The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Places: A witch’s Travel Guide
The temescal is the traditional Aztec sweat bathhouse, also called temazcal or temazcalli. The word derives from the Nahuatl (Aztec) language: tema, “to bathe,” and calli, “a house.” The temescal is a complete bath facility incorporating areas for bathing, dressing, and relaxation. Direct heat derives from a stone fireplace, many traditionally lined with potshards set in mortar. The temescal is a permanent structure and is not to be confused with the now more familiar Native American sweat lodge.
Temescal-style bathhouses were standard features of Meso-American cities. The temescal simultaneously played (and plays) various roles: offering hygienic, magical, spiritual, rejuvenating, relaxation, and therapeutic services to bathers. Healing rituals were spiritual rituals; in a holistic system, the two are not distinct and cannot be separated.
Sweat lodges are a vital, popular Native American spiritual tradition. The sweat lodge is a sacred place, considered akin to a church. In general, they are small structures, often temporary and constructed as needed. People sit inside the tent-, womb- or cave-like structure; heated stones are bought within. Water is splashed onto the stones creating steam. Because the sweat lodge is smaller than bania or sauna, the physical experience can be particularly intense.
Information regarding the traditional temescal derives largely from Spanish records and sources. In 1567, Brother Duran, in the first written history of Mexico, described the temescal as a small hut heated with fire into which at most ten people will fit, although it was not high enough for the people to stand. (It was a womb-like structure into which people had to crawl in and out.)
An oven stood in the far corner. Baths were hot and dry, intended to make the bather sweat. This sweat bath was followed by a cold, water bath. Bathers were beaten with botanical switches, identifiably related to modern barrida cleansings of Mexican curanderas, which involve massaging the body with similar botanical switches. (See also BOTANICALS: Birch; DICTIONARY: Curandera.)
The Spanish did not approve of bathing, let alone spiritual rites connected with bathhouses, very clearly reminiscent of Pagan practices left at home. A sixteenth-century Spanish priest described temescal rituals:
The temescal’s attendant was simultaneously a healer, spiritual practitioner, and leader.
Ailing people offered copal incense to the “idol” within the temescal complex.
Both men and women frequented the temescal and were naked within the sweat house.
Those who enter the temescal come into direct contact with various spiritual beings, but most especially Tlazolteotl. Tlazolteotl, a witch goddess and the deity responsible for cleansing Earth and all her inhabitants, is credited with inventing the temescal. She is Matron of Midwives and Female Healers. The sweatbath was crucial for midwives and their clients. Babies were traditionally born in the temescal; pregnant, laboring, and recently delivered women frequented the temescal, too.
The temescal attendant, known today as a temescalera, was also traditionally a curandera skilled in herbal and spiritual therapies. Various herbal treatments were available, administered internally and externally. Those seeking to conceive but unable might request her assistance; the temescal was also considered beneficial for infertility.
According to one Codex, temescals were also dedicated to the Lord of Magic, the deity Tezcatlipoca.
The temescal tradition was almost entirely suppressed. Maintenance of the temescal or partaking of its services was equated with witchcraft and subject to the criminal penalties associated with witchcraft. Because the temescal is a permanent structure intended to serve a community it isn’t easily hidden, however the tradition was secretly and surreptitiously kept alive in remote locations.
Since the late twentieth century, there has been a revival of indigenous traditions and a subsequent revival of the temescal.