Water plays an important role when it comes to hygiene and sanitary activities, especially in public places. In fact, water is considered pure and a symbol of purification in almost every religion, both past and present.
Right from the time, mankind invented rituals and deities, the concept of purification got attached to different rituals. The act of cleaning oneself does not denote cleanliness from dirt but also freedom from spiritual impurities.
Demons in the Toilets
The toilets and sewers were invented throughout the world in the third millennium BCE. Along with the invention came a belief that demons loiter in the toilets. However, where there are demons, there are deities too. So, the idea that guardians were protecting the toilets came into the picture.
While demons are horrid, the guardians protected people from the dangers that were created by the demons. Every culture owns a different attitude towards cleanliness and health since ancient times. The approach has laid importance on maintenance of the toilets in every household.
According to an article published in Nepal’s My Republica, in a place called Bahjang, women were not allowed to use toilets during their menstruation days and post-delivery period as they believed that deities hate menstrual blood. It is indeed strange as latrines are supposed to be considered dirty. The answer to this thought lies in the old ideas of purification.
Why bathing was uncommon in medieval Europe
In Medieval Europe Christians were prohibited from bathing naked and, overall, the church began to not approve an “excessive” indulgence in the habit of bathing, it was even considered to be sinful. This culminated in the Medieval church authorities proclaiming that public bathing led to immorality, promiscuous sex, and diseases.
This latter “disease” point was very common; it was believed in many parts of Europe that water could carry disease into the body through the pores in the skin. According to one medical treaty of the 16th century, “Water baths warm the body, but weaken the organism and widen pores. That’s why they can be dangerous and cause different diseases, even death.” It wasn’t just diseases from the water itself they were worried about. They also felt that with the pores widened after a bath, this resulted in infections of the air having easier access to the body. Hence, bathing became connected with spread of diseases, not just immorality.
For some lower class citizens, particularly men, this resulted in them largely forgoing bathing whenever possible. During this time, people tended to restrict their hygienic arrangements to just washing hands, parts of the face, and rinsing their mouths. Washing one’s entire face was thought to be dangerous as it was believed to cause catarrh and weaken the eyesight, so even this was infrequent.
Water and its Importance in Different Religions
The famous proverb, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” by John Wesley in 1778 is followed by almost every religion in the world. Washing oneself before paying homage to the deities has become a part of many ancient religions.
In the old Egypt, people wash their faces and hands before praying to Goddess Isis. Priests, in fact, bathed at least twice, during the day and twice at night. Christian author Tertullian (c.155-240 CE) says that water has natural cleansing properties and an essence of holiness to it. It can remove all blemishes or stains to open the way to a new state of existence.
In India, people believe that water has the power to give life and strength along with purity. The followers of Hindu God Brahma, the creator God, bathed once or twice a day and often rinsed their faces and hands. Hinduism imposes ritual bathing in the waters of sacred rivers and is followed even today.
Just as Hinduism, in the Jewish religion, the ritual bath Mikvah was ordered by Moses. Mikvah is technically not a cleansing bath as the person needs to wash thoroughly before opting for this ritual. In Islam, Muslims wash their hands, face, and feet before each of the five obligatory prayers of the day.
The Islamic culture introduced the concept of public baths to the world. However, the word hammam derives from Arabic word hamma which means “to warm.” Hammam is known to the world as the famous Turkish bath, and it carries more essence to it than just a bath. Hammam is practiced extensively in the Turkish and Arabic culture. It is a way to cleanse your body while having fun at the same time.
Water certainly plays a pivotal role when it comes to hygiene and sanitary activities along with the practices followed by various religions across the world.