The traditional Mexican sweat bath, however, differs in several ways from the others. It is not primarily used for ceremonial purposes, as is the sweat lodge of our indians, nor for relaxation or bodily cleansing or for general well-being, as are most of the other sweat baths, It is and was, as far back as we can trace it, a therapeutic instrument, an arm of the medical practices developed in what anthropologists like to call, Mesoamerica, that vast area that now includes Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. We know it best, in its ancient forms, through the Aztecs, and Temazcal, as it is still called in contemporary Mexico, is a Nahuatl word, taken from their language.
When the Spanish conquerors arrived in the New World, it was an integral and important part of the medicine which they found here. If was, as best we can make out from the sources still left to us, used in the healing and easing of almost all kinds of medical conditions, including, as we shall see, pregnancy and child birth, and still is.
The Spaniards were appalled and outraged by what appeared to them as barbaric practice. Not only was it inextricably interwoven with pagan beliefs and ritual, as is all ancient traditional medicine, but, most shocking of all, the bathers entered into these small, dark chambers, all sexes and size together, naked as the day on which they were born. The Spaniards were convinced that some sort of unspeakable orgiastic rites were taking place, and so they set themselves to forbidding the practice and destroying the baths wherever they found them. In the Penal Code and Order for Governing of the Indians, proclaimed by Charles the Fifth, the emperor of Spain, it was declared 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.