By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the temazcal was a village sacrament for Mexico’s indigenous peoples. 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 for those early, very Catholic invaders.
In the village of San Juan Guelavía, a short drive from Oaxaca, Maestro Albino Melchor Cruz explains that while the Spaniards were concerned with permitting the practice of the temazcal as a traditional gathering of many, they were 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. Thus, the more intimate temazcal continued, less threatening to the order the Spanish wished to establish and affirm.
While in modern-day Oaxaca the small, ceremonial temazcal is more the norm, for groups of visitors to the city there’s an alternative. 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 into which hot rocks are placed. Marigolds, a traditional Day of the Dead flower, encircle it. The walls are adorned with tied branches of aromatic herbs. A flower and herb arrangement dangles in the middle, hanging from the domed ceiling. While my wife and I await the arrival of others to join in the experience, Don Albino explains that the temazcal has already begun; from the first moment we sat down and began our instruction, through our initial cleansing.
“When you’re attending alone for a temazcal, it’s total introspection, as if looking into a mirror. If with another, there’s intimacy as you would share with your partner. And if with two others there’s the sense of being with guardians, parents if you will. Finally, when there are more, it represents and provides the feeling of community, as you’ll soon experience.”
Carmelita tells her story in the presence of her daughter 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 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 with headaches, an unhappy marriage, her feeling of incompetence in raising her family. Temazcal became her salvation.
This was indicative of what can happen in a group setting; defenses 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.”
Others arrive. Don Albino gives each of us a bundle of curative plants branches and asks us to swat ourselves with the bouquet, directing us to each part of our bodies. He places a sprig of another herb in our hair, massages our heads, gives a brief shoulder massage, then lifts us up by embracing tightly below the chest area. He instructs how to breathe. We imbibe of citrus tea. He takes a Lord of the Flies style conch and blows it once as he stands behind each of us. Finally, he massages us for a minute while we lie on our stomachs. The temazcal chamber is near a circular enclosure where firewood has been heating rocks. The campfire smell had been pervading, so when we were asked to walk to the chamber the smoky aroma came as no surprise.“You can wear whatever you want into the temazcal,” Don Albino reassures, “just as you now are, but it will be hot and steamy so if you have a towel, sheet, or bathing suit, you will feel more comfortable.” This is the real deal, I conclude 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 close to an hour-and-a-half, and its ceremonial nature, with detailed explanation grounded in science on the one hand, and lore mixed with conjecture on the other.
While there is little documentary evidence of the ceremonial use of temazcal, academics have indeed written extensively about its use, including its curative powers and the assistance it afforded mother and newborn around childbirth. The archaeological record includes codices, figurines and remnants of pre-Hispanic temazcales, together confirming its importance.
Years ago I had experienced the other end of the temazcal continuum, in a small, rather contrived setting. While I found it relaxing and enjoyable, and in fact sensual given the intimacy of the environment, I noted a pervading subtext of hokey. But here there was neither mumble jumble nor catholic rhetoric. Of course not, if we are truly partaking in an experience predating the Christian era.
Don Albino emphasized community context of temazcal, and thus its broad importance became abundantly clear as the day progressed. I began to understand what was behind it, learning with a sense of both historical and personal appreciation.
The Maestro’s discussion includes but runs deeper than a mere mention of the elements of fire, water, earth and wind. He had earlier noted four doors, but I didn’t understand their significance until we were inside the chamber and participating in ritual
A small window is at one end, a doorway at the other. A blanket covers the entrance until Don Albino summons his son. A pitch fork with hot rock is ceremoniously passed by son through the doorway to father, who gingerly places it in the pit. 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. The Maestro swings flower and herb branches dangling from the center of the ceiling; back, forth, around. The ritual is repeated.
This is the first door, the east, fire, representing birth and song, birds chirping. We are welcomed to join in the chants. Two participants shake the rattles. More water and 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 pouring for our neighbor. It’s then poured onto the rocks, changing the scent to the distinctive sweet and smoky smell of distilled agave.
The second door represents water and sea, the south, transforming suffering to happiness. Carmelita again expresses her thoughts, her struggles. Each of us is welcomed to give thanks to whomever, for whatever, more or less obligatory; I feel 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 generations. It corresponds with earth. And finally the north, from which the wind blows, providing stillness.
Don Albino once again massages our heads and shoulders and from behind each of us blows the conch. There is no talk of the father, the son or the holy spirit, but rather god in a spiritual sense. He also teaches a little science, about the impact of being in the steamy, fragrant temazcal, on our blood and vital organs. Time for reflection.
Departing the chamber, we slowly descend to our hands and knees, head first. “Notice,” Don Albino conveys, “how you’re leaving the temazcal, headfirst crouched down, as if emerging from the womb to new life.”
In a sense it did seem like birth I suppose, or rather 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 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 Oaxaca. He and his wife run Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Alvin assists travelers visiting Oaxaca to plan their vacations, often taking tourists to the central valley sights.