Modern-Day Rebirthing Rituals of the Ancient Maya

Lisa is a sophomore at USC who recently traveled to Mexico and took part in a Mayan ‘rebirth’ ceremony.



“When I was in Mexico my mom and I did this traditional Mayan ‘out of the womb’ rebirth ceremony thing. We started this town called Dos Palmas and hiked for a couple miles out to this remote cave and spelunked pretty far down into to a cavern where they lit a bunch of fires and somehow created this sauna, steam room type thing. Have you ever done hot yoga? Like that but hotter. People would take turns throwing – I don’t know what they actually were but everytime someone threw one in it would spark up the fire really big and cool. And as each person did it, they would face a different direction and recite a prayer to each of the four elements, you know – earth, air, water, fire; the whole thing was basically a ceremony giving thanks to the four elements and asking for blessings from the different animal spirits. I don’t really remember to be honest – it got so hot down there I literally thought I was gonna die. A few people actually passed out so I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Anyway after we roasted in the cavern for forever they led us to a different one that had natural spring and we all took turns showering in it and the water was so nice and cold, I literally felt like a new person. Then they gave us this herbal tea that was actually pretty nasty but we sat in a circle and drank it and said some more prayers asking the gods to enlighten us and give us strength and stuff. Apparently I was reborn as warrior which is cool, but I was so happy to get out of there.”





Last semester I took an anthropology course on the Mayan Civilization where I learned that in Maya cosmology, caves were considered a sacred location that they believed served both as portals to the underworld and the place of human origin. That their rebirthing ceremonies took place here is only appropriate – they believed it to be the place of both the beginning and end of human life. The fire-spark ceremony combined with the prayer to the four elements could serve as a way to ward off the evil spirits the Maya believed inhabited these caves, replacing these with the good will of the animal spirits that they attained by offering up thanks for the various blessings that the good spirits bestowed on them. The rebirth ritual was for human life but indirectly; in thanking the good spirits and fostering an appreciation for the earth and its bountiful natural resources, the ritual insured continued sustenance and agricultural fertility.


While Lisa joked that in the intense heat and steam she felt like she was going to die, that was the point of the ritual – the virtual death of mind and body in order to allow for a new vitality. She made a reference to hot yoga, a branch of hatha yoga practiced by Hindus that focuses on physical and mental strength building exercises by subjecting the participants to extreme heat and physical stress. Similarly, in the Maya ‘out of the womb’ ritual participants are put through extreme conditions that, once alleviated, make them appreciate the blessings that humans often overlook and encourage them to live life every day aware of how the earth and elements bless you.

This rebirth ritual was a practice done by ancient Mayans and is now marketed as a tourist attraction to travelers visiting Mexico and other central American countries. Is the ritual carried out in the same manner that the ancient Maya practiced it, or has it been adapted to cater to the demands of the tourists? And if it has, does that even matter, or does the intent behind the ritualistic practice carry the more significance?