General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 28 Feb 2021/5 Monkey
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Maya steam bath or sweat lodge at Piedras Negras by Tatiana Proskouriakoff

Aztec advances (7): sweat lodge

This is the seventh in a series of entries based on information in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002). The image shows a Maya sweat bath or steam lodge from Piedras Negras in a 1930s illustration by the famous Mayanist scholar and archaeologist Tatiana Proskouriakoff. (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

A modern steam bath at La Chonita Hacienda in Tabasco
A modern steam bath at La Chonita Hacienda in Tabasco (Click on image to enlarge)

‘A steam room is an enclosed space where water is splashed onto a hot surface, such as heated rocks, in order to create steam... American Indians in Mesoamerica built steam rooms that were attached to their houses and used them both for daily bathing and for health purposes. The steam room was so integral to Aztec life that the houses in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan each had a bathhouse... They made a fire inside the structure to heat rocks. When the rocks were red-hot, water was sprinkled over them.
’The Aztec used the steam room and therapeutic touch, or massage, before prescribing any medications or performing surgery. Because heat is a good vasodilator [which widens blood vessels], it improves circulation and dilates the pores in the skin so that toxins are more easily flushed out by perspiration. Aztec women took a steam bath immediately after they had given birth. The baby was bathed immediately after being born as well, a practice that continued for the rest of their lives.’

Structure 9, area 2 at the ancient Maya site of Joya de Ceren, El Salvador; a temazcal with its domed roof still intact - extremely rare
Structure 9, area 2 at the ancient Maya site of Joya de Ceren, El Salvador; a temazcal with its domed roof still intact - extremely rare (Click on image to enlarge)

Commonly known by its Nahuatl (Aztec) name temazcal(li), the steam bath was - and to a lesser extent still is - used throughout Mesoamerica. In her notes to the temazcal (main image above, from Guatemala), Tatiana Proskouriakoff wrote:-
’When a man was stricken with disease or when a neophyte [novice] was to be initiated into the sacred mysteries, he repaired to the bath, where priests who specialised in the procedure ministered to his needs. There are no less than eight sweat baths among the ruins at Piedras Negras... Structure P-7 [main image above] is one of the largest and most prominent of these buildings. It contains a low, vaulted chamber in which is a hearth built of stone and lined with potsherds to resist the heat of fire. The entrance to the chamber is very small, and is approached by a sunken passage, which at the same time served as a drain to carry off the water used in the bath. The passage continues inside between two benches, on which the bathers lay, fanning about their bodies with a bundle of leafy twigs the steam which rose from the hot stones of the hearth when water was thrown upon them...’

Image sources:-
• Main image: illustration (and notes) by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, from her An Album of Maya Architecture, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, USA, 1963
• Modern temazcal: photo by Alejandro Linares García (Wikipedia: temazcal)
• Temazcal from El Ceren: photo by Julio Cesar Acosta Burgos (Wikipedia: temazcal).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 01st 2019

Learn a little more about the temazcal (1)

Learn a little more about the temazcal (2)

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