The man raises the conch shell to his mouth and blows into it, its foghorn sound saluting the spirits as he turns to the six directions. Turning with him, women in embroidered blouses and long skirts raise smoking incense burners to the east, west, north, south, earth and sky. This call begins the ancient ritual of the temazcalli, or Aztec sweat lodge. Before entering the lodge, the women say a prayer and brush each person with incense smoke.
The people who we now refer to as Aztecs were the Mexicas (pronounced me-shee-kas), part of the larger group of Nabuas, the people who speak the Nahuatl language. This language brought us the origins of several of our modern words, including "tomato," "avocado," and "chocolate." Today, an estimated 1.5 million people, mostly in Central Mexico, still speak this ancient tongue (1). And the sacred teachings of the ancestors of these people are not lost, rather are still alive in the small towns and countryside of Central Mexico.
Curanderos (healers) within this lineage still help people with many complaints--from the physical to the spiritually giving the affected person a limpia, a specialized ritual for bringing balance back to the body and spirit. The word "limpia" literally means "cleansing," and this cleansing can come in a variety of forms. Similar to the more familiar practice called "smudging" of the Native Americans of NorthAmerica, for some complaints a curandero may give a person in need a limpia with a tree resin incense called copal (pictured above). After lighting this pleasant-smelling incense, the curandero waves the smoke over the front, sides and back of the person's body, often while repeating a prayer for cleansing. Sometimes these prayers mention Catholic saints; the Nahuas were suppressed by the Spanish during and after the conquest, and they incorporated Catholic phrases and personages into their practices in order to keep their spiritual tradition alive and well under their new rulers.
Other physical or spiritual issues may require limpias administered differently: by brushing the person's body with bundles of healing herbs or branches (tarragon and basil pictured below). In many cases, the intention of the limpia is to actually draw out illness and negative...