Resources

When history adds to your modern practice

Today I dived head first down the rabbit hole of Google Scholar and a wide array of historical academic papers that are available to read. While saving a whole bunch to read later, one caught my eye.

Washing and Bathing in Ancient Ireland

A. T. Lucas

The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Vol. 95, No. 1/2, Papers in Honour of Liam Price (1965), pp. 65-114

I am relatively well known to be a woman of Feasting, as I consider food, the acts of hospitality and feasting to be a huge part of  my spiritual well being. There is however another portion that is likely not as well known because it’s just not something that I was able to concretely connect as “Gaelic” in my practice. Certainly it is something that has always been a important aspect of my practice, but I chalked up a lot of that to be unique to me. Sometimes, you read something and then you make historical and spiritual connections you didn’t “know” were there but were completely there and now can consider more ways to incorporate it. In this case it’s, Ritual bathing.

Since childhood the pleasure and just comfort of a good hot bath has always had a place in my heart. My household regularly used hot showers and baths as a way to help aid the healing process of headaches, colds, flu, muscle aches, and pretty much everything under the sun. There is the vinegar bath for a bad sunburn. The oatmeal and milk bath for chicken pox. The Epsom salt bath for other illness. When I moved out of my parents house, I started having intense migraines and stumbled on the remedy of showers where you turn the water to as hot as you can stand and then as cold as you can stand, repetitively. You kinda feel like your getting torn apart and are exhausted afterwards but for a long time it was the only relief I could find.  Along my witchcraft path I learned the value of purification baths, and adding a variety of other herbal and stone items for magical purposes. Likewise I discovered that while I sucked a meditation and trance work, I could easily slip into trance and meditation in a steamy shower or bath.

At that time, it made sense to me, in that water, especially running water, is a gateway to the Otherworld, and steam seemed associated with the mist and fog that is also seen in Irish myth and folklore to be a portal to the Otherworld. The act of bathing seemed to create a liminal state of its own that I’ve always felt connected to and it’s been a useful way to de-stress and in general keep emotionally balanced over the years.

But I had never made any stronger connections to Irish mythology or lore until recently. A few years back, my partner was experiencing some intense stress at work. Anyone who has a lot of stress in their lives, know how it just starts to take a toll mentally and physically. For some reason, I called to mind the story of the young Cúchulainn returning from battle still in his battle frenzy and being dunked/bathed in three vats of water to cool his furor and return him to a more human state. I felt a connection with the stresses and dehumanizing aspects that service jobs can reap upon a person and the inhuman state of Cúchulainn in the story. It seemed to me that the act of being bathed ritualistically as the young hound was, was a way of bringing him back into the fold of his people. Bringing him back to peace and civilization in some way. I started to use showering in this way, after work. A way to wash away the grim and rat in a maze feelings that Corporate America can bring, and return to a state of comfort, balance and humanity. It helped. It became sacred and essential in our comfort rituals.

The article highlights some facets of bathing and washing in Ancient Ireland and in Irish myth that I hadn’t taken the time to ponder before. In particular it’s connections with hospitality and even feasting(!).

It outlines various examples of how a bath was one of the requisite amenities given to a guest as part of the rules of hospitality. We are given the example of the bad hospitality of King Bres Mac Mac Eladain who had a poet of the Tuatha dé Dannan visit. He was conveyed to a small house which was narrow, dark and dim, there was neither fire, nor bath, nor bed. Three small cakes, and they dry, were brought to him on a little dish. The next day he rose and he was not pleased. From this and the other examples tales of Cúchulainn, King Donn, Mael Dúin, being greeted with lavish beautiful welcomings the included lovely women to bath them, the argument that having a comfortable and plush bath available for guests was considered the mark of a good household.

Comfort is one of the tenets of hospitality, and while I have generally considered my mother’s propensity for buying copious amounts of soft bath towels and having over flowing baskets of colorful washcloths available, to be her desire for a magazine type home,  I now look at it at it as being very gracious. If I were to show up at my mother’s house unannounced with 5 or more guests unexpected and we all needed showers, she would have clean fresh towels and cloths ready and waiting. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for my own. In fact to own the truth, my house has only a handful of towels and they are almost never all clean at once. Something to consider.

The article also make the connections to prestige and honor to be the first to bath, making several references to chieftains and kings being granted the right to “the first bath and the first drink” at a feast. There is some interesting information that makes a strong case that bathing of somekind (whether full body or hands and feet) were done prior to feasting. This makes sense in a logistical and hygienic sense, as well as adding a layer of ritual cleansing to feasting that just makes energetic sense. It also reminded me a lot of a podcast I was recently recommended, Dark Ages Feasting – The British History Podcast. Which, while predominately looking at Anglo-Saxon traditions, covered the ritual handwashing that took place before eating at a feast. He also pointed out how uncouth many of we modern folks are in comparison, how often do you actually wash your hands before a meal? More things to consider ;

The article only briefly touches on the connection of ritual bathing by women being connected to healing and magic, but there is enough to make note of and keep an eye out in further reading.

There is a lot of minutia of daily life in ancient Ireland, that perhaps not everyone would consider interesting lol, but I love it.  Things like theories of what sort of detergents they used, how they heat their water, what the tubs looked like, the different words that meant different types of bathing. These things don’t necessarily add anything to my modern practice, but they help to provide another piece of the puzzle to a worldview of the past. I feel like that helps to create a depth of understanding that solidifies my modern practice.

If you have made it this far in this much longer ramble than anticipated post, all of this is to say that I recommend the article lol. It has opened some ideas in my head as far as ritual feast  activities, and that I for sure need an lovely washing station in my future feasting hall. It reinforced  my I practice of using bathing for sacred ritual purposes as well as for community and hospitality building in some ways. More food for thought on how to relate to the every day life and I suppose a little window in how I break out academic articles and relate them to my practice.