Dr. Nicole Finkelstein, DOM, LAc, RH
With the simple turn of a faucet and the dip of a toe into warm fragrant water, every cell of our body seems to simultaneously relax and rejoice at the thought of a soothing herbal bath. There is a rich history, ritual, and culture surrounding this self-care practice that has flowed through our lineage since the dawn of humankind - capable of calming frayed nerves, torn and angry tissues, as well as washing away the woes of weary souls.
Hydrotherapy, albeit simplistic in nature, has been honored throughout cultures worldwide for its powerful healing abilities. The practice of detoxing, ridding the body of impurities and poisons, through the application of heat (be it hot springs, steam rooms, or saunas) stems back to the Neolithic Age, when the earliest humans wandered the earth’s surface in nomadic tribes, enduring bitterly cold climates and the continual threat of illness and famine. Notably, natural hot springs across the world were imperative to survival, as they offered respite against the forces of nature that these early humans faced.
Bathhouses, while still ubiquitous across modern Europe and Asia, once peppered the ancient world, often employing minerals and herbal infusions to enhance the warm water’s restorative properties. They stood as gathering sites for community members, centers for entertainment, as well as temples of health and cleanliness for the masses.
Hailing back to 2500 B.C.E., the oldest known constructed bath in the world was discovered in Pakistan's Indus Valley in the early twentieth century by archeologists. The lost city of Mohenjo-Daro seemingly held what is now known as the “Great Bath'' in high regard, as this baked clay brick pool stood prominently atop the highest mound in a two-hundred-and-fifty acre ancient city void of extravagant statues and palaces . It is believed by archeologists that the Great Bath served as a temple for the foregone Indus civilization, as they were revered for their skilled control of water throughout their city, and the ritual of bathing may have been linked to their religious beliefs .
Aromatic botanicals made their way into ancient bath waters as far back as 1500 B.C.E., where written records note the therapeutic use of herbs by Indian Vedas . Following suit, advanced civilizations in North Africa, the Middle East, and Mediterranean regions of the world began implementing bathing herbs like peppermint, white lily, and cinnamon into their healing and hygiene practices. 69-30 B.C.E. Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra reportedly sprinkled her warmed bath waters with rose petals . Aromatic plant perfumes were also used in Ancient Egypt, as frankincense, almond, olive, and sesame oils were applied to freshly cleaned skin upon emerging from herbal bath waters .
Inspired by the herbal bath practices of the Ancient Egyptians, the Greek physician Hippocrates, revered as the Father of Medicine (circa 460-377 B.C.E.), extensively studied the benefits of bathing as a treatment protocol for illnesses. He was the first to coin the term hydropathy, which later led to the more commonly known term hydrotherapy, or water cure .
Perhaps most notable are the public bathing practices of the Roman Empire, dating back to 300 B.C.E., where bathhouses (or thermae) were established and used by both the rich and the impoverished men and women within ancient Rome . The bathhouses of the Empire were renowned for their richly fragrant botanical decoctions, as well as their scented healing salves. Standing as ostentatious structures, some thermae of ancient Rome were all-inclusive, offering citizens hot and cold water baths, massages, physical fitness rooms, and sections for sports and other physical games . Claudius Galen, infamous Roman physician of the gladiators (circa 210 C.E.), prescribed herbal baths for conditions ranging from tumors to urological disorders and bad moods. He often treated his feverish patients in the well known Hadrian baths in what is now modern Turkey .
The ritual and culture of herbal baths rippled from the Roman Empire into Turkey in the seventh century. Known worldwide, the Turkish hammams (or Turkish baths) were regarded for their meticulously clean facilities where it was believed that “purity of the body went hand-in-hand with purity of the soul” . At their peak of popularity in 600 C.E, the Turkish hammams were where bathing was performed in honor of major life events, such as births and marriages .
Still in existence today, the Turkish hammams are a lasting testament to the power of communal bathing and botanical bath rituals. However, in 1450-1700 C.E, public bathhouses nearly became extinct when the Church attempted to wipe much of Western Europe clean of public saunas during the period of Renaissance and Reformation . At that time, only the Scandinavians, Finnish, and Russians managed to uphold their herbal bathing traditions. Banya (or Russian bathhouse) were integral parts of society in 900 C.E. . Both men and women would gather together in these wooden houses to bathe in herbal waters and steam enhanced by Birch Brooms (or veniki: bundles of green birch tree branches) in which people would violently thrash one another in order to release volatile oils, promote circulation, open pores, and rejuvenate the body . The leaves of the surrounding birch trees were also placed on hot rocks in the banyas to unleash beneficial vapors into thick steam-filled air . Slavic lore speaks of a banya spirit which hides under the benches of the bathhouse, waiting to disrupt wayward bathers who are disrespectful to the banya and other visitors .
The zen-like nature of herbal soaks can conjure images of the ancient onsen (or natural thermal springs) tucked-in the crevices and valleys of extinct Japanese volcanoes. As far back as 500 C.E., Buddhist monks founded and promoted some of the oldest onsen across the scenic island country. The mineral-rich waters of the Dogo Onsen on Shikoku Island is believed to have been in use for three-thousand years by both peasants and emperors to honor and greet the gods .
Across cultures, over centuries, bathhouses and herbal baths have not only served as necessary hygienic safe havens, but as spiritual pools for self-care and water worship. Healing the body, spirit, and mind, bath waters flow freely throughout our modern culture as they have throughout the existence of humankind.