A Brief History
We may consider bathing as a necessary practice; as something we do for the purposes of hygiene – and yes, this is certainly one aspect of our ablutionary relationship with water. But, as sociologist Julia Twigg wrote twenty years ago, “Baths have not always had the meaning that we give to them today. The close association that we make of bathing with getting clean is a relatively recent one.”
What we perhaps now think of in terms of ‘having a bath’ has traditionally been viewed as ‘bathing’: throughout cultures and centuries, immersing oneself in water has had a significance that is ritualistic, spiritual, healing and even social, as well as practical.
While we may now see our time in the bathroom as private, it was long viewed as a way of fostering connection between individuals. Reading descriptions of bathhouses in Greek and Roman times, it’s not difficult to imagine that these were the ancient equivalent of bars and boardrooms, with politics and finances discussed, and deals struck.
These gathering places were, perhaps, the precursors to contemporary spa days – except that instead of being seen as a ‘treat’ or ‘luxury’, they were part of the fabric of quotidian life.
Water has always been used to cleanse both body and soul, to regenerate and revive. Immersion in water is, in some religions, a rite of spiritual purification, bringing one closer to their god – something we see in Christian baptism, Muslim ghusl, Jewish Mikvah and the Bathing of the Buddha.
From the earliest of times, water has been revered. There is a strange, almost mystical juxtaposition between its lack of odour, colour or form, on the one hand, and its vital importance, in sustaining and nourishing all life forms, on the other. Its meaning to mankind is both practical and therapeutic: early civilisations chose their sites according to the presence of water; and bathing has been prescribed as treatment since ancient times.
From culture to culture, there are variations in how water is used and how bathing is performed, but in each instance, both are imbued with a meaning and importance far beyond a perfunctory wash.