Published: Friday, Jul. 23rd, 2021
When we wade into the open ocean, plunge into the refreshing waters of a mountain lake, or float along a lazy, winding river, something powerful happens.
Often, we feel closer to nature. Sometimes, we feel closer to ourselves. And other times, if we’re spiritual people, we feel closer to our beliefs or our faith.
That’s why it’s no surprise that water, and especially the act of immersing ourselves in water, has been a part of all sorts of rituals for as long as cultures have been creating them!
When we talk about ritual or spiritual bathing, it refers to soaking or being submerged in a special type of water… a body of water that holds a special meaning, or that’s been specially prepared for ceremony. It’s not the kind of bathing we do with soap and shampoo at home.
Sacred bodies of water show up in countless religions and mythologies throughout recorded history, including the Ganges River in India, Lake Titicaca in the Andes mountains, and the Fountain of Youth, first described in ancient Greece. And ritual bathing can be secular or spiritual in nature, depending on the culture and beliefs of the bather.
Traditions that started hundreds or thousands of years are still seen today:
Christians include immersion in water as part of a welcoming to their faith, in a ceremony called a baptism. Wiccans hold a similar celebration, called a wiccaning, to welcome new witches. Some Pagans celebrate Imbolic with ritual bathing, either alone or as a group, as a time of purification and fertility. In Japan, soaking in hot springs (onsen) is a regular part of the community experience, used to calm the mind and spirit. And in Indonesia, Lulur flower baths are offered in most spas, a reminder of centuries-old Javanese wedding rituals.
Bathers at the Pura Tirta Empul Temple, a Holy Water Temple in Bali’s Tampaksiring district
Credit: University of Maryland, photo by Matt Regan
When enjoyed alone, ritual bathing is a time for reflection, meditation, prayer, and energetic redirection. These baths provide time for letting go of old ideas and negative energy, and welcoming in new and positive thoughts.
If you’ve ever taken the time to light a few candles, put on some relaxing music, and soak in a tub filled with bath salts and aromatic oils, maybe while sipping a glass of wine or detoxifying tea -- then you have a pretty good idea of what this kind of ritual can do for your well being.
Some bathers take this ritual further, and include prayer, meditation, breathwork, chanting, and spell casting as additional spiritual elements.
Ritual baths are sometimes performed with the guidance of a trusted friend, community member, or spiritual elder, such as a minister or clergy member, priest, or priestess. These baths might provide a ceremonial blessing (such as baptism or wiccaning), or symbolically wash away the past in order to welcome something new.
You don’t have to become ordained to perform one, but you may prefer to do so anyway. Ordination is needed to perform weddings, which can occur along with a ritual bathing, such as with a Christian ‘feet washing ceremony’ or Javanese Siraman ceremony, and is customary for baptisms.
These ceremonial rinsings and immersions might involve only the guide and the bather, or also welcome family members, friends, or other beloved members of a community as witnesses.
Being asked to perform a ritual bath is an honor in any culture!
How a ritual bath is prepared depends on its purpose, whether it's secular or spiritual, and on the culture or tradition it’s a part of. Baptisms and wiccanings, for example, follow a specific pattern created by followers of the faith.
There is no universal recipe for spiritual baths!
When you’ve been asked to perform this type of ceremony for someone, start by asking what they hope to achieve. Are they seeking forgiveness? Emotional healing? Creative or spiritual inspiration? A blessing for fertility and childbirth? Or are they marking time... perhaps the end to a period of grief or mourning, a celebration of the seasons, or the start of a new chapter in life? Each ceremony will be personal, and a reflection of the bather’s unique path and beliefs.
Once you know what the ritual is for, you’ll be better able to decide what to say during it, and to choose readings, music, herbs, and other elements to suit their needs.
Spiritual guides might ‘clear’ the space beforehand by burning sage, lighting incense, circling the tub with stones or other natural elements, or reciting a prayer.
During the ceremony, guides might sing hymns or ceremonial songs, recite prayers, chants, and incantations, and bless the water using herbs, flowers, oils, incense, and spells.
To perform the symbolic act of ‘bathing,’ some guides pour water over the top of the bather’s hair, sprinkle blessed water on their forehead, or hold them up gently, supporting them as they dip below the surface of the water.
(And in case you’re wondering, bathers usually wear ceremonial clothing or swim wear… but not always!)
The list below includes a few ingredients that have been used in many different kinds of nondenominational and spiritually eclectic ceremonies over the years. These ingredients work well when preparing an indoor tub for soaking and immersion and can be used individually or mixed and matched, depending on your goal. (Note: Be careful not to get oils or other ingredients in the bather’s eyes.)
Sea salt : One of the most ancient and essential ingredients, natural sea salt is said to cleanse negative energies, tighten the skin, and aid healing.
Epsom salt : Named for a town in Surrey, where it was found, epsom (also known as magnesium sulfate) is said to soften skin and relieve aches and pains in the body.
Lavender flowers : Said to aid spiritual awakening, awareness, and a calm state of mind, lavender is also associated with purity, devotion, and love.
Rose petals or oil : Roses are commonly associated with fertility, love, virtue, and sometimes represent the physical heart, the soul, or a doorway to communication with supernatural beings. Their aromatics can be calming and restorative.
Calendula (or marigold) flowers : These vibrant blooms have been said to ward off gossip and illness, serve as love and marriage charms, and are also said to instill feelings of gratitude and serenity.
Rosemary : Long used as a purification and healing herb, rosemary has also been said to work as an aphrodisiac. Some claim it improves circulation and memory.
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