Ancient Spas: The Lifegiving Power of Water and the Gods
In the world of today, a spa is generally understood to mean a health resort, a place where people visit in order to rejuvenate their body, mind, and spirit. Spas today come in many varieties, including the day spa, hotel spa, and medical spa. In addition, a plethora of services are offered by modern spas, which range from those aimed at relaxation (such as massages, yoga, and meditation) to cosmetic procedures (including facials, manicures, and pedicures) and even medical procedures (including chemical peels, laser treatments, Botox, and collagen injections). The original spas, i.e. those that existed during Greek and Roman times, however, were much less complicated, and their activities were centered on water.
The Origin of Spas
There are several competing hypotheses regarding the origin of the word ‘spa’. The most popular of these is the one claiming that the word ‘spa’ is actually an acronym for a Latin phrase. Depending on one’s source, the phrase may range from sanitas per aquam to solus per aqua . In any case, the phrase, whichever the version, is said to mean ‘health through water’.
Despite the popularity of this hypothesis, it has been pointed out that words generated as an acronym only started to appear at the beginning of the 20th century and remained rare up until the inter-war years. Interestingly, apart from spa, other words commonly (though erroneously) said to be acronyms include ‘posh’ (port out, starboard home), golf (gentlemen only, ladies forbidden), and ‘tip’ (to insure promptness).
Another hypothesis that appeals to the Roman roots of the practice claims that the word is derived from the Latin verb spargere, which is said to mean ‘to pour’ or ‘to spill’, and therefore is used to describe a hot spring. In fact, the word is more appropriately translated to mean ‘to spread’, and that ‘spa’ is neither a conjugated form of spargere, nor would it make sense if it were an abbreviation of that verb.
A third hypothesis states that the word ‘spa’ was coined only during the 1620s, and is derived from Spa, the name of a town in Belgium. The name of this town, in turn, has its roots in the word espa, which is Walloon for ‘spring’ or ‘fountain’. The town of Spa is located in the province of Liège, in Belgium’s Wallonia region.
Known as the ‘Pearl of Ardennes’, the town of Spa may have already been around during Roman times. Nevertheless, it was only during the 16th century, in 1559, Lymborth, the doctor to the prince-bishop of Liège, published a book entitled Des Fontaines acides de la forest d’Ardenne, et principalement de celle qui se trouve à Spa , which translates as ‘The Acid Fountains of the Ardennes Forest, in particular that found at Spa’.
Thanks to this book, the healing properties of Spa’s springs (known as pouhon in Walloon) became known throughout the courts of Europe, and soon the town was visited by elites from all over the continent, the most notable of whom was Peter the Great . The Russian tsar visited Spa in 1717 and found relief for his liver disease at the town’s pouhons.
This further enhanced the town’s reputation. As those who were not able to make the trip, all the way to Spa, could buy a bottle of the town’s famous mineral water, as it was being bottled and shipped all over Europe, even as far as Russia.
The history of spas, however, stretches much further back, and has its origins in ancient Greece and Rome. Bathing was common in ancient Greece and this practice is mentioned by various authors, including the poets Homer and Pindar. Evidence for this practice is also provided by archaeology through the remains of public baths, an example of which being the one at Olympia, in the Peloponnese.
The Greek baths at Olympia are situated near the bank of the Kladeos River, at the western end of the Olympian sanctuary. The earliest phase of this monument dates to around the middle of the 5th century BC. At that time, the structure was a simple oblong room that covered an area of 65.6 feet by 13.1 feet (20 meters by 4 meters) with a well at one end.
Spas at the Olympia Sanctuary. (Bibi Saint-Pol / Public Domain )
The baths were gradually expanded. For instance, a smaller room with small built tubs along its north and east sides were added, perhaps during the 5th century BC, while another room was added to the west side of the baths around the end of the following century. It is speculated that the baths were abandoned during the Roman period, as the Romans built their own baths, referred to as the Kladeos Baths, which were built on the site of the swimming pool of the Greek baths.
The ancient Greeks had access to various types of baths. For instance, like the European aristocrats who were visiting the pouhons of Spa during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Greeks were also going to hot springs. These were renowned for their healing properties and were considered to be sacred to the demi-god Heracles. One such example is the hot springs of Aedespus in Euboea.
Another type of baths used by the Greeks was the steam bath , which is similar to the Roman thermae. These baths were known as laconia, named after their place of origin, i.e. Laconia, in the Peloponnese. Normally, this type of bath would consist of a circular room with a large, conical domed roof.
One way in which the baths were heated was through fires underneath the floor. Alternatively, heated rocks could be placed in a tray in the center of the baths, and steam was created when water was poured onto the rocks.
The floor of the spa has been removed to reveal the empty space through which the hot air flowed to heat the floor above. (Mschlindwein / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Going to the baths was supposed to be a relaxing experience, which may have been enhanced by adding leaves and branches of bay laurel, fir, juniper, or pine, which are known for their therapeutic properties. Alternatively, the essences of these plants can be mixed with oil for massaging the body.
Greek civilization had a huge influence on the Romans, and the practice of bathing was one of the aspects of Greek culture that they adopted. As Rome grew from a city-state into an empire that spanned three continents, the Romans brought their baths, and the practice of bathing, to the lands they conquered.
Thus, Roman baths came to replace Greek ones in the east, while in the west, where this practice had been hitherto unknown, new baths were being built. In some places, the Romans built baths at the sites of hot springs , which made them even more spa-like. The Roman baths in the English city of Bath are arguably the most famous of these.
Bath is located in the county of Somerset, in southwest England. During Roman times, the city was a small town known as Aquae Sulis (meaning ‘the waters of Sulis’) and was dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva, who was a syncretic goddess that combined a Celtic deity, Sulis, and a Roman one, Minerva. Although the Romans established the town during the 1st century AD, the area was already settled long before their arrival.
The magnificent centerpiece of the Roman baths at Bath is a pool, lined with 45 sheets of lead and filled with hot spa water. (David Dixon / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Legend has it that the town was founded during the 9th century BC. In 863 BC, Bladud, a legendary king of the Britons, is said to have been cured of a disease by immersing himself in the steaming swamps. Bladud, by the way, was the son of Lud Hudibras, and the father of King Lear (made famous by Shakespeare’s play of the same name).
While the story of Bladud may be a mere legend, it is not impossible that the locals were aware of the healing properties of the hot springs before the arrival of the Romans. This is due to the fact that the Celts already had a shrine at the main spring (known also as the Sacred Spring), which was dedicated to the goddess Sulis. It was the same hot springs that drew the Romans to the site.
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Roman baths showing the overflow from the Sacred Spring. (David Dixon / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
As the conquerors identified Sulis with their own goddess Minerva, the two deities were amalgamated into one, and a temple was built for her worship. Incidentally, the Temple of Sulis Minerva is one of the few known examples from Roman Britain of a temple built in the Classical style.
Of course, the highlight of Aquae Sulis were its baths and the source of its waters. The town’s Roman baths obtained their water from three hot springs. The water from the springs reaches a temperature of 115°F (46 °C) and has risen at a rate of 309,081 gallons (1,170,000 liters) every day for thousands of years.
Model of Roman spa and temple complex. (Rodw / Public Domain )
It is little wonder that the ancient inhabitants of the area saw this as a divine phenomenon and therefore regarded the hot springs as the work of a goddess. Moreover, the waters from the hot springs were rich in minerals and had healing properties. This served to elevate the town’s reputation as a center of healing and drew visitors from all over the empire.
In order to thank the goddess for the healing they had experienced, those who used the baths would often throw offerings into the Sacred Spring. Many of these offerings have been discovered by archaeologists and are today displayed in the Roman Baths Museum.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, bathing fell out of fashion and the Roman baths gradually fell out of use. The baths continued to be used by royalty for some time, as evidenced by the fact that during the 12th century, a pool known as the King’s Bath was constructed. This pool was fed by water coming from the same Sacred Spring that was used during Roman times.
Nevertheless, the baths were poorly maintained. In time, the baths were abandoned and were lost as a result of silting and flooding. Regardless, Bath thrived during the medieval period, as it became an important center for the wool industry and cloth trade. It was only in the 18th century, during the Georgian period, that the town regained its reputation as a spa town.
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Ruins of a Roman spa at Sagalassos. ( cascoly2 / Adobe Stock)
The men responsible for Bath’s revival as a spa town were John Wood, the Elder (an architect), Ralph Allen (an entrepreneur who reformed the British postal system), and Richard ‘Beau’ Nash (a famous dandy and fashion leader at that time). The three men desired to make Bath one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, which led to the construction of many buildings in the Palladian style, which was fashionable in England at that time.
One of the structures from this period is the building that that surrounds the King’s Bath. This Georgian construction was built over the remains of the earlier baths and is one of the city’s most iconic monuments. The baths were accessed via the adjacent building, the Grand Pump Room, which was also built during the 18th century.
The Grand Pump Room not only served as the entrance to the baths but was also the place where one could ‘take the waters’, i.e. to drink the hot spring’s mineral rich water. In fact, unlike their Roman predecessors, the Georgians who visited Bath were drinking, rather than bathing in the hot spring’s waters. The Roman baths were rediscovered in 1755.
Artifacts unearthed during archaeological excavations are today displayed in the Roman Baths Museum and include the impressive ornamental pediment that once adorned the Temple of Sulis Minerva. At the center of the pediment is the Gorgon’s head, which is not only a symbol of Minerva, but also of water deities such as Oceanus and Neptune. Today, the ruins of the Roman baths remain below street level.
The Gorgon’s head artifact recovered from a Roman spa. (Mike Peel / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
19th Century Spas
By the 19th century, spas became popular throughout Europe, thanks to such towns as Spa and Bath. Other towns that became famous due to their spas include Marienbad and Karlsbad in the Czech Republic and Bad Gastein in Austria. It may be added that spas were also popular in the United States, especially with the discovery of mineral springs in what is today Saratoga Springs, in New York.
The wealthy, in particular, saw it as fashionable to visit and luxurious hotels were built to accommodate them. In addition to receiving medical treatment, spa-goers could enjoy cultural activities and entertainment.
Lastly, during the 20th century, spas began to decline, as a result of the two world wars and the advance of modern medicine. Nevertheless, it was also during this time that spas began to diversify their business, so as to attract new customers. A range of different new services were offered, and due to their affordability, spas were no longer the visited exclusively used by the elite.
As a result of this, spas became popular once more. According to the International Spa Association, in 2015, there were over 21,000 spas in the United States alone, most of them being day spas.
Top image: Roman spa. Source: araraadt / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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