The temascal: Traditional sweat bath

articles History & People

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

The medicine lodge or sweat bath dates from a very early period in the history of the Americas and, in some parts, continues to the present day. In Canada. Indians from the Atlantic coast to British Columbia used sweat lodges for ritualistic and health purposes. In the United States from northwestern California to Alaska, various tribes, such as the Yurok and the Hupa, built subterranean sweat houses of wood. In reality, the practice actually extended from the Dene or northern Athapascan tribes all the way to the Aztecs of ancient Mexico and beyond.

Sweat lodges took on a variety of shapes in different regions among various native groups, although their basic design and function were somewhat similar. Among Canadian Indians, sweat lodges tended to be quite small and dome-shaped, accommodating only one or two persons at a time. Sometimes they were large enough to seat a dozen or more bathers around a central firebox. In some sweat baths, the firebox was outside the actual lodge itself; in others it was inside. Whatever the actual form or method used, sufficient steam was generated to bring about certain desired physical and psychological effects. The original purpose was, and still is in many places, to promote both spiritual development and physical health, although originally it was probably intended mainly as a form of ritual purification. For example, among the northern Dene, a young widower had to go into the forest for a year after the death of his wife. He made a sweat lodge close to the bank of a river and then dug a hole inside the structure to allow the water to seep in. An assistant then placed heated stones in the water to produce the steam.

In ancient Mexico the sweat bath, or temazcalli, as the ancient Aztecs called it, reached perhaps its most elaborate and highly developed form and function. Evidence of the early temascal in central Mexico is found in pre-Hispanic and native colonial codices, pictorial records, Spanish colonial writers, and at different archaeological sites in Mexico. The term temascal, as often used today in Mexico, comes from temazcalli, a Nahuatl or Classical Aztec word compounded from tletl (fire), mozcoa (to bathe), and calli (house).

Most of the pre-Hispanic codices that survived the Spanish Conquest come from the Mixtec Indians of the Oaxaca area. It is here that we find some of the most graphic representations of the traditional temascal. In the Codex Nuttal, a native Mixtec genealogical-historical record of the famous Mixtec ruler Eight Deer Tiger Claw, the temascal appears as a dome-shaped structure with a firebox on the outside and a small entrance beside it leading into the sweat bath itself. Some of the pictorial records date from post-Conquest or later colonial times but nevertheless clearly illustrate the traditional sweat bath. In the Florentine Codex compiled by the Franciscan ethnographer Sahagún, two types of temascal are represented, one of a square-shaped adobe brick structure with the firebox on the outside, the other dome-shaped with the firebox inside.

Archaeological evidence is found, among other places, at the ancient Maya site of Piedras Negras in northwestern Guatemala, where no less than eight sweat houses complete with dressing rooms and lounging quarters have been uncovered by archaeologists. At the Classic Maya site of Tikal in the Peten, northern Guatemala, sweat houses consisted of a single room with an inner passageway leading to the fire-pit at the rear. They were of ritual significance and were probably associated with the Mesoamerican ball game.

Spanish colonial writers, such as Durán, Sahagún, and Landa, have described in some detail the form and function of the traditional temascal. In his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan, Bishop Landa (1524 – 1579) refers to the vapor or sweat bath as a “habit of the ancient Maya more for health purposes than cleanliness.” In The Book of the Gods and the Rites, Fray Diego Durán (1537 -1588), who lived in what is now Mexico city not long after the Conquest, tells us that some bathhouses held ten persons or more, who, after being subjected to the fiery heat and steam, were afterwards splashed with cold water. Durán doubted that any Spaniard could endure the full treatment. He was also scandalized by the common practice of men and women bathing together in the nude. Fulminating against the practice from the pulpit, he actually tore down the bathhouses to stamp out what he regarded as the work of the devil. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 – 1590) provides us with both illustrations and a written account in Nahuatl given by his Aztec informants. The wood must be a special kind that burns very hot but gives off little smoke. Pregnant women enter the sweat bath before and after delivery, where they are massaged by midwives. Those suffering from various illnesses or nervous problems take the full treatment, hot steam bath followed by massage. Various skin disorders were also treated in a similar way.

In Mexico today there are two types of temascal, or sweat lodge: the temascal curative and the temascal espiritual. The former is generally rectangular in form and strewed inside with eucalyptus leaves. The purpose of the curative sweat bath is to relax the body and treat certain disease symptoms. In the latter type, the spiritual or ritualistic sweat lodge, the participant seeks to free both the body and the mind from the pain and sorrow of the so-called “real” world.

The temascal remains a potent force in the lives of many Indians and mestizos as well as those outside the tradition who seek spiritual meaning and respite from the turmoil of the modern world. In Ajijic, my friend Katuza is a professional temascalero. For years, he operated a curative type of temascal. The full treatment included coating the entire body with a special clay found in the mountains around Lake Chapala. After the clay baked a while in the sun, it was washed off and the patient or client entered the temascal. This type of sweat lodge is relatively informal, although participants usually pray or make some personal statement in whatever language the person prefers. Unlike the spiritual type, participants in the temascal curative are allowed to regulate the amount of heat and steam they wish. A session in the curative sweat lodge is followed by perhaps a massage or a rest period on reed mats.

The Mexican type of temascal has spread far beyond its original boundaries. By popular demand, Katuza has personally constructed such sweat baths in the United States and in Germany, as well as various parts of Mexico. Somewhat surprisingly, certain groups or organizations in Germany take a special interest in native American traditional medicine and associated rituals.

The form and function of the temascal spiritual or spiritual sweat lodge differ significantly from the curative type. The structure itself may be made out of willows bent in the shape of a wigwam, covered with blankets or other heavy material, and sealed around the bottom edge to keep in the heat. The ritual here is much more elaborate. Participants sit in a circle inside the sweat lodge around a fire-pit dug into the ground, while the shaman or spiritual leader offers prayers and conducts ritual chants. Participants are not allowed to leave the temascal until the end of the ceremony. Although many changes have taken place in the form and function of the temascal over the centuries, certain features of the modern type are still based on Mesoamerican ritual practices. In this way many ancient religious beliefs and rituals have been preserved to the present day.

I have personally participated in and assisted at various temascal sessions in the Lake Chapala area. Some years ago, a full temascal spiritual was held in the town park in Chapala. During the session, assistants periodically shovelled glowing hot rocks into the fire-pit in the middle of the sweat lodge. The leader then poured water on the glowing hot rocks and sprinkled incense to produce dense clouds of fragrant hot steam. Each time the flap of the entrance was opened, everyone shouted “Ometeo,” a traditional response that no one on that particular occasion could explain clearly. This is an example of an ancient tradition being carried over into modern times where the original meaning has been obscured or altogether forgotten. However, in ancient Aztec religion, Ometeotl was both the “Lord and Lady of Duality,” a concept of duality which ran throughout the religion and philosophy of ancient Mexico and represented the underlying reality behind the world of cause and effect. This basic concept is reflected in the pairing off of nude male and female participants in the temascal. The leader of this temascal spiritual told us that we were “Warriors of the Sun.” This is based on the ancient Aztec story of creation in which the gods sacrificed themselves in the fire at Teotihuacán to ensure the continued existence of the universe. The unstated or underlying purpose of the modern spiritual sweat lodge is to free the participant from the fetters of the material world and return him or her to Omeyocan, the “Place of Duality,”which is both dualistic and the single undifferentiated source of the present world.

On another occasion, a well-to-do young American came to Ajijic seeking a spiritual experience in the temascal. This lad had enough money to rent horses to haul us and our supplies up the mountainside behind Ajijic It was blazing hot that day when we constructed the wigwam-like structure of the temascal. I was designated the Hombre de Fuego, the “The Man of Fire,” who deposited the glowing hot rocks into the fire-pit inside. Katuza instructed the young man in the appropriate rituals. Inside the temascal, he offered up prayers to the presiding spirits and gave expressions of gratitude to Katuza, as the spiritual leader, and to me, as the assistant. The combination of hot sun and high temperature within the steam lodge that day however proved too much even for Katuza and he emerged early. The young man, however, remained inside chanting loudly. When he finally emerged covered with sweat, he cooled off by pouring water over himself and then lay down on the ground to recover. Both he and Katuza were covered with mud. Later we dismantled the sweat lodge, loaded up the horses, and returned down the mountain to Ajijic. I do not know what vision the young man may have received on the mountainside that day but he went away apparently satisfied with the experience.

The Mexican style temascal is becoming more popular because of its possible psychological or mental benefits as well as its proven health benefits. The effects of the temascal on the mind are well known. Psychosomatic illnesses have gained respectability in the opinion of many “scientific” medical practitioners today. If the mind can produce severe symptoms of illness or even make you physically ill, then, presumably, the mind can also greatly alleviate or, in some cases, perhaps even cure illness. Orthodox physicians tend to treat specific illnesses or diseased parts of the body, whereas shamans and traditional healers treat the whole person, body, mind, and spirit. This is the function of the traditional temascal.

Published or Updated on: October 1, 2008 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2008
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