Soap and cleaning in Antiquity

Σαπούνι και καθαρισμός στην Αρχαιότητα

In prehistoric times the only means of purification was water. But we know that in 2300 BC. 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 making soap, the chemical reaction of an ester – found in vegetable oils – and a base. They used cassia oil (the tree from which cinnamon is made) boiled with ash and water (boiling the ash with water plays the role of the base – it is essentially the alisiva used in the past after dissolving fats). They used it mainly for wound healing, treatment of skin diseases, beautification but also for washing. In 1550 BC. In Egypt, according to descriptions on papyrus, a product similar to soap was used, and at the same time the use of a mixture of animal fat and vegetable oils with which they regularly washed their hair is mentioned. But it is not clear if it was a product of cleaning or hair care.


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


In ancient Athens, a short distance from the sanctuary of Asclepius below the Acropolis, was a small, open-air sanctuary dedicated to the Nymph, patron saint of weddings and wedding ceremonies. Although the sanctuary was closely intertwined 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 sacred Nymph”. From the epigraphic testimonies and the votive offerings, the worship of the deity was determined, which seems to be related to Aphrodite and Hera, the patrons of marriage. Among the numerous tributes on display at the wall showcases are the baths (luxury vases with a characteristic tall shape painted with the black or red-shaped technique with themes of the decoration related to the wedding) which were connected with the wedding ceremonies and served for the wedding. Kallirroi fountain for the wedding bath of the newlyweds, a ritual known as “bathing”.


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


And of course myths were later cultivated. The legend wants the invention of soap in Ancient Greece (rather unlikely), on the island of Lesvos, where animals were sacrificed in honor of the gods. Some of the animals (whatever was not eaten) were cremated at the sacrifice ceremony and so ashes (source of alkali – base, that is, as we saw above) from the firewood were mixed with animal fats. After heavy rains, a yellowish liquid from the mountain of sacrifices flowed into the local river where the women washed their clothes and made the clothes cleaner. Similar to the Myth of Lesvos, we find it in European ‘mythology’.

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