The Greek historian, Herodotus, admired the health of the Egyptians, writing that they were among the healthiest people in the world. Health and cleanliness were of paramount importance to the Egyptians. Personal names contained such phrases as “I possess health” or “let your father be healthy.” All letters, addresses, salutes and travel recommendations ended with wishes for good health. (Ghalioungui: 150)
Travelers from Greece remarked on the Egyptian custom of washing hands (and the dishes) before a meal. The Egyptians were also in the habit of using purgatives and emetics on a monthly basis. (Ghalioungui: 155)
Personal hygiene was considered extremely important. Although the Egyptians did not have soap, they used body scrubs made of powdered calcite, natron[i] (soda), and honey. Rich and poor alike washed twice daily, usually before meals. Ointments and aromatic oils were used to keep skin soft. Deodorant was made from ground carob pulp or a mixture of incense and dry porridge. (Reeves:18)
For the most part, both women and men shaved their bodies, and often their heads, with bronze razors, or plucked with tweezers. (White: 89) There was also a popular recipe for a depilatory made from crushed bone (of birds), fly dung, oil, sycamore juice, gum and cucumber. (Reeves: 18)
In this, ordinary Egyptians were emulating the rituals of cleanliness practiced by priests. (Ghalioungui: 155)
Those who were permitted to enter temples or other holy sites were expected to fulfill certain conditions of physical purity. This included bathing twice daily and twice nightly in cold water, usually in the sacred lake adjoining the temple, or if there was none then in a stone basin and sprinkled themselves with water before attending to their morning and evening services. Water, of course, was the original element from which life emerged, so there was symbolic significance to this ritual. Further, they had to rinse their mouths with natron-water before speaking sacred words. Although many Egyptians shaved their head and body hair, it was a requirement for priests. (Sauneron: 36-37)
Priests were also obligated to fast or follow very restricted diets. For example, priests of certain deities were prohibited from eating cattle, other mammals or sometimes certain parts of animals. (Sauneron: 38)
Although priests could be married, they were also required to observe periods of sexual abstinence. They were also prohibited from wearing wool and required to wear linen. (Sauneron: 40) All this was to ensure the priests were ritually pure enough to enter sacred ground.
Visitors also remarked on how the Egyptians were different than other peoples in that they took their meals outside yet tended to bodily needs indoors (apparently the opposite of the rest of the world). (Ghalioungui: 157)
During the New Kingdom period (sixteenth century BCE to eleventh century BCE, covering the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth dynasties) there were bathrooms supplied with water tanks (presumably in wealthier homes) with drains for excess water. Some temples and palaces even had indoor pipes as far back as 2700 BCE. (Ghalioungui: 157)
Many settlements did not have wells, so water had to be brought from the Nile. In Dier el-bahra, for example, village water was stored in large jars, but later a community reservoir was built. In ordinary Egyptian homes, the lavatory consisting of a wooden stool over a small sand pit. However, in finer houses, there were bathing rooms where water was drained out of the house through a covered gully into a tank. All refuse was removed to areas away from the houses. (Reeves: 12-13)
In modern times, most of us have day jobs and we cannot follow the requirements of Egyptian priesthood as the ancients did. Our modern world does not really allow for that. Nevertheless, to the extent we can, or as seems reasonable, those of us who follow an Egyptian spiritual bath should remember the importance the Egyptians placed on cleanliness.
Maatkara Sit-Heteru has been following an Egyptian magical path after receiving training from Church of the Eternal Source three decades ago.
Ghalioungui, Paul. 1973. The House of Life (Per Ankh): Magic and Medical Science in Ancient Egypt. Amsterdam, B.M. Istrael.
Reeves, Carole. 1992. Egyptian Medicine. UK, Shire Publications Ltd.
White, Jon Manchip. 1963. Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt. London, B.T. Batsford Ltd.
Sauneron, Serge. 2000. The Priests of Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press.
[i] Natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate and sodium bicarbonate. Modern substitutes are made by baking a quantity of baking soda in an oven until the resulting powder is exceptionally dry.