Steam Bath

Steam Bathing: From Historic Roots to Modern Practice

The practice of steam bathing is an ancient one. As far back as the Neolithic period, some 12,000 years ago, it is believed that humans began gathering at natural hot springs for cleansing, relief from cold, and social connection. The earliest steam baths were likely made in caves, and as civilizations developed, more and more sophisticated bathing structures emerged. In Yorkshire, England, archaeologists recently found a 4,000-year-old wooden monument, known as “Woodhenge,” that may have been used as a sauna or steam bath. Another recent discovery, carved into limestone bedrock in Guatemala, is believed to be a steam bath from the ancient Mayan city of Nakum. These miraculous finds illuminate a long history of steam bathing as well as provide insight into its popular resurgence today.

Steam Baths in Ancient Greece and Rome

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, steam bathing was an integral part of daily life. From Homer to Hippocrates, Greece’s most famous philosophers and physicians wrote about the importance of these restorative baths. Taking their cue from the Greeks, the Romans continued the practice and made it their own, enhancing the social and architectural aspects. While Greek baths tended to be smaller and more intimate, Roman steam showers were often very large and included a variety of rooms and facilities, from swimming pools to relaxation areas. Aqueducts were created to serve the baths, which exhibited sophisticated water and heating systems. In many cases the public baths were egalitarian meeting places, open to all and generally accessible at no cost or for only a small entrance fee.
Both the Greeks and Romans recognized the many benefits of steam bathing, from personal hygiene to therapeutic applications. They used varying temperatures to produce the desired effects, slowly acclimating the body to greater and greater heat and then cooling it with a cold plunge. They also incorporated salts, herbs, oils, and other natural elements to elevate the steam’s cleansing and healing powers.

Steam Baths in Mesoamerica

In ancient Mesoamerica Indigenous peoples like the Maya and Aztecs used temazcales, sweat lodges made of volcanic rock where cleansing and relaxation were achieved through steam. Not only did they believe that the steam could relieve illness and other maladies, but the practice was also a spiritual ceremony—a source of comfort and a way to reconnect with your inner self. Anyone from battle-weary soldiers to pregnant women would engage in the practice; indeed, the temazcal was considered a womb of sorts—a place of transition from one realm to the next. A healer called a shaman would act as a guide, and hallucinogenic drugs such as peyote were often used to enhance the experience.

The Decline of Steam Bathing

After its origination in the ancient world, steam bathing found its way into cultures all over the globe, from Russia to Turkey to Japan. These traditions continued for centuries, but at different points in history, the use of steam baths began to wane. There are a number of theories as to why this happened, including wars, the spread of colonialism, and even cultural movements. During the Enlightenment in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, for instance, a shift toward science, reason, and individuation from the church resulted in the abandonment of formerly vital rituals and practices. But around the time of the Industrial Revolution steam bathing saw a revival, which has continued to the present day.

Steam Bathing in the Twenty-First Century

In recent years an explosion of interest in health and wellness has made steam bathing as popular as ever. An entire field of thermal medicine has emerged, backing up these millennia-old practices with modern science. All over the world baths are back in use, by the young and the old alike. In New York City a 124-year-old Russian bathhouse is still in business and attracting a new crop of clientele. In Mexico travelers come from far and wide to experience an herb-scented steam bath in a Mayan temazcal.

But you don’t have to travel to enjoy the many health benefits of steam bathing. Many people take advantage of local gym or spa facilities, while others enjoy steam bathing in the privacy of their own homes. Building your own steam shower is easier and more affordable than you might think, and you can personalize it by incorporating aromatherapy, music, lighting, and other enhancements. However you enjoy steam, know that you are continuing a time-honored tradition that both connects us to our ancient past and will take us into the future.