Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Ritual Bath (and why you should make it a habit)

I’m obsessed with medieval European history and culture, but there are some modern conveniences that I think our medieval ancestors would covet, and which I would find a terrible torture to give up in the pursuit of romantic medieval nostalgia:
Bar Soap
Running Water
Electric Water Heaters

The average medieval commoner throughout Europe probably didn’t bathe very often, if in fact, ever. The ancient Greeks and Romans were known for their bathhouses fed by aqueducts and springs, but the rest of society in the Middle Ages had varying degrees and methods of hygiene. Soap was somewhat of a luxury, as well as a lot of work, and when your entire day was spent working in a field or at some other hard labor, it probably didn’t matter much whether you smelled of violets or cow manure. Existence and survival won out over any luxury. Before it was a standard concept that disease was spread through germs and unhygienic conditions, it was thought that bathing was immoral, a gateway to sin, idle waste of time, or that the body odor was a “repellent to disease” (It was a repellant, for sure, but of disease?). 

Without the benefit of central heat, the modern water heater, or a vessel big enough to submerge an adult, baths may have seemed more work than they were worth.

Imagine this, if you will:
You had to heat water over a fire, or just deal with the cold.
You had to pour buckets of the heated water into a large basin or barrel until full, which could mean many, many buckets.
You had to strip down to your chemise (nudity was immoral!) in a room with mud as insulation, hopefully near the fire.
…And by the time you actually get into the wash basin, the water is cold. 

 Not to mention that the woman of the house would have been responsible to obtain the water from the well or stream, heat it over the fire for the man of the house who bathed first, hopefully get to bathe herself in the same water now cold and filthy, I’m sure, and then finally bathe the children (hence the phrase “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”). And, as if that wasn’t enough, wooden basins were lined with sheets of linen to protect your nether regions from splinters, which meant the removal of a huge soaking wet sheet after your “relaxing” bath.

That scenario does not encourage habitual bathing.

Let’s stray from the hygienic purpose of bathing for a while and explore a few of the rituals so closely connected to our quest for cleanliness.

The Ritual of Baptism: The Rite of Baptism is directly related to cleanliness, in this case, cleanliness of the soul or spirit. Whether by being submerged in a natural stream or river, or by consecrated liquid being poured over the head, the effect is the same: the ritualistic washing away of sin.

Judaic Ritual Bathing (Mikveh): The Jewish Orthodox ritual of the mikvah is observed in preparation before the Sabbath, after the menstrual period, and to purify the bather before spiritual practice. The Bridal Mikveh symbolizes the spiritual rebirth of the bride and groom.

Hoodoo Ritual Bathing: If good luck is sought, one must bath with upward strokes to the body, and if removal of evil is the intended purpose, one must bathe with downward strokes to the body. To dispose of the ritual bath water, it is to be thrown to the East before sunrise accompanied by a prayer.

Japanese Ritual Bathing: Misogi means “ritual purification with water”. Bathing after a funeral is another ritualized bathing observed in certain Japanese customs.

The Greeks and Romans, as well as many other cultures, bathed before battle, before religious ceremony, and for healing purposes.

Since time indefinite, people of all cultures have submerged their bodies in natural bodies of water to purify, sanctify, and to worship deities and elements associated with water. Many mythical Gods and Goddesses are associated with bathing and water rituals, most notably Hygieia, the Greek Goddess associated with health, cleanliness, and sanitation, and from which the word “hygiene” is derived.

A few other Gods and Goddesses associated with water that you may or may not have heard of:
Apam Napat - Hindu God of Fresh Water, such as in rivers and lakes
Boann - Irish Goddess of the River Boyne
Chalchiuhtlicue - Aztec Goddess of water, lakes, rivers, seas, streams, horizontal waters, storms, and baptism.
Ganga - Hindu Goddess of the Ganges River
Glanis - Gaulish God associated with a healing spring
Grannus - Celtic God associated with spas, healing thermal and mineral springs
Lir - Irish God of the sea
Mami Wata - Yoruba pantheon of water spirits associated with healing and fertility
Mímir - Norse God of the Spring of Mímisbrunnr, which gives the drinker wisdom and  from which Odin sacrificed an eye to drink from
Naiades - Greek Fresh Water Nymphs
Nephthys - Egyptian Goddess of Rivers
Nerthus -  Norse Goddess of Lakes, Springs, Holy Waters
Oshun - Yoruba deity of rivers, beauty, sensuality.
Sinann - Irish Goddess of the River Shannon
Sequana - Gaulish Goddess of the River Seine
Suijin Shinto - Japanese God of Water
Sulis - Celtic Goddess of the hot springs at Bath, England
Tlaloquetotontli - Aztec Goddess of the rivers.
Vedenemo - Finnish Goddess of Water
Volturnus - Roman God of the Waters

Hygieia by Gustav Klimt

In modern times, we have moved away from ritualistic style baths and opted for the quick shower solely for cleansing purposes. We have been conditioned by the phrase “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. We grew up with mothers that forced us into the bath before bed, whether we thought we needed it or not. Media inundates us with ads for soaps and cleaning products to protect us from germs.

But I believe the strongest influence comes from our own brains, connected by the spider web of time to the knowledge that water is more than two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom.

When we feel that we need an escape, to unwind and relax, to rid ourselves of our mundane stressors – we hear the siren’s call – we feel the need to reconnect with water, and through it be cleansed.

Why do we need a good long soak in the tub when we’re sick, either physically or mentally?

Why do we “need a shower” after a mentally stressful day?

Why, when vacations are discussed, is it always towards the ocean or pools that our compass points?

Why is it so relaxing to sit with your feet in a stream or pond?

It’s the ritual washing away of the negative.
It’s the ritual absorption of the positive.

Turn down the lights
Light a candle or two
And let the mundane wash down the drain

In a large bath of warm water (almost too warm) add:

1 cup Sea Salt, Epsom Salt, or Dead Sea Salt (Purifies and detoxifies, reduces swelling)

¼ cup Honey (Humectant)

¼ cup Coconut Milk (Skin softening)

20 drops of Lavender Essential Oil (Sedative, promotes skin cell regeneration)

10 drops of Clary Sage Essential Oil (Releases nervous tension and depression, sedative)

5 drops of Vetiver Essential Oil (Calming, tonic for dry skin)

Soak until the water becomes tepid

The legend of Melusine can be read by clicking the picture below
(let me know if you recognize her image!)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

I'm up to something...again...

Seems that my constant urges of creativity and knowledge can not be assuaged much these days...
I'm either thinking of some new creation, researching some new creation, or, in fact, creating some new creation.
These days, my creations all involve Soap. And Alchemy. Or Soap Alchemy.

Formulating a soap recipe, color, scent, and name all feed my need to create. Researching the different oils and how they react in soap slakes my thirst for knowledge. But sometimes, I just need a good hands-on experiment to pull it all together.

And so was birthed...

Let me prepare you with a bit of personal history. You may not see the relevance to soapmaking at first, but hopefully I can tie it all in and entertain you in the process...

I wasn't a brain in high school. As a matter of fact, I was more concerned with boys and being cool than with grades. I never even took chemistry. I failed Algebra (twice). I was not about to ruin my sky-high big hair for physical education (Class of 1991, baby! I contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer with jumbo cans of Aquanet!). It's not that I lacked intelligence - I just didn't put forth the effort. (Did I lack maturity? Yes. Forethought? Yes. The gift of prophesying into the future? Yes.). Luckily, my high school offered a Cosmetology course through a vocational school, and I jumped at the chance. I always loved being creative and doing hair and makeup, so Cosmetology was right up my alley. Besides, it was better to look good than to feel good (wasn't that the motto of the 80's?). Had it not been for Art class and Cosmetology, I would've flunked out of school. If only they had offered classes like Creative Writing, Arts and Crafts, Music, Cosmetology, Folk Lore, History (minus the wars), and the Mysteries of the Metaphysical, I would have been Valedictorian of my class. True Story. 

Immediately out of high school, I got married and had my older son. I was 18 when he was born, so obviously I didn't have a lot of time for soul searching, much less the time to "follow my bliss", so to speak.

Fast forward a few years (and a divorce and second marriage), and I find myself pregnant with my second son. I had been doing hair for about 9 years, was managing a day spa and salon...and I was unfulfilled. 
The cosmetology field is very physically superficial. 
Lets be honest: Looks Count. 
We all know this, but the "Pollyanna" in me wants it to not be so. The need to look cool, and hip, and trendy, and glamorous everyday is a bit much. Who wants to go to a hairstylist that looks like she just rolled out of bed, threw her hair in a ponytail, and ran out of the house? And any mother knows, after many a sleepless night, weight gain, hormonal changes, and the stress and worry of a newborn (and an older son), who's feeling glamorous? I had to have surgery while I was pregnant, resulting in a high risk pregnancy, so I was out of work for quite a while. Fortunately, my husband's income was sufficient that I could leave the salon world and stay home with my kids. 
Being a Stay-At-Home-Mom is a double edged sword:
Edge 1 - Cute babies that benefit from the nurturing that only a mama can provide = happy kids = happy mama.
Edge 2 - Cute babies that need constant nurturing from mama...and mama loses herself in the care of others and forgets how to be herself, or have an adult conversation, and feels guilty that she wants to have adult conversations, and loses her own direction and focus, and just becomes "Mom".

But, as with most of life, it's the struggles that change our path...

In 2000, after the birth of my second son, I was really in need of "something". I wasn't sure what that "something" was, but I needed it. During my search for that "something", my sister and I visited a local metaphysical shop. They had sign up sheets for upcoming classes they were offering in the store, one being "Herbal Cosmetology". I had been interested in Aromatherapy and read a few books before this, but Herbal Cosmetology (and the smell of Nag Champa burning on the counter) just seemed to cause my stagnant little heart to flutter. This was exactly what I was in search of.
 The Herbal Cosmetology teacher was a master herbalist with a unique teaching style, and we hit it off immediately. She just happened to also be a soapmaker! She offered me an apprenticeship, and my love for all things herbal bridged the gap between the mundane, superficial physical and the deeper, spiritual connection with the Earth. .
Are you still there?
Tap-tap...Is this thing on?...Tap-tap...

So the point of that "autobiography" was to let you know how I came to soapmaking and how, without the benefit of a chemistry class, I strive to understand the more scientific aspects of soapmaking. And this is where the SINGLE OIL SOAP EXPERIMENT comes in to play.

We soapmakers know that, in order to make soap, we must mix a fatty acid (Vegetable Oil or Animal Fat) with a strong alkali (NaOH - Sodium Hydroxide or KOH - Potassium Hydroxide) to produce a sodium salt, known as soap, through the process of saponification - the base hydrolysis of triglycerides. Basically, we mix an oil with a lye solution, an exothermic process (gelling during saponification) occurs where the alkali and fatty acid meld into one, and we get soap. I'm sure there are way more scientific ways to explain the process, but for most of us, that's the important part. 
We also know that different oils react differently for different reasons. And, we know that some oils seem more prone to rancidity than others, resulting in DOS (Dreaded Orange Spots). Most of us use more than one oil in our soapmaking, either referencing anecdotal evidence or someone else's results, either in book, web, or social forums (Hey fellow SMFers!). And because we use more than one oil, it's hard to troubleshoot issues that may come up due to the multiple variables in our formulas.
I find myself referencing a particular experiment when I'm debating a certain oil. The Zen Soaps Single Oil Soap Swap is pretty revolutionary in my eyes. I had not seen an experiment like this, set out and accomplished by a fellow soapmaker. I was recently directed to The Curious Soapmaker's blog where a similar experiment was undertaken.
These experiments set off my creative faculties like you wouldn't believe (My younger self wouldn't have believed it either, but hey...). So here's the "something" that I'm up to:

I will take 15 commonly used and easily obtained oils (found at most grocery stores), create 15 single oil soaps from them, and document the differences and any conclusions henceforth and forthwith (Those word are fancy, and I wanted to use them. I doubt I used them properly, but this isn't a grammar blog.).

Each soap will be 360 gram batch with a 5% superfat (no additives). I will make them using distilled water in a 30% lye solution, pouring them into individual silicone molds, insulated and hopefully, gelled. I will have 2 soaps from each oil - one will be stored in a cool, dark, dry area with good airflow. The other will be stored in a damp bathroom cabinet. Neither will be wrapped. I will assign them each a number, for blind study purposes, and have at least 3 testers give me their unbiased assessments. I will also lend my "professional opinion" in a separate assessment.

Here is a list of the oils I will be using in my experiment:
OLIVE (Refined)

Here are the parameters on which each soap will be judged. Assessments will be made on Day 1 after unmolding, Day 7, Day 30, and so on:

 I will continue to update you with my findings here on this blog, or on the thread started on the SoapMakingForum.

Do you have any preconceived notions about these oils and how they will react? 
Do you wager on some becoming rancid? 
Do you now truly believe I have lost my mind, or at least what was left of it?

And with that my soapy friends, I leave you with titillated minds...discuss amongst yourselves...

Thursday, January 3, 2013

How DOM PERIGNON contributed to my MONASTERY 10th Century Wine Soap

What does Dom Perignon have to do with soap you ask? 
Soap, specifically? Nothing. 
MONASTERY ~ 10th Century Wine Soap?
Well, that's a long story, but I'll keep it short and sweet (just like I like my wine)...

