Archaeologists Find Maya Sweat Bath ‘IS’ the Goddess of Creation
Archaeologists exploring an ancient Maya sweat bath in Guatemala say not only did this sacred chamber represent the goddess of creation, but it is the actual deity herself manifested on earth. What was the Maya wisdom regarding sweat baths? Well, according to an article in Spa Business, Risto Elomaa, president of the International Sauna Association (ISA), says “the body goes through a physiological state of hyper-arousal” in a sauna, and that the heat and moisture can help “alleviate psychological symptoms… helping people feel more in control of symptoms and allowing time for dedicated rest.”
Whether saunas do actually help in the fight against disease is ‘hotly’ debated within the scientific community, but many believe the heat boosts the immune system and that saunas are a useful therapeutic treatment. These properties were among the many health benefits associated with heat and water that were identified by the indigenous people of ancient Mesoamerica. The ancient Maya sweat bath discovery, however, has also added to our understanding of Maya religious practices.
Maya Sweat Bath Find: Human Remains And Burnt Artifacts
A team of archaeologists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and the archaeology program at Boston University studied a Maya sweat bath at Xultun, in modern-day Guatemala, dating to the Early Classic period (250-550 AD). A news release from the STRI posted on EurekAlert describes a collection of “unusual artifacts” that represent evidence of the beliefs and rituals performed at sweat baths.
An assortment of toad bones that were found in the Los Sapos Maya sweat bath. (San Bartolo-Xultun Regional Archaeological Project)
The archaeologists discovered human remains, including a human child, and also animal remains (a puppy, birds, cane toads and iguanas). Strewn amongst the bones were numerous heat-damaged stone tools and ceramic sherds. Together, these remains and artifacts are helping archaeologists understand the Los Sapos sweat bath when it was functional. It is believed the sweat bath was a central component within the Xultun community for about 300 years. Around 600 AD, a male adult was interred within the sweat bath doorway, after which the entire building was buried. The Los Sapos Maya sweat bath reopened again 300 years later.
The remains of a juvenile skeleton were recovered from the Los Sapos Maya sweat bath, suggesting an early understanding of the structure as a place of birth and human creation. (San Bartolo-Xultun Regional Archaeological Project)
Entering The Womb Of The Amphibian Goddess
In ancient Maya communities “sweat baths” were used in birthing procedures and they were symbolic of “grandmother figures.” According to the Eureka Alert press release, the outside of this Maya sweat bath depicts the image of a supernatural being that is thought to be the classic Maya deity “ix.tzutz.sak.” This fertility goddess is shown squatting, toad-like, together with iguanas and cane toads. The archaeologists say the sweat bath “embodied the amphibian goddess.”
The Maya Ixchel deity: Fertility goddess, goddess of creation, goddess of midwifery and medicine, and linked to the Aztec sweat bath goddess Toci Yoalticitl (Public domain)
The lead author of the new study, Boston University archaeologist Mary Clarke, said that although this Maya goddess' name remains undeciphered “she was responsible for gestation cycles, both of time and human life.” Dr Clarke explained that the Maya united ideas relating to birth with reptilian figures and during the Classic Maya period the verb “to birth” was represented symbolically as “an upended reptilian mouth glyph.” She added that the Xultun sweat bath is an example where this reptilian goddess, as well as the ideas and myths she embodied, was “expressed as a physical place.” Thus, the Maya sweat bath, more than just representing the goddess, “ is, or was,” the goddess.
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Co-author of the study, archaeologist Ashley Sharpe, expanded on this conclusion saying, “no other structure in Mesoamerica--sweat bath or otherwise--looks like this building.” She suspects that when people entered the structure they were conceptually “entering the amphibian goddess who personified the sweat bath.”
Striking A Deal With The Deity
Dr Sharpe said that the Los Sapos sweat bath is “a rare case” illustrating the important role that the structure played within the ancient Maya community. The heat damaged artifacts are thought to have been associated with the sweat bath being an actual manifested “grandmother figure.” The structure was a deeply-sacred space that was symbolic of the cosmic space in which the seeds of creation were believed to be fertilized, and the chamber was the manifested structure in which human birth occurred, which was all part of one divine cycle of creation.
Mesoamerican indigenous cultures mostly all associated goddesses with the creation of life on earth and this is why offerings were made to the goddess of the Los Sapos structure. Dr Sharpe said that these particular offerings might have been “a last effort to please the supernatural entity and prevent losing hold of their lands, which were abandoned soon after, around the Maya Collapse of 900 AD.” In conclusion, the offerings and bones discovered at the Maya sweat bath of Los Sapos, according to Professor Sharpe, were both an attempt to appease this goddess and an act of resilience: they were “trying to negotiate with this goddess for their survival.”
Top image: The Maya Temazcal or sweat bath tradition is a popular modern practice that likely originated from the Los Sapos Maya sweat bath recently found in Guatemala. Source: Space_Cat / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie