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The Sweat Lodge

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Hundreds of years ago there were numerous variations on the 'sweat lodge' theme found across Siberian, North European and North American cultures. The sauna offshoot remained common but the more 'spiritual' use of sweat lodges declined (along with the indigenous cultures themselves) until what I would call the 'sweat lodge revival' of the last twenty-five years or so.

Sweat lodge ceremonies are good for body cleanliness as the heat and the steam can help the body to get rid of toxins. The ceremony may also used for 'spiritual purification' purposes, to intensify prayers, invocations and magical intention. Some people use them to prepare for difficult tasks or handle crises of any sort.

The material here has been pooled from a number of authentic sources to produce a generic sweat lodge desciption (minus the ritual use of tobacco and pipe) that you can use either 'as is' or tailored to your own particular needs. (Here, for instance, one person is the 'giver' or 'leader' of the ceremony, who has a speaking part. Alternatively, though, you may choose to make the whole thing a group event, or you may choose to sweat in silence...).


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Check List

rotating dot landowner's permission
rotating dot a good spot, not too far from water or water tap
rotating dot sixteen ten-to-twelve-foot-length flexible willow or aspen branches or saplings
rotating dot thin trowel to make holes in the ground for branches or saplings
rotating dot strong string for tying lodge branches together
rotating dot blankets
rotating dot tarpaulins
rotating dot mats to sit on
rotating dot a big water container and a little water container for use in the lodge (eg a bucket and a ladle)
rotating dot sage, sweet grass, cedar, juniper, witch hazel or similar aromatic plant
rotating dot a good supply of logs
rotating dot coal
rotating dot spade for digging fire pit, rock pit etc
rotating dot besom (brush made with twigs) for brushing the ash off hot rocks
rotating dot large piece of plastic to put turf and soil on so that holes can be filled in afterwards
rotating dot buckets to hold water for putting out potential fires near the fire-pit
rotating dot twenty well-chosen water-worn rocks, without cracks or quartz seams, each roughly six inches in diameter
rotating dot pitch fork and rake to drag rocks out of the fire-pit
rotating dot metal bucket to carry rocks from fire-pit to sweat lodge
rotating dot food for the feast after the sweat
rotating dot drink for the feast after the sweat
rotating dot hand-drums
rotating dot each person should bring some kind of covering for the lodge, either very light clothes, a large towel, or a bathing costume
rotating dot each person should bring some warmer clothes to change into for the feast (possibly after a dip)

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Roles

a fire-tender/rock and water carrier/lodge door opener and closer
these three hats may be worn by one 'assistant' who role is then entirely supportive
a maximum of eight or ten 'sweat' participants (as many as will fit in the lodge)
a sweat lodge 'giver' who is responsible for setting the tone of the sweat lodge ceremony

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Building The Lodge

Choose a spot that feels good, with a good view if possible and reasonable access. The lodge should not be too far from water, whether you're lucky enough to have a river, a lake, or just a tap. If possible, arrange the lodge and fire-pit in an east-west line, with the lodge in the west (that is, on the left when you're facing north). Make sure that there is no risk of fire in the surrounding undergrowth in the spot that you've chosen. You can be building the lodge at the same time as you are preparing the fire-pit.

Put the large piece of plastic that you brought with you between the place for the lodge and the place for the fire-pit, so that, using buckets if necessary, you can put turf and soil from any holes that you dig onto the plastic and carefully slide it off to the side when you're done. Be careful to keep the turf and soil separate. Dig a hole to put hot rocks in, exactly in the centre of the place for the lodge. The hole should be eighteen inches to two feet deep and eighteen inches to two feet wide. Before you leave you can slide this plastic back again so that you can fill in the holes again and leave the place looking good.

Build a circular lodge that is about eight feet in diameter and four or five feet high. Using a trowel, embed the ends of the sixteen lodge branches or saplings in the ground. Bend the branches/saplings over so that opposite pairs can be tied together first. Tie it all together securely after you've done all eight pairs of branches/saplings. Don't forget to leave a gap for the door on the fire-pit side of the lodge.

When the frame is complete, cover the lodge with blankets and then tarpaulins. Use of two layers helps ensure that steam is kept in and draughts are kept out. As you're building it, you know that if no light is getting through to the inside then you're on the right lines. The door to the lodge should be a low entrance covered with a flap, and as with the rest of the covering, no light at all should get through when it's closed. Building the door flap can be quite tricky.

Mats should then be laid out around the perimeter of the sweat lodge for people to sit on, the large water container should be placed in the lodge full of water, along with a ladle or similar, and lastly a small stack of an aromatic herb such as juniper, cedar, sage or witch hazel should be placed by the hot-stone-pit on the side where the 'giver' will sit.

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Building The Fire Pit

The fire-pit should be about eight paces away from the sweat lodge, dug as a kind of trench that is six feet long the direction of the lodge, four feet across and about two feet deep. The ground should slope down to the lodge end of the trench so that rocks can be dragged out in this direction. After you've dug the pit then build up the fire-pit fire on a first layer of your biggest, densest logs, placing rocks, more logs, and coals on top of that.

When you've built up the fire, fill the fire-fighting buckets with water and put them close by in case of emergencies (especially to reduce the risk of fire from sparks that may fly off into the local undergrowth).

You can build the fire-pit at the same time as you are preparing the lodge.

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Before And After The Ceremony And Assistant Duties

Make sure that you choose a good location well in advance of the day of the sweat.