 In medieval Europe, beer and ale were the libations that crossed social barriers, with both common folk and nobility enjoying either potation. In areas where grapes were grown, such as France and Italy, wine was consumed by both social classes alike. However, in areas of northern and eastern Europe, where grapes did not grow, wine was an expensive luxury to all but the wealthiest. As Christianity spread across Europe, wine became a necessity, rather than a luxury,  in order to celebrate the Ritual of the Mass, where in Catholic dogma, the wine is transubstantiated into Christ's blood. In order to keep the church supplied with wine for this ceremony, the Benedictine monks became one of the largest producers of wine, owning vineyards across France and Germany. The Carthusians, Templars, and Carmelites followed suite. To this day, monks and wine are united in one ambition. To get the masses wasted. Just kidding!

And this is where Dom Perignon comes in...

Dom Perignon was a Benedictine Monk from France. (c. 1638–14 September 1715)

Who woulda thunk it?

I certainly don't think of solemn monks quietly pursuing a pious life tending to their vineyards when I think of Dom Perignon. In the eloquent words of the wise and noble Fiddycent:
"If there’s a genie in the bottle of that Dom Pérignon
Ima drink till I get to that bitch"

The "real" Dom Perignon is turning somersaults in his tomb every time those lyrics are spoken.

I think the "Monastic Dom" would be happy to know, however, that I diligently uphold the mantra of "Cleanliness is next to Godliness", and have transubstantiated wine into soap!

For you fellow soapmakers out there, my process is quite simple. For a 4 pound soap batch, I simmer 12 ounces of Cabernet Sauvignon down to 6 ounces and add it at trace, subtracting 6 ounces from my liquid upfront when I mix my lye solution. The effect of using wine in soap is similar to that of soaping with beer - the sugars in the wine lend to more bubbles. The reason for simmering, or lightly boiling the wine is to burn off as much alcohol as possible before mixing with the lye solution. Alcohol can cause soap to seize in the pot, surely causing words to spew forth from your mouth the likes of which have never befallen a monk's ears. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

3rd Century DRUID ~ An Ode to Woad

This whole day have I followed in the rocks
   And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape
First as a raven on whose ancient wings
   Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed
A weasel moving on from stone to stone
   And now at last you wear a human shape
A thin grey man half lost in gathering night

~ "Fergus and the Druid" by William Butler Yeats 

Shaman. Sage. Poet. Priest. Healer. Wanderer. Philosopher. Teacher. Conjurer. Druid. 

In pre-Christianized Celtic Britain, long before the tales of King Arthur and Merlin, there existed a priesthood known as the Druids. Much of what we know about the Druids was written by the dictator of the Roman republic, Julius Caesar, after his invasion of Britian. 

According to the writings of Julius Caesar, the Druids "know much about the stars and celestial motions, and about the size of the earth and universe, and about the essential nature of things, and about the powers and authority of' the immortal gods; and these things they teach to their pupils."

He also writes that the Druids were concerned with "divine worship, the due performance of sacrifices, private or public, and the interpretation of ritual questions" and that their belief system dictated that "the souls do not perish, but after death pass from one to another", believing that debts incurred during one lifetime could be repaid in the next.

The Druids were known for communing with nature, holding such things as Oak trees and Mistletoe sacred, and creating shrines in groves or near springs. As healers, their knowledge of herbs and their uses, blended with their reverence to nature, led them to hold plants in high esteem. 

Herbal lore suggests that the Druids held to a 13 part system of plant usage:
1. The use of plants as food (Wheat, Bean)
2. The use of plants as drink, elixir, or tonic (Heather, Burdock, Dandelion)
3. The use of plants as clothing (Flax, Woad)
4. The use of plants as a means of altered consciousness (Mugwort)
5. The use of plants in medicine (Mistletoe, Vervain, Selago, Samolus)
6. The use of plants for annointing (Primrose, Vervain)
7. The use of plants in rituals (Garlic, Clove)
8. The use of plants in lincense (Agrimony, Juniper)
9. The use of plants in lustration (ritual cleansing) (Agrimony)
10. The use of plants in spells (Fern)
11. The use of plants in charms and talismans (Betony, Mandrake)
12. The use of plants in offerings (Meadowsweet, Vervain)
13. The use of plants for divination (Yarrow)

Not much is known of the Druids after the 2nd century, leading scholars to believe that the Druids either were absorbed into another system of belief or that their meetings and teachings became more clandestine. I would like to think it was more the latter. There are still those that hold to a Druidic system of belief and practice, such as The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. (http://www.druidry.org/)

And since I like to think that the Druids carried on their mysterious way of life far after the Romans left Britain and their accounts were left to scholarly hypotheses, I envisioned a soap that paid homage to the Druids long after the last written word of their existence...and while I won't be sharing all my secret enchantments, I will share the ingredients.


Made with Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, Palm Oil, Castor Oil 
Scented with Essential Oils of Juniper Berry, Lavender, and Cedarwood
And colored with Woad powder