Water Water Water

Skin care, nudity, and water go together;and water evidently mattered a lot to the Greeks. They paid particular attention to water in their new-built settlements. For the Greeks a pure water supply was an important part of public policy and a very visible sign of civic growth and prosperity. They collected rainwater in stone cisterns and drew from springs and wells; but from the sixth century bce, impressive new public water supplies were created from artificial conduits. The tyrants of Samos, Athens, and Piraeus all built water conduits to supply their towns;and the same hydraulic knowledge was going into harnessing the source at new water sanctuaries and temples. Most longdistance conduits were underground, but from at least the fifth century there were some above-ground aqueducts.2

Even before the ninth century bce a unique balneological story was emerging, fully documented in Homer and suggesting technologies and behaviour patterns already hundreds of years old.

Greek water culture was also promoted by the indigenous experience of bathing in the region's own natural springs, grottoes, and hot waters, all of which were included in the divine plan. According to Greek mythology, Apollo and Artemis were the gods most frequently associated with sacred cold springs. The virile and fiery superhero Hercules supposedly created the first hot springs by being thrown into the pool at Thermopylae, and it was his name that was usually associated with all thermal springs, neatly slotting in alongside his reputation for the pleasures of the bed.3 But it is the trophy-vase water scenes appearing on the earliest Greek pottery that give us much more specific detail, and incidentally demonstrate what the Greeks saw as the three most popular reasons for bathing (and thus for buying the vase)— beauty, religious ritual, and athletic training.

Greek water technology was probably of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and/or Mycenaean origin, but with a typically Greek social twist. One classic historical survey of Greek balaneutike (balneology) starts with the popular Mycenaean-style seated or hip bath, but moves swiftly on to the significance of the early Greek public fountains. Public fountains may seem a small step in the uphill struggle for demographic survival, but they were significant because they were essentially democratic. They mutually aided and bonded the community around them. In this the early Greeks differed greatly from their later rivals the Carthaginians, who provided large water tanks under the floor of every middle-class street tenement in Carthage, with wells at the threshold, and had individual stone baths built inside on the ground floor, near to the heat source—but few public facil-ities.4 The new public fountains, or public wells, provided by the Greek tyrants brought free water, running day and night, available to everyone, without distinction, in nobly built surroundings. The few surviving artworks show open-fronted buildings with stone columns and floors, and water gushing inside from bronze lion-head spouts, set at shoulder height,

Greece Louteron
5 A woman showers under the distinctive lion-head water-spout of the Greek public fountain, scourer in hand.

falling into stone basins. Whether there were further pools and laundering involved, as there were at so many later European village wells, we do not know; but we can see that these shoulder-height douches not only would have filled buckets but were also specifically designed to shower the body. The monumental public fountains were of such local importance that special magistrates, of high standing, were appointed to take care of them.

By the fifth century, affluent middle-class Greeks clearly also enjoyed the luxury of a warm bath in the home. Domestic house remains at Olynthus (destroyed c.432 bce) show bathrooms in one-third of the houses, built at the back of the kitchen fire. As the Roman architect Vitruvius noted 400 years later (and the method continued long after that), by using water piped through the hot kitchen flue 'it will not take long to get a bath ready in the country'. The small 2.25 x 1.5 metre rooms had plastered walls and a terracotta seated bath-tank built into a corner of the room.5 This same shallow seated bath, very similar to those 400 years earlier, was also the one most frequently found in temples and gymnasiums—rows of them set side by side along the walls, often round a circular space, drained by a single channel below. This half-length bath, or hip bath, did not allow full immersion: the water had to be poured over the upper body, like a shower or a fountain. It was the same with the famous outdoor washbasin, or louteron, that was the central feature of so many decorative vase scenes, particularly female grooming scenes.

Vigorous sluicing was what the Greeks preferred, and the longer, deeper immersion bath was slow to develop, though never quite abandoned for the sick or the aged (it was fragile, too, in pottery form). Far more ubiquitous was the wide, shallow, half-metre basin, made of light metal, that could be used for every domestic purpose including washing—for a full strip wash, for washing the hair or hands, or (as seen frequently on the vases) for washing the feet. The metal could be easily cleaned, and heated water quickly. From this basic design evolved, from around the fifth century bce onwards, a popular domestic three-legged metal foot-basin;a three-quarter basin (in cement mortar or stoneware) designed to hang on walls;

and the elegant free-standing stone pedestal louteron. Three particular things stand out at this point. Firstly, this was a society that was actually proud of washing, and not ashamed to show it properly, in the nude. Secondly, anybody could shower or strip wash, and probably did. Thirdly, as demand rose, technology followed it. As the centuries wore on, the rich householder could have treated himself to a new hypocaust and sweat room, as well as an outdoor plunge pool—all of which were pretty superfluous to grooming, in the strict sense. But by that time the rich householder would have perfectly understood that what made you feel well also made you look good.