It is recommended that none of the participants eat any food at all on the day of the sweat until the feast after the sweat lodge ceremony. Cooked and uncooked food for the feast should be prepared the day before so that you don't even have to think about food during the sweat day (which can make fasting a whole lot easier).

Besides the food, you can do 'everything' in a day quite nicely as long as you start getting things together onsite before midday. Starting in the morning, dump all belongings on the edge of the space reserved for the feast. Building the lodge and preparing the fire-pit are tasks that don't need everyone to be involved though, so if you have brought hand-drums, now is a good time to play for the builders and diggers, to help get everyone in the mood.

The assistant responsible for tending the fire should light it a good two hours before the ceremony is due to start. This provides sufficient time for the rocks to be properly heated.

It may be a good idea, when the rocks are heating and everything else is ready, to take a little time out, to do anything that you want (like taking a walk in the forest). The giver of the sweat lodge should be responsible for setting a time when the ceremony starts in earnest. You should allow about three to four hours for the sweat lodge proper, and another three hours for the feast afterwards.
When the assistant has fished a rock out of the fire, he/she should brush the ash off the rock before carrying it over to the sweat lodge, as ash on the stones can make the atmosphere very smokey (and somewhat unpleasant) in the lodge. The assistant should be ready to open the lodge door from the outside (if necessary) when the giver calls. The assistant should also be on the lookout for sparks flying off into the undergrowth, and he/she should be ready to damp down the main fire with water if it gets out of control in any way.

Before leaving the site, deconstruct the sweat lodge, fill in the holes with soil and returf them. (Unless the site is going to be re-used in some way).

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The Sweat Lodge Ceremony

When people are gathering, just before the ceremony is due to start, when everyone is ready but before anyone has gone into the lodge, the assistant should put the first five hot stones into the sweat lodge's rock-pit. Then the 'giver' goes into the lodge first and sits down at the back opposite the entrance. One by one the others follow.

The giver then sprinkles water on the hot stones and passes the ladle round for everyone to take a sip. After sprinkling water on the stones, the giver may also put some pine needles/sage/witch hazel or similar on the hot stones as well. The more water is put on the stones, the steamier the air inside the lodge will be, but it will also be cooler, as the water will take the heat out of the stones. The sweat 'periods' will also tend to be shorter when more water is used. The giver should be aware of this trade-off.

The 'giver' speaks, shouts, chants or sings whatever prayer, invocation, magical intention or noise he/she has prepared. By way of example, I once read an account of a Cheyenne sweat lodge ceremony with a prayer to the spirits that went something like this:

'Spirits hear me. Spirits think especially of us here. Coming in may we leave behind all that is bad. Going out may good go with us. May we know the good. Especially remember me, poor as I am; help me. Take thought to all of us, remember all our relatives. May their way lie along the good road. Take thought to those we know who are suffering; let them walk joyfully once more. If I make a mistake, turn it into good. Everything I ask of you, grant me.'

Simple, heartfelt words are probably best, but that's up to you the giver. You may ask the people in the lodge to echo your words, or they might make other noises of some kind, perhaps using the voice or a simple instrument like a rattle at particular times. Perhaps after each different invocation on the part of the giver everyone sings the same song. Sprinkle a little more water, and more aromatic herbs, on the stones after twenty minutes or so. If this fits in with a 'pattern' in the ceremony then so much the better.

The full sweat is made up of four smaller sessions inside the sweat lodge. The giver decides when it's time to call a halt to each of the sessions. When the giver has said that it's time, people should extricate themselves from the lodge and take a short break. An average length of time for a session may be around forty minutes, but if you decide that a session should be shorter or longer than this, that's fine. When the giver has made it clear to both the participants and the assistant that it's time to take a break, everyone should leaves one at a time, with the giver leaving last. While everyone is out of the sweat lodge, the assistant takes this opportunity to put five more hot stones in the lodge's hot-stone-pit.

The giver then calls everyone back, he/she goes into the lodge first, and the others follow. The giver then sprinkles water on the hot stones again, passing the ladle round for everyone to take a sip, putting some more aromatics on the stones as well if there are any to hand. The second and third sweat sessions should follow a similar format to the first, with the same structure, and different content, or, maybe you want to keep things simple, so that the second and third sessions are the same as the first in every detail.

The fourth and final sweat session is traditionally silent.

After the last session, when the giver has called time, some people may want to go for a quick dip in a lake or river (if you've got a lake, river or swimming pool to hand) or you may want to just stand by the fire and gather yourself together again ready for socialising and being in the world again. You might want to change your clothes. When everyone's ready, it's time for the food and the festivities.

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Native American 'Religion'

Belief in a 'Great Spirit' was pretty much universal among the many diverse tribes. Also, a belief in 'lesser spirits' was not uncommon. People were considered to have spirits, as did animals, rocks and trees. But whereas there was really not much point in praying to or otherwise entreating the Great Spirit directly, other spirits could be approached, asked for help, invoked, and so on. Much of the time though, fate was seen to be in the hands of the individual, so that courage and humour were held to be particularly important.
Charles Eastman grew up with Lakota Souix in the nineteenth century, and he said:

'The original attitude of the American Indian toward the Eternal, the "Great Mystery" that surrounds and embraces us, was as simple as it was exalted. To him it was the supreme conception, bringing with it the fullest measure of joy and satisfaction possible in this life. The worship of the "Great Mystery" was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking. It was silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect... It was solitary, because they believed that He is nearer to us in solitude, and there were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker'.
The Soul of the Indian, Charles Alexander Eastman, 1858-1939.

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Contribution: Richard Ebbs, Leeds, England.

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