The Ritual Bath (and why you should make it a habit)

The Ritual Bath (and why you should make it a habit)

I’m obsessed with medieval European history and culture, but there are some modern conveniences that I think our medieval ancestors would covet, and which I would find a terrible torture to give up in the pursuit of romantic medieval nostalgia:

Bar Soap

Running Water

Electric Water Heaters

The average medieval commoner throughout Europe probably didn’t bathe very often, if in fact, ever. The ancient Greeks and Romans were known for their bathhouses fed by aqueducts and springs, but the rest of society in the Middle Ages had varying degrees and methods of hygiene. Soap was somewhat of a luxury, as well as a lot of work, and when your entire day was spent working in a field or at some other hard labor, it probably didn’t matter much whether you smelled of violets or cow manure. Existence and survival won out over any luxury. Before it was a standard concept that disease was spread through germs and unhygienic conditions, it was thought that bathing was immoral, a gateway to sin, idle waste of time, or that the body odor was a “repellent to disease” (It was a repellant, for sure, but of disease?).

Without the benefit of central heat, the modern water heater, or a vessel big enough to submerge an adult, baths may have seemed more work than they were worth.

Imagine this, if you will:

You had to heat water over a fire, or just deal with the cold.

You had to pour buckets of the heated water into a large basin or barrel (if you had one!) until full, which could mean many, many buckets.

You had to strip down to your chemise (nudity was immoral!) in a room with mud as insulation, hopefully near the fire.

…And by the time you actually get into the wash basin, the water is cold.

Not to mention that the woman of the house would have been responsible to obtain the water from the well or stream, heat it over the fire for the man of the house who bathed first, hopefully get to bathe herself in the same water now cold and filthy, I’m sure, and then finally bathe the children (hence the phrase “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”). And, as if that wasn’t enough, wooden basins were lined with sheets of linen to protect your nether regions from splinters, which meant the removal of a huge soaking wet sheet after your “relaxing” bath.

That scenario does not encourage habitual bathing.

Let’s stray from the hygienic purpose of bathing for a while and explore a few of the rituals so closely connected to our quest for cleanliness.

The Ritual of Baptism: The Rite of Baptism is directly related to cleanliness, in this case, cleanliness of the soul or spirit. Whether by being submerged in a natural stream or river, or by consecrated liquid being poured over the head, the effect is the same: the ritualistic washing away of sin.

Judaic Ritual Bathing (Mikveh): The Jewish Orthodox ritual of the mikvah is observed in preparation before the Sabbath, after the menstrual period, and to purify the bather before spiritual practice. The Bridal Mikveh symbolizes the spiritual rebirth of the bride and groom.

Hoodoo Ritual Bathing: If good luck is sought, one must bath with upward strokes to the body, and if removal of evil is the intended purpose, one must bathe with downward strokes to the body. To dispose of the ritual bath water, it is to be thrown to the East before sunrise accompanied by a prayer.

Japanese Ritual Bathing: Misogi means “ritual purification with water”. Bathing after a funeral is another ritualized bathing observed in certain Japanese customs.

The Greeks and Romans, as well as many other cultures, bathed before battle, before religious ceremony, and for healing purposes.

Since time indefinite, people of all cultures have submerged their bodies in natural bodies of water to purify, sanctify, and to worship deities and elements associated with water. Many mythical Gods and Goddesses are associated with bathing and water rituals, most notably Hygieia, the Greek Goddess associated with health, cleanliness, and sanitation, and from which the word “hygiene” is derived.

A few other Gods and Goddesses associated with water that you may or may not have heard of:

Apam Napat – Hindu God of Fresh Water, such as in rivers and lakes

Boann – Irish Goddess of the River Boyne

Chalchiuhtlicue – Aztec Goddess of water, lakes, rivers, seas, streams, horizontal waters, storms, and baptism.

Ganga – Hindu Goddess of the Ganges River

Glanis – Gaulish God associated with a healing spring

Grannus – Celtic God associated with spas, healing thermal and mineral springs

Lir – Irish God of the sea

Mami Wata – Yoruba pantheon of water spirits associated with healing and fertility

Mímir – Norse God of the Spring of Mímisbrunnr, which gives the drinker wisdom and  from which Odin sacrificed an eye to drink from

Naiades – Greek Fresh Water Nymphs

Nephthys – Egyptian Goddess of Rivers

Nerthus –  Norse Goddess of Lakes, Springs, Holy Waters

Oshun – Yoruba deity of rivers, beauty, sensuality.

Sinann – Irish Goddess of the River Shannon

Sequana – Gaulish Goddess of the River Seine

Suijin Shinto – Japanese God of Water

Sulis – Celtic Goddess of the hot springs at Bath, England

Tlaloquetotontli – Aztec Goddess of the rivers.

Vedenemo – Finnish Goddess of Water

Volturnus – Roman God of the Waters

In modern times, we have moved away from ritualistic style baths and opted for the quick shower solely for cleansing purposes. We have been conditioned by the phrase “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. We grew up with mothers that forced us into the bath before bed, whether we thought we needed it or not. Media inundates us with ads for soaps and cleaning products to protect us from germs.

But I believe the strongest influence comes from our own brains, connected by the spider web of time to the knowledge that water is more than two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom.

When we feel that we need an escape, to unwind and relax, to rid ourselves of our mundane stressors – we hear the siren’s call – we feel the need to reconnect with water, and through it be cleansed.

Why do we need a good long soak in the tub when we’re sick, either physically or mentally?

Why do we “need a shower” after a mentally stressful day?

Why, when vacations are discussed, is it always towards the ocean or pools that our compass points?

Why is it so relaxing to sit with your feet in a stream or pond?

It’s the ritual washing away of the negative.

It’s the ritual absorption of the positive.

Turn down the lights
Light a candle or two
And let the mundane wash down the drain

In a large bath of warm water (almost too warm) add:

1 cup Sea Salt, Epsom Salt, or Dead Sea Salt (Purifies and detoxifies, reduces swelling)

¼ cup Honey (Humectant)

¼ cup Coconut Milk (Skin softening)

20 drops of Lavender Essential Oil (Sedative, promotes skin cell regeneration)

10 drops of Clary Sage Essential Oil (Releases nervous tension and depression, sedative)

5 drops of Vetiver Essential Oil (Calming, tonic for dry skin)

Soak until the water becomes tepid

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