Steam Bathing History: The Native American Sweat Lodges and Temazcals
Steam Bathing: A Journey through the Ages continues with part 3: the Sweat Lodges and the Temazcals of the Native Americans.
If you are new to this series, be sure to check out Steam Bathing: A Journey Through the Ages, which introduces the journey, and Steam Bathing History With the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
While the mighty Roman empire was rising in one corner of the globe, the Mayans were creating a comparable society in another. The two empires shared many common interests including the arts, sciences and astronomy. Both also shared a culture of sweat bathing.
The Mayans were not the only indigenous Americans to value the sweat bath. From as far north as Alaska, Native Americans used sweat baths to not only keep the body clean, but to cure illness, revitalize themselves, and to forge a cultural identity.
Sweat Lodge Construction in the New World
The temazcal was the type of sweat lodge used by the Aztecs and the Mayans. The word comes from the Atzec words teme (to bathe) and calli (house).
Unlike the North American sweat lodges, which were typically constructed from a circular framework of saplings overlain by buffalo, bear or moose skins, these were permanent structures. The temazcal was usually made from volcanic rock and cement, formed around a circular dome, looking somewhat like an old-fashioned bee hive. Heat was produced by heating volcanic stones, then placing them in a pit in the center of the structure.
Northern groups used either the hot rock method of the Navajos and Sioux, or the direct fire chamber, which heated the more mobile bathhouse by burning logs.
Native American Sweat Lodges Served Not Just to Clean, But Also to Heal
No matter where the sweat baths were constructed and how they were heated, the intent was similar. Sweat lodges were used to heal a variety of medical conditions, and to help women both before and after giving birth.
Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan friar who recorded the customs of the Meso-American natives in the 1500s, wrote that the sweat baths were used in “the treatment of fractured bones, syphilis, lepra, pains in the chest and back, spots and growths on the skin” and much more.
In the north, Rodger Williams of Rhode Island wrote in 1643: “They use sweating for two ends: first to cleans the skin; secondly to purge their bodies, which doubtless is a great means of preserving them.”
The traditions surrounding the sweat lodges depended, of course, on the region. The Mayan and Aztec culture recognized Temzcalteci as goddess of the sweat bath. Sahagun said that “this goddess was the goddess of medicine and of medicinal herbs; she was adored by doctors and surgeons, and bleeders, and also by midwives.” Entering into the temazcal was considered analogous to entering the goddess’ womb, a dark, warm, humid space.
The North American sweat lodge was often situated to face the East, where Father Sun would be welcomed with the dawning of each new day. A sweat lodge peace pipe or chanunpa would be smoked, so that the tobacco would carry any request you might have to the gods.
European Colonists Interrupted the Native American Steam Bathing Traditions
The arrival of European colonists on both continents interrupted centuries of unbroken sweat bathing tradition.
The Spanish considered it a pagan ritual and were shocked that bathers of both sexes and all ages entered naked together. Charles the Fifth, emperor of Spain, set down “that Indians… shall not bathe in hot baths under the penalty of two hundred lashes.”
Yet the indigenous population continued to practice in secret, moving their sweat lodges to remote locations. In North America, Christian missionaries and government officials did their best to destroy use of the sweat lodges. But some Nations, including the Crows of Montana, were able to continue the practice to this day.
Want to Experience Native American Sweat Lodges and Temazcals?
Those who want to experience the North American sweat lodge today can do so in two locations in Vancouver, British Columbia.
- The Skwachays Lodge offers the sacred healing experience, supported and guided by a traditional practitioner Elder, Old Hands.
In addition, the Xatśūll Heritage Village lets visitors experience “the oldest and one of the first ceremonies the Creator handed to Xat’sull First Nations people”.
While in Cancun, the Westin Spa and Resort offers guests several unparalleled experiences based on Mayan practices as part of its Heavenly Spa offerings. According to Experiencing a Mystical Mayan Ritual, "The Westin Cancun has created a typical but beautiful rounded temazcal that resembles a downsized igloo on its white sand beach just below the hotel..." (BTW, the articles offers perspective on the ancient steam bathing rituals.)
We think sweat bathing is something everyone should experience.
As the Westin explains, “The temazcal bath ritual purifies your mind and body and feeds your spirit in an extraordinary setting. An ancient ceremony with therapeutic purposes, the ritual combines herbs, flowers, and music in a rustic cocoon and enchantingly beautiful lagoon.”
We invite you to share your experience with us, too.
Next in our series about Steam Bathing through the Ages, the Far East and the Onsen of Japan. Sayonara!
Visit Mr. Steam to see how you can incorporate these benefits in your home!