I have a few shrines around my house: an ancestor shrine on the hearth mantel; a "winter shrine" in the corner of the kitchen for my home's land spirit; and a shrine in the window of my bathroom. This last one might seem like a strange location for a sacred place, but peoples around the world have understood that the places where we clean and care for our bodies are hallowed places, housing certain powers.

 

Celtic peoples across Europe and the British Isles worshiped deities associated with springs and pools. These waters had healing effects on those who bathed in and drank from them, and their deities received offerings of coins, inscriptions, statuettes, and other material goods in return for the healing of various conditions. Such deities include widely-worshipped Sirona; Luxovius of Luxeuil-les-bains, France; Sulis of Bath, England; and Grannus, who was syncretized with Apollo. Interestingly, many of these deities bear a solar element in their iconography and/or name, connecting healing waters with the powers of the sun. Ancient Greeks also believed that “certain natural spring or tidal pools were blessed by the gods to cure disease. Around these sacred pools, Greeks established bathing facilities for those desiring healing” (Lanna Come Spa). The Romans bore similar beliefs, building temples and bath complexes across their empire and syncretizing the deities of those places with their own.

 

Public baths, called hammam, are still popular in Arabic countries. Going to a hammam is as much about community as it is about hygiene -- they are places to relax and socialize as well as clean oneself. They are also the dwelling places of jinn. Jinn are interesting spirits. It's believed that they predate Islam, originally having a status similar to Roman genius loci. Within Islam, jinn are neither angels nor demons, but are common spirits who can have families, die, and receive salvation like humans. They are known to dwell in spring water, including those that flow into hammams. They may be malicious, playing tricks on humans, or they may recite poetry and supply inspiration to soothsayers, philosophers, and poets.

 

Finland has a similarly deeply-rooted sauna culture. One Finnish blogger describes the modern conception of the sauna as “a place of health, cleanliness and pureness. There’s nothing sexual about sauna. To be precise, it’s almost a holy place." A key word in Finnish sauna culture is löyly. Löyly exclusively refers to the moist steam created in the sauna. The original sense of the word is “spirit, breath, or soul,” drawing a connection between sauna air and the moist, warm air we exhale from our bodies. It reminds me of the Chinese concept of qi -- the word for the life force, but which also simply means "breath."

 

Purification of the body and spirit is a major component of sauna culture -- birch is the wood of choice in a sauna stove, both for the aroma and its effect on the body (due to the wintergreen oils naturally present in the plant). Birches symbolize rejuvenation, purification, and healing across Europe. In the sauna, bunches of birch twigs with leaves attached are used to gently whip the body, providing invigoration and refreshment. The spirit of the sauna, the saunatonttu, is an elf (tonttu is cognate to the Swedish word for elf, tomte). They are generally benign and can be offered a bowl of rice porridge to curry their favor, particularly at Joulu (the Finnish word for Yule, or Christmas).

 

Traditional Russian saunas, banya, are similar to Finnish saunas. They are powerful, liminal places: in the past, they served as birthing rooms, and divination could be performed inside them. They were also inhabited by a certain spirit: the bannik. The bannik is hairy and, like jinn, morally neutral. They can foretell the future, but they might also harass bathers and invite wild spirits to join them in the sauna. They are traditionally placated with the sacrifice of a smothered chicken (Lecouteux 145).

 

In Japan, dirty bathrooms might become haunted by a spirit called the akaname, or “filth-licker.” This spirit is born from the grime that collects in uncleaned bathrooms, and once formed, they consume the grime that created them. They are described as having a long tongue (for lapping up dirt), clawed feet, a red body (or at least a red face), and being about the size of a child. They are benign, but their frightening appearance is enough motivation to keep bathrooms clean.

 

In Santeria, ritual bathing, called limpieza, is an important practice for spiritual and physical healing. Santeria offers a holistic view of healing that involves cleansing the spirit through ritually cleansing the physical body. There's an understanding that the two are connected: spiritual trauma impacts the physical body, and care of the body is also care for the soul. 

 

These are just a handful of the countless traditions regarding the spiritual nature of public and private baths. Baths -- whether in public bathhouses or private bathrooms -- are casually powerful places that reunite our souls with our bodies, refreshing us spiritually and physically. They reawaken us to a deeper awareness of the sacredness of our bodies -- their vulnerabilities as well as their ability to heal and renew. Imagine treating our bathrooms as everyday sacred places -- what effect would that have on our overall wellness?

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.

 

Photo by Agnieszka Boeske on Unsplash