Mesoamerican Steam Baths

A Temazcalli (Steam or Bath House) from Tikal
Fig. W0822: Temazcalli (Bath-House) from Tikal
The idea that Mesoamerican’s were unsophisticated blood-thirsty savages is steadily being overturned by archaeological and anthropological research. One sophisticated feature of the Mesoamerican way of life was to enjoy a nice hot steam bath in what was known as a Temascal or Temazcalli, which translates to “house of heat” or “bath house”.

The Temazcalli wasn’t just a place to get clean – it figured centrally in healthcare and spirituality. The steam lodge would be used prior to surgery to relax the patient and induce better circulation. It would then be followed by massage to ensure the patient was in a state of complete relaxation1. The Temascal would be used in cases of traumatic labour to try and induce birth and calm and relax the mother. Mothers also took a steam bath with their newborn child to aid both their recoveries and to reduce the chances of infection. The combination of earth, wind, fire and water made the Temascal a place of fundamental and elementary importance, and so it became a place to pray to the ancestors and Tonantzin (the Earth Goddess)2. They also infused herbs into the water to produce aromatherapeutic cures for a number of ailments and used the Temazcalli after battle to cleanse wounds and relax the warrior.

Codex Magliabechiano - Temazcalli
Fig. W0822D: Codex Magliabechiano – Temazcalli 
The Mesoamerican Temazcalli generally comprised of two buildings – the first building was a domed furnace, which generated the heat, and the second room was a pleasant smoke-free environment designed solely to relax in. In the Codex Magliabechiano (fig. W0822D) there is a scene that shows the workings of an Aztec Temazcalli. In the scene you can see a person filling the furnace with wood to heat the water which runs underneath the Temascal. Inside the steam house you can see a steamy rendition of Yohualticitl,  the Aztec Goddess of birth, dwelling inside ready to help. In the bottom right corner of fig. W0822D, the scene shows warm water being taken from the Temazcalli to be used for other healing or cleansing  purposes which demonstrates that the water from the Temazcalli was seen as being spiritually blessed with healing powers (otherwise they could just use hot water from a cauldron or kettle).

The designs of the Temazcal vary regionally and culturally, with most using a more simplistic method of heating hot volcanic rocks on which water was splashed to create steam. However, the principles of the Temazcalli remain the same, that it was an integral part of their ritualistic life-style and considered to provide healthy mind, body and soul. It is believed that the Aztecs, in particular, were very strict on cleanliness and a Temazcalli was found on almost every home, or  within each cluster of dwellings.

1 Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations – Emory Dean Keoke, Kay Marie Porterfield – Infobase Publishing, 1 Jan 2009
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