So you Want to Build a Sweat Lodge?
Many different civilisations throughout history have had their own iteration of what we now call a sauna but arguably none relied on theirs as much as the Native American people. A sweat lodge, sometimes referred to as simply a ‘sweat’ or perhaps more aptly a ‘medicine lodge’ or ‘medicine house’ was quite different to say, the Roman bathhouse. Instead of a large building build over hot springs these were far more simple to construct. A sweat lodge was instead a temporary structure that would have used water that was heated manually as opposed to naturally from the earth. The Native Americans used them for both everyday relaxation or cleansing and major events such as marriage, rite of passing rituals and even healing the sick.
Only one person in a camp or village would have the rite to build a sweat lodge and that person was the Medicine Man, a key figure in society who acted as both a spiritual leader and doctor for the people. It was seen as his responsibility to construct the lodge though he would be able to acquire help from selected villagers or tribesmen to help him construct it. They were usually built in the form of a dome shaped structure with animal hide used to coat its frame along with other natural materials. In order to generate the steam needed stones were heated up, usually from an exterior source and place in a dug out pit in the centre of the lodge, cold water would then be poured of these hot stones and steam would be generated.
Let’s Get Building
Great care was taken in the construction of these sacred buildings. The entrance was usually a small space that people would need to crawl through and it’s placement was important. It would usually face West toward the Evening Star or towards a sacred fire within the settlement. The building would also need to be placed near a source of water, aiding the the constant creation of the steam needed. Sizes varied amongst tribes and could hold anywhere between two and ten people. Large poles of wood were required to build the frame and the skins and often blankets too would need to completely cover them in order to keep the heat trapped in the lodge, this would mean adding a flap to cover the entry too. In order to create the healing and spiritual qualities needed for the rituals aromatic herbs like wild sage covered the floor. Finally the Medicine Man would apply a symbol of their spirit animal to the lodge, often in the form of an animal skull that would hang over the entrance.
You’re Ready to Go!
Once the sweat lodge had been built it would be used for sweat rituals that would both mark important events and be used to cleanse and heal. During the ritual the people involved pray for the universe, the spirits, animals and people as well as their own tribe and family. It was certainly a pivotal part of the Native American society and a key place of spiritual worship.