Taking the Waters

A Historical Look at Water Therapy and Spa Culture Over the Ages

By Dr. Jonathan Paul de Vierville

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2000.

Taking the Waters. It’s a phrase that holds mysterious connotations from a simpler, ancient time. Just as with water therapies today, Taking the Waters was, and is, a physical venture into healing, cleansing and rejuvenation. What has been significantly lost from the Taking the Waters experience of old is the integration of domains. Art, socialization, nutrition, honest leisure, discussion, music — these interdisciplinary elements were all part of the spa culture of which Taking the Waters has historically been a part.

Where once spa-goers Took the Waters in natural springs or temple baths, today’s spa client is often found Taking the Waters in a hydrotherapy tub or mineral bath. And while the physical benefits remain, there is something of the original concept missing in the singularity of the experience and the forgotten notion of spa culture. Still, some of the greatest spas in the world — Karlsbad being one of them — hold fast to the notion of integration of experience.

There is the direct application of the waters (drinking, bathing, treatments), but also the indirect environment (the social side, the theater, art galleries, down time, leisure). It is an experience where body and mind have time to rest. The integration is complete, with experiences being repeated throughout the process — this is what the Kur concept is about.

Water is Life and Life is Water

Taking the Waters has been around for a very long time, with evidence of water being used for healing dating back before written history. Ancient civilizations believed that Taking the Waters was beneficial and healing in many ways, especially for cleansing the body, relaxing the heart, refreshing the mind and purifying the soul.

Even today, the philosophy behind Taking the Waters holds strong, noting water therapy as a primary source for a long life and good health, as well as a useful tool for those suffering with pain and disease. Taking the Waters — in the form of drinking and bathing with hot, warm, tepid and cold waters, as well as mineral, gaseous, saline, sea and fresh waters — serves to preserve health, prevent illness and treat disease.

Today much of our modern civilization, with its extreme emphasis on futuristic science and high-speed technologies, forgets the basic rhythms and natural benefits associated with Taking the Waters. However, with the turning of the centuries and millennial movement, there appears to be a returning and remembering of these deeper values and intrinsic life-giving benefits surrounding Taking the Waters.

As part of that remembering, let’s look into the historical meaning of Taking the Waters.

Spa — Where Does It Come From?

The word “spa” has strong mental impact and symbolic import. There is no single or certain origin of the word spa, but there are several possible sources. One plausible origin is deciphered from the three letters — “S,” “P,” “A” — often scrawled as graffiti on the marble walls of ancient Roman public baths known as thermae. The coded thermal message translated from the Latin — Salude Per Aqua — means “health or healing through water.”

The word spa found its way into the English language through the old Wallon word “espa” which means “fountain.” From “espa” the English derived the four letter word “spaw.” In 1326, a little village in the Ardennes mountains in Eastern Belgium acquired the name Spa when hot mineral waters were rediscovered and therapeutic baths developed for their medicinal values. In 1551, William Slingsby discovered the sulphur springs of Tewhit at Harrogate in England. He compared these natural sulphur mineral waters to the Spa waters in Belgium and the term stuck. In the 1950s, Sidney Licht, a founding member of the American Society of Medical Hydrology, defined spa as a “place where mineral-containing waters flow from the ground naturally, or to which it is pumped or conducted, and is there used for therapeutic purposes.”1 At the same time, Walter McClellan, medical director of Saratoga Springs Spa in New York, described a spa as a place where natural healing agents like mineral waters, muds and peloids are administered under supervision.2

In the most recent decade, The International Spa Association (ISPA) developed a new definition of the word spa in terms of “experiences, locations and domains.” ISPA defines the spa experience as “your time to relax, reflect, revitalize and rejoice.” This time for rejuvenation can take place in different categorical locations including club spas, cruise ship spas, day spas, destination spas, medical spas, mineral springs spas and resort/hotel spas.

Taking the Waters Today

Today, we can begin to see a returning to some of the ancient and historical ideas of re-creation, renewal and restoration as experienced through Taking the Waters. These ancient, regenerative activities can be experienced and revealed in time (the ability to take time is essential in spa culture) through reverence and respect for the Earth’s living blood — the Waters.

Like time moving through culture, the Waters move through nature as the blood of nature. Time and the Waters bend and shift, just as cultural perceptions, social attitudes and personal values do. In retrospect, the Waters and the various ideas, attitudes and values associated with them, reflect cultural movements and transformations. The Waters also reflect cultural permanence, stability and tradition. Our ideas and practices for Taking the Waters reveal both social change and cultural continuity. This relationship between the “Times” of culture and the “Waters” of nature can provide us with numerous primordial images and an integrated meaning which moves us deeper into an archetypal realm of human understanding.

The First Civilizations

Along with the nomadic tribes, all the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, Crete and China utilized the Waters, especially for religious rituals and healing rites. Found in the earliest written sources of history are accounts of the sick resorting to bathing in healing waters or drinking from medicinal fountains.3 The oldest archives of humanity refer to the use of the Waters for health and medicinal purposes.4 Recovered from numerous Old World springs and stone bath works are votive tablets and sculpture, along with an abundance of artifacts, which witness the wide use of the Waters for health, regenerative, curative and therapeutic practices.5,6,7

Recent discoveries of ancient stone and metal artifacts at healing springs and thermal wells throughout the world offer widespread evidence of early spa culture. During the prehistoric Bronze Age (circa 2000 B.C.) mountain tribes near modern day St. Moritz in the Upper Engadine Valley built a technically perfect foundation for the drinking and bathing use of ferruginous (iron) mineral springs.8 At Neris and Vichy, France and Pyrmont in Germany, archeologists found Bronze Age artifacts including old drinking cups and votive fragments in the springs. Archeologists working at the Celtic thermal well springs in Dux (Duchov) recovered 1,200 bronze pieces including 600 armbands and 400 finger rings, knives, daggers and spear points.9

From all this evidence we can appreciate the importance and ancient history of spa culture and the Waters. As far back as 4000 B.C.(6,000 years ago), the Sumarians built the first organized cities along rivers and at springs. City life stratified societies and the first arts appeared. Time and seasons were calculated with a lunar calendar based upon the movements of the celestial bodies. Arithmetic, geometry, surveying, accounting and writing systems were used to plan and build high-rise temple towers (ziggurats) and monumental gardens with complex irrigation systems of canals, lakes and pools.

Mesopotamian civilization developed important religious institutions with garden and temple centers for pilgrimage and worship. Here the Waters played a symbolic and vital role for ritual cleansing, purification, regeneration and the pursuit of immortality as evidenced in the Epic of Gilgamesh (2000 B.C.), the first world literature to describe spa culture and Taking the Waters. Nearly a millennium and a half later, King Nebuchadnezzar (c. 604-562 B.C.) built his Hanging Gardens at Babylon and based them on the earlier gardens and sacred temple spas.

In Egyptian civilization, the Waters of the Nile were worshiped as a deity. Bathing in Egypt was practiced as a sacred rite involved with fertilization. Early Biblical accounts of bathing refer to the daughter of the Pharaoh and her attendants going down into the Nile. Cosmetic and herbal baths were developed by the early Egyptian estheticians. Egyptian priests washed themselves in cold water several times a day. This same practice was adopted later by Greek priests.10

Beginning in about 1200 B.C. and lasting until about 800 B.C., spiritual men of ancient India wrote the Vedas. In one, the Vedas of Susrotas, the Waters are often spoken of as articles of treatment and as an antidote. The Vedas attach much importance to bathing and show this in the minuteness of details — the number of baths and time of bathing was exactly regulated.11

The Hebrew Torah frequently cites a religious need, use and rite for bathing as both sanitary and medical. The Hebrews believed that ablution rituals and immersion baths constituted an essential component for attaining a state of moral purity. Moses, Jacob, Aaron, Job and other ancient patriarchs religiously practiced bathing as a means for achieving bodily cleansing and spiritual purification. Moses established the practice of bathing as a religious duty. It became a custom among the Israelites to “dip in Jordan” to prevent the scourge of leprosy and other diseases. The prophet Elishas’ treatment prescription for Namaan the leper was to bathe seven times in the Jordan. Joseph made reference to the thermal baths of Calirrohoe near the Dead Sea where years later King Herod resorted to the thermal baths for his disease.12

The Ancient Greek World of Waters

Throughout the ancient Greek world, spa culture in the form of bathing constituted an educational practice, as well as civil ritual of hospitality. Bathing served as a cultural process and means for holistic and total regeneration. Built as early as 1700 B.C., the Royal Minoan Palace at Knossos contained indoor running water, flush toilets, bathtubs and pools.13 In The Iliad and Odyssey , Homer speaks of the bathing habits of his many heroes. Hercules was indebted to Minerva and Vulcan for the refreshing influence of warm baths. Althenaeus writes of the custom of antiquity for women and virgins to assist strangers in their ablutions.14

The Greek spa bathing practice of total and holistic regeneration involved both the body’s gymnastic invigoration and the mind’s academic stimulation. The spa complex of buildings at The Temple of Delphi (334 B.C.) included a gymnasium, xystos (track), and palaestra (exercise area) with a loutron (cold water washroom) and ephebeum. The ephebeum, a large main room within the Greek gymnasium, contained lecture seats and served as a room for educational and training functions. Similar to Delphi, the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia contained a large gymnasium next to the palaestra with its spa bathing area. The Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus with its bathing complex, dream temple, tholos, abaton, gymnasium and palaestra was one of the most developed and longest occupied ancient sacred spa resorts. There are numerous Greek spa bathing arrangements like those at the Greek colony of Gela in Sicily (310-280 B.C.) where individual tubs sat along a straight line, as well as around a circle.15

The Roman Traditions

While the Greeks considered the Waters and spa bathing as functional to the gymnasium, the Romans considered the Waters more as a vital social, political and group activity. Roman spa bathing included physical and mental exercises, as well as aesthetic activities (theater activities, the pursuit of beauty, arts) and leisure events. The Romans moved the bath and bathing practices to a more practical, formal, social and technically refined level called the thermae. Roman thermae consisted of a series of hot-air baths (much like a tiled sauna), frigid pools, and relaxation areas which functioned as central urban institutions for social and cultural life.

Thermae typically contained a series of pools and rooms at varied temperatures. Built around the central bathing area was a large walking area (ambulacrum) with space for libraries, lecture rooms, art and sculpture galleries, multipurpose meeting and ceremonial halls, shaded parks and promenades, small theaters, indoor athletic halls, and occasionally sports stadiums. The Bath Core of the Roman thermae included several distinct architectural features including: the entrance (vestibule), changing rooms and lounge (the apodyterium), exercise yard (palaestra), warming rooms (tepidarium), main hot room (caldiarium), sweating room (laconicum), bathing room for cooling (frigidarium), large swimming pool (natatio), and washrooms and toilets (lavatrina).

Built in 25 B.C., the Baths of Agrippa was one of the first in the series of imperial Roman public thermae. This massive urban improvement project included the Pantheon, which served as a vestibule for the baths and gardens. Agrippa built his thermae within the walls of Rome, as did a succession of other emperors including Nero, Titus, Trajan, Caracalla, Trajan Decius, Diocletian and Constantine, with each emperor out-doing his predecessor. More than 200 years after Agrippa, the Baths of Caracalle — begun by Septimius Severus (206 A.D.) and completed by emperor Caracalla (216-217 A.D.) — accommodated 1,600 seated bathers in one afternoon; Diocletian’s Baths accommodated 3,000.

The Spiritual Significance of Water

While Roman spa culture emphasized the social, physical and aesthetic importance of the Waters, early Christian communities and churches employed the Waters more for spiritual purification, healing and especially baptizing. Examples of the spiritual power of the Waters are found throughout the New Testament. Before Jesus began his ministry, John the Baptist immersed him in the Jordan. On one occasion Jesus commanded a blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam, while other sick persons sought healing in the pools of Bethesda. For the early Christian communities, the changing capacity and transformational powers of the Waters was witnessed and experienced through the ancient initiation rites and practice of baptism. Here, a strong religious factor (i.e. religious meaning in the sense of realignment) was at work re-establishing a connection and relationship through body, community and spirit. In the book of Genesis it is stated that “In the beginning the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” In the beginning of the Gospels it is written that John the Baptist baptized with water and the spirit. Through the symbolic use of the Waters as baptism, John’s task was to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Baptism was not original with John. The origin of the word “baptism” comes from the Greek “bapto,” which includes two ideas. One is literal, dipping; the other is figurative, coloring. By bathing persons in the Waters, the baptism conferred a transformation of character, a moral hue. Among the eastern Christians, Syrians, Armenians and Persians, baptism was practiced and administered through full-body immersion. In the 7th century, Mohammed referred to baptism with the compounded term “sebfatallah,” which is divine dying. He referred to the divine tincture, which is true baptism, as faith and grace, which God bestows on true believers. Over the centuries, as Islamic spa culture developed, the pummeling effects of deep muscle massage and joint cracking replaced the physical, intellectual and social activities of the Greek gymnasium and Roman thermae. This began the bathing tradition that today we know as the hamman or Turkish Bath.

Other Uses of the Waters

Further to the North and on the edges of the civilized world, other cultures practiced spa bathing methods. With origins in Siberian shamanic practices, the Russian Bath is the simplest form of both a personal-ablution-bath and a social-holistic-regeneration-bath. This ancient form of the hot vapor bath and cold plunge is perhaps the most natural. The simplicity of the Russian Bath corresponds to a humble standard of living. No massive building is required. No technical apparatus or slaves are needed. The basic bathing pattern is one of the oldest forms of social bathing for cultural regeneration. Similarly, the American Indians used both individual and social bathing forms in their Sweat Lodges. Long before explorers searched for the legendary Fountains of Youth and the European colonists settled into the shores of the New World, American Indians bathed together in their steam baths and thermal mineral springs for physical health, spiritual well-being and collective regeneration.

What is important to observe and remember here is that despite the differences, origins and beliefs among the aboriginals, ancients, Jews, Christians and Muslims, all basically agreed on a major canon of spa culture. This basic spa principle asserts that through properly taking the Waters, one has the possibility of not only experiencing health and hygiene, but also an initiatory and baptismal event which symbolizes personal purification, social regeneration and spiritual transformation.

A Rediscovery of Spa Culture

During the 16th century, Europe rediscovered and recovered the ancient Roman spa culture in spa towns like Aachen (Aquae Grani), Baden-Baden (Aurelia Aquensis), Bath (Aquae Sulis) and others. Europeans began to re-employ their natural thermal springs for therapeutic and regenerative benefits. The Baths of Pfafers became a meeting place for the humanists and the place where, in 1535, the celebrated naturalist, physician and philosopher Theophrastus of Hohenheim (better known at Paracelsus) came to practice the thermal and healing spa arts. The healing mineral springs at Harrogate at Yorkshire were discovered in 1551 and proclaimed the “English Spa” and “Spa of the North,” ensuring the word “spa” take its place in the English language.

During the same time, Europe saw increased travel by the royal courts and a few private patrons. Numerous kings, queens and their courts traveled to distant watering places, especially for reproductive problems. The French Kings Henry II, III and IV and English Henry VIII, as well as Catherine de Mèdici and her daughter Margaret of Valois, regularly took to the Waters. Perhaps the most notable private spa guest at this time was Michel Eyguem de Montaigne, the solitary French scholar, writer and inventor of the essay. From 1580-1581, Montaigne endured a lengthy journey which took him from the Spa in Belgium to spas in Germany, Switzerland and Bagni di Lucca in Italy. He was seeking treatments for his gall bladder and cultural tourism for his writing which became one of the first spa travel guides on how and where to Take the Waters.

During the same century, but in a faraway land on the newly discovered American continent, other travelers journeyed in search of The Waters. In 1513, Ponce De Leon and later in 1541 Hernando De Soto searched the New World for marvelous fountains. Later, English, Dutch and French colonists built log huts and wooden tubs near the wilderness springs and by the 1700s, natural philosophers like Doctors John De Normandie and Benjamin Rush traveled to The Waters and analyzed the springs for their chemical and medicinal virtues. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson presented details on the lands and descriptions of the culture in the new nation. Limited to the known geographic boundaries of Virginia, Jefferson’s Notes described the springs, rivers, cascades, caverns, and the mountains, mines and subterranean materials. In the enlightened, literal and rational method of the age, early American physicians and scientists reported their observations, conducted experiments, collected testimonials and wrote their natural philosophical descriptions of colonial watering places. They also constructed medical theories based upon the natural and reasonable order thought to exist within the healing nature of The Waters.

During the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, Europe redeveloped its ancient spa culture based upon the earlier ancient Greek and Roman spa cultures. This renewed spa culture included the building of spa towns in rural, seasonal places where leisure, space and time was combined with The Waters. Generally constructed around natural mineral and thermal springs these spa towns typically consisted of a hydrotherapy and bath center, drinking fountains and gazebo, a grand hotel, parks and gardens, long-term residences and summer cottages, small shops, marketplace and casino. Karlsbad, Marianbad and Franzensbad in the Czech Republic are excellent examples of well-planned spa towns with comprehensive spa cultures. Each European nation had its own list of spa towns, (also known as Kurorts, Baden, Balnea, Thermae and Hydros) with their representative spa culture. Spa towns typically attracted not only the royal and wealthy, but also the creative and international intelligentsia.

In America during the early 19th century, romantic and reform-minded nature-seekers traveled to distant Western springs, where they drank and bathed and immersed themselves in hot and cold mineral waters. As the American nation grew, pioneering medical men analyzed newly discovered springs and constructed elaborate scientific classification systems based upon geography, climatology, mineralogy and geology. By the late 19th century, men like Simon Baruch, John Harvey Kellogg and Guy Hinsdale began to conduct clinical hydrotherapeutic experiments. Each had studied and trained at European spas where they learned how to use medicinal and thermal waters and different climates. They returned to America and began prescribing balneotherapeutics (bath therapies) and climatotherapeutics (climate therapies) at American springs and mountain resorts and developed a scientific hydrotherapy that provided systematic physiological treatments for their patients.

Moving Spa/Waters From Health to Luxury

Discoveries, inventions and events in the 20th century dramatically changed public attitudes toward the Waters and the thermal, mineral and healing springs and spas, especially in America. Earlier recognition of germs and bacteria revolutionized the way medicine understood and treated disease. Scientific clinics and public hospitals replaced natural watering places and spas. Spa operators, in an effort to retain their health-seeking patrons, began promoting luxury accommodations and advertised all types of exaggerated therapeutic claims. Organized American medicine, however, lost confidence in the healing powers of the Waters, because the new man-made medicines provided quicker and stronger remedies for many illnesses. Simultaneously, technological advances brought increased comforts and conveniences, and modern consumer culture created a new demand for rapidity and speed. Modern medicine responded similarly with swifter techniques and fast-acting and more powerful chemical remedies. Continued discoveries in sciences, combined with the chaos of World Wars I and II, accelerated the need for medical research, especially physical rehabilitation. Doctors Bernard Fantus, Walter McClellan and other professionals and societies conducted several national surveys of mineral water spas and health resorts, but failed to establish medical school training programs for spa therapy, hydrotherapy or university balneological institutes.

It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century and the advent of alternative, complementary and integrative medicine, that modern American medicine began to reconsider the value of an earlier spa culture and the Waters. This is still not easy nor entirely the fault of the medical profession. Modern American patients are anything but patient; they want fast treatments with quick results from easy-to-take medicines. Appreciation of spa culture and therapeutic use of the Waters declined as modern medicine became more specialized and technical. Standardized health care — like the atom — split, separated and re-defined itself into isolated and fragmented fields. Modern medicine became an assembly of specialized techniques and devices designed to manage parts of the body like parts of a machine.

While the rise of modern medical specialization provided significant diagnostic advancements, it also contributed greatly to increased costs and a health care insurance system which emphasized reactive, rather than preventive medicine. This was unfortunate, especially at a time when health and disease became increasingly identified with behavior and lifestyles that produced chronic stress, pain and disease. Modern medicine revolutionized specialized treatments of diseases with new antibiotics and strong chemotherapy, high-tech surgery and transplants, but important public health needs, like care for chronic illnesses and the young and elderly, continue.

These public health care needs are nothing new, but like the basic cycles and rhythms of Nature, repeat themselves with each generation. Nature is basically repetitious; so are the Waters. The therapeutic effects of the Waters remain the same today as those from ancient times. When traditional spa culture and the Waters are compared and contrasted with modern hydrotherapeutic procedures (contrast baths, affusion, salt glows), researchers find similar therapeutic benefits such as relaxation, prevention, restoration, recreation and especially an integrated and holistic, total regeneration. The Waters have not changed. What has changed is the cultural vision, especially the perceptions, ideas and theories mirrored in the value placed on the Waters.

Remembering the Waters Today

Today, unfortunately, these traditional natural therapeutic spa practices and health resort medicines are largely forgotten. Their hidden histories, however, still linger in dark attics and damp cellars where old file cabinets contain a wealth of helpful information ready for rediscovery. Also ready for rediscovery are the holistic and integrated regenerative processes — what Giedion called “total regeneration.” These once well-established natural spa and health resort processes of Taking the Waters can provide a way for our speed-driven culture to reconnect with Nature’s basic elements and environmental limits, and most importantly, with humanity’s healthful rhythms and ancient rituals.

In recent years, the space age changed our cultural vision and now provides us with a global perspective of our planet floating through the black cosmic sea like a shimmering blue drop of mineral water. As astronaut Loren Acton on the Challenger 8 flight of July 1985 said, “When you look out the other way toward the stars you realize it’s an awful long way to the next watering hole.”16

For the 21st century, my hope is that more people will see the need for “Spa Stations,” not only Space Stations. Bodyworkers will seek out the world’s springs, spas and Waters and live a lifestyle that embraces and immerses oneself into Taking the Waters for their health-preserving and disease-treating powers. Bodyworkers will seek, find and enjoy Mother Earth’s watering holes and experience spa culture and Taking the Waters, firsthand.