The scene is familiar; a baby plays in the tub navigating through billows of no-tear bubbles, while his mother looks on adoringly. For most of us, this is a common memory we share from childhood. Baths in buckets, baths in the sink, baths with siblings where soap finds its way into your eyes.
But bathing as an ordinary, everyday activity? Think again. History reveals an endless expanse of meanings and rituals associated with bathing. Whether in the saunas of Scandinavia or the steaming bathhouses of ancient Japan, bathing rituals vary from the profane to the sacred and all things in between.
A Roman Rinse
In ancient Rome bathing was a leisure activity, best conducted in public facilities similar to a modern spa or health club, and it was Rome that transformed bathing into an elaborate art form.
The Roman aqueducts were statuesque, brilliant displays of architecture that were among the greatest achievements of the ancient world. Complete with running water, indoor plumbing and sewer systems, the sophistication of these aqueducts enabled the Romans to build their famous bathhouses.
Mixed gender bathing was generally frowned upon in these early baths. The issue remained a hot topic in Roman public discourse and several emperors forbade it, indicating that cultural scruples were not always enough to keep the genders separate. While women of a certain class did not frequent the baths when men were there, the baths were an excellent place for prostitutes to cultivate their customer base.
Before entering the bath, patrons were required to have the dirt and oil scraped off their bodies with a curved metal implement called a strigil. Once patrons were scraped clean, they could begin their bathing ritual. Followed by a slave who would carry their towels, oil flasks and strigils, bathers could proceed at a leisurely pace through the many different rooms and pool areas.
Although these bathhouses emerged from a practical need for personal hygiene, they became mainstay functions of Roman society, often doubling as games rooms, libraries, and even snack bars. The public bath was where courtship occurred, neighborhood gossip was circulated, and business deals were sealed. During the height of the Roman Empire the communal bathhouse embodied the ideal Roman way of life and was an undeniable facet of Roman identity.
Japan’s Hot Water Shops
By contrast, in Japan, bathing assumed a religious significance and many of Japan’s early bathhouses were actually found in temples. These baths were called yūy, which literally translates into ‘hot water shop.’ Here each customer was given a small allotment of hot water to use upon entering the facility. Hoping to retain as much of the precious heat as possible, the openings to these early baths were tiny portals that were barely large enough to crawl through. Because of the small entries, light was scarce, forcing customers to grope their way through the bath, clearing their throats to announce their arrival, as they poked and prodded their way through the dark to find a spot.
Not unlike in Roman culture, proponents of traditional Japanese values clashed regularly with proprietors of public bathhouses, accusing them of encouraging licentiousness. Indeed it was common for female bathing attendants, known as yun, which translates to “hot water woman”, to assist male users with the bathing process and often this assistance did lead to illicit sexual encounters.
Today in Japan, as in many other countries, the ease and accessibility of private bathrooms has led to a decrease in public bathing. While the younger generations may feel embarrassed being seen naked, many of their elders believe that without the “skinship” of communal nakedness, children will not experience accurate socialization. Bathhouses are currently attempting to re-vamp their product so that modern Japanese will feel more inclined to continue the tradition, building behemoth, super venues that include water slides, fitness centers and restaurants.
The Saunas of Scandinavia
In the frigid northern reaches of Europe, wood heated saunas have traditionally allowed users the opportunity to bathe without freezing, while also enjoying a leisure activity in a meeting place where neighbors and friends can relax together.
Finland is considered the sauna capital of the world and Finns regard the sauna as an integral part of life. For the Finns too, the nude sauna is not a sexual environment or an erotic practice. Finns often ask business partners or distant acquaintances to attend a sauna and many Finnish families sauna together, sans clothing, without any big fuss. For many people, the idea of sitting naked next to near-strangers is both intimidating and embarrassing, but the Finns remain undeterred by fears of mutual nakedness and maintain the tradition of the nude sauna.
Purging Body and Soul
Halfway around the world in India, an estimated 2,000,000 people a day bathe together in the Ganges River. Considered holy by the Hindus, the Ganges is where devout Hindus’ come to honor the beginning and end of the life cycle, celebrating birth and death along the banks of the mythical, sludge-colored river. On any given day thousands of Indians gather along the banks of the Ganges to bathe, pray, brush their teeth, defecate and cremate the bodies of the deceased.
The river’s spiritual significance has resulted in severe contamination and the Ganges is filled with chemical waste, raw sewage and the remains of recently cremated corpses. It is not uncommon to spot charred body parts floating next to a woman bathing, next to a sadhu praying, next to children brushing their teeth. The authenticity of the scene unfolding along the banks is riveting. The potent combination of holiness, cleanliness and death merged into one sensory experience makes the Ganges a truly landmark bathing site.
Getting Steamed Up
Our very own Eddie Frank, during his long 5-month overland expeditions across Africa, used to take his trip members to his favorite underground hamam, (public baths) in Algeria, in the Sahara Desert. The baths were open to men on even days of the week, and to women on odd days. As everyone was naked in the bathhouse, Eddie learned the hard way about personal conduct. On his first visit, he accidentally exposed his buttocks to the underground world. The local bath manager got quite upset and “explained” to Eddie in no uncertain terms, that this was unacceptable conduct, and banished him above ground.
While most of us in the West enjoy an undeniably private (and hopefully daily) bath, and while many cultures around the world still maintain their tradition of public bathing (sexuality not allowed), there has been a recent spike in novel bathing fads such as – mud as zit remover; fish eating dead skin off spa-goers’ feet; not to mention the billion dollar market in kids’ bath toys. But for most people, hot running water and a sponge still does the trick.