Fire, Smoke and Fragrant Wood
n my first trip to New Zealand I had the pleasure of taking a dip in the warm waters of the Waiotapu hot springs (literally “sacred waters” in the Māori language). It was the first time I experienced a natural hot spring, and it was sublime. It was a late afternoon in mid-summer, and although I knew the water would be warm, my body still expected the cold shock of getting into wild waters. The spring, heated by the geothermal activity in the area, joined the cool water of a little river and so you could swim from hot to cold as you pleased, finding yourself the perfect temperature. There were a few others lounging in the pools, but you could hear nothing over the softly rolling water, and if I turned to face the forested banks, I could imagine I was alone.
The experience made me think of our early ancestors, and what such a place would have meant to them. Hot springs suitable for bathing are rare, and must have been cherished by those living near them, both for the health benefits and the sensory experience. Before microscopes and germ theory we had to rely on our senses, instincts, and cultural practices to keep ourselves safe and healthy. We made soap from plant roots and nuts, and eventually from oils and fats mixed with wood ash. Every culture has cleanliness practices; most are everyday activities, but some are special. The ones that are ritualised are often connected with cultural ideas about purity and cleansing, not just of the body, but of the mind and spirit.
Such rituals often include fire, smoke from fragrant wood and herbs, and water and steam. If you consider the importance of water, fire, and sanctuary to our existence, it is of little wonder that these elements have been integrated into our most important rituals. You can see the presence of these elements in the worship practices of so many peoples: the burning of frankincense in Christian mass; the smudging ceremonies of various indigenous American cultures; the smoked juniper of Scottish saining rites; the burning of fragrant incense in Hindu and Buddhist temples. I still celebrate my birth by lighting and blowing out candles.
There are as many bathing rituals as there are cultures. The Russian Banya, Moroccan Hammam, Turkish Baths, Sudanese Durkham, Finnish saunas and the accompanying vihta (birch rods), to name but a few, are all forms of ritualised bathing, often communal, and always transformative. There is a Russian salutation for those emerging from the banya, “с легким паром” (pronounced “s legkim parom”) which translates as “with light steam”. It seems an odd thing to say until you consider that there is no need to inquire about the quality of the bathing, as it is always assumed to have been good.
Despite the privations of modern life, where I am functionally cut off from such rituals, somehow I still echo them. When I’ve had a challenging or difficult day, I run a bath, I light a candle for that extra little luxury, and I indulge in the scents of my favourite essential oils. And when I emerge from the water I replenish the oils my skin loses to the hot water and soap. Using Menteath oils that have been gently smouldered, the experience is imbued with scents invoking memories of camping, of the open sky, of good company around a fire, and I feel transformed.