The archaeological evidence shows how much the Greeks valued washing as a small domestic luxury: eventually their hydraulic engineers managed to bring waters of different temperatures under one monumental public roof. The Greek bala-neion, or public bathhouse, was yet one more of those grand public entertainments provided for the fortunate Greek citizen (though not for the many poor non-citizens—slaves and immi-grants).6 The first literary evidence of public bath complexes comes from the fifth century bce, but the archaeological evidence peaks in the third and second centuries bce, when they began to be built in the towns. The usual bathhouse pattern was of a large rectangular hall with seated baths in recesses, and domed hot sweat baths at one end; the domes circulated and moderated the heat given off by a brazier in the middle. Dry heat in other rooms was provided by the brick hypocaust system of ducted hot air under the floor, later copied and used by the Romans (as were the domes). Larger swimming pools could be put outside the building. This was bathing on a grand scale; but there were also smaller commercial hot baths that used the waste heat from local industries such as potteries or bakeries, and these local enterprises were so well patronized by women that, in the early years, going to the public baths was satirized as an exclusively female occupation (though the bathhouse keepers and attendants were exclusively male, and the baths gradually became segregated).7 But there were other factors involved in creating this apparently overwhelming demand for water.

Some of the earliest and most sophisticated hydraulic projects were not in the towns but in the religious sanctuaries, specifically the healing sanctuaries of Apollo, the god who brought—or warded off—disease. In the sixth century a new healing cult of the god Asclepius, deemed to be the son of Apollo, took over many of these old sanctuaries, and he became the god of the Hippocratic healers and the giver of divine advice through prayer, divination, personal incubation, and dream therapy.8 It was his daughter Hygieia who was supposedly handmaiden to Athene the goddess of wisdom, together with her sister Panacea ('Cure-all'), and the two therapeutic goddesses supervised the healing process that the prayers to Asclepius had started, like two nurses round a doctor. Hygieia represented intelligent wholesomeness, purity, and well-being and must have been entirely virtuous, since so little is known of her; but she had her own statue alongside that of her father at Epidaurus.

The earlier religious revival had led to the building of many small stone shrines and larger stone sanctuaries, usually not far away—a short country walk—from the nearby town.9 Shrines close to mineral springs were usually graced by a temple later, as happened at the old healing shrine of Apollo at Epidaurus, where during the sixth century the cult of Asclepius took over and moved the healing sanctuary and temple up into the valley nearer to the sacred springs. By the third century bce, a 172-metre conduit had been driven from the source through solid rock into a vast underground cistern 14 metres high, holding 1,000 cubic metres of water, which supplied the sanctuary's basins, fountains, and baths. At the springs in Corinth, the story was very similar. Apollo was in residence in the seventh century, but by the fifth century Asclepius had occupied the site

6 The steady gaze and calm matronly placidity of Hygieia, goddess of health.

and a monumental temple complex was built. A small stone fountain-house at the entrance faced the main temple, the incubation rooms (for meditation and dream therapies), smaller therapy rooms, and eating halls, with a spring house containing one deep pool with four smaller pools attached. To the south was the special outdoor fountain-tank that several healing sanctuaries seem to have had, where the patient walked down a flight of steps to immerse in a dark pool, 2 metres deep, built round with rough craggy stones, as if they were descending into the earth to experience the raw mystic powers of the water. At Cos the redevelopment of the Apollo sanctuary happened later, in the third century, but by the first century a large swimming pool and a suite of thermal baths had been built. Best of all, perhaps, were the springs of Asclepius at Gortys in Arcadia, where by the end of the fourth century a veritable 'thermal establishment' had been built with a cold swimming pool, seated baths and immersion baths, and a stove which heated a rotunda sweat room, hot fountains, and hot immersion baths. Add a beautiful site, clean mountain air, simple accommodation and you have—Arcadia. (Or possibly a hydro.)

Greeks were used to thinking holistically about the universe. The Greek natural philosophers who started to divide, or separate off, the material from the immaterial universe only became active and famed during the sixth century. But spoken Greek words commonly described several different layers of existence. At temple healing sites the common noun katharsis (meaning purifying, cleansing) could be used to describe the cleansing of blood, or disease from the body, or emotions from the mind, or the stain of ritual pollution. Water was a primordial thing that flowed across all the social and semantic boundaries: it cooled, cleaned, refreshed, comforted, and soothed the body and the soul;and it was, as we know, the focal point of most purification ceremonies, when it took on a simultaneously divine form. Greek purification ceremonies were intrinsic to Greek culture; they also help to explain two other key sites in the history of hygieia: Greek religious sports, and the Greek gymnasiums.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Anti-Aging Report

Anti-Aging Report

When people generally think about anti-aging, they tend to think about the visible signs of wear and tear, those tell-tale wrinkles, age spots and their developing jowls. No-one wants to get old, let alone feel and look older than their years and anti-aging treatments are becoming so sought after by both men and women that the skincare market is colossal, but what really works?

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment