Bath Time: From Wicca to Islam, Water Plays a Key Role
As the Fall Equinox — or Mabon — approaches on September 23, Wiccans around the world are preparing for ritualistic feasts that celebrate the perennial transition of the seasons. This is a day when incense smoke fills the air, pagan ancestry is recounted, and future ambitions are established. At the equinox, the day and night are of equal length, and it is considered by Wiccans to be a time to express thankfulness and connect with nature.
Some Wiccans finish their rituals by splashing water across their face and washing their hands. Many Wiccans also sprinkle holy water on practitioners. Reverend Joey Talley, a Wiccan minister, views water as a source of power and strength. “It helps us connect to nature,” she explained. “It awakens the spiritual heart.”
However, Wicca is not the only tradition that views water as nourishing for the soul. A number of religions, including the Abrahamic faiths, involve water in their rituals.
Dr. Katherine Kurs, a professor in The New School’s religious studies department, said in an email interview, “Bathing rituals often serve as rites of initiation and often involve or result in a change of state for the practitioner.”
She pointed to the Jewish mikveh and Christian baptism, both of which are used to confirm converts into the faith. “It changes their state of being and status within a community.”
Dr. Sara Winter, a part-time professor in the religious studies department at The New School, wrote, “The Apostle Paul developed the theology that the old self dies (with Christ) through baptism.”
Religious ritual bathing does not always serve the same purpose, however. Winter said that water is often symbolic of purification rather than rebirth and renewal. “An interesting example,” she explained, “is the Eleusinian Mysteries of Classical Greece, [where people] washed themselves and their animal for sacrifice in the sea.”
A similar tradition of purification exists in Judaism and Islam. In both traditions, water is seen to cleanse impure items, as well as the human body and soul. Males often bathe on Friday as spiritual preparation for the upcoming Jewish Sabbath or Islamic Friday prayer. Women traditionally submerge themselves in water after menstruation, and in Islam, that practice is also performed after sexual intercourse.
Muslims also purify and prepare for prayer by washing various parts of their body.
Ali Shah, a junior at New York University, said, “Washing myself and then going to pray… just really cleanses my mind.”
In religion, “ritual bathing in water is oftentimes enacted with the goal of purification, redemption, or spiritual transformation,” said Dr. Georgina Drew, a postdoctoral fellow who works for the India China Institute at The New School. “When bathing is combined with a spiritual purpose, the visible removal of impurity becomes a symbol for a more meaningful purification process that happens internally.”
Water’s serenity is not reserved for the hearts of the religious. Andrea Goldston, a sophomore at Lang, who said he hops in the shower for a few minutes each morning, said, “showers are a place where I unify my thoughts.”
He added that, “everything feels like it’s in place when you shower.”