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 archaeological 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 ruins 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.”
Temescal depicted by Francesco Clavigero, 1787.
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. The Spanish 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.
Aztec sweat house from Codex Magliabecchi.
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 these baths 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.
The Temescal Today
When I arrived in Mexico I wondered if the temescal had been replaced by modern tubs and showers. Mexico is rapidly changing and in recent years has made great efforts to lift its people from their poverty level. While most modern societies regard the sweat bath, in its original form, as a vestige of the past, the temescal has changed little since the Conquest. This is not through efforts to preserve tradition but because many Indian tribes throughout Mexico remain lightly touched by modern amenities.
I visited several temescals in central Mexico. They are common from Mexico City to Guatemala, within the ancient boundaries of Mayan rule. There are no sweat houses between Mexico City and the United States border perhaps because that region is so poor and barren that peoples outside the Mayan influence never developed a ceremonial culture. South of Guatemala into South America I found scarce mention of any type of sweat house.
Although temescals come in different shapes, all retain certain features found in the ruins of original Mayan sweat houses. They can be round or rectangular and built from wood with thatched roofs or mortared walls. As with the Mayan ancestor, there is always a sunken passage or drain below floor level. The fire room is always separate from the steam room and between these two chambers is an irregular opening where porous rocks are piled. The steam room usually has no ventilation. Smoke from the firechamber exits through the passageway.
Temescal today in San Bernardino Chalchiuapan, Mexico.
Although the original Mayans must have practiced specific rites during their baths, they were so thoroughly discouraged by Spanish missionaries,their descendants attached little religious significance to the temescal. It was regarded as a place to clean the body and provide treatment for persons suffering from rheumatism, skin ailments and certain diseases.
Oscar Lewis lived in Tepoztlan, a village 60 miles south of Mexico City, and devoted a section of his book, Life in a Mexican Village, (1951) to the temescal.
“The temescal, which is still widely used even by those women who go to doctors, is usually given eight days, after delivery, though some midwives give it after fifteen days. Most women do not take their first temescal until after bleeding has stopped. Before the temescal, the mother, midwife, and other women of the house may also bathe and eat clemole – a dish made of chicken or beef, with the bone cooked in washed, ground chile pasilla – and a piece of epazote. The mother eats only the meat, for the chili sauce is ‘cold’ and bad for her.
Stoking the fire chamber for an after-childbirth session.
“She eats at this time to give her strength for the ordeal of the temescal, for some women faint or vomit from the extreme heat. Unmarried mothers sometimes do not use the temescal but bathe at home after twenty days in bed. A few younger women do not like the heat of the temescal and bathe in warm water in which some rosemary has been boiled. On the day of the temescal, the midwife, for the first and only time, must limit her diet to what the mother eats. A fire is made in the temescal, and a large can of hot water is placed there. Leaves of white sapote are placed on the floor, and a small bundle of leaves are tied together to form a brush.
The mother is well wrapped and is traditionally carried to the temescal on the back of her husband. Although this is still done by many, the woman is now often carried on a board by two men. Some men find it embarrassing to carry their wives and hire someone to do it for them. Some of the younger women walk to the temescal. The new baby is also taken to the temescal with the mother and is briefly exposed to the steam, then carefully wrapped and taken home. Many modern women disapprove of giving infants and small children sweatbaths and believe that they cause navel hemorrhages and even death. A bunch of sapote leaves are placed between the mother’s thighs to cover the genitals. Throughout the bath, the midwife is assisted by a female relative of the mother. The midwife rubs the mothers body with egg and alcohol, particularly on the face and back, for this mixture is thought to prevent pain.
“The mother then lies down on the leaves, and spoonfuls of water are thrown into the fire to make it steam. The midwife rubs the mother with the brush of leaves. After this she asks for the estropajo, which is a brush of ixtle in the form of a basket, containing a piece of soap. This basket may be made in the shape of an animal and is presented by the baby’s godmother. Some women do not like to be washed with the estropajo because it is too harsh for their skins, and they use something else. The midwife washes the mother’s entire body except for the genitals, which the mother washes herself. Warm water is thrown over her to wash off the soap, and she is dried. She is rebound and wrapped in a sheet and carried back to bed. When she leaves, the other women of the house, friends, and neighbors may take advantage of the hot temescal and bathe. These baths are taken by the mother every eight days for as long as she stays in bed. Almost everyone takes at least two temescals, and may take the traditional four.”
In one village I found the temescal as popular as the sauna in Finland. You won’t find San Bernadino Chalchiuapan on a tourist map. It is nestled between two mountains in the shadow of the majestic Popocatepetl at the end of a two-mile dirt road. Only two hours by bus east of Mexico City, it is still isolated from modernization. Donkey carts outnumber cars. The temescals I found here could have been those described by Clavigero centuries ago. And from the women I spoke to, the use of the temescal after childbirth was identical to Lewis’ descriptions in Tepoztlan, hundreds of miles to the west.
My friend, Francisco Montes Jimenez.
It was Saturday, obviously bath day, when a friend and I trudged into the village. The smell of burning pine rose from their cooking stoves and the igloo-shaped temescals that sat in nearly every backyard. The mayor’s aide, Francisco Montes Jimenez, became our obliging guide and explained how the temescal was used.
“First you build a fire in the back of the temescal and let it burn all day. For a bath as hot as good chili, you can let the fire burn for a couple of days, but it really only takes a few hours to heat the rocks and chamber to make them hot enough for bathing. Then you strip down naked and crawl in. You never close the entrance, never even cover it. The steam and heat stay trapped inside. The floor is raised and made of brick and covered with straw mats. Men and women can bathe together without clothes, if they are married of course, but usually women and children go first and the men follow”.
I asked Jimenez if neighbors ever bathe together. “Oh yes,” he said. “We take turns heating the baths. Last week my family and I went to the Gonzales’. Today, it is our turn.”
As we strolled through the village, I noticed an ominous brew of herbs and water boiling near a bath.”Often, a temescal is taken on doctor’s orders,” Jimenez explained. “Usually he will prescribe a concoction of herbs, plants and other things to be splashed on the walls of the bath. It makes a healing vapor.”
The villagers wash outside the temescal, sometimes flagging the vapor towards them from the doorway, before crawling inside. They usually bathe twice a week, on Thursdays and Saturdays, sitting comfortably in the steam chamber on soft straw mats.
Temescal today in San Bernardino Chalchiuapan, Mexico.
I asked about the corn husks heaped around many of the baths. “The large ones are for tamales,” Jimenez explained. “And the smaller ones are used in the baths. You can either beat yourself with the husks – believe me, it feels good – or use them to cover your private parts when you walk about.”
I would have liked to join a family in their temescal, but they were shy and I felt my presence on their streets was intrusion enough. It was a happy, healthy village and I hope it remains that way and its road never gets paved.
Four examples of Mexican temescals drawn by anthropologist Frank M. Cresson, Jr.