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Soap and Purification in Antiquity

In prehistoric times the only means of purification was water. We know, however, that in 2300 B.C. in Mesopotamia some material was used as a kind of medicine for wounds and as a hair cleanser, but we do not know its composition or whether it was similar to soap. Almost a century earlier in 2200 BC, the Babylonians had invented the basic method of soap making, the chemical reaction of an ester – found in vegetable oils – and a base. They used cassia oil (the tree from which cinnamon is produced) boiled with ash and water (boiling the ash with water plays the role of the base – it is essentially the lye used previously after dissolving fats). They used it mainly for wound healing, treatment of skin diseases, grooming, and washing. In 1550 BC in Egypt, according to descriptions in papyrus, a soap-like product was used, while the use of a mixture of animal fat and vegetable oils with which their hair was regularly washed was mentioned. However, it is not clear whether it was a cleaning or hair care product.

 The ancient Greeks did not use soap for washing their bodies but preferred to wash with water, clay (some clays are lipophilic – so they have relatively detergent properties), pumice stone, lava, or even silica sand of sea or river (used as abrasives – ‘exfoliators’ as we would say today) and ash as we said before. Then they often spread oil on their bodies. Oil application was very common, and to remove (as for sweat dust, etc.) they used the stylegida.

 In ancient Athens, a short distance from the sanctuary of Asclepius under the Acropolis, there was a small, open-air sanctuary dedicated to Nymphi, protector of marriage, and wedding ceremonies. Although the sanctuary was closely interwoven with the social and religious life of the city for at least five centuries (7th-2nd century BC), it is not known from written sources. However, it was identified according to the inscriptions on vessels and shells, as well as the “term” (landmark) of the sanctuary, a column with the inscription: “Mount of the Holy Nymph”. The epigraphic testimonies and the inscriptions identified the worshipful status of the deity, which seems to be related to Aphrodite and Hera, protectors of marriage. Among the many tributes on display in the built-in showcases are the black urns (luxurious vases with a characteristic tall shape painted with the black or red-shaped technique with themes of decoration related to the wedding) that were associated with the wedding ceremonies and were used to transport water from the Athenian fountain of Calliroi for the wedding bath of the newlyweds, a ritual known as “Loutrophoria”.

 In the Roman Empire 1st–2ndA.D. the Romans learned the manufacture of soap from the Gauls (Celtic tribe) who used animal fat and plant ash to make it. Saipo was its name, where the word soap comes from. Around the same time in Hellenistic Greece in 200A.D. the Greeks used soap to clean amphorae and statues. At the same time the Greek doctor Galinos (129-199AD) the second most important doctor of antiquity after Hippocrates, recommends washing the body with soap, as a preventive measure against skin diseases.

Of course, myths were cultivated later on in history. Legend has it that soap is invented in Ancient Greece (unlikely), on the island of Lesvos, where animals were sacrificed in honor of the gods. Parts of the animals (that were not consumed during the sacrificial ceremony) were incinerated and thus ashes (source of alkalis – base, that is, as we saw above) from the firewood were mixed with animal fats. After strong downpours, a yellowish liquid flowed from the mountain of sacrifices downhill in the local river where the women washed clothes. They noticed the liquid made clothes cleaner.

Similar tales to the Myth of Lesvos we find in various European traditional legends.

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