Graded Holiness

The divine 'means of embellishment' took cleansing into a different dimension. In order to understand anything about the full political significance of the toilette and its relationship to society, one needs to understand the workings of ancient courts and palaces—and of temples. In Mesopotamia the earliest kings were simply successful political candidates, primus inter pares (first among equals), but by the end of the Early Dynastic this had been superseded by the doctrine of divine kingship. Throughout Eurasia successful clan dynasties bolstered their credentials not only by appealing and sacrificing to the gods in the traditional manner, but by annexing sacred authority as the gods' representative on earth, 'God's Steward' for the welfare of the people, and therefore the sole arbiter of rule. Under divine kingship, the king officially had 'two bodies': one corporeal, the other spiritual. The purity rules of the courts were a pale echo of those in the temples.15

As formal temple cultures developed throughout Asia, religious purification reached new standards of magnificence and thoroughness. Religious historians have described temple purity rules as a form of 'graded holiness', or a 'Holiness Spectrum'. The central source of ineffable 'holiness' was the spiritual presence of the god in the inner sanctuary, radiating divinity outwards far into the wide world up to heaven, protecting the temple and ceaselessly guarding it from the touch, sight, sound, or smell of impure things.16 In third-millennium Sumeria the royal temple ziggurat of the alpha god Nanna at Ur was particularly richly endowed. But before even a brick had been laid at Nanna, a complex series of rituals, omens, visions, meditations, and sacrifices had already been performed in order to determine the site and to protect it with holiness, and many more rituals were to follow. Archaeology confirms what literary evidence suggests, that temple sites were physically purified first by burning over the site and digging the foundations down 'eighteen cubits' to clean soil;then filling these pits with clean sand, to receive the first brick, which had already been prepared, purified, and poured by the king into a pure and anointed mould, and exposed to the pure burning sun. On the right day for good omen the local town was cleansed and purified 'with fire', and the local townspeople cleansed and purified themselves in order to witness the ritual of the foundation brick. At exactly the right time of day it was struck out, and the freshly purified and abluted king placed the sacred brick-hod over his head and shoulders, and reverently carried the holy brick to its holy resting place: 'he took for E-ninnu the pure head-pad, and the true brick-mould [of] the decision of fate. Gudea performed completely the proper rites ...[And] took on his head the head-pad for the house, as though it had been a holy crown'.17 Elsewhere the sacred statue of the temple, adorned with gold and jewels, was being prepared for the god to enter into it through the ceremony of 'opening the mouth', which was followed by the night-long riverside purification ceremony of 'washing the mouth'. The next morning the eyes of the statue were ritually 'opened' and the now living god was led by the hand to his temple and placed in his sanctuary, his resting-place on earth. Thus the ceremonies that worshipped the now living Nanna were reverently, even enthusiastically, tended to by many generations of royal personages, and faithfully preserved by each new generation of priests (as they were all over Eurasia, in very similar rituals). Each morning in Nanna's sanctuary the god-statues were offered food and were brushed, rubbed, oiled or painted, garlanded, and robed as necessary, each 'presentation' of body services and unctions given as a separate grooming ritual. Sweet tamarisk scent perfumed the air, and the holy objects were set out, decorated or made from gold: the sacred bowl, the holy table, the holy kettledrum and balag musical instruments, and the holy water pail. Outside the ziggurat holy trees had been planted in the holy gardens, and the gods had the use of a holy wagon and a holy barge.18

Deep religious reverence was attributed to beauty. It had a strong metaphysical role. In ancient Greece the word kosmos originally meant 'to order, to arrange, or to adorn'; kosmetikos meant 'having the power to beautify';and the high priestess-goddess Kommo was the beautifier and arranger of the temple. The Mesopotamian definition of ellu was 'free from physical impurities';anything could be beautifully ellu—a jewel, clean linen, a person, or a sacred place. The sacred books of the Veda laid down kama (the appreciation of beauty) as a religious commandment for the right conduct of life; described in Vatsyaya-na's classical version of the Kama Sutra as 'the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting, and smelling, assisted by the mind together with the soul'.19 In temples everywhere, the sacred ellu, kosmeticos, kama, or divine cleanliness came from the daily labours and skills of temple servants charged with keeping good order within the precinct. High priests and priestesses supervised lower orders of 'keepers', 'washers', and 'anointers', and chose the most beautiful (or talented) temple servants for ceremonies adorned with musicians, singers, and dancers.

Precise degrees and definitions of what was holy to the touch, taste, sight, sound or smell—the most or least sacred materials, food, colours, objects, animals, and people—were all graded according to the laws handed down. White robes were sacred to the Babylonians and Egyptians;Judaism favoured sky blue; yellow was sacred in eastern Eurasia. Gold was everywhere considered the purest and most beautiful metal. Later Greek authors reported that the temple of Marduk in Babylon used over 20 tons of gold;also that the rituals required over 2 tons of imported frankincense each year.20 In Egypt the exact method of making the sacred holy incense and unguents was a closely guarded secret, written in stone on the walls of the priestly inner sanctum. There was even a holy soap—a carbonate of soda called natron—which was used to purify everything in the temple. Mostly natron was dissolved in water to clean the body, clothes, and furniture; sometimes it was ignited with incense; and to achieve fullest purity, the priests chewed it and drank it internally. It was particularly associated with the purity of the mouth.

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