Sweat lodge

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The sweat lodge (also called purification ceremony, sweat house, medicine lodge, medicine house, or simply sweat) is a ceremonial sauna and is an important event in some North American First Nations or Native American cultures. There are several styles of sweat lodges that include a domed or oblong hut similar to a wickiup, or even a simple hole dug into the ground and covered with planks or tree trunks. Stones are typically heated in an exterior fire[1] and then placed in a central pit in the ground.

Contents

World examples

One of the early non-Indian occurrences can be found in the fifth century BC, when Scythians constructed pole and woolen cloth sweat baths.[2]

Vapour baths were in use among the Celtic tribes, and the sweat-house was in general use in Ireland down to the 18th, and even survived into the 19th century. It was of beehive shape and was covered with clay. It was especially resorted to as a cure for rheumatism.[3]

Native Americans in many regions employed the sweat lodge. For example, Chumash peoples of the central coast of California built sweat lodges in coastal areas[4] in association with habitation sites.

Traditions

Rituals and traditions vary from region to region and from tribe to tribe. They often include prayers, drumming, and offerings to the spirit world. In some cultures a sweat-lodge ceremony may be a part of another, longer ceremony such as a Sun Dance. Some common practices and key elements associated with sweat lodges include:

  • Orientation – The door usually faces the fire. The cardinal directions usually have distinct symbolism in Native American cultures. The lodge may be oriented within its environment for a specific purpose. Placement and orientation of the lodge within its environment often facilitates the ceremony's connection with the spirit world.
  • Construction – The lodge is generally built with great care and with respect to the environment and to the materials being used. Many traditions construct the lodge in complete silence, some have a drum playing while they build, other traditions have the builders fast during construction.
  • Clothing – In Native American lodges participants usually wear a simple garment such as shorts or loose dresses.
  • Offerings – Various types of plant medicines are often used to make prayers, give thanks or make other offerings. Prayer ties are sometimes made.
  • Support – In many traditions, one or more persons will remain outside the sweat lodge to protect the ceremony, and assist the participants. Sometimes they will tend the fire and place the hot stones, though usually this is done by a designated firekeeper. In another instance, a person that sits in the lodge, next to the door, is charged with protecting the ceremony, and maintaining lodge etiquette.
  • Darkness - Many traditions consider it important that sweats be done in complete darkness.

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