The Holy Toilette

The flesh rubbers, kohl pots, rouge pots, lipsticks, razors, and mirrors found in the great water tank and temple courtyard at Mohenjo-Daro (2500 bce) are evidence of the very early religious grooming traditions in the Indus valley, a thousand years before the incoming Indo-Aryans re-established a Vedic theocracy which abhorred body dirt.21 In Vedic theology any touch or sight of the prohibited bodily secretions—such as sweat, saliva, hair and nail clippings, vomit, urine, blood, sperm, faeces, and afterbirth—was closely monitored, and the Vedic toilette rules were laid down for all classes as a religious duty;their thoroughness (or lack of it) served as an indicator of religious status. Washermen and barbers were especially impure, but played a vital role as the polluted intermediary in all purification ceremonies, including the personal toilette. Public outdoor barber's shop services that provided shaving, hair-cutting, manicures, pedicures, nose- and ear-cleaning, existed in ancient India at the same time as public tonsors flourished in ancient Rome. They are still observable on the pavements of Indian cities, or near the religious bathing places (ghats) along the holy River Ganges, where barbers provide traditional grooming to accompany the client's lustral dip: shampooing (massage) sitting on special shampooing stools;'frictions' (scraping) using the stone columns and walls; hot baths, shaving (designs on the stomach hair a speciality), flower garlands, and every type of face paint and body powder.22

The Egyptian population's strict adherence to purity rules, and the strength of their religious belief, were considered especially remarkable by that indefatigable traveller and folklore collector Herodotus. It was not just, he said, that they abided by the normal purity rules that any Greek might follow—such as purification at birth, after sexual intercourse, during the menses and sickness, and after childbirth (in a birth-house, or 'House of Purification'), with minor attentions on minor occasions of possible impurity (before meals, after evacuation, after journeys)—but that he felt they were 'religious to excess, beyond any nation in the world, and here are some of the customs which illustrate the fact: they drink from brazen cups which they scour every day—everyone, without exception. They wear linen clothes that they make a particular point of continually washing. They circumcise themselves for cleanliness's sake, preferring to be clean rather than comely...'.

The highest degree of personal cleanliness was reserved for direct contact with the deity. In addition Egyptian priests were required to 'shave their bodies all over every other day to guard against the presence of lice, or anything equally unpleasant, while they are about their religious duties... They bathe in cold water twice a day and twice every night—and observe innumerable other ceremonies besides.'23 They shaved their heads, oiled their bodies, kept their feet, hands, and nails clean (with nails kept short), rinsed their mouths, and fumigated all their orifices. The Egyptian priest-pharaohs were excused the more onerous priestly requirements, and enjoyed considerably higher standards of decorative cosmetic care, but had other unique obligations: they were purified at birth, at coronation, before any temple rite, and even, while still alive, and as a precaution, given a purification ritual for the afterlife. After death, it was imagined, the Pharaoh would be bathed, fumigated, shaved, and oiled by the goddesses— after which, not merely cleansed but revived, 'he received ''his bones of metal'' [and] stretched out his indestructible limbs ... his body came together again [and] was entirely refashioned'.24

Goddesses were themselves the divine high priestesses of the arts of beauty and seduction. The Mesopotamian alpha female fertility goddess Inanna-Ishtar was eulogized as 'the divine harlot' and credited with taking 120 men without tiring;at the New Year festival of the Sacred Marriage, the current high king and high priestess acted out the parts of the fertility god Dumuzi-Tammuz and his wife, Inanna, on the sacred bed in the temple—a ceremony that naturally aroused the imagination of poets and gave rise to a special genre of love songs (and toilette descriptions) of Inanna: 'When I have washed myself... When I shall have adorned my body.. .have put amber on my face, [and] mascara on my eyes . . . When the lord who sleeps with the pure Inanna . . . shall have made love to me on the bed, Then I in turn shall show my love for the lord; I shall fix for him a good destiny...'.25 The Greek poet Homer was obviously on his mettle when it came to his own 'white-armed' goddesses, with a similar but especially luscious description of the toilette of the wife-goddess Hera, before her seduction of Zeus:

She began by removing every stain from her comely body with ambrosia, and anointing herself with the delicious and imperishable olive-oil she uses. It was perfumed and had only to be stirred in the Palace of the Bronze Floor for its scent to spread through heaven and earth. With this she rubbed her lovely skin; then she combed her hair, and with her own hands plaited her shining locks and let them fall in their divine beauty from her immortal head. Next she put on her fragrant robe of delicate material that Athene with her skilful hands had made for her and lavishly embroidered. She fastened it over her breast with golden clasps and, at the waist, with a girdle from which a hundred tassels hung. In the pierced lobes of her ears she fixed two earrings, each a thing of lambent beauty with its cluster of three drops. She covered her head with a beautiful new headdress, which was bright as the sun; and last of all, the Lady goddess bound a fine pair of sandals on her shimmering feet.26

In Homer beauty was a sacred gift to favoured individuals, and was absolutely not a power or a favour to be taken lightly. When Athene made Odysseus divinely handsome she added vibrant sex appeal: she 'gave him ampler stature and ampler presence, and over his head made his hair curl and cluster like a hyacinth. It was as when a man adds gold to a silver vessel... Then he walked to the water's edge and sat down apart, radiant with handsomeness and grace.'27

How many story-loving Greeks had read or knew by heart Homer's description of the toilette of Hera? Or Babylonians the toilette of Inanna? There are similar descriptions in almost every language and stories about divine beauty in every mythology, and they must have been at least partly aspirational. Religious eroticism in general cut across all classes, ranks, and gender, and was an occasion for serious sexual display—and a very careful toilette. Purposeful erotic diversions, orgies, and sexual rituals often involved entire cities and populations in licensed communal mating exercises on behalf of the gods, ranging from fertility bull cults to phallus worship and love goddesses.28 The Indian god Shiva was the god of youth, sensuous delights, and erotic activity and Lord of the Dance of Life;in Greece, Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, honoured by women, and was also the patron goddess of the public concubines—the heterae. During the annual regenera-tional bath, or 'Aphrodisia', at her supposed birthplace in Paphos, Aphrodite's statue would be attended by hundreds of girls and women purifying themselves for her rites; it is reported that the renowned hetera Phyrne of Paphos, though usually very closely gowned in public, would at this festival time walk into the sea fully naked with her hair loose and flowing, as a living image of the goddess (also that the famous sculptor Apelles made her the model of his Aphrodite Anadyomene, a genre which later produced the famous sea-bathing Venus by Botticelli).29

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