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Hygiene in the ancient world

Updated on September 13, 2011

This hub was inspired by Hawkesdream's fabulous article, titled Spring Cleaning. Pleasure or Work?, which evoked pleasant memories of days long past when we used to do this activity together with my mother. His article in and of itself is a thoughtful and elaborate work telling you everything you need to know to do a good job on house cleaning. What I want to address now is something different, although, related to the topic of cleanliness. It is our false belief that hygiene is an invention of the modern man.

Why do I say this?

Have you ever seen a movie depicting the lives of our forefathers form the days before Christianity where the characters were portrayed as actually well-groomed, neat people. I haven't. Our prehistoric and medieval ancestors always tend to be filthy barbarians, face smeared with mud, teeth rotted out, clothes tattered and torn. In turn, why is it that French royals and their kind in the XVIIth and XVIIIth century, who are well known today for washing only once a year and covering their stench with exclusive perfumes, are portrayed as impeccable and perfectly clean ladies and gentlemen? There was a time when the Church even claimed washing and good hygiene was a sin and banned it. (Since I know there are a lot of religious people here at Hubpages, I'd hurry to add that this is a proven fact and it is no sacrilege to say, because I'm not talking about God, but his earthly representatives.)

Historians uncovered evidence that disclosed Scandinavian Pagan men in the Viking Age were very popular with women of Christian Europe not only because they were fairer and healthier, but also because they actually washed regularly (at least once a week). The custom of washing carefully is clearly evidenced by the names of the weekdays in Scandinavia.

Washing in the pagan era was actually a kind of religious rite, which comes as no surprise if we know that religion and respect for the Gods transcended every aspect of people's lives. When they held a ritual to gain access to the divine powers they washed themselves thoroughly beforehand so as not to bring anything impure into the sphere of the Gods. They lived in accordance with the natural cycles. Whenever they entered a new cycle they washed and cleaned everything thoroughly in order to not bring anything impure into it. As Sunday was regarded as the beginning of the new week, pagan people called Saturday the Washing Day and cleaned themselves and their homes on Saturdays. It was associated with the White God, Heimdallr. It is important to understand that people did not think of their Gods as living beings with willpower or intentions to regulate their lives. Gods were for them like values and principles are for us. One God could become the embodiment, the symbol of a variety of associated values. Heimdallr, for example, among others stood for the principle of "you harvest what you sow". So if you begin a new cycle improperly, how do you expect it to turn out? This concept is also in direct correlation with the practice of washing the initiate in virtually every pagan ritual. (S)he who enters the realm of the Gods must be clean of past sins and the debris of life.

It has been proven that a high level of hygiene was a reality in Antiquity not only in Scandinavia, but in the whole of Europe. We know of the Romans' elaborate plumbing and baths systems, just to name the most popular example. When these ancient and antique cultures were destroyed or degraded the cult of hygiene also disappeared. There was no longer a valid basis upon which a claim that washing ourselves and our surroundings is important could safely stand. It took centuries of night before modern science and our beliefs rooted in common sense could eventually prevail. As the ancient proverb goes, "before we can enjoy the wonderful light of a new day we always have to endure the darkness of the night for some time".


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    • profile image

      New 3 years ago

      CA is one of the most expensive pelcas on earth. First, make sure you come with a very reliable car, you'll be using it a lot. Then, you need 3 months rent on day one, first, last and a security deposit. A cheap apartment in an iffy area will be minimum $1000/mo. It would be much easier to get your dental training somewhere cheaper and move to CA when you have a job.

    • profile image

      Andres 3 years ago

      about it and don't use the school's own site for that eeithr. Moving is not cheap. We'll pretend you live in AZ now. Keep in mind, gas, insurance, possible car payment (you cant just float around Cali. without a car), living arrangements (that's a deposit on a place and first months rent, living expenses such as clothes, food, utility payments, school payments and expenses etc. You do need a nest egg of say $4000 to get you started.

    • Elven  Hottie profile image

      Elven Hottie 8 years ago from USA

      This is great! I have often thought about the "irony?" of the fact that those people looked so beautiful and walked so gracefully but probably smelled completely awful!

      And I never knew that the European girls of the day went after Scandinavian men because they bathed regularly! Now, if only some of my guy friends over here would learn that ;) just kiddin...

    • AJHargrove profile image

      AJHargrove 8 years ago from USA

      Thank you for the kind comment. And I like your hub contents as well. I love ancient civilizations, though there are some that I am sadly lacking knowledge in, such as the Norsement. So those tidbits above pleased me.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Americans are supposed pretty clean people which they learned form the Indiginous people.

    • Haunty profile image

      Haunty 8 years ago from Hungary

      I think you have a point here, Shalini. Thanks.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Great hub! Isn't it strange that the warmer countries are the ones where the ancient civilisations built elaborate baths and plumbing? It could just be that the colder countries could do with just a weekly, monthly or annual bath simply because the bacteria didn't multiply as fast as they did in the heat!

    • frogdropping profile image

      Andria 8 years ago

      Haunty - History ... and hygiene ... great hub :)

    • Not Telling profile image

      Not Telling 8 years ago from Eastern Nowhere

      If I think about going back in time to a point in history, probably I would step out of my time machine and gag! One could probably smell a city, town or village for miles. Thanks for a great article, Haunty.

    • Haunty profile image

      Haunty 8 years ago from Hungary

      JamaGenee, your praise is my manna. Thanks. Truly a wonder we survived the great pandemics and other stuff. :) Actually I heard that they spread just as fast as they could do today thanks to merchant ships.

      Jerilee, yes I can but I don't want to. :)

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 8 years ago from United States

      I guess at some level people got accustomed and somewhat immune to certain germs. All I could think of is "can you imagine how bad things smelled back then." Great hub!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Haunty, this is a *fabulous* hub! Very informative with much food for thought. Knowing now how many germs that cause disease thrive in unwashed bodies, it's a wonder civilization survived at all. "Survival of the fittest"? Indeed!