A Sacred Ritual Bath

Recently, a follower of ancient Roman traditions in the UK contacted me regarding an altar to Fortuna which originally presided over the bath for an old fort in his region of England.

My initial response was to emphasize that an altar located within such a strongly masculine function would most likely be presided over by a priest and not a priestess. Which also brought in the issue that women were not always chosen to serve the Goddess temples in ancient times, although I do connect with many, many women who represent the divine feminine in contemporary NeoPagan practice; a very strong force in personal, spiritual belief.

The second response was the concept that this Fortuna was “of the bath” (perhaps as “Balnearis” or “Salutaris”, regardless of whether the inscription actually included these aspects of the bath or health-bringing  activities). In ancient times, the bath was a place of bonding and exercise.

In contemporary times, when we go to the public swimming pool or gymnasium, we join with other humans in a similar way. However; the ability to bond with others, and also with the deity of Fortuna, is no longer part of the public sector. This points to another strong contrast between the past and NeoPagan expression.

In today’s society, we make choices regarding our beliefs and interests. Do we work out in the gymnasium and swim in the public pool as a secular activity? Do we make an offering to the Goddess before or after the swim in respect for past traditions?

Or, alternatively, do we choose nature walks and private exercise so that we may more closely bond with the Goddess, as She exists in our own homes and personal beliefs? How open are we with our personal beliefs, in a society which may be predominantly of non-Pagan religious persuasions?

Public bonding is a very “Roman” tradition. However; studying and understanding the past is very NeoPagan and, although I am quite new to the belief system of the “Religio Romana”, perhaps understanding the past is also a strong part of this resurgence of classical Pagan reconstructionism, as a beautiful and amazing new branch of the continuously growing tree known as “NeoPaganism”.

How may we duplicate some of the rites of the ancient Roman baths in the privacy of our own homes, to bond with the past, and with the Goddess? Do we shower and  simply focus on the aspect of cleanliness and its health-giving properties? Do we place a statue of the Goddess near our shower or bath?

Do we engage in occasional ritual bathing in respect for the past? Or do we incorporate ritual bathing as part of our daily routine? Which brings us around to the question: how did Roman priests and priestesses live their lives, when they weren’t actively engaged in ritual?

What do we know about bathing in ancient Rome, and how do we recreate that experience?

We know that the baths provided access to everyone, regardless of gender or social class. Because the public baths were very beautiful, we may decorate our private baths as our own sacred places.

Those who are handy with home improvements, and also having the necessary budget, may choose to remodel the bathroom, or refinish the surfaces with sumptuous materials like marble, decorative tile and large mirrors. The more budget-conscious among us may prefer to display an honored house plant, a smaller decorative mirror or picture, or to use a single marble tile in a unique way.

Bathing was a daily ritual that began with warming and cleansing the body with scented oil, a practice which can be easily adapted to contemporary bathing … taking care with slippery surfaces!  Vegetable and olive oil are natural products, and often economically priced when compared to the cost of a similar sized bottle of lotion.

Essential oils, such as Lavender (from the Latin “lavar” to wash) are expensive luxuries, but only a drop or two are needed to scent a very large bottle of oil. Women who are pregnant or nursing may prefer fragrance-free vegetable oil, checking with their personal physicians to be sure.

After a fragrant, steamy bath, attendants would clean the skin by scooping off the oily surface with a metal tool. This part of the ritual is a challenge for those of us without daily access to a personal massage artist, or a spoon large enough to scoop off the oil ourselves.

Alternatives may be personally explored; perhaps concocting a natural, home-made salt or sugar scrub with some of the scented oil. The thick outer layer of oil may be diluted from the skin surface with a light lathering of vegetable-based liquid or bar soap, allowing the layer of clean oil at the skin surface to soak in as a warm, fragrant emmolient.

The final phase of the bathing routine was a swim in the cooler water of the public baths. This is easily included in the daily routine with a rinse in the shower, from a separate pitcher of water in the bath, or perhaps even travelling to a spiritual place for bathing in a lake, river, or the ocean when convenient.

For a very Roman finale of your private ritual, suiting up for a swim in the community swimming pool is becoming an option, as the weather begins to warm and the public pools entice us with open doors.

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