Wherein the ancient Egyptians knew King Tut could only get funky by spending eternity being squeaky clean.
My first article for this blog was about the sudsy ins-and-outs of medieval baths, so it’s only fitting that I mark the first anniversary of the site with another article about bathing (okay, it’s less a case of “fitting” than of lazily looking at my first topic and simply riffing on that rather than bothering to come up with something else). This time it’s the Egyptians’ turn to take the plunge.
Whether preparing for a hard day of writing or smacking a ball into the outfield bleachers to save the world, Egyptians knew the most important way to start the day was with an invigorating shower. This was more than simply a way to wake up and smell great, however: it was essential if you didn’t want to spend eternity with your soul cast into darkness.
How’d You Get So Funky?
The first thing an Egyptian did upon rising in the morning was bathe (they also washed their hands and faces before meals). This had a deeply religious tie because, as Aylward M. Blackman states, “The sun-god Re-Atum was supposed to wash or be washed every morning before he appeared above the eastern horizon. As a result of his daily matutinal ablutions, at which, according to one conception, Horus and Thoth acted as his bath-attendants, the sun-god was thought to be reborn.”
The average Egyptian bathed in the Nile river, whereas members of the upper classes sent servants to bring water from the river and pour it over these hoity-toity persons as they stood on a stone slab or basin inside their homes. Wealthier people could also wash their feet in a special foot bath made from stone, wood or a glass-like ceramic called faience. These foot baths became so popular that they were mass produced during the First Intermediate period (2181–2040 BCE).
All groups of people would use natron, a chemical salt, as soap for cleansing. Because natron was also a central ingredient in the mummification process, it leads us to one of the most reasons for bathing, namely, that after death a squeaky clean body was necessary for making it past the tests one faced on the road to a happy (or unhappy) afterlife.
The Smell of Death Surrounds You
Just as you would not want to go into a job interview looking and smelling like you’d just crawled out from a sewer, The Egyptian Book of the Dead makes it clear that you cannot successfully complete the tests and trials of the afterlife without looking and smelling your best. The most famous spell, 125, even states that a person cannot speak this spell unless she is “clean, dressed in fresh clothes, shod in white sandals, painted with eye-paint, anointed with the finest oil of myrrh.”
You can use ancient Egyptian guidance counselor Duau Khety’s handy guide for knowing whether you have the right body odor for both landing a great job and making it past the guardians of the hereafter:
- Having a “stench worse than fish eggs?” Very bad.
- Smelling like a portly writer? You’re on the fast track to an awesome life and afterlife.
Image: The interior of an Egyptian bathhouse (Source).