|Composite image made with a photo from the Library of Congress and a photo|
from the CIA World Factbook. See the Image Credits section below for more on
the original photos.
The sweat bath or steam bath was a type of sacred sauna that the Maya civilization built for a wealth of uses. A word for it in the Classic Period was pib' naah/pib na, which has been translated various ways, including "oven house." Archaeologists -- who have had to use post-Contact accounts a lot for understanding the ancient Maya view of sweat baths -- have come across different kinds of sweat baths all over the Maya area.
The oldest sweat bath that archaeologists have found yet is at a site in Belize called Cuello. It dates back to 900 BC -- this means that it was built during Preclassic Period, in the part called the Middle Preclassic. The ancient Maya kept building sweat baths through their history, into the Postclassic Period. Archaeologists have found that it was common for elites to build sweat baths in two types of places: cities' ceremonial centers and patios near their homes.
(Somewhat related to the history of the ancient Maya sweat bath, there's a theory that the ancient Maya affected the development of the sweat lodge in North America.)
Some Features of Note
The ancient Maya would build their sweat baths' roofs so the steam would be vented out. As for doors, when building a sweat bath, the Maya tended to use different kinds. There were times they also put in a drain. Archaeologists have also found remains of sweat baths that have benches in them.
For making steam, the Maya would build a hearth in the room called a firebox. This feature was put either in the middle of the room or in a wall. In the hearth, they would put rocks that had been heated. They would pour water on theses rocks to make the steam.
Sometimes the Maya made a sweat bath inside another building, and when they did this they had other rooms that were connected with the sweat bath, such as a room for changing. There was also a kind of sweat bath that was built with these other rooms -- but was not inside another building. (This last style looks like it was a lowland style.)
The ancient Maya used sweat baths as a way to help keep themselves healthy. They also had other uses, including when someone was giving birth, religious purifying rituals, and when someone was sick.
The Maya thought they could use sweat baths as a way of getting to the underworld. They thought sweat baths let them talk not only with previous generations that had died but gods as well.
Consideration: Possible Gods of the Sweat Bath
Speaking of religion, there's a theory that there were two deities that, among their different connections, were deities of sweat baths. Specifically, sweat baths in connection with giving birth.
One of them was goddess O. She was a goddess drawn as aged woman from the Postclassic Period that may or may not have been connected to the moon.
The second deity was Pauahtun (god N). Pauahtun was a god connected to the earth who was drawn as a man who, like goddess O, had reached old age.
Symbolic Sweat Baths and Other Symbolism
It's possible not all sweat baths were sweat baths, exactly, but symbolic ones. These are sweat baths that don't look like they ever had a way of heating them. It's possible that these sweat baths were somehow used for gods.
Speaking of symbolism, the ancient Maya thought that both leaving and entering a sweat bath had a meaning. Leaving was like a rebirth. Entering was like being eaten. (Archaeologists think the ancient Maya looked at entering a sweat bath as like being eaten because of some doors they found. These doors were built to look like the mouths of certain beings. There were also doors made to look like bellybuttons -- these also had the same meaning as the doors that look like mouths.)
Google Books: "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey; 2016
Google Books: "The Maya of the Cochuah Region: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on the Northern Lowlands"; Justine M. Shaw; 2015
Google Books: "Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul"; Andrew K. Scherer; 2015
Boston University: "A Tale of Three Plazas: The Development and Use of Public Spaces in a Classic Maya Ritual and Residential complex at Zultun, Guatemala"; Jennifer Carobine Groeger Wildt; December 2015
The Pennsylvania State Unversity: Cite Seer X: "Earth. Water. Sky.: The Liminal Landscape of the Maya Sweatbath"; Catherine Annalisa Miller; April 12, 2013
Google Books: "Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica"; Walter R.T. Witschey, Clifford T. Brown; 2012
Oklahoma State University: Edmon Low Library & Branch Libraries: Digital Collections: "The Effects of Sweat Therapy on Group Therapeutic Factors and Feeling States"; Stephen A. Colmant; December 2005
University of Illinois College ofLiberal Arts & Sciences: "A Place for Pilgrimage: The Ancient Maya Sacred Landscape of Cara Blanca, Belize"; Lisa J. Lucero, Andrew Kinkella
CIA World Factbook: Mexico
Library of Congress: Smoke Stacks (LOC); Alfred T. Palmer; c. 1939