“Ask people for directions. We will have a ceremony of Temazcal. Don’t try to find the place yourself, it is in the middle of the forest…” was the message from the friends, who me and Arturas were supposed to meet in a Mexican mountain village, in the central Oaxaca. The car ride left us by the road. The mountain breeze was chilly. Aligned along the only street, souvenir shops were inviting with the colourful pictures of mushrooms. Most likely, the pride of the village. What is all that Temazcal ceremony about? I had a strong suspicion that mushrooms might be involved in all of that…
The house in the middle of the forest
The road was curving up, and me with Arturas were sweating like hell under our big backpacks. The people gave us some puzzling explanations which became useless after the first couple of junctions.
Luckily enough, after a couple more turns I saw our friends – flooded with a huge smile and heavenly peaceful expressions on their faces. “Guys… It was amazing..!”
We turned into the forest. There was no trace of the road left,and we proceeded down the sandy cliff bearing stumpy spiky bushes. Still puzzled about this ritual, I tried to interrogate more.
“It’s like a sauna… hard to explain, you will see”.
After a while of walking under the wide shade of evergreen pine trees, I finally saw the rooftop of a small cabin. It was situated on the cliff of the mountain. Down below there were an open-air kitchen and another wooden building, which seemed to be like a stable.
After entering the yard, we were greeted by the mad gobbling of a huge white turkey in a cage. There were more animals around – a huge paddock with chicken and colorful ducks. In the other corner of the yard, there was a small cage with fat rabbits champing some green stump.
Next beside the kitchen, there was a huge circle fenced by small rocks. In the corner of the circle, there was a small dome hut, made entirely out of clay. The huge superimposed skull marked the narrow entrance. It was possible to enter inside only by crawling. In front of this strange building there was a huge goat skin drum standing surrounded by crystals, some animals claws, a statue of a frog and some other weirdly looking artifacts. Pretty spooky.
Soon enough, I met the don of house. It was a tall indian-looking man with dark long hair, pulled back in the ponytail. He was around 50 years old, but his innocent, childish and happy eyes were not revealing his real age. He arrived to this forest about 20 years ago. Being a young and passionate hippy, he started building this self-sustainable homestead. Many passing travellers were helping him with their volunteering work. I could see the result of many years of hard work around me.
However, primarily it was the point of attraction for spiritual travellers – they were coming in search of natural and ancient healing.
Going through the doors of Life & Death
El Brujo (I couldn’t find a better name for my new acquaintance) was preparing for the Temazcal ritual. Gathered close to the dome hut, a bunch of 7 people was waiting. Most of them were American tourists, but I noticed two small indigenous women and an elderly man also waiting for the ritual. My incredibility started to vanish slowly. He seemed to be respected by the locals and that made the ritual look way much more serious, not only just a show for tourists.
Temazcal, as I later found out, was a very ancient tradition of indigenous sauna. It had roots in ancient Mexican civilizations such as Maya and Aztecs. In the Aztec mythology, Temazcalteci was the guardian of the sauna and goddess of medicine. The word temāzcalli in indigenous language meant the house of heat, which was believed to have powers of healing the bodies and souls. Knowledge of El Brujo also had deep roots. He learned about the art of healing from his grandmother, and for many years he was applying his knowledge to help people.
Aztec image of Temazcal ceremony
The ceremony was about to start. We all stood in the middle of the stone circle in a particular order – a man, a woman, a man. This order had a particular significance – to mix the feminine and masculine energies, not oppose them, like standing in front of each other. The ritual started by going in a row around the dome hut, temazcal, which symbolised the wombs of Mother Earth.
Every participant had to make 7 circles, shouting from the depths of their lungs “aho” when passing the entrance to the hut. Soon the mountains were filled with the sounds of wild gruff shouts, which echoed back with a triple power. The aim of all this was waken and free the inner powers. However, at first, I just couldn’t force myself to do it, as if I was locked in some kind of rational endeavor. To be honest, it seemed a little bit crazy, especially listening to the voices of my companions.
“Shout louder. As strong as you can!” My friend turned to encourage me.
Finally, I managed to let it go. I let go of my over rational, self-preoccupied mind. I heard my voice echoing through the mountains, as if I didn’t had a body after all. As if I was just the sound, just the blow of airI breathe out; the wind that blows over the tips of the trees and the summits of the wild mysterious mountains.
When the last person finished the seventh round, we stood again in the circle. Now was the time to greet all four directions. We were turning towards East, South, West, North, reciting the same Spanish passages to honour the powers and wisdom of nature. We put our hands on the ground, saluted the Mother Earth, then lifted it up to greet the Universe. El Brujo was either blowing the whistle or hitting the huge drum in the middle of the circle. Next to him, in the fire pit, was lying a bunch of red-hot stones.
While still standing outside in the circle, El Brujo started passing through the hands a metal glass full of incense, the last person in the circle was turning and crawling backwards into the Temazcal. Still crawling backwards, the person needed to make a circle against the clock work inside the hut, sit down, then pass the glass with incense back to the outside.
Everyone to receive the steamy glass whispered a greeting: “With love I receive, with love I give away”. In this manner one by one all of us entered the Temazcal. The last one to enter was El Brujo. He closed the small curtain behind him and it became dark inside the hut. Through the small gap the assistant, passed in a shovel with red-hot stones.
“Bienvienidos abuelita piedra!” (Welcome, the grandmother rock) a chorus inside the hut greeted the new arrivals. The temperature inside started rising. El Brujo took his drum and started singing.
Temazcal ritual is done in four stages, so called 4 Doors. Every Door is dedicated to the different elements of nature, which are honoured with particular songs. After every stage the new portion of hot stones are introduced. The sauna ritual is accompanied by the healing herbs tea, which in many cases contains psychedelic substances.
The first door was to praise the nature. In the darkness of temazcal, El Brujo was taking everyone on the wings of his song through the mountains and forests. The second door was dedicated to women and their wisdom. The third door – the hottest round, was devoted to the dead. It was a symbolic road to the underworld. Blinding heat should bring a person closer to symbolic death, where one meets the dead and exchanges the wisdom that they are bearing.
The third door started really affecting my brain. In the darkness I started seeing the white thick foam curling up from the hot stones, even though it was impossible to see it with the conventional perception. Soon in the middle of the foam I started distinguishing figures and faces. There were many people standing in front of me. I recognized only one of them – there was my cousin staring at me. I started crying heavily. The vision vanished, but I could not stop crying. In the darkness it was impossible to see how other, inside temazcal people felt, but from the rapid breaths it was obvious that everyone was having a hard time.
The burning heat calmed down, as if it was absorbed by many sweating bodies. It was time for the fourth Door – time for the rebirth. After the symbolic death, it was time to be awakened to the new life. As a newborn everyone, one by one, was crawling out of the wombs of Mother Earth.
El Brujo was sitting by the exit and like a spiritual midwife was handling the rebirth. In the darkness, I was standing on my four.
“Shout your name! Louder! Shout your name!” I responded by shouting my name as loud as I could.
“Welcome to new life, guerrera!” El Brujo poured a bucket of water on me and opened the door. The flood of light blinded me, but I crawled out straight into it.
“Maybe we are Indians, but we are clean Indians”, he burst into laughter.
The ritual was over. Leaving more questions than answers. What was the meaning of the third door? Why in order to heal the soul, a person needs to meet the dead? The magic was just about to begin…
The magic continues in the next post: Wisdom of the Shaman: What Death can teach about Life?