«The miracle of healing with water» – the practice of healing with water from the point of view of a medical anthropologist

© 2012 V.I. Kharitonova, K. Juhász

2012 – № 1 (3)

Katalin Juhász interviewed by V.I. Kharitonova

Key words: hygienic practices, ritual and magic washing, Hungarian folk believings, «life-giving» and «dead» water, sacred sources, baths, thermal sources, balneology

Abstract: In the interview Hungarian medical anthropologist Katalin Juhász explains, why she was attracted by the subject of the role of water in cultural life of Hungarian people, describes Hungarian folk believings about water, washing and cleaning up, analyzes their historical context and current state, in particular exploring the use of water for medical reasons.

V.Kh.: Dear doctor Katalin Juhász, your studies of the use of water in the