In 1520 a Spanish ship arrived on Mexican shores, the passengers had boarded in Hispanola a tiny island which had already seen two years pass fighting the smallpox infection. Hernan Cortes had been in Mexico looking for ways to steal the rich territory of the Aztec empire for the Spanish crown and the new arrivals were viewed as unwanted competition. A confrontation between Cortes and the infected Hispanola passengers led to several sick conquistadors. The virus then made a third leap, landing in the center of the Aztec world – Tenochtitlan- as the same conquistadors fled the city following a failed attempt to take the it by force. Perhaps the first old world disease to have reached the Americas and as a result 25% of the general Azteca population died and the army was severely weakened.
In 1521 Cortes returned, kidnapped the Aztec leader Cuauhtemoc and took control of the smallpox ravaged empire, claiming it for the glory of Spain. It can be extrapolated that if small pox were raging through the city, many people must have been turning to their healers and their temazcalli, or sweat lodge, for relief. Long hours spent sweating in vapors of herbal preparations was the principal tool used across the Aztec empire for healing any number of ailments. In fact sweating in this manner was also an integral part of most inhabitants regular lives, regardless of infirmity. Temazcales were regularly conducted for the benefit of all mixtures of people, old and young, male and female.
Disgusted by the unabashed nudity and the use of idols, many Spanish wrote home contemptuously. Upon reading several of these accounts, Charles the Fifth the King of Spain at the time, is reported to declare’“that Indians who are not sick shall not bathe in hot baths under penalty of one hundred lashes to be followed by two hours bound in the marketplace…” Later, the proscription was extended to the sick as well.’ according to Dr. Horacio Rojas Alba of the Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales.
Ironically such behavior was exceedingly popular with some of his more immediate neighbors and had been centuries before he outlawed it in Mexico. There are records as early as the 5th century BC of Scythians, a nomadic tribe in modern-day Iran, building temporary structures from long poles and woolen blankets in order to sweat. Over the centuries the Greek, Irish, Celtic, Roman, etc… have all documented gratitude and praise for the results of induced sweating.
I had been living in Mexico for several months and it was Spring. My new Canadian friend suggested we take a road trip for Semana Santa, a holy week celebrated during the last week of March in Mexico. So we planned a large loop north,; Zacatecas, Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosi, San Miguel de Allende and rented a cheap sedan. The first afternoon we turned off the highway and onto a deeply rutted dirt road, rolling into the small plaza of an empty little town. This was as far as her directions had carried us in a straightforward manner, it was then up to us to, ask around. We wanted to find the property of el curandero, the healer / shaman.
Through her work with local grassroots ecology groups my friend had found a way for us to join in a ceremony for my birthday that afternoon. Approaching a clearing at the end of a restricted, dusty road we were flagged down by a young woman with unshaven armpits, in a serious tone she explained that we were late and asked us to park off to one side. The clearing was empty of people, a squat dome structure at its center and an open fire was burning fiercely to the side. She instructed us to strip down to the bare essentials, she then lifted the canvas flap which had previously been covering one side of the dome and hurried us into the darkness before replacing it.
The heat. The heat was intense and instantly suffocating. I didn’t start sweating right away, which surprised me. It took a few minutes for my body to completely overheat and for the humidity of the small muddy bubble to prevent it from cooling down, eventually producing sweat. There were 5 or 6 other people inside, arranged in an incomplete circle around a hole in the earth at the center and the door. Periodically the woman outside would open the door, bright light would illuminate our crowded sweaty faces and she would shovel another stone from her fire into the hole. Curling smoke around large volcanic stones, burning copal resin saturated the humid air between us.
Similar to meditation training, the experience was a trail of mind encouraged by the necessary control of the body. It seems to me that most people are taught from childhood to avoid things that cause discomfort or direct pain. Once a vital survival technique we now surrender near completely to the impulses to satiate our dependence on comfort, and we do it the name of progress. I think it permissible to extended our avoidance of physical pain or discomfort to the same inflexibility of behavior with regards to our minds. They typically spin and bounce along or against whatever they want to, with little interference from the somehow separate other part of ourselves. It is so uncomfortable to try to stop the minds’ gyrations.
Crawling on my hands and knees a number of hours later, I followed behind some of the others into the fresh early evening air. Shocked by the sudden drop in temperature and flood of fresh oxygen, we stood quietly faced with the most mystical, most surreal of skies on display across the horizon. Burning its deep eternal orange the sun hung above one side of the temazcal, and on the other, suspended in the cool hues of night, the waning moon. It was a view which took hold of all of us and an impossible serenity permeated the entire clearing. Like a reminder for all of us that time is stitched together quite delicately and in places, where it has worn thin, your life as a continuum is revealed.