Finding Temazcaltitlán: Aztec ‘Sweat Lodge’ Holds Sacred Meaning in Mexico
The ruins of a 14th century Aztec ‘sweat lodge’, known as a temazcal, have been unearthed in Mexico City. It is located in the historic La Merced district and helps experts pinpoint where Temazcaltitlán, one of the first areas of Tenochtitlán (the precursor to today’s Mexico City), was situated.
Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) reports that the main components of the temazcal, the tub or steam bath pool, are still intact. The structure is made of adobe and the walls are stuccoed. The whole complex would have measured roughly 5 meters (16.4 ft.) long and 2.98 meters (9.78 ft.) wide.
The temazcal, sweat lodge, found in La Merced, Mexico City, Mexico. (INAH)
Origins of the Aztecs
The INAH explains that the discovery of the Temazcaltitlán archaeological feature corresponds with information provided about the site by documents such as the Map of Sigüenza, Mexicáyotl Chronicle, and the Aubin Codex – texts discussing the history of the Aztec (Mexica) people. Temazcaltitlán’s location is of interest because it was a part of Teopan (also known as Zoquipan), the first lake district the Aztecs inhabited. This also may link the site to the Aztec origins story.
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The lost city of Atzlan is named as the homeland of the Aztecs and in their origin story they describe it as “the land to the north; the land from whence we, the Aztecs, came.” It is sometimes written of as if it was a paradise and other times portrayed as the seat of a tyrannical elite from which the Aztec/Mexica people had to flee. Although it has yet to be found, Atzlan is said to be an island on a lake.
The Mexica depart from Aztlán. From the 16th Century Codex Boturini. Created by an unknown Aztec artist in the 16th century. (Public Domain)
What was Temazcaltitlán?
The INAH states that the Temazcaltitlán site’s purpose can be understood in part through looking at the deities who were honored there. It seems that most of the deities that were worshipped in Temazcaltitlán were goddesses such as Tlazolteotl, Ayopechtli or Ixcuina (a goddess of birth), Coatlicue, Toci, Chalchiuhtlicue, and Mayahuel. These were deities were primarily linked with the earth, fertility, water, and the fermented beverage known as pulque.
With all these aspects of the goddesses in mind, it makes sense that the Aztecs built a temazcal at the site. Hernando Alvarado Tezozómoc said in his work, Mexicáyotl Chronicle, that the temazcal at Temazcaltitlán was created to bathe and purify the maiden Quetzalmoyahuatzin, a noblewoman who had given birth to Mixiuhca. He wrote, “There was Contzallan's mother bathed, so it is called Temazcaltitlan, there all the Mexicans bathed, there they settled.”
A temazcal in Codex Magliabecchiano. (Public Domain)
The Sacred Temazcal – More than a Simple Sweat Lodge
Atlas Obscura states that “Temazcales existed in the Americas for at least 700 years before the arrival of Spaniards in 1519.” Temazcal originates from the word temāzcalli, which means “house of heat” in Nahuatl.
But as you can imagine, a temazcal would have been more than just a sauna for the Aztecs to unwind or chill out; they served various functions. An obvious use was as a space to relax after a long day of work or on the battlefield. In this way, the sweat lodges were used to ‘bathe’ through sweating (which was believed to remove maladies, sickness, and fatigue).
Temazcales have also traditionally been built by the indigenous people of Mesoamerica for spiritual purposes and to provide a special space for women to give birth – as noted in the story of Quetzalmoyahuatzin. Entering a temazcal was a symbolical passage into the Underworld. It was a space where a person could commune with spirits and deities linked to water and fertility. And the dark, sweaty rooms were also allegedly favored sites for the Aztecs to hook up with each other too.
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Other Finds at La Merced
Returning to the La Merced site, BBC News reports that the excavations also uncovered the ruins of a 16th century home built for a noble family. Red motifs such as inverted triangles and lines have been identified on the house’s stucco walls and it mixes Pre-Hispanic and European architectural features. A hallway in the home has a river rock floor. Adobe was extensively used in the building’s construction.
Víctor Esperón Calleja, who led the excavation work, says that the presence of the home suggests “that in the 16th Century this area was more populated than we initially thought.”
Red motifs have been found on the wall of a home that may have belonged to an indigenous noble family. (INAH)
The remains of a tannery have also been unearthed during the dig. Experts believe it was probably used between 1720 and 1820. Five square rock and mortar tanks would have held flattened skins for one to three months and three other conical tanks were used to submerge the skins in water with tree bark. The tannery also had a central “dry area” where finished products may have been manufactured.
Experts also found the remains of a tannery at the La Merced site. (INAH)
Top Image: The temazcal, sweat lodge, found in La Merced, Mexico City, Mexico. Source: INAH