Saturday, August 6, 2011

Maquiq: The Eskimo Sweat Bath, by John Maressa

This book is not one you are likely to encounter in any bookstore. It is an interesting account of the relationship of several groups of native peoples in Alaska to the sweat bath. One part I found particularly interesting is the regional use of urine in sweat bathing, a subject I have not encountered before. Human urine, a mild acid, had broad functional value, and helped to clean oily surfaces including the bodies of bathers. (200) This practice seems out of place today and I would not recommend it, but considering the available resources of the time it was an example of a resourceful strategy for survival in an environment that could be very hostile to human life. Maressa's book also contains more general statements regarding the use of the sauna in any culture or time period: “That an individual is physically relaxed after a sweat bath is easily accounted for, when one recalls the physiological up-temp that the body has previously undergone. Reversing this process (rapid cooling of the external temperature) causes relaxation of the systems and organs involved.” (69) Quoting Wendell Oswalt: “The bath has, at times, a therapeutic effect upon a tired or angry man. Baths are also taken to relieve the soreness in a limb or perhaps in an attempt to cure a head cold. There is one additional aspect of bathing which is difficult to characterise; this is the intoxicating effect of extremely hot baths.” (329) Maressa elaborates on this point: “The benefit of this “natural intoxicant” can be appreciated in two ways. Firstly, it helped to relieve an individual from the strains of a physically strenuous existence.... Secondly, since the Eskimo were not known to have any other type of intoxicant before the coming of the fur traders [is this substantiated?], the sweat bath fulfilled a comparable function and in so doing, provided a safety-valve for frustrations in this potentially depressing environment.” (330)

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