the bedestan blog

the bedestan blog

February 01, 2021

bath as protest: the origins of sweat lodges

hello friends. today we are sharing a story about the origins of sweat lodges, perhaps the world's most intentional bathing ritual. the passage below is from  legends told by the old people (a good medicine book). h/t to mikkel aaland, whose wonderful account of sweat lodges helped introduce us to this story.



Long ago, in the days of the Animal People, Sweat Lodge was a man. He foresaw the coming of Human Beings, the real inhabitants of the Earth. So one day he called all the Animal People together to give each one a name and to tell him his duties. In the council, the Sweat Lodge stood up and made a speech:


“We have lived on Earth for a long while, but we shall not be in our present condition much longer. A different People are coming to live here. We must part from each other and go to different places. Each of you must decide whether you wish to belong to the Animal beings that walk, fly or creep or those that swim. You may now make your choice.”


Then Sweat Lodge turned to Elk. “You will first come this way, Elk. What do you wish to be?”


“I wish to be what I am – an Elk.”


“Let us see you run or gallop,” said Sweat Lodge.


So Elk galloped off in a graceful manner, and returned.


“You are right,” decided Sweat Lodge. “You are an Elk.”


Elk galloped off, and the rest saw no more of him.


Sweat Lodge called Eagle and asked, “What do you wish to be, Eagle?”


“Just what I am – an Eagle.”


“Let us see you fly,” replied Sweat Lodge.


Eagle flew, rising higher and higher with hardly a ripple on his outstretched wings.


Sweat Lodge called him back and said, “You are an Eagle. You will be king over all the Birds of the Air. You will soar in the Sky. You will live on the crags and peaks of the highest Mountains. Human Beings will admire you.”


Eagle flew away happy. Everyone watched him disappear in the Sky.


“I wish to be like Eagle,” Bluejay told Sweat Lodge.


Wanting to give everyone a chance, Sweat Lodge said again, “Then let us see you fly.”


Bluejay tried to imitate the easy, graceful flight of Eagle, but failed to keep his balance and was soon flapping his wings.


Sweat Lodge called him back. “A Jay is a Jay. You will have to be content as you are.”


When Bear came forward, Sweat Lodge said, “You will be known among Human Beings as a very fierce Animal. You will kill and eat People, and they will fear you.”


Bear went off into the woods and has since been known as a fierce animal.


Then to all walking creatures, except Coyote, and to all flying creatures, to all Animals and Birds, all Snakes, Frogs, Turtles and Fish, Sweat Lodge gave names, and the creatures scattered.


After they were gone, Sweat Lodge called Coyote to him and said, “You have been wise and cunning. You have been a man to be feared. When this Earth becomes like the air, empty and void, your name shall last forever. The new Human Beings who come will hear your name and say, ‘Yes, Coyote was great in his time.’ Now, what do you wish to be?”


“I have long lived as a Coyote,” he replied. “I want to be noble like Eagle or Elk or Cougar.”


Sweat Lodge let him show what he could do. First, Coyote tried his best to fly like Eagle, but could only jump around, this way and that. Then he tried to imitate Elk in his graceful gallop. He succeeded for a short distance, but soon fell into his own gait. He stopped short and looked around.


“You look exactly like yourself, Coyote,” laughed Sweat Lodge. “You will be a Coyote.”


Poor Coyote ran off, howling, to some unknown place. Before he got out of sight he stopped, turned his head and stood – just like a coyote.


Sweat Lodge, left alone, spoke to himself: “All now are gone, and the new People will be coming soon. When they arrive they should find something to give them strength and power.


“I will place myself on the ground, for the use of Human Beings who are to come. Whoever visits me now and then, to him I will give power. He will become great in war and great in peace. He will have success in fishing and in hunting. To all who come to me for protection, I will give strength and power.”


Sweat Lodge spoke with earnestness. Then he lay down on his hands and knees and waited for the first People. He has lain that way ever since and has given power to all who sought it from him.

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