Everyone has some idiosyncrasies, and among mine is the fact that I really enjoy housework. There are few things as enjoyable to me as a rainy day off work during which I have time to clean every room in the house, top to bottom. Brew some coffee, put on some rousing music, and get to it.
Springtime is upon us, a season that has long been attended by a whole raft of cleansing and purification rituals. In the classical world, February (a warmer month throughout the Mediterranean) was a month of purification–Februaa was an ancient purification ritual. The Celtic spring festival was Beltane, a festival in which cattle returning to pasture were passed between bonfires to purify and protect them from evil spirits. Many ancient people would thoroughly clean their homes and villages, extinguish all fires, bless tinder for the lighting of new fire, and begin the year anew in springtime. Surely, after the sickness and squalor of cramped winter hibernations, spring was a time to clean and brush off the old, welcome the new, and ask for renewed blessings of home and hearth, and especially of field and pasture, from whatever deities did those things. In modern times spring cleaning is still a standard phenomenon, one to which many at least pay lip service, while some do it up with religious fervor.
A while ago I posted an essay in which I asked people what they thought they could teach primitive humans, say 15- to 20,000 years ago, that could help advance their culture. I never offered my own thought. I think the greatest contribution I could make is to teach them about cleanliness and sanitation. What a boon this would be, how simple, and how incredibly long it took humans to realize the importance of it. Even as late as the mid-19th century, when Dr. Ignatz Semmelweis suggested that doctors could save the lives of many mothers and newborn infants if they would only wash their hands before delivering babies, he was laughed at by colleagues in the medical profession. He didn’t have any proof, aside from anecdotal evidence, of what a difference it could make, and so it seemed to other doctors like simple superstition.
For many centuries, cleanliness has been a central part of much superstition. Most of the springtime rituals described above, while they would be salubrious practices just for the cleanliness they offered, were about obeisance to deities and spirits, at least to some degree. While there were many rituals undertaken by common people, quite a few of these were led by priests, witch doctors, medicine men, and shamans. A standard royal implement of many traditional tribal chiefs is the whisk, which is nothing more than a stylized broom, representing the chief’s role as sanitizer of his people. Without knowledge of microbial infection, 19th century physicians eschewed Semmelweis’ hand-washing as nothing more than a ritual practice, a reversion to superstition.
But now we know better. If I lived among primitives, I could show them to keep their dwellings clean of lice, fleas and germ-carrying vermin; to boil water to remove pathogens; to keep food at safe temperatures and throw it out when it had been stored dangerously long; to avoid contact as much as practicable with sick people; to cover their mouths when they cough and their noses when they sneeze. In an ancient hunter-gatherer camp there would be no shortage of wood ash and animal fat, and I would have plenty of time to learn how to synthesize soap from these traditional ingredients. We would be washing our hands many millennia before Dr. Semmelweis comes to his epiphany.
My tribe would grow healthy, strong and populous–the envy of all the other clans. In time they would hand me the ceremonial whisk and I would be recognized as Chief Sanitizer of my people, a role I would fill with grace and humility, waving the whisk with practiced nonchalance. In spring I would not only lead the rites, but partake fully of the tradition of spring cleaning. He may be a chief, they’d all say in their primitive tongue, but man, can he clean! I don’t know where we would find either the coffee or the music.