminal space betwixt and between. In the United States, there’s a big conversation about ‘the return’ (to normal). Many people, especially those in charge, want to quickly go back to the world that was before. From my point of view, that world is already gone. And it can never happen again.”

The third stage is “The Return.” Here, the initiate rejoins the community transformed. He’s a different person. 

(The initiate) “needs to realize it and the community needs to acknowledge and confirm that difference. ‘We see what you went through. We see that you have become a bigger person and we want to recognize, bless and support you in that…’ The initiates come back inspired and filled with the numinosity of being, and therefore they energize the collective. When a person goes through a crisis, they have to come out changed or it wasn’t a real crisis. You either come out of a challenging experience as a smaller person or a greater soul. The challenge of our time is to become greater souls individually and collectively and therefore bring more soul, more connection and caring into the world—or else we’re all going to get smaller.”

“We’re on our way to another world that’s going to be either worse or better. We stand together looking into the darkness. And what are we looking for? There are two darknesses: The darkness from outside ourselves where we’re looking for inspiration to come, and the other is looking inside ourselves. “What in my life do I have to face in order to become a bigger person? If we can clear ourselves and become receptors of what’s trying to come in, we can get messages from the world that is not there yet but is trying to become. It’s not that we have the ideas now and the wrong people in power. That’s true, but what we’re waiting for is the other world to call to us, to give us information and knowledge… The future is sending us messages about what it wants to be, what it wants us to be when we get there. Rushing to return is a big mistake. In a collective rite of passage we have the opportunity to listen within and become greater souls.”

It’s plain to see that we’re engaged in a rite of passage. Just as the ancient Maya contemplated three levels of the universe—underworld, middle world and cosmos—in the great ceiba tree, we can recognize the first rite of passage—Separation—where the roots spread out, the second—The Ordeal—in the trunk representative of a long journey of elevation and the third in the enormous arms of the crown hidden in the clouds where something greater and more beautiful will emerge. For now, it’s comforting to know that a natural process with deep roots is underway. Can’t we feel it—the living Earth calling for balance? With each of us caring for ourselves and others and supporting leaders who want to help create a better world (rather than attempt a return to the dysfunctional and destructive one) we can be confident that, aligned with nature, that better world will come. The challenge of a transformative turning point is to be patient—ceibas take 300 years to fully mature—as each of us, given our unique gifts, however seemingly small, find ways to illuminate the darkness. 

The strength of the pack is the strength of the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the strength of the pack.

Rudyard Kipling, Jungle Book

My novels in the ancient Maya trilogy, The Path Of The Jaguar, are structured as initiations. As the protagonist is the same soul in different incarnations, the rite of passage in each experience raises the soul to a higher level of awareness. The trilogy progression is Jaguar Rising, Jaguar Wind and Waves (with a female protagonist), and then Jaguar Sun, the final realization. Here is a selection, part of the protagonist’s vision quest in Jaguar Rising.

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.100)

(Initiation—First Trial: Capture A Deer)

BEYOND AXEHANDLE, WHERE THE FINGER OF THE LAND turned into a broad thumb, we stopped beside a tree marked with a tall hunter’s hat and two black bands. “Grandson,” my teacher said. “Here begins the first of your three trials, one in each of the worlds. Ahead is your middle world trial.” 

I was excited. “What do you want me to do?”

He pointed in the distance to the narrowing of the beach where the forest nearly met the water. “Stop along there and say an apology and gratitude to the forest lord. Then go into the wild and capture one of his sons or daughters, a fully-grown deer. Do not kill him. Use no weapons. Make your shelters and drill your fires along the coast. If you need a cord, cut some vine and braid it. If you need a net, get some thin fronds and weave one. Ask and accept help from no one but your ancestors. Eat what you alone can gather or kill. Go as far as you need—to take a deer. Remember, you must not kill or injure it. Instead, deliver it live to your father’s pen.”

I was so shocked I could neither interrupt nor believe what I was hearing. “With respect, grandfather. Is this even possible? An adult deer could be taller than me. Even a little one could outrun Thunder Flute.” 

“Trust your ancestors. They are always with you.”

Hunting deer required skill and muscle. Usually, bands of six or more men went out with dogs and spears and strong cords. For me to do it alone and without any of these things was unthinkable. 

If Mother knew this she would be horrified. 

Like vultures on a carcass, stories that Thunder Flute told about men in the wilds swooped down and began pecking at my throat and stomach. Deadly yellow-jaws lay coiled in the weeds and hung from trees. There were blood-sucking bats as large as eagles, and frogs whose loud and constant croaking made men crazy. And there were jaguars. Hunters told stories of them taking down tapirs, deer and peccary and carrying them up a tree. Even water didn’t stop them. More terrifying for me as a sprout was the prospect of encountering an underworld demon, bony creatures with bulbous skulls and bellies who roamed the wilds at night in search of human flesh and blood. Their sweat and flatulence alone were known to kill any who walked into it. “With respect grandfather, what should I do about the dark lords?”

There was not much left of the day. “Keep your thoughts on what you have come to do. If a crosswind comes at night, take shelter away from your fire. Wear this.” He removed his necklace, a single jaguar tooth on a leather cord, and put it over my head. “By this, demons, jaguars and snakes will know you are under our protection.” He had me kneel and he held the serpent on his staff against my head while he chanted. Then he tapped me on the shoulder and turned away. I watched as he left. He didn’t even glance back.

(Capture Of Kicking Deer And Muddy Fawn)

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.101)

Within the sorcerer’s ring, there was a dark grotto, a long mud pit overhung with a thicket of bush with palm and nance trees blooming yellow and orange rising above it. Not far from the edge of the pit, a fawn lay on its side, lifeless and splattered with mud. Two vultures were trying to get at it, flapping their wings to stay above the mud. Farther out dark splatters on top of the lighter-colored mud drew my eyes to an adult deer who was submerged except for its head. Flies, dragonflies and mosquitoes flitted around its nose and closed, seeping eyes. I threw a stick at the vultures and they backed away, but the largest of them jumped onto a branch above the lifeless brown body. When he leaned down and pecked at an ear, it twitched, so I knew the deer was alive. I began throwing clumps of mud at the big ugly and he went higher in the tree.  

To get to the fawn I gathered some fallen branches and laid them on the mud. Crawling out on my stomach I had no trouble getting my arm around her, but when I pulled her by the neck she kicked, the branches broke and we sank. Fortunately, the mud and water was only waist deep. I managed to get some footing, enough to pull the little one onto the bank. The big ugly jumped down again and sidled along the branch closest to the doe. This time when I threw mud at him, one of his brothers darted at the fawn and pecked at its rump. Shouting and throwing mud in both directions, I chased them back. 

So it went until I could gather enough dried fronds and weeds to cover the trembling fawn. With the vultures pushed back I managed to pull some creeper vine and twist it into a cord about an arm’s length. I broke off a branch from a fallen tree and stripped the small branches to make a pole. Using it for balance, I went into the pit to see how far I could go—all the while warning the vulture lord that if she didn’t keep her sons and daughters back, I would be forced to use it against them. Nearly up to my neck in mud, I got the cord around the doe’s neck and tied the ends together. When I pulled on it she opened her eyes, pulled back and kicked me hard in the side, ripping the cord from my hands. 

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2 thoughts on “The Ceiba Tree: Symbol Of Transformation

  1. It’s amazing this is such new article… I am Puerto Rico born and raised visual artist currently living in the V.I. about to begin painting a mural depicting the indigenous people of these areas. I’m searching for anything and everything that could help me create an accurate scene of these people before colonization. I remember hearing the name ceiba a lot as a youth, with a neighboring municipality being named after the tree, but don’t recall ever being pointed to the tree to identify it. Anyway, interestingly enough, I came across one on a hike yesterday and I was very drawn to it wondering just how old it might’ve been, not even knowing it was a ceiba tree. A couple of years ago, I had a dream about hundreds of people, specifically people of dark complexion, resting as refugees of war at the roots of an enormous tree, which I just identified as a ceiba tree today. I won’t give out all my personal information, but the concept of transforMAATion is such an inspiration for my artistry. I go by the pen name “Yansa” which refers to Oya. Between the Caribbean and West Afrika, this entity is linked with the elements of air, water, storms, change and surely the breath between life and death… Thank you for providing this information because it’s definitely given some confirmation regarding many things in my life

    • Yansa, Thank you for sharing your story. I’m very pleased that my posting provided some meaning and inspiration for you. I too, greatly revere the ceiba. I’ve stood by several of them over the years, and every time I stood in awe of them. All the best in your creative project. David

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