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What is a Temazcal?

Saunas, steam baths, sweat lodges, and sweat houses have been around for thousands of years. Modern versions of these ancient structures varies with their place of origin, with native Mexicans referring to a traditional sauna as a "temazcal," native cultures north of Mexico cultures calling it an "inipi" or "kiva," Europeans calling it a "savusauna" or "sudatory," the Chinese calling it "桑拿浴," and the Russians naming it "banya" or "banja."

The Mesoamerican Temazcal

Many PreColombian Mesoamericans celebrated at least a portion of their spiritual belief system in the steam bath, or "temazcal" (sometimes anglicized to read, "temascal"). The word comes from Nahuatl, a language family of the ancient Mesoamericans. They called it, "temāzcalli," which translates loosely to the "house of heat." Some sources, like Aaland (1997) attribute its origin to the Aztec words, "teme," meaning, "to bathe," and "calli," meaning, "house."

Evidence of temazcal celebration goes back at least 1,200 years, and the XVI Century Spanish, when they came to the New World, found the Mayans actively using temazcales (Aaland 1997). Students, Luis Antonio Rico-Velázquez, Arlen Ríos-Popoca, Sandra Karina Zagal-García, and Diana Cristina Carranza-Vergara (2011), of the Independent University of the State of Morelos (Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos), explained the importance of the ancient Mexican steam bath:

"The pre-Hispanic baths used in central Mexico played an important role in the development of good hygienic and spiritual practices. Participants worshiped the Goddess Tonantzin, who is our mother and concerns herself with good health. She allows us to return to her belly on earth, where we may purify ourselves and become born again, achieving an optimum state, both spiritually and physically."

Pre-Colombian Mesoamericans also practiced temazcal ceremonies as part of curative, healing processes, for purification after physical activity or trauma, overall health, and childbirth. Temazcaleros, or those who participate in temazcal ceremonies, today also make claim to the temazcal as an effective medium for maintaining spiritual and esthetic health, as well as physical, emotional, and psychological healing processes.

According to the authors, "The Spaniards, arriving [in the New World] prohibited these practices, due to the worship of Tonanzin." The Spanish conquistadores (those who conquer) destroyed and prohibited much of the native culture.

Conquistadores and Aztecs.
Image Source: Public domain on Pixabay.

The Resurgence of the Temazcal

Dr. Horacio Rojas-Alba (1997), of the Mexican Tlahuilli Institute of Traditional Medicines (Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales Tlahuilli), discussed how Mexicans, recently, looking back to their ancestral ceremony, have effected a resurgence of the temazcal in their country:

"Some ten years or so ago, a renewed interest in the ancient sweat bath, still called by the name given to by the Aztecs, the Temazcal, sprang up in Mexico, ... return[ing], to the healing practices preserved in their traditional medicine. These sweat baths, still a living tradition in many parts of the country, are usually small round stone or mud structures looking rather like old fashioned bee-hives. Many more began to be constructed everywhere, and more and more often, people who are ailing will turn to them for relief ..."

Since Dr. Rojas-Alba's writing, temazcal ceremonies have popped up throughout the country and other parts of Latin America. Commercial, spa-type temazcales have become popular tourist attractions.

What Does a Temazcal Look Like?

Temazcaleros build temazcales in many shapes and sizes, but most make dome-shaped structures, like that of the Lakota (Sioux) inipi, or sweat lodge, illustrated below. In the Mexican city of Durango, temazcal guide, Oso Mario, commented, modern ceremonial temazcal design came largely from Lakota culture, brought to the region by persons who learned the practice from Lakotas.

Many modern temazcaleros base their structure design on the Lakota inipi.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

I have seen many permanent structures of adobe, brick, cement block, and rock. Many of the commercial, spa-type temazcales utilize such permanent structures.

Temazcal in form of a snake at
Nanciyaga Ecological Reserve in Catemaco, Veracruz.
Source: Wikimedia.

What Happens Inside a Temazcal?

Just as structures vary, so do temazcal ceremonies. They differ from region to region and clan to clan, but most include some common elements.

Each opening of the puerta  (literally, "gateway," "door," or "doorway") begins by introducing "medicina" (medicine), "water," and "abuelitas" into the lodge. Abuelitas, refers to, "grandmothers," or "ancient ones," coming from the Madre Tierra (Mother Earth). Entering the dark interior of the temazcal, they glow red, from hours of heating on the sacred fire, and they hiss and crackle, filling the tiny, dark space with the "voces de las abuelitas" (the voices of the ancient ones).

Medicine introduced into the ceremonial space varies, likewise, depending upon the particular traditions of the circle and  the decision of the guia (guide). The ceremony, on any particular day, may have a specific celebrational focus, healing requests or petitions from caminantes (those who walk the red road) participating in the ceremony. Common medicines include sage, sweet grass, copal resin, and Brazilian Pepper Tree leaves.

The ombligo of the temazcal.
Source: Wikipedia - La Enciclopedia Libre

Once the abuelitas have settled into the ombligo and been anointed with the ceremonial medicines, the guide requests the closure of the door, leaving the temazcaleros in the warm darkness of the "matriz" (womb). From the darkness, the guide will generally request permission to initiate the ceremony. Osa Lety, of the Circulo de los Osos (Circle of the Bears), in Durango, Mexico would shout, in a powerful, feeling voice:

Todos los ancianos y ancianas de la tradicion sagrada!
Te pedimos permiso para inciciar nuestra ceremonia de temazcal.
Gracias a la Madre Tierra!
Gracias al espiritu guardian del sur!
Gracias ...

In English, that's ...

"To all the ancient ones of the sacred tradition!
We ask your permission to iniate our temazcal ceremony, ...
Thanks to Mother Earth!
Thanks to the guardian spirit of the south!
Thanks ..."  

It's a powerful moment, and, from that moment, one feels the energy stir from within as the dry heat of the ancient ones radiates outward from the navel of the Madre Tierra, to her children, the temazcaleros. The guia then begins dousing the red-hot grandmothers (and, yes, many temazcaleros jokes and pun about them, in case you were wondering) with the sacred, purifying water.

Ceremonies follow a four-puerta sequence.  The guides request that the hombre fuego (guardian of the fire) open and close the door three more times, each time introducing more rocks, water, and medicine. A doorway consists of introducing the rocks, water, and medicine, covering the entrance with a blanket, and a round of steam, song, prayer, and petitions.

The entire ceremony lasts somewhere between an hour and two hours. Some of those puertas, or doorway periods, can become "get-your-face-on-the-ground-and-pray" hot!

Hot Enough for You?

If this post gets you warmed up to learn a little bit more about the temazcal, subscribe to InTheTemazcal (above, to the right), and take a look at some of other posts. Also, we'd like to hear your questions, comments, and criticisms (below). We'll do our best to address them directly in the feed or in a new post.

... con todas mis relaciones! Aho!

References Cited

  • Aaland, M. 1997. Native American Sweat Lodge: Origin of the Temescal. Originally from Mikkel Aaland's Cyber-Bohemia, now archived on webpage capture (, Reviewed 7 February 2017.
  • Rojas-Alba, H. 1996. Temazcal I / III. The Traditional Mexican Sweat Bath. Tlahui-Medic 2(2) (, Reviewed 7 February 2017.
  • Rico-Velázquez, L.A., A. Ríos-Popoca, S. K. Zagal-García, and D. C. Carranza-Vergara. 2011. Una mirada más de cerca al temazcal: renaciendo del vientre de la madre tierra. Tlahui-Medic I(31) (, Reviewed 7 February 2017.

Image Sources 


Thanks to Kim Lopez-Gallagher, of New Mexico State University-Alamogordo, who came forth with a very simple, yet critical question that inspired this much-needed post.


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