The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Places: A witch’s Travel Guide
Pagan shrines were very frequently situated by natural springs (see also Wells, page 681). From a very early era, fresh water springs, whether hot or cold, still or sparkling, were considered among Earth’s most sacred places. Natural springs radiated magical energy: they were sources of healing and spiritual cleansing. In fact, many mineral springs demonstrate healing powers. To this day, many travel to therapeutic spas built over mineral springs to “take the waters” or “the vapors.” Modern spiritual shrines feature sacred springs too, most famously the shrine at Lourdes, France.
Spas, shrines, thermes: if there is a structure near or over a natural spring and if that structure has facilities so that people can bathe while inside that structure, then whatever else you may call it, that structure is, in very plain English, a bathhouse.
Bathhouses were among the earliest shrines and temples constructed: taking the baths was a spiritual, sacred act. (Ancient rites of baptism derive from these primordial traditions or vice versa.)
In many spiritual traditions, even the simplest, most ramshackle, dilapidated bathhouse retains these sacred, magical, spiritually powerful connotations.
Where bathhouses are considered places of power, bathhouses are also considered places for witchcraft. Whether this is meant positively or negatively depends upon how one defines and perceives witches.
Before there was readily available piped water, springs were a magnet: every living being in the area, human or animal, would eventually come to a spring to drink or bathe. Spirits are drawn to springs as well. Djinn, for instance, are known to linger at springs. In addition, each individual spring is believed to have its own presiding spirit who is its guardian and shares its essence.
Water is a feminine element, aligned with the moon. Many springs were identified with sacred and powerful female deities, particularly those with lunar affiliations, such as Artemis, Diana, and Oshun.
Spirits like the Vila, Rusalka, and Bereginy congregate near springs as well. Often elaborate rules for springs associated with spirits developed: one could only bathe or do laundry on certain days of the week, for instance. The other days, the spring was reserved for the spirits’ use. (See FAIRIES: Nature-Spirit Fairies: Bereginy, Rusalka, Vila.)
Springs are a double threshold: not only places where Earth meets water but also places where humans and spirits mingle. (See page 680, Thresholds.)
There is much current amusement mixed with disapproval regarding medieval European aversion to bathing. Water (and thus bathing) was considered dangerous and detrimental to health: during the witch-hunt era, many bathed but once or twice a year, particularly very devout Christians.
However, once upon a time, Pagan Europeans bathed frequently incorporating physical pleasure and bodily hygiene with spiritual and magical rituals. In perhaps the ultimate example of “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” once these spiritual and magical traditions were forbidden and diabolized, bathing was forbidden too. The simplest way of guaranteeing that people weren’t participating in these practices was to discourage them from bathing.
People were warned that bathing was dangerous and it was indeed: too much time bathing and you might be suspected and accused of having Pagan leanings or even of being a witch! In some regions, witches, like Pagan spirits, reputedly liked frolicking in water.
Among the ancient Egyptian shrines dedicated to the primordial goddess Hathor, some served as therapeutic temples (ancient hospitals), featuring a form of hydrotherapy. Her shrine at Dendera was the ancient world’s equivalent of Lourdes. (See HORNED ONE: Hathor.)
Among his many other feats, master inventor Daedalus was renowned for his ability to provide patrons with indoor plumbing including private baths with hot and cold running water. (See HORNED ONE: Minotaur.)
Greeks and Romans of the classical era adored bathing. Public baths were ubiquitous. Not content with a mere tub of lukewarm water, a variety of baths to make a modern spa proud existed: hot air, hot water and cold plunge.
The Romans, in particular, created monumental bathhouses, veritable temples of bathing. Roman emperors built thermal bath complexes as monuments to their glory. The baths of Emperor Diocletian (245—313 CE), for instance, held a maximum capacity of six thousand bathers. The earlier baths of Caracalla (186—217 CE), could only accommodate 1,600 people at a time but covered 27 acres; the complex included meeting rooms, gymnasia, walkways, gardens, at least two libraries and a public stadium as well as bathing facilities.
Then as now, bathhouses may be spiritual shrines but they were also dens of iniquity: in late antiquity, public baths were also frequently centers of promiscuity and vice. Public baths were associated with male and female prostitution, thus baths frequently came under civil and ecclesiastical regulation.
Early Christians suspected that bathhouses, in addition to encouraging immorality, were also haunted by demons. This was actually in accordance with Pagan belief, although they would phrase it differently: bathhouses are the residences of spirits. If you wish to meet and greet spirits, the bathhouse is frequently the place to do it.
So, what do witches do in bathhouses?
They commune with spirits
They practice divination and hold séances
The atmosphere in the bathhouse has traditionally been conducive to soul-journeying
The bathhouse is the ideal place for spiritual and magical cleansing rituals
Various spiritual rituals are held in the bathhouse, particularly those having to do with threshold experiences, like birth, marriage, and death
Spiritual initiations are held in bathhouses
Magic spells are cast in the bathhouse; power places are often considered conducive to spell-casting because the spell absorbs power from the surroundings
Bathhouses rejuvenate, revive, reinvigorate, and empower bathers. Witches, like so many others, have fun in the bathhouse!
Basically two types of bathhouses exist. They may feature cold or hot pools, or there may be steam baths. Bathhouses associated with witchcraft more frequently feature what are now called steam baths, saunas or Turkish baths.
In steam bathhouses, water meets fire to produce healing, cleansing steam. From a metaphysical perspective, the steam bathhouse reproduces the act of creation: male (fire) meets female (water) to create new life (steam or air).
Steam bathhouses were once common to many traditions; wherever they exist, they are associated with spirits and are typically considered magically powerful. Native American sweat lodges remain a vital spiritual tradition. There were once comparable Irish and Norse sweat bathhouses as well. Although the tradition didn’t survive past the nineteenth century, the teach an alais (sweathouse) was once common in Ireland and perhaps elsewhere in the Celtic world. These bathhouses consisted of beehiveshaped huts constructed from stone covered in clay and turf. Many had stone seats within. Frequently located near springs or rivers, they were used for the alleviation of physical conditions, including rheumatism, but also for healing fairyrelated sickness.
Among the traditional bathhouses especially associated with witchcraft are the following: