• Ali Isaac

Ancient Ablutions

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

I don’t know about you, but even as a child, I was always fascinated by the way our ancestors from our distant past may have conducted the minutiae of every day life. What they ate, how they slept, how children played, how they cooked, what their homes looked like, and so on; these were the things which occupied my mind far more than the major political upheavals and turbulent events they lived through, and kept me awake at night, or coloured my dreams.

Personal care interested me; hairstyles and fashion, cleanliness, how did they manage all this? After all, we know from all the old stories that beauty and style are  not modern concerns.

Lets get this over with first, huh? I know you’re curious, don’t try and deny it. How did the ancient people go to the toilet?

Ever heard of a place called Skara Brae? It’s a stone-built Neolithic village in the Orkneys consisting of eight houses, which was occupied from about 3180 BC–2500 BC, and is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids.

Skara Brae By Wknight94 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2680073

These houses were sunk into the ground, presumably to protect and insulate them from the harsh weather. All the furniture in them was built from stone, as there were no trees growing on the island.

There are so many fascinating features about these dwellings, but for the purpose of this post, I will tell you about only one of them.

Each house had built beneath its floor a complete drainage system. Some of these houses had separate cubicles with a drain in them, and it is thought that these were actually toilets, probably the kind that you squat over, I should think. Over 5000 years ago… how amazing is that?

Some ancient civilisations, such as that of the Indus valley (3300 – 1900BC) and the Minoans on Crete (sooo-1600BC) had sewerage and drainage systems built under their homes with toilets that actually flushed with water.

It seems our ancient ancestors were far more comfortable with their bodily functions than we are today.

Take the Romans, for example; they had communal latrines with long benches to sit on, with numerous keyhole shaped holes which gave onto ditches flushed with waste bath water. There was no privacy;  people sat side by side to… well, conduct their business, and have their business meetings, or socialise at the same time! Eeeuw!

Ostia Roman trench Toilets By Fubar Obfusco - en.wiki, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=287299

Ostia Roman trench Toilets By Fubar Obfusco – en.wiki, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=287299

Our Irish ancestors left behind less evidence of their toilet habits (pardon the puns!). Medieval castles had garderobes, a small chamber with a platform over a hole in the floor. Some had chutes through which waste fell, others just had a hole, and the faeces were dumped down the castle wall. Must have been a cold and draughty experience in winter, and a particularly pungent one in the warmer summer months!

Cathair na BhFionnúrach is an incredible figure of eight shaped stone fort which has stood on the Dingle peninsula for over a thousand years. Its two rooms are connected by an internal door, and the smaller room at the rear also has access to an underground souterrain.

Beyond this room, lies a large cess-pit which the inhabitants used as their toilet; it was 2m wide by 1.9 deep and partially stone-lined. It was found to contain straw, grass and flax, which may have been used as toilet paper, as well as human faeces.

Various fruit seeds were also recovered  by archaeologists, including apple, blackberry and hazelnut as well as exotic imports, such as grapes, so clearly it was also used as a rubbish dump.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a structure built over it to provide shelter or privacy. I imagine this type of toilet had not advanced in many years; it served its purpose, and our ancient ancestors were too busy innovating in other areas, metalworking, for example.

Did you know that the Celts were said to have invented soap? I don’t know if that’s true, but according to Pliny (Roman author, naturalist and philosopher 23-79AD), the Celtic Gauls introduced soap made from sheep tallow, animal fats and plant ashes, to the Romans, and called it saipo. The Old Irish word for soap is sleic.

The Romans observed that the Celts were very particular concerning their bathing habits and personal grooming. The Irish merely washed their hands  in a nearby stream or well on rising, and bathed later in the day. For this, they kept a large vessel indoors called a dabach (pronounced dau-vah). It was considered extremely important to have bathing facilities available for guests, as hospitality was vital to a person’s honour in those days.

I’m sure they often bathed in lakes and rivers, too, when the weather was mild. Even in summer, this is an invigorating experience, I can assure you! Strange things happen when people bathed in lakes, though; Queen Medb of The Cattle Raid of Cooley fame was killed by a slingshot of hard cheese (I kid you not!) while she was bathing in a lake on an island in Lough Ree, Co. Roscommon.

Fedelm and Eithne, princesses of Connacht were bathing in the sacred spring of Ogalla, when they were chanced upon by St Patrick and his priests. A discussion on religion took place, whereupon the girls agreed to be baptised and immediately died, in order to ascend to heaven in purity. Sounds suspiciously like foul play to me.

Here is the story of Gile, a young woman who went to bathe in a lake, and died of shame when she caught her lover spying on her. Her father killed the young man, and subsequently died of grief himself soon after.

“Bright Gile, Romra’s daughter, to whom every harbour was known, the broad lake bears her name to denote its outbreak of yore. The maiden went, on an errand of pride that has hushed the noble hosts, to bathe in the spray by the clear sand-strewn spring. While the modest maiden was washing in the unruffled water of the pool, she sees on the plain tall Omra as it were an oak, lusty and rude. Seeing her lover draw near, the noble maid was stricken with shame: she plunged her head under the spring yonder: the nimble maid was drowned. Her nurse came and bent over her body and sat her down yonder in the spring: as she keened for Gile vehemently, she fell in a frenzy for the girl. As flowed the tears in sore grief for the maiden, the mighty spring rose over her, till it was a vast and stormy lake. Loch Gile is named from that encounter after Gile, daughter of Romra: there Omra got his death from stout and lusty Romra. Romra died outright of his sorrow on the fair hill-side: from him is lordly Carn Romra called, and Carn Omra from Omra, the shame-faced [gap: extent: two lines] Loch Gile here is named from Gile, Romra’s daughter.”

from The Metrical Dinnsenchus

It is thought a warrior had to bathe before battle and before a meal. Some claim this was the function of the extraordinary structures found dotted around the Irish countryside, known as fulachta fiadh.

These sites consist of a low, semi-circular shaped mound of soil rich with charcoal deposits, and scattered with heat-shattered stones; a hearth on which a fire was built,  and a central trough dug into the ground. The pit was often lined with planks of wood, or slabs of stone, and sometimes clay.

The stones were thought to have been heated in the fire and then dropped into the pit in order to heat the water it contained. It could have been used to cook large batches of meat, or perhaps to heat water for bathing.

You can read more about the fullachta fiadh in my post, How Do You Feed a Hungry Fianna?

Another feature of our Irish countryside are the intriguing little bee-hive shaped stone structures called sweat-houses. Their purpose is not known for sure, but soot lining the inner surface indicates fires were lit within them.

Whether they were used for smoking and preserving food, or inhaling the smoke of mind altering substances, or as ancient saunas is not known for certain. Personally, I see no reason why they couldn’t have served all three functions.

Men and women both wore their hair long. In battle, it was coated in lime, which whitened it and held it out of their faces while they fought. Often, both sexes wore their hair curled and elaborately dressed. Conall Cernach, (a hero warrior of the Ulster Cycle of mythology), for example, in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, had fair hair which flowed down his back, and was done up in ‘hooks and plaits and swordlets’.

The Book of Kells, which is famous for its elaborate artwork, shows men and women alike with hair which has been plaited and braided and worked into sections. In fact, many of these hairstyles are so ornate, they must have taken hours to create, and could only have been dressed by a professional hairstylist.

Oisin was carried off on the back of a white horse into the Otherworld by the Sidhe princess, Niamh of the Golden Hair:

her golden hair hung in tresses, and at the end of each plait hung a bead. To some men her hair was the colour of the yellow flag iris which grows by summer water; others thought it like ruddy polished gold.”

Ciabhán, prince of Desmond, went to the Otherworld when he fell in love with Clíodhna. He was known by the epithet ‘of the curling locks’. I imagine there was some vanity involved in this, for he was asked to leave the Fianna for his womanising. Perhaps he spent a lot of time on his hair in order to attract the women!

The beard, or féasóg, was given much the same treatment. Think dwarves from the Hobbit movies; sometimes it was worn long and fashioned into two points, sometimes squared, sometimes divided into sections and twisted into ‘slender fillets’. Mustaches were curled and pointed at the ends, and not always accompanied by a beard. Sometimes, the whole face was left bare.

An ancient text known as Cormac’s Glossary mentions the common use of razors, and many bronze examples have been found by archaeologists. Combs were also in common use, and usually made of bone or horn, often highly decorated. Mirrors were made from polished metal, and known as scathán (pronounced ska-han) or scaterc, from scáth derc, meaning ‘shadow-seeing’, which I think is quite lovely.

Cormac’s Glossary also claims that the blush of a cheek was often emphasised with pigment from ruam, the alder tree, and that eyebrows were darkened with the juice of berries. Fingernails were dyed red, although how, I’m not sure. Deirdre, in her grief for the deaths of the sons of Uisneach, who were killed protecting her, claims that she will never sleep or crimson her nails, for she will never know joy again.

Etaín, for example, was described in the ancient text Togail Bruidna Da Derga, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, as having shimmering waves of fire-gold hair, skin as white as snow, and blushing cheeks red as foxgloves. White skin and red cheeks are mentioned often in the old tales. I wonder how much of this was enhancement by early cosmetics.

And there’s me thinking that all these Celtic goddesses were just natural beauties…