• Arabella Thaïs

Temazcal: Womb of Mother Earth

Updated: Dec 19, 2020


The beat of the drum, drumming; the sound of women’s voices, singing. Primal, primordial; deep, sacred entanglement with mother Earth. Rebirth. Re-start. Begin again, in the womb, in the deeply hot, deeply dark, onyx-black cave of the Temazcal. Earth, water, wind and fire – the four elements. North, South, East and West – the four directions. It is these that guide us, that hold us, that shape the structure of the ceremony.

A Temazcal is a sweat lodge that originates from pre-Hispanic Meso-America. The name comes from the Aztec – teme, ‘to bathe’, and calli, ‘house’. They are small structures, traditionally made out of bricks or cement adobe; although it differs according to the region. The one I have been attending is not a permanent structure, but comprised of a bamboo frame, covered with blankets to retain the heat. Similar to Roman baths, archaeological remains indicate that these sweat-lodges were integral to the Ancient Mayan Empire. The ritual of bath-houses, of sweating and purifying, belongs to a great many cultures across the globe. It is a very old practice indeed.

My first Temazcal was in March 2020, in Costa Rica – high on a mountaintop teetering between swathes of virgin jungle and the vast Pacific ocean, overlooking the sleepy fishing village that I call home. I have since participated in several more Temazcal ceremonies, and continue to do so on a monthly basis. Each time, the surrender is sweeter; the medicine, deeper, richer, and more profound. The first time I went into the cave (my unofficial term for it), it was nigh-on unbearable. I lay on the ground in the foetal position, desperate to catch a small stream of cool air trickling in from the outside. A couple of times I even lifted the blankets slightly – a surreptitious attempt to escape the steam, but I was swiftly reprimanded by the temazcalero.

The ceremony spans the duration of four ‘doors’ – four periods of intense heat with brief respites in between, in which the Temazcal doors are lifted and air is allowed to come in. The fact that the Temazcal is a ceremony is important – because it is sacred. Why? Because of the intention bestowed upon it; because of the prayers offered and the medicine songs sung. It is about the deep-intermingling that exists between ourselves – as conscious beings – and the Earth from which/whom we came, and upon which/whom we reside. It is about honouring and respecting Pachamama – not in a token sort of way, but with deep, heartfelt reverence. Individual intentions are also vocalised – what it is that one wants to feel and experience personally – and what one hopes for the human narrative, too.

Glowing hot volcanic stones are brought into the Temazcal from a fire or a furnace outside, and placed into a central pit using deer antlers. The heat starts to rise. The energy intensifies. Along with water, herbs, sweet grasses and copal are scattered across the stones, and they burn like scintillating star-drops before vaporizing into clouds of steam. This is one of the reasons that the Temazcal is so nourishing – through the vaporization and the heat, the body absorbs the medicines and heals from the inside-out.

The Temazcal is considered to be the womb of Mother Earth. But, similar to the Catholic tradition of transubstantiation, when the blessed bread and wine does not so much symbolise the flesh and blood of Christ, but becomes it, so the Temazcal becomes the womb of the Earth. It feels like a sort of magical realism, where symbol and the transcendent are so finely interwoven that they become inextricable. To go into the Temazcal is to commit to deep purification; it requires one to fully surrender and fully release; to be re-born. It is though, in the intimate darkness, amidst the pulse of the drum and beating hearts, one has returned to the Cosmic Night for a moment – to a place of archetypes and wisdom and (re)origination – a place that belongs to a time from before.

The temazcal is one of my favourite ways to heal, and nurture my spiritual practice (the two are indissociable – true healing is a mystical journey). It has become abundantly clear how crucial some sort of collective, spiritual practice is to me. It nourishes me deeply; it fulfils a need that so many of us have, and yet are so lacking in our lives. This is not about religion. This is beyond that. It is deeper, and more ancient. It is about the energy of existence.

Source – Native American Sweatlodge: Origin of the Temascal, Mikkel Aaland (1997)

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