The water ritual – the importance in the history of humankind and its evolution in everyday life

26 min readTags: , Categories: culturePublished On: September 19th, 2021

Ladies and Gentlemen pay attention, now are talking about Water.
We are about to face a basic topic related to a very precious commodity, certainly the most important element that exists in Nature, a vital source – indeed – of all the biodiversity existing on our planet.

Our life is born in water, our body could not exist without water, because we are composed of about 75%, and we absolutely could not live without it. More or less this is the same percentage between the seas and the land and perhaps it is not so random.

Since ancient times, water has always been accompanied by a contemplative mysticism and a natural deep devotion; already in the primitive mysterious forms of spirituality, water was the iconic element par excellence, such was its symbolic importance.
In fact, water as a purifying symbol par excellence, water as a conjunction between Earth and Heaven, water that gives us life, savior in difficulties, mystical in religious and pagan rites. Water that nourishes our cells, that washes us, that.. cleanses our souls and our actions. The water that gives us energy, that refreshes us and takes away our fears (drink and you will be well…), source of spiritual and psycho-physical balance, essence of life.
Water is all this and much, much more.

In this “intro” we wanted to dwell on some thoughts to encourage your reading on the topic of Water, a story certainly not exhaustive but we believe sufficient to understand the importance of this element in the history of humankind over the centuries and its prestigious evolution in everyday life. Hoping that the topic is of interest to you, we wish you good reading.

Ritual and social use of water

It didn’t always go the way it does nowadays. In past centuries there has never been a true culture of water as a hygienic norm or, better yet, as a practice of pleasure and well-being. Among our primitive ancestors, the use of bathing was considered quite misleading, because the ancestors of Neanderthals, or of Homo Sapiens and so on, still had the ability (very anthropomorphic) to recognize themselves even through the sense of smell.

So the “stench”, together with each one’s famous pheromones, was also a distinctive element of social recognition and washing was often the cause of frustrating confusion.

It sounds incredible, but it was just like that in those days.
Obviously this is a very archaic extreme version that over the centuries came to disappear as a result of the advancement of more developed social conditions.

Cultural and social developments, the advent of new criteria of life, increasingly substantial tribes, nomadism or the first agricultural appropriations, the increasing use of hides as clothing, produced considerable developments in customs and habits. Body washing was no exception.

Water, fundamental for the first hygiene practices

Water then began to become fundamental not only to quench thirst, but also for the primitive, very modest, hygiene practices.
At first starting with mud baths, useful for purifying and removing parasites from the body and hair, then the clarity of pure water grew in importance, aligning itself with mud practices.

The nomadic tribes, for example, traced their routes between one watercourse and another, they mapped in their minds their routes in order to always find a river, a lake, a waterhole. But not only that, they also explored new tracks always looking for water, thus extending their maps and promoting the knowledge of an increasingly large territory.

Even the first agricultural appropriations were subordinated to water, in fact these were always formed near the waterways, near which they could easily irrigate the fields to produce crops.

Drinking for the tribes and their animals, irrigation of the fields, food cooking, personal washing and clothing, these were some of the first “ritual” and social uses of water.

Hammam and spa as a place for body care


Water, source of life, an unequivocal sign of a divine power, venerated as a goddess and present in all beliefs, lends its image to the symbolism of life.
It acquires an aura of supernaturality and is considered as a link between earth and heaven, invariably proposing the theme of spiritual renewal and catharsis in the practices of ritual purification connected to its use.

Certain rituals have even reached us, as in the Christian religion (the immersion of baptism, the holy water, the act of sprinkling with holy water as a ritual of good wishes for the protection of people and things …) and it is easy to understand how these are the result of a very archaic mystical elaboration.
And let us not forget the purifying baths of the Hindu in the Ganges or in other rivers considered sacred to them. Just as in Muslim culture, ablution with water before prayers is fundamental, in compliance with the rules of purification dictated by the Koran.

The therapeutic pleasure of water

All these very archaic practices have been improved over the centuries, but our goal is to understand the importance that water has assumed in personal hygiene and subsequently as a form of pleasant wellness over the following centuries.

As mentioned in the first part, it has not always been this way.

Probably all humans in the past have conceived the bath as a cleaning tool, or as a propitiatory element, but they have never fully given themselves to the therapeutic pleasure of water.

It is true that the Romans learned from the Greeks and eastern populations to use water as a social instrument of wellness, and were the first in the Western world at that time to rebuild and reuse the baths. These meant the first great step towards a complete therapeutic and not only hygienic use, exported to all the borders of the Empire.

The baths, divided into Calidarium, Tepidarium and Frigidarium, had an important social significance. The search for well-being was a practice exalted precisely by the baths as an example of civilization, progress and purification of body and spirit. This definitely increased, together with the amphitheatres spread out throughout the conquered territories, the power of aggregation of the peoples subjected to Rome.

It is good to remember that the Romans learned the use of the baths from the Middle Eastern Hammam, from which they arised their thermal buildings. They perceived its beneficial and purifying force and copied its construction techniques.

The mystical concepts were linked to a context of social function, the Hammam was an ideal place to meet, spend time pleasantly, taking care of the body, also conducting advantageous commercial affairs and further various interests.

“A city is not complete if it does not have its own Hammam”

Centuries later, the Arabs also learned the technique and the construction of thermal buildings, learning it from the Byzantines and kept them promptly in use and built new ones, fascinated by the water that was so scarcely available in the semi-arid regions from which they came.

The thermal buildings in turn brought the introduction in the Hammam of the “steam bath”, already present among the Egyptians and Cretans, but made famous in the tenth century novels “One Thousand and One Nights”. It is said that Princess Scheherazade convinced the sultan to build the Hammam, whispering to him that “a city is not complete if it does not have its own Hammam”.

In the Arab Hammams, in fact, not only traditional baths were practiced, but through a complex system of ducts the extremely purifying steam bath was created, to which essences and therapeutic oils were added.

The washtub, visits and banqueting place

Il rito dell'acqua - la tinozza

In medieval Europe there was no use of either the spa or the steam bath, as they were considered Muslim practices dedicated only to pleasure, therefore to be condemned as heretical sins, like many other customs defined sacrilegious, because they belonged to a world rich in conflicts with bloody and centuries-old wars.

In this medieval period there was a remarkable social demarcation also highlighted by the practices of bathing. Europeans no longer accepted the idea of spa and hammam, so the practices of bathing, which were first accessible to all social classes, have since seen the formation of considerable discrimination. Thus was born the cult of the washtub.

Knights, nobles, merchants and courtiers saw themselves immersed in primitive oblong washtubs, where romantic adventures, signs of hospitality and other social encounters, as well as power or economic affairs, could be celebrated.

In fact, these washtubs could hold up to eight seats and were always assisted by two domestic servants, one who removed the cooled water and the other who subsequently introduced the hot one. So on even for hours, because inside the washtub it was good practice to receive visits and to feast.

Of course, this practice was intended for special occasions and was absolutely not part of everyday pleasures. In short, the rich and powerful did not wash often in those years.

The poorest used the water near the houses, carrying heavily amphorae and clay or copper pots on the head, shoulders or on the bast of a donkey. (This is also a practice that remained unchanged until the end of the nineteenth century, since the houses until then were not provided with running water, with very rare exceptions).

In fact, precisely because of the effort of transporting water to the house, not a single drop was dispersed. The bathing? It was done directly in the icy waters of the river, the lake or the water well, where were also brought the clothes to wash or only in exceptional cases, a modest amount of water was poured into a rudimentary washtub, after having it heated on the fire. But this practice was intended mostly for children or the sick.

Usage of water as a form of purification and cleansing

Sauna wooden bench

Humans did not wash only with water, but with everything that the climate and conditions allowed, thus becoming local habits. It is interesting to open a small parenthesis and observe above all two types of treatment, at the antipodes of each other, using what best suits the purpose.

For example, even today in some African cultures cleansing is done using sand, which allows, among other things, to promote the elimination of dead cells on the skin and create a deterrent for parasites on the hair.
A natural scrub, enriched every now and then with ointments based on Shea butter and valuable oils (Kigelia, Argan …)

In the Arctic Circle, on the other hand, the few locals who still live in leather tents or igloos, heat a large stone on fire, pouring over it water so as to exploit that steam to sweat, purify and cleanse.

What does this practice remember? Albeit with some variations but we talk about the sauna. The Lapps and the Normans, called the “Men of the North”, as well as the other Scandinavian populations, have been practicing this form of purification and cleansing for at least a millennium and have exported it all over the world.
Let’s close this parenthesis and continue our journey within Europe.

The water lived no longer as a cleansing agent, but as an epidemic element

In the mid-1300s there was a pandemic with extremely dramatic implications: the Black Death.
With the arrival of the Black Death, it was advised against frequenting public places and public baths, as they were considered dangerous places of contagion, where water or steam were seen as deadly vehicles of endemic transmission.

It was precisely the Black Death that made these pleasant structures disappear from the scene again.
There were many violent epidemics of pestilence, from 1300 until the mid-1700s, during which water, but above all steam were held responsible for the opening of the pores of the skin, therefore capable of increasing the possibility of infected air entering the body and transmitting the contagion.

Even in the Renaissance, where Science and progress were paving the way for important discoveries, bathing and personal hygiene retreated fearfully.

Water was no longer experienced as a purifying agent but as an epidemic element, bathing was to be done in exceptional cases and with great precautions.

The only washes allowed were for the face and hands, the water was poured into a basin and mixed with alcohol, wine or vinegar, to ensure a semblance of disinfection.
Exceptionally, the intimate parts were also cleansed, but this was not a daily practice either. Although it was precisely the unpleasant stench that those areas emanated, which led to the introduction of the first rudimentary soaps invented by the Gallic populations, made of animal fat, ash or potash and rudimentary essences of fragrant herbs or flowers.

The introduction of perfumes and essences to feel clean

Not only soaps, Marco Polo’s travels led to the large-scale introduction of perfumes and essences, imported from the Far East and Middle Eastern areas.

As well as the resources arrived from the discoveries of the New World brought further new scents, colors and flavors to be used not only in the kitchen but also to feel “fragrant”. Obviously the prerogative of the rich and powerful.

The perfume thus enters the dressing table to cover bad odors and also to have a mild disinfectant action, so it is not so much necessary to be really clean, but to have a clean “look”, with the bodies wrapped in white clothing symbol of purity, always worn to increase the idea of maximum cleanliness and whiteness.

Usage of water in Renaissance

Il-rito-dell-acqua---Rinascimento,-acqua-e-Leonardo da Vinci

The discovery of the Americas in the middle of the Renaissance was not only a geographical discovery but meant a real economic, cultural and social revolution.

Renaissance was experienced by most of its protagonists as an age of change, matured a new way of conceiving the world and oneself, in which take place colonial expansions that dramatically widen the horizon of the European world.

Enormous transformations began in Europe, accompanied by imbalances and contradictions: if on the one hand the mercantile economy makes room on a global scale, on the other hand the countryside remains linked to typical realities of the feudal economy. The focus on trading inevitably moves from the Mediterranean Sea to Northern Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. In short, an inevitable ferment that, however, still carried the burden of a difficult to eradicate medieval culture.

In the midst of all this ferment, water was still marginalized to a gregarious role, to be used the bare minimum and to be looked at with extreme fear in the recurrent periods of contagion from the Black Death.

It was necessary to wait until the middle of the seventeenth century to detect a first weak rapprochement with bathing practices. This of course does not mean that the bathing became a regular thing, nor that it explicitly aimed at cleanliness.

In Renaissance the therapeutic value of the water was recovered

In addition to the function of increasing personal pleasure, diving in the water was recognized as useful therapeutic purposes.
Hot water was used for its emollient action; warm water, to attenuate the states of overexcitement, to calm the nervousness and discomfort in moments of great heat; finally cold water, to stimulate and tone the muscles. In short, it was an attempt to restore a healthy dimension to the practices with water, trying to give it back a little of its therapeutic value, taking up these old practices of the past.But as mentioned, little progress was made on personal hygiene.

It is said that even “le Roi Soleil” Louis XIV, during his reign which lasted 72 years, has completely immersed himself in each of his six (!) precious bathtubs only once …, or a bath every twelve years.
He only cleaned his face every two days with a wad soaked in ethyl alcohol (from “Le Journal de la santè”, written by the court doctors: it was perhaps an attempt on their part to preserve the sovereign from the pestilence and other diseases).

Maybe things did not go quite like that, but certainly even among the nobility as in all social classes there was still the fear that water could convey diseases. In short, as in any cultural change, the contradictions here too were well present, still accompanied by the dark long hand of the Black Death.

The sources of water in the Renaissance

In the Renaissance were made the washbasins, built by the various Italian Republics in order to bring water closer to the cities.
Ducts were built from the springs that ended in a predetermined area of the urban center, possibly equidistant, so as to make the access more convenient for everyone. In those sources it was forbidden to wash one’s body, but one could draw the water to take to the house and one could wash his clothes.

Especially in Tuscany you can still see clear examples of these very useful architectures. It should also be considered that the Renaissance sprouted and flourished precisely in Tuscany and the venture of bringing water closer to the cities was of extraordinary importance. In the meantime, the man approached the public toilets confirming the incredible alternation of habits towards personal hygiene.

Rediscovery of bathing as a source of well-being


In the Renaissance there was still the fear that water could convey diseases for which little progress was made for personal hygiene.
Then there were the most “virtuous and courageous”, who washed once a year, mainly in the month of May or June, coinciding with weddings. Thus rised the custom that brides, in order to mask their own and others’ smells, brought to the altar a fragrant bouquet, creating the origin of a tradition that still resists our days.

A few decades later the current thinking continued to associate the habit of lukewarm bathing with extravagant and disreputable softness, but it was precisely this lustful aspect that gave a boost to the rediscovery of the hot bath, especially among nobles.

They had the first, empirical bathrooms, adjacent to the private rooms, built in their homes, thus giving the impetus for a change to the advantage of the rediscovery of water and its exploitation.

The last fears and resistances against hot water, susceptible to cross the pores and invade the meat making the organism sick, thus began to vanish at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the introduction of some precepts of hygiene aimed to cope with the recurrent epidemics of cholera.
The hypothesis of a transmission of evil through odors and miasmas led health managers to prescribe integral washing of the body. These conditions were completely opposite to the cultural models of previous centuries….

Hot or cold baths experienced as a source of well-being for the body

With the second half of the eighteenth century the use of bathing for therapeutic experiences develop and the multiplication of recoveries attributed to both hot and cold baths helped to improve the image of this practice.
In particular, the opportunity for cold baths spreads – even outside the health sector – considered synonymous with virtue and robustness as was in use amomg the Romans and Spartans, who drew their strength from periodically bathing in the icy water of rivers or lakes.

In Paris towards the end of the 1700s establishments were opened to bathe in the Seine, swimming schools were also established to promote a different impact with water. Military schools and colleges adopt cold water ablution and river baths as tools of physical strengthening.

The ability to react and stimulate that the cold bath has on the human body induces the idea that the feeling of energy comes directly from the stimulation of the organism favoring a greater confidence in the forces of the individual.

We are still far from our way of conceiving hygiene but undoubtedly significant steps were taken to get rid of the constraints of a useless appearance in favor of a greater awareness of one’s body. It was therefore beginning to conceive water and especially water massage as a probable source of well-being

The rise of the toilet

The affirmation of a domestic dimension of individual hygiene initially involved only the upper-middle classes.
Soon, the hygienic valorisation of the water produced effects on the methods of water distribution, completed for its functioning by retaining tanks in the highest areas of the city, able to reach the large bourgeois districts under construction since the mid-1800s.

In this climate of technological revolution, which simultaneously perfected a city network for the disposal of wastewater, the term “restroom” also recorded a new meaning: no longer a room intended for the frivolities of the toilet, not just an intimate living room.

It ended up designating mainly the new environment reserved for personal hygiene elevated to the rank of bathroom. Placed in the beginning next to the kitchen for convenience of installation, it later migrated next to the bedroom appropriating the spaces and objects traditionally intended for personal care.

The benefits of hydrotherapy and Sebastian Kneipp

Il rito dell'acqua -Idroterapia e Sebastian Kneipp

The real progress in the usage of water came with abbot Kneipp’s paths in the water, that made a very important contribution to the spreading of hydrotherapy. To this day his methods are the best known and used in the world.

We are in Bavaria in the mid-1800s and Abbot Sebastian Kneipp at the age of 28 suffered from a violent form of tuberculosis. At that time he accidentally discovered the book “Lesson on the healing power of fresh water” by Johann Siegmund Hahn.

As a result and not finding benefit in the treatments of the time, Kneipp decided to apply what he had read: after undressing, he dived into the cold waters of the Danube and immediately dressed, counteracted the rapid cooling with a race home.
After only 6 months of this treatment the tuberculosis was gone. Once healed, he continued his studies and research on the therapeutic benefit of water.

To the present day, the most common Kneipp method consists of a walkway of about 20 meters immersed in very hot water up to the knees, walking on river pebbles for the activation of the blood pump of the feet. Immediately after another walkway immersed in very cold water of the same length as the previous one, always up to the knees, with as many pebbles on the bottom to complete the lymphatic massage.

The Kneipp path nowadays is ever-present, increasingly numerous SPA but also clinics and specialized centers offer this simple but very effective therapy system.

Hydro-massage and the benefits of cold water

But let’s not forget the various hydromassage solutions for the abdomen, made with alternatively hot and cold jets of water, or the total immersion (except for the head of course) of 40 minutes in water at a constant temperature of 37 °, to treat the flu and rheumatic illnesses.

The studies and results obtained with hydrotherapy also began to intrigue the sports environment, in fact baths in cold water became more and more frequent after sports fatigue or after massages, thanks to the stimulation that cold water has on the micro-circulation.

Cold water causes a constriction of peripheral blood vessels, increasing deep circulation and causing a general stimulating effect.
Effective to fully recover from sports fatigues.

Abbot Kneipp had generations of predecessors, be they doctors, cerusic or priests, who throughout history have tried to convince man to … wash himself, also resorting to excommunications, magic, law or a healthy common sense.

But man, instinctively, has never shown a great enthusiasm to wash (Darwin partly explained why …) and observing the customs in different eras, we understand that the habit and pleasure of contact with water is the result of a gradual conquest obtained through hygienic education, civilization and cultural and economic progress.

The benefits of sea water

Il rito dell'acqua - i benefici dell'acqua marina

Coastal populations from all over the world have always had a relationship of love/fear with the sea.
Salt water was not good to drink, dangerous waves dragged offshore and have always been the cause of countless deaths from drowning. People were riotous to face the sea, even those who out of necessity challenged it to get a living. Even the fishermen, in fact, while loving the sea and grateful for it, have always felt a kind of fear. With good reason, of course.

However, no one in past centuries would have believed that even sea water would be exploited for hydro-therapeutic purposes.

Instead, it was thanks to the growing success of fresh water treatments, that some ingenious Tuscan people from Leghorn exploited their main resource to create the first marine bathhouse.

The origin is uncertain, some sources say it dates back to 1781, however, between the end of 1700 and the early 1800s the first empirical places destined for healthy baths were born, which exploited the wave motion to provide a beneficial “whirlpool” for circulation and for the lymphatic system.

The benefits of sea water in the early bathing establishments

Thus were born establishments throughout the Italian peninsula, from the Riviera di Ponente to Versilia, to Leghorn with the Bagni Pancaldi, to Rimini, Venice and Naples, including the Côte d’Azur of which a part was still Italian, creating the latest trend in terms of fun and health.

Parenthesis: the fortune of the Côte d’Azur was made by the English aristocrats of the late eighteenth century, when Nice and its surroundings were still an area of the Kingdom of Sardinia where olives and flowers for perfumes grew: they went there especially in winter for the warm and temperate climate, and the coast was a meeting place especially of aristocrats and wealthy Englishmen.
In 1858 Nice passed to France and six years later the railway was inaugurated which transformed it into an international holiday center: in 1865 there were 100 thousand tourists.

This was the first example of mass tourism able to attract thousands of tourists to discover the benefits of climate and of sea water massage.

In recent times, bathing establishments for the exclusive purpose of tourism have multiplied, but the wellness centers that promote beneficial activities with the sea water called Thalassotherapy have also increased considerably.

The sea water is used for hydro-massages and nebulizations at a lukewarm temperature. Another application of Thalassotherapy is Balneotherapy, which is made, instead, with warm sea water (just over 30° C); these types of baths exert a positive action towards the circulatory system, the dermatitis and the bone pain, although the study of the benefits is still being expanded and could lead to further confirmations on the ability to generate well-being.

Water, an environmental resource at risk

Il rito dell'acqua - risorsa ambientale a rischio

Europe has very important water resources, the supply of water until now has never been a problem except in temporary climatic periods that have led to undermining the water reserves of aquifers, rivers and lakes. However, these periods are becoming more and more frequent, threatening aquifers as well as rivers and lakes that are increasingly drying.

Experts say that the main fault consists of periodic climatic mutations, we are entering a “hot” cycle that is the cause of melting of glaciers around the world, of the Poles, of the evaporation of waterways.

Only part of the evaporation is re-condensed in the sky and returns in the form of increasingly frequent storms and hurricanes, the rest disappears under the action of ultraviolet rays and the increasingly high global temperature.

To the natural causes, then, we add the hand of human and increase the dose: greenhouse effect, hole in the ozone layer, indiscriminate use of water energy, both in the industrial and in the agri-food field, in energy consumption and indiscriminate abuse in the domestic environment.

It is true that in the Western world the water consumption of a family of four has increased by an average of 600% over the last 50 years regardless of the fact that we increase by about a billion units every 25 years.

But perhaps few people know that to get only a liter of milk, in the entire production chain serve over 1,000 liters of water, as well as to produce a kg of pasta, serve about 1,800 (look for: water footprint). Each of us in the West, between food, energy use, hygiene, domestic consumption, irrigation and anything else have a total daily requirement of about 4,000 liters of water!! (sources: Water Footprint Network).

And how not to ask questions when we know that, for example, to allow us to watch a streaming football match, it takes about 1,000 liters of water. Let’s imagine how much energy it takes to satisfy all the demands of the Network, although an increasingly large part of water is reused.

In short, fresh water is becoming a resource with a high environmental risk and it is for this reason that further improvements in desalination techniques are being successfully studied, in order to take advantage of the water of the seas and oceans.

In a hundred years maybe the water will not be enough for us

Interestingly enough, while in the Western world we are witnessing the consumption and waste of water in all fields, in the rest of the planet more than half of the world’s population is dealing with the scarcity of water, with the lack of drinking water, even with thirst and hunger due to drought that limits crops.

But the Western world is projected into the future, no longer only through the aerospace agencies of the great superpowers, now also thanks to competitive tycoons that finance companies to bring human being into space.

But the basis of all this comings and goings in space is only one: the search for water. A new era is beginning. In the West we do not look so much at famine, thirst and hunger, as at progress. We are going in search of those planets that can guarantee us humans a sort of colonization for a future, we go in search of other sources of water in space, not only to determine the existence of other forms of life.

The most far-sighted scientists have long been sounding the alarm: water is beginning to run out, in hundred years’ time it will perhaps no longer be enough for us and we Westerners are now too accustomed to consumerism and consequently not inclined to the policy of saving to put an effective stop to excesses.

That is the paradox. Right now, when we have achieved everything possible thanks to the exploitation of water, we realize that it may soon be in short supply and may fail. Right now, after millennia of contradictions and undivided culture, that we have learned and accepted the best ways to use and love more and more this wonderful and vital resource, we are wondering if tomorrow we will still be able to use it so freely.

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