Friday, January 14, 2011

El Tuj

CNN iReport recently posted a video depicting a Mayan sweathouse in the highlands of Guatemala. This brief video prompted memories of my own experience in Guatemala and inspired me to research some background information regarding the cultural practices of the Mayan people.

My Experience of the Mayan Sweathouse

From 1991 to 1993 I served an LDS mission in the Central American nation of Guatemala. About two months after I arrived, I was assigned to work in a rugged, back-woods area known as Momostenango, where the local people were primarily Mayan. Most of the adult men spoke both Spanish and Quiché, one of several Mayan dialects, but many of the women and the elderly only spoke Quiché.

For two months, I lived and worked in the small town of San Bartolo Aguascalientes, named for its volcanic hot springs.

The people of San Bartolo were very private and reserved. In the local cemetery, I once witnessed a group of indigenous people performing prayers for the dead where they burned copal on the graves and sang in the Quiché language. The spirit of their ritual appealed to me, but when they noticed my presence, they turned their backs and effectively placed a psychic barrier between their prayers and my unwitting intrusion. In hindsight, I appreciate the appropriateness of their actions. I was, after all, an outsider seeking to change their spiritual practices, but as a young man, I was always disappointed that the people largely withheld their beliefs from me.

I first encountered a Mayan sweathouse near the hot springs of San Bartolo. My companion and I were walking down a dirt road when I noticed a small, round structure made of stones and mud. I became animated and excited, as if I had found a long lost friend in a strange and distant land. My companion snapped this picture, but we never got to speak to anyone about it.

A few months later, I was transferred to perhaps the most remote place in the mission; a place called Choquí, at least a two hour hike beyond the last section of paved highway. We lived in a small apartment attached to the LDS church while everyone else lived in small adobe houses with rooftops made of ceramic tile or thatch. In fact, the church was the only modern structure in the town. Even so, we still had no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity. We cooked on a Coleman stove and used a gas lantern for our evening reading light. Once a week, the church sent a jeep with two barrels of water, one for me and one for my companion. Those two barrels had to serve all our needs for a full seven days – drinking, cooking, bathing, house cleaning – everything.

Choquí was something of a cultural anomaly. The people were 100% Mayan and almost 100% Mormon. In fact, from the doorstep of our little apartment, I used to look out over the valley and count the Mormon steeples from the neighboring towns. Several miles away stood the LDS chapel in the tiny village of Patulup, and a few miles beyond that was the chapel at Nimtzituj.

The people in that area embraced Mormonism en masse during the late 1970s, but a strong undercurrent of ancient Mayan practices persisted.

We once arrived unannounced at the home of the LDS branch president in one of the neighboring villages. As we entered the main room of the house, the branch president and his counselors, along with many other members of the branch, were all dancing in a circle to the sound of drums, flutes, and deer hoof rattles. Many of the people wore animal masks with antlers on their heads. When the branch president saw us, he raised one hand to stop the music and then spoke directly to us, “Elders, I apologize, but today is my son’s birthday and we are having a little dance in his honor.” I thought it strange that he should ask our forgiveness, but I later learned that the Guatemalan establishment had a long and bloody history of suppressing indigenous practices and persecuting its original people. Perhaps the branch president feared our disapproval as official representatives of the church.

Despite some cause for concern, some of the local members came to trust me.

Every Tuesday night the entire region came alive with campfires, like hundreds of orange flickering stars on the dark hillside. I asked Gerónimo, a 15 year boy who acted as our translator and guide, “Why are there so many fires?”

He paused as if to measure his response, but then he provided a simple answer, “La gente está tujeando.” I was unfamiliar with the verb tujear, and when I questioned him, he explained that tuj is a traditional Mayan sweathouse used for personal bathing. Essentially he created a Spanish verb by combining the Mayan noun tuj with the Spanish verb ending –ar. As I listened to his explanation, I became animated, just as I did in San Bartolo when we first saw the sweathouse by the road. I practically begged him to invite me, but Gerónimo paused again and said, “I’ll talk to my dad.”

Several days later, Gerónimo returned and informed me that his father had invited us to tujear at their home. I was beyond excited for this amazing opportunity.

In many ways, the Mayan tuj we experienced is different from the sweathouses on the Spokane Reservation. For one, the tuj was made entirely of stone and mud. On one side of the structure, they used the same volcanic rocks that we use in Spokane, but they were permanently fixed into the wall. They literally leaned the fire against the outside wall of the house until the inside wall glowed bright red.

The space between the volcanic rocks allowed smoke to fill the sweathouse, so several minutes before we entered, Geronimo’s father Anastasio opened the door and allowed the smoke to escape. Even so, the interior walls remained coated in thick black soot. We stripped down naked, with the exception of a hat that the old man gave us for keeping the ashes out of our hair. Well, one of us got to wear a straw hat and the other had to wear half of a rubber ball in place of a hat. Once inside, Anastasio encouraged us to breathe the hot steam and to strike our skin with bundles of medicinal leaves that he provided.

After several minutes, I explained that my family also uses a form of steam bath where we purify ourselves and pray. I asked, “Do you pray inside the tuj?”

He measured his response and said, “Elder, you’re a missionary. You know that we’re supposed to pray at all times and in all places.”

“But is the tuj a spiritual place?” I pressed.

He paused a moment and answered, “No. We only use the tuj to clean our bodies.”

After the sweat, we went outside and sat under the clear evening moonlight. The family had set up a temporary partition made of blankets and old bed sheets, creating a private outdoor bathing area. As we waited, we were told that someone would soon provide hot water for us to wash away the ashes from our skin.

As a humorous side note to this story, it was Gerónimo’s sister who arrived with a large pail of hot water. I’ll never forget her innocent voice as she said, “Elder, do you want more water?” As missionaries, we had taken the Mormon equivalent of a two-year vow of celibacy, so imagine our shock when this young woman entered unannounced and saw our nakedness. She was not the least bit disturbed, but my companion and I literally dived for cover in a rush to hide ourselves from view.

As I reflect on this experience, I feel fortunate to have participated in the Mayan sweathouse. Even though they said the tuj was not a spiritual practice, I could not help feeling connected to the spirit of that land.  

By the way, I re-checked my mission journal and read that I participated twice in the tuj, once on December 28, 1991 with Elder. B. and once on January 15, 1992 with Elder S. It's odd that this experience made such an impact on me, but I wrote very little. After the first sweat, I simply wrote:

"I sweat today in a tuj. It was cool, but I feel really tired. Well, I went in tired and came out even more so. I'm going to eat and then go straight to bed."

After the second sweat I wrote: "Elder ___. and I went to the Tuj with Jerónimo and the family. It feels so good to come out of there. I feel all clean now."

The only explanation I have for the brevity of my comments is that we got up extremely early and walked between 8 and 10 a day just getting to our various appointments. By the end of the day I was usually quite exhausted. We really had very little time or energy for personal matters like journal-writing or letters.

An Ancient Practice

My reading suggests that the Mesoamerican sweathouse has a lengthy documented history, dating back to the Late Classic period between 600 and 900 C.E. (Ichon). In fact, the 16th century Magliabechiano Codex clearly depicts an Aztec sweathouse, as shown above.

In reality, the practice probably pre-dates the written and archaeological records.

Some researchers suggest that use of the sweathouse is in decline; however, as Cresson says, “the bath is still an important feature in many Native American communities. In the Guatemalan highlands, it goes by a number of terms, of which Quiché tuj is perhaps the best known. Scholars, though, are more likely to refer to them as temazcal, from the Nahuatl term temascalli, ‘a house like an oven where people bathe themselves.’”

By many accounts, the Aztec and Mayan sweathouses had a deep spiritual importance. Archaeologists have uncovered sweathouses in the heart of ceremonial complexes throughout the Aztec and Mayan cultural regions, which would seem to suggest their importance in ritual and spiritual events.

By the 1500s, Aztec communities had already established specific rituals related to the sweathouse. “Magliabechiano describes the elaborate rituals necessary for entering the bath, including the burning of incense and the daubing of black paint over the body in honor of the god Tezcatlipoca. Analogous rituals, including the veneration of the ‘spirit of the steam bath’ usually addressed as ‘mother’ or ‘grandmother’ and possessing both positive and negative qualities are still performed throughout Central Mesoamerica” (Houston).

Despite the assertion of Gerónimo’s family to the contrary, sweathouses are still used as a medicinal and spiritual practice throughout Mexico and Central America. In some places they are used to restore imbalances of the body, to eliminate fevers, and to ‘sweat out’ a variety of illnesses (Cresson).

Sweathouses also have a strong connection to midwives and childbirth. In some communities, women give birth inside the sweathouse as a means of healing the mother, blessing the newborn child, and protecting the community from an imbalance in the powerful spiritual forces associated with pregnancy (Cresson).

Cresson quotes Wagley regarding the relationship between the sweathouse and the Mayan people:

“The afterbirth should be buried in the floor of the sweathouse, which is attached to the family dwelling. There is a belief that the afterbirth continues to be part of the individual.... Each individual should therefore know where his afterbirth was buried. Later, one may be sick and the soothsayer's divinations may indicate that the treatment calls for prayers to be offered in front of the sweathouse in which one was ‘first bathed’ and in which the afterbirth ‘lives’. Thus, when a birth occurs away from home on a trading trip or at a coffee plantation, the afterbirth should be cooked in a clay vessel until it is dry. In this form, it may be carried back to the village and buried in the family sweathouse. ‘The sweathouse will be happy again,’ said Diego Martin, ‘when the family returns with a new child and when there are fires in it again.’ Even after a person is adult, he should return to this same sweat bath from time to time to burn a candle and to pray. According to several of my informants, most people forget to observe this ritual until a crisis forces them to remember.”

But in fairness to Gerónimo and his family, they undoubtedly had good reasons to deny any spiritual component to the sweathouse. On the one hand, they may not have felt comfortable admitting to any pre-Christian practices in the context of Guatemala’s adversarial religious environment of the early 1990s. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the spiritual aspect of the sweat had in fact fallen out of practice in their community. As Cresson wrote, “The therapeutic uses of the sweat house are often accompanied by ritualistic practices adding a certain religious aspect to the whole procedure. Such religious practices, however, have been gradually dying out; the sweat house is now used more simply for cleanliness and its use as a medicinal treatment is becoming more secularized.”

Someday I hope to visit Momostenango again. When I do, I hope to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the spiritual reality of Guatemala's indigenous people.

Works Cited

CNN iReport. "Sweatin it out Mayan style." 11 January 2011. Ed. Tracy Bymoen. Percy von Lipinski and Tracy Bymoen. 11 January 2011 .

Cresson, Frank M. "Maya and Mexican Sweat Houses." American Anthropologist 40.No. 1 (1938): 88-104.

Houston, Stephen D. "Symbolic Sweatbaths of the Maya: Architectural Meaning in the Cross Group at Palenque." Latin American Antiquity 7.No.2 (1996): 132-151.

Ichon, Alain. "A Late Postclassic Sweathouse in the Highlands of Guatemala." American Antiquity 42.No. 2 (1977): 203-209.


the other guy said...

Hey, I ran into your blog. I served from 2006-2008. I was in Momos central Xepon and Panca but on several occasions I went to Choqui and once to San Bartolo.

Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

Wow! That is really cool. When did you serve?

I'm sorry that I did not attend to your comment sooner. For some reason, Blogger no longer alerts me when I receive comments.

In any case, I would love to hear about your experiences. Do share, if you feel so inclined.

Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

Oh yeah, you can always email me:


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