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Jan 20 2015

The Native American Sweat Lodge… Where did it come from?

by My Inner Space

Origin of the Temescal

by Mikkel Aaland

While Rome was building her Empire, the Mayans were building theirs. Their civilization covered most of Guatemala and extended into central Mexico.The Maya matched nearly all that Rome was known for; their arts and sciences were advanced, they developed their own script and numbering systems, they studied the stars. Even their architecture was outstanding.And, as in the Roman Empire, they built sweat baths throughout their domain.

We have no original descriptions of the ancient Maya sweat houses, however. Much of the early period is veiled behind undeciphered hieroglyphics. Only through archeological diggings and observations of Mayan descendants can we infer that the sweat house was a common characteristic of the ancient Maya. Recent excavations at Piedras Negras, Chichen Itza and El Paraiso have uncovered sweat house ruins, some believed to be over 1200 years old.Though crumbled brick and potshards can tell us little of sweat house rites and ceremonies, the layout of the rulns gives us some idea of importance.

When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they found spirited use of the sweat house among scattered Mayan tribes and their new rulers, the Aztecs. The most common name for the sweat house is temescal, an Aztec name from teme, to bathe, and calli, house. The largest Mayan dictionary, compiled shortly after the Conquest, gives the word for sweat bath as Zumpul-che, "a bath for women after childbirth and for sick persons used to cast out disease in their bodies."

The Spaniards did not appreciate the elaborate bathing practices of these people. Spain wallowed in the dark ages of sanitation when it was the vogue not to bathe at all. The Queen of Aragon boasted she had bathed only twice in her life, once when she was born and once when she was married. TheSpanish Inquisition was at its height and the native bathing rituals, combined with worship of gods not sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, made sweat houses doubly offensive. Later, as Spanish missionaries prevailed upon the Aztecs and Mayans to divest their baths of religious significance, the Spaniards began to appreciate the powers of the temescal.

In the 16th century, a Spanish priest expressed his contempt for the native bath in this note: "This is a picture of the baths of the Indians which they call 'temazcalli.' At the door is an Indian who was the mediator for illnesses. When a sick person took a bath he offered incense, which they term copal, to his idol and stained his skin black in veneration to the idol Tezcatlipoca. Many Indians, men and women, stark naked, took thesebaths and committed nasty and vile sins within."

In the first written history of Mexico, Brother Duran wrote in 1567: The temescalli is a small hut heated with fire into which at most ten people will fit. One cannot stand and there is hardly place to sit. The door is very low so only one person can go in at a time, creeping on all fours. In the far corner is an oven heated to such an extreme temperature that it is difficult to bear. These baths are hot and dry. The bather sweats profusely, simply from the heat. After sweating thoroughly in the temescalli, the Indians wash themselves with cold water outside so the burning heat of the bath shall not remain in their bones. For the observer, it seems absolutely dreadful when, after they emerge naked, they wash themselves with ten to twelve jugs of water without fear of harmful effects. Although this seems terribly brutal, it is my opinion this is not so. When the body becomes used to this, it becomes quite natural. Yet if a Spaniard is to try this, he would surely lose his senses or become paralyzed.

In The History of Mexico, 1787, the Italian Francesco Clavigero wrote that the baths of the Mexicans were a powerful remedy and might be useful in Europe to cure rheumatism. He writes:

The Temazcalli, or Mexican vapour-bath, is usually built of raw bricks. The form of it is similar to that of ovens for baking bread; but with this difference, that the pavement of the Temazcalli is a little convex, and lower than the surface of the earth, whereas that of most ovens is plain, and a little elevated for the accommodation of the baker. Its greatest diameter is about eight feet, and its greatest height six. The entrance, like the mouth of an oven, is wide enough to allow a man to creep easily in. In the place opposite to the entrance there is a furnace of stone or raw bricks, with its mouth outwards to receive the fire, and a hole above it to carry off the smoke. The part which unites the furnace to the bath, and which is about two feet and a half square, is shut with a dry stone of Tetzontli, or some other stone porous like it. In the upper part of the vault there is an air hole, like that to the furnace. This is the usual structure of the Temazcalli, of which we have subjoined a figure; but there are others that are without vault or furnace, mere little square chambers, yet well covered and defended from the air.

When any person goes to bathe, he first lays a mat within the Temazcalli, a pitcher of water, and a bunch of herbs, or leaves of maize. He then causes a fire to be made in the furnace, which is kept burning, until the stones which join the Temazcalli and furnace are quite hot. The person who is to use the bath enters commonly naked, and generally accompanied for the sake of convenience, or on account of infirmity, by one of his domestics. As soon as he enters, he shuts the entrance close, but leaves the air-hole at the top for a little time open, to let out any smoke which may have been introduced through the chinks of the stone; when it is all out he likewise stops up the air-hole. He then throws water upon the hot stones, from which immediately rises a thick steam to the top of the Temazcalli. While the sick person lies upon the mat, the domestic drives the vapour downwards, and gently beats the sick person, particularly on the ailing part, with the bunch of herbs, which are dipped for a little while in the water of the pitcher, which has then become a little warm. The sick person falls immediately into a soft and copious sweat, which is increased or diminished at pleasure, according as the case requires. When the evacuation desired is obtained, the vapour is let off, the entrance is cleared, and the sick person clothes himself, or is transported on the mat to his chamber; as the entrance to the bath is usually within some chamber of his habitation.

The Temazcalli has been regularly used in several disorders, particularly in fevers occasioned by costiveness. The Indian women use it commonly after childbirth, and also those persons who have been stung or wounded by any poisonous animal. It is, undoubtedly, a powerful remedy for all those who have occasion to carry off gross humours, and certainly it would be most useful in Italy where the rheumatism is so frequent and afflicting. When a very copious sweat is desired, the sick person is raised up and held in the vapour; as he sweats the more, the nearer he is to it. The Temazcalli is so common, that in every place inhabited by the Indians there are many of them.

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