File:Cabinets d'aisances des fosses inodores c1830.jpg
Cabinets d’aisances des fosses inodores.” (1830)

The proverb of cleanliness being “next to godliness” is popularly credited to John Wesley’s 1778 sermon. But it also came from writings in the Talmud. Washing oneself in clear water before paying homage to the gods and deities became part of the ceremonies in many ancient religions. In ancient Egypt, people washed their faces and hands before praying to the goddess Isis, and the priests bathed their bodies at least twice every night and twice during the day. Christian author Tertullian (c. 155 – 240 CE) tells us that water had inherent natural cleansing properties and, as an essence of holiness, water could remove all taints and open the way to the new state of existence.

In India, water had the power of giving life, strength and purity. The followers of Brahma bathed once or twice a day and rinsed their faces and hands several times a day. Hinduism imposed on its followers the duty of ritual bathing in the waters of the rivers which are still regarded as sacred. Muslims wash their hands, faces and feet before each of the five obligatory prayers in a day. Ablutions in the fountain are executed when they pray along the way, because, as Sahih Muslim says, “Cleanliness is half the Emaan (“faith”).” The Islamic culture led to the development of the ancient idea of public baths. However, the hammam (from the Arabic word “hamma” means “to warm”), known to us today as “Turkish Bath”, carries with itself more than just a bath. Practices of the hammam are an integral part of the Turkish and Arabic lifestyle. In the hammam, it is considered possible to clean the body as well as to relax and to recreate.

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Open air museum Petronell ( Lower Austria )

Very early toilets that used flowing water to remove the waste are found at Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland, which was occupied from about 3100 BCE until 2500 BCE. The people of the Harappan civilization in Pakistan and northwestern India had primitive water-cleaning toilets that used flowing water in each house that were linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks. The flowing water removed the Human waste. Around the 18th century BCE, Minoan Crete improved the toilet by adding the capacity to flush. In 2012, archaeologists found what is believed to be Southeast Asia’s earliest latrine dating back to 1500 BCE during the excavation of a neolithic village in Rach Nui, southern Vietnam.

In the Japanese culture, the bath is dominant in most areas of life. It has also become a model indicator of family and social organization. The development of commercial bath houses occurred at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth century CE. By the nineteenth century CE, there were 600 public baths in the capital of Japan alone. Public baths were the most popular meeting place as it was considered a way to meet new friends and for different social classes to interact with each other. Baths were also of vital importance for the Japanese gods. After escaping from the world of the dead, the god Izanagi took a bath in the river to wash away death from his body. It was also said that Izanagi initiated the tradition of washing one’s hand before entering a Shinto shrine.

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Leaflet advertising Bromo paper toilet tissue manufactured by Diamond Mills Paper Company of 44 Murray Street, New York, probably about 1878 or early 1880s. The paper contained the “disinfectants and curatives” Bromo chloralum and carbolic acid “as to render its use not only a positive preventive of that most distressing and almost universal complaint, the Piles, but also a thorough deodorizer and disinfectant of the water closet.” 


The main Babylonian medical text, the Sakikku, a diagnostic handbook written by chief scholar Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, describes a demon called Sulak, who hides in places where its victims would be alone and vulnerable such as the toilet. He is a guardian who is held responsible for causing strokes and seizures if toilet users do not abide by its bathroom standards of modesty and silence. The Talmud also tells us about Shed Bet ha-Kise. Going to the privy alone and being respectful of Shed Bet ha-Kise by keeping quiet are key to avoiding his attack. Upon returning from a trip to the toilet, one must walk at least half a mile away before having sexual intercourse to prevent Shed Bet ha-Kise from ensuring the children resulted from the sexual act to be epileptic.

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Chinon (Indre-et-Loire). The fortress for latrines in the Clock Tower.

In the first century BCE, bathhouses and public latrines became a major feature of Roman infrastructure and nearly all city dwellers had access to private toilets in their residences. Throughout the Roman empire, spells meant to ward off demons were scrawled on lavatory walls. The Roman goddess of Fortune, Fortuna, seems to have had a special relationship with toilet users as people prayed to her for their safety on the toilet. The waste water from latrines, along with what came out of private homes, was collected into a giant sewerage system originally built by Etrucan engineers and improved by the Romans called Cloaca Maxima. The goddess who presided over the good functioning of the sewerage system is Cloacina – named from the Latin word cloaca (“sewer”). Cloacina was assisted by city officials, called Aediles, who were in charge of supervising and improving the sewerage system. Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabines from Cures was said to have built a shrine to Coacina in his toilet and invoked her when the sewers became blocked.

In ancient Asia, the toilet god was considered to be beautiful. Therefore, the toilet in a household would be nicely decorated and kept as clean as possible. There was also a belief that the state of the toilet in the house would affect the physical appearance of unborn children. Pregnant women would ask the toilet god to give boys a good nose and to give the girls dimples. A dirty toilet would lead to ugly and unhappy children.

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Room with latrines in the interior of the castle of Mauléon-Licharre, (Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France).

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