Southern Mexico Curative Steam Bath Ritual Lives on Today in Oaxaca
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the temazcal was a village sacrament for the indigenous people of Mexico. It involved cleansing body and mind with curative plants, heat and vapor. But it was the ritualistic aspect of the activity, with the uniting of tens of community members at a time, which likely led to the conquistadores outlawing the practice. Even if religion was not specifically expounded in storytelling, chanting and prayer, the mere acknowledgement of the power of nature was surely enough to create unease in the minds of those early, very Catholic invaders.
In the village of San Juan Guelavía, a short drive from the southern Mexico city of Oaxaca, Maestro Albino Melchor Cruz explains that while the Spaniards were concerned with permitting the practice of the temazcal to continue as a traditional gathering of many, they were much less apprehensive about its persistence on a smaller scale; perhaps an adobe hut into which a couple, or a shaman and an infirmed pueblo member entered. This would have been much less threatening to the order they wished to establish and affirm. Thus the more intimate manifestation of the temazcal was allowed to persist, likely unchecked.
In modern-day Oaxaca the small, ceremonial temazcal appears to be more the norm. But according to Don Albino, there is no right or wrong way to either perform, or experience it. While he and his disciple / assistant Carmelita and her daughter Karina carefully bind together branches of select herbs, he explains that “no two temazcales are the same, and it´s not appropriate to just go out and copy what someone else has created.”
Don Albino’s igloo-shaped construct holds up to forty individuals on two circular levels; seating platforms are made of red clay brick, mortar and stone. In the middle there is an earthen pit, four feet in diameter into which hot rocks are placed. Yellow marigolds encircle the pit, just above it.
The walls are adorned with tied branches of aromatic herbs and once again marigolds, one of the two flowers customarily employed at Día de los Muertos rituals. In the middle, hanging from the center of the domed ceiling by a hemp-like rope is another floral and herb arrangement.
But a temazcal is much more than going into a chamber and sweating while becoming revitalized through verse, steam erupting as a consequence of water having been poured over red hot rocks.
On a Saturday afternoon in June, 2013, while my wife and I are awaiting the arrival of others who would partake in the experience along with us, Don Albino explains that the temazcal has already begun; from the first moment we sat down and began our instruction, through our initial cleansing in the course of rubbing and swatting ourselves with an array of bound leaves, and with massage.
A young, impressionable Albino began taking martial arts classes at age 17. Over time he gradually started to reflect more and more about what he was doing, and why. He had earlier begun assisting his father, a chivero [in Oaxaca, someone who roasts meat in the traditional way – see below] by trade. He first became exposed to the concept of universal energy through his martial arts training, and by his father via a concomitant, fire. In a highly ritualistic fashion dictated by age-old custom, father and son would prepare meat, most often goat or sheep, in an in-ground oven over firewood and rocks; the festive meal accompanying rite of passage celebrations.
It was inevitable for someone like Albino, born and raised in the nearby city of Tlacolula de Matamoros, from time to time to hear about temazcal and its basic functioning. Its ritualistic and spiritual aspects were not all that foreign to him given his prior life experiences. He proceeded to seek out someone who could teach him more about it. And so it was upwards of two decades ago that Albino encountered healer Don Álvaro, who first exposed him to temazcal.
Over the ensuing years, under Don Álvaro’s tutelage Albino began doing research, in due course visiting the homes of shamans and others with expertise in the science and art of temazcal, in diverse parts of the country. They eventually would become colleagues of Don Albino, travelling to his facility in San Juan Guelavía, maintaining a healthy interchange of ideas and techniques.
“When you’re attending alone for a temazcal, it’s total introspection, as if you’re looking into a mirror. If you’re with another, there’s that intimacy as you would share with your partner. And if with two others there is the sense of being with guardians, your parents if you will. Finally, when there are more, as in a group, it represents and provides the feeling of community, as you’ll experience today.”
As Carmelita begins to tell her story in the presence of her daughter, my wife and I, and two of our friends, Don Albino’s words start to ring true. Perhaps it’s because we had all been given basil flower and leaf and asked to rub it all over our clothed bodies, then close our eyes and reflect, and finally express our thoughts to the others. But it’s more likely as a result of empathizing with Carmelita’s earlier struggles, as she acknowledged, with headaches lasting from a week to a month, an unhappy first marriage, her feeling of incompetence in her ability to raise her family. Temazcal had become her salvation.
This may have been a unique experience which will never be repeated, but it was nevertheless indicative of what can happen in a group environment, defenses slowly falling by the wayside with each step of the process; recognizing the nakedness, the primordial truth in simple words. Carmelita explains:
“The temazcal, beginning here and now, and concluding after we leave that dark, steamy, herb-infused chamber, is not a new consciousness, but rather something we all have, that is awakened; a love of oneself – and you can’t love another until you love yourself.”
The others arrive; a family recently relocated to the state of Oaxaca from Nayarit. Don Albino gives each of us a selection of branches of curative plants tied together, and asks us to whack ourselves with the bouquet, directing us to each part of our bodies; head, shoulders, knees, toes, and everywhere in between, back, front and middle. “Harder, much harder, you can do it,” he advises. He next places a sprig of yet another herb in our hair, then from behind massages our heads, then gives a brief shoulder massage followed by lifting us up by embracing tightly below the chest area. He instructs us how to breathe.
We are each given a cup of citrus tea, made with the herb cedrón. He then takes a Lord of the Fliesian conch and blows it several times, once as he stands behind each of us. Finally, he massages each of us for a minute or so while we lie on our stomachs. Disciple Carmelita massages Don Albino.
The temazcal chamber is in close proximity to a circular enclosure where firewood has been heating up rocks for the past couple of hours. The campfire smell had been pervading our preliminary activities and the tail end of our discussion, so when we were finally asked to walk over to the chamber, what we encountered came as no surprise.
“You can wear whatever you want into the temazcal,” Don Albino reassures, “just as you are if you like, but yes, it will be hot and steamy, so if you have a towel or sheet, or a bathing suit, it would be more comfortable for you.”
This is the real deal, I quickly conclude shortly after entering the dark room; a combination of chanting, rattling of gourds containing corn kernels, steam, waves of herbal aroma, all over the course of at least an hour-and-a-half. And the ceremonial nature of it all, with detailed explanation by Don Albino grounded in both science on the one hand, and lore mixed with convincing conjecture on the other.
While there may be little in the way of documentary evidence of the ceremonial use of temazcal, academics have nevertheless written extensively about its use, including its curative powers and the assistance it afforded mother and newborn around childbirth. The archaeological record cites the discovery of codices, figurines and remnants of pre-Hispanic temazcales, together confirming its importance. Don Albino in fact notes its ritual significance while discussing the archaeological sites of Monte Albán, Yagul, San José el Mogote and Mitla.
I had experienced the other end of the temazcal continuum several years earlier, in a small, much more enclosed setting. While I found it relaxing and enjoyable, and in fact sensual given the intimacy of the environment, there was a pervading subtext of hokey and contrived, duly noted by me. Here, by contrast, there was no mumble jumble I could not understand. No catholic rhetoric. Of course not, if indeed we are truly partaking in an experience with origins predating the Christian era.
Don Albino emphasized community context of the temazcal, and thus its broad importance became abundantly clear as the day progressed. I felt that I was understanding what was behind it all, and hence learning with a greater sense of historical and in fact personal appreciation.
With Don Albino discussion includes but runs much deeper than a mere mention of the elements of fire, water, earth and wind. He had earlier noted four doors, but I didn’t completely understand their significance until we were all inside the chamber and participating in the ritual.
There is a small window at one end, and a doorway at the other. A blanket covers the entrance until Don Albino summons his son to begin. A pitch fork with a hot rock is ceremoniously passed by son through the doorway, to father who gingerly places it in the pit. The process is repeated three times. Then a bucket filled with water and a bouquet of aromatic plants. Darkness prevails. Don Albino shakes the water-drenched spray over the rocks. Steam rises. The heat increases as vapor permeates the room with each dousing. Don Albino cranks it up a notch by swinging the flowers and herb branches dangling from the center of the ceiling, back and forth and around.
This is the first door, the east, fire, representing birth and song, the singing of birds. We are welcomed to join in the chants. Two participants are shaking the rattles. Then more water. Waves of herbal fragrance ebb and flow. For two of the next three doors, again rocks are brought in and placed in the pit, steam rising and encircling. And twice mezcal is passed around, each of us pouring a small cup for our neighbor. It’s then poured onto the rocks, changing the scent to the distinctive sweet and smokey smell of distilled agave.
The second door represents water and the sea, the south, transforming suffering to happiness. Carmelita expresses her thoughts as she had done earlier, her struggles. The rest of us are welcomed to give thanks to whomever, for whatever, more or less obligatory; at least I feel somewhat compelled to say something. For the rest it perhaps comes easier.
The third door, the west, is wisdom, learned from our ancestors and carried forward through birth of generations. It corresponds with earth. And finally the north, from which the wind blows, providing a time for stillness.
Throughout this phase of the experience Don Albino once again massages our heads and shoulders and blows the conch, walking behind each of us as he does so. There is no talk of the father, the son or the holy spirit, but rather god in the most general, spiritual sense. The Maestro also teaches a little science as well, instructing us about the impact of being in the steamy, fragrant temazcal, on our blood and on vital organs such as lungs and kidneys. There is time for reflection. He again encourages deep breathing.
Don Albino suggests that the experience is coming to an end. Most of us slowly descend to our hands and knees as we leave the chamber, head first. “Notice,” Don Albino conveys, “how you’re leaving the temazcal, headfirst crouched down, as if emerging from the womb to a new life.”
In a sense it did seem somewhat like birth I suppose, or rather a rebirth; at least to the extent of having made new acquaintances with a special bond between us, a sense of community with the group members. Will it last? Something will definitively endure.
Don Albino provides temazcal experiences to individuals, couples, families, and groups of up to 40:
TEMAZCAL TRADICIONAL PORTAL DEL SOL,
KM 25.5 CARRETERA OAXACA-MITLA,
CRUCERO DE SAN JUAN GUELAVÍA
(951) 562-0492; CEL 0449511965173
ALBINO MELCHOR CRUZ, TERAPEUTA
Alvin Starkman has written over 280 articles about life and cultural traditions in the central valleys of Oaxaca. He and his wife run Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Alvin assists travelers visiting Oaxaca to plan their vacations, and often takes tourists to the nearby sights including markets, ruins, craft villages and quaint mezcal distilleries. He operates www.oaxaca-mezcal.com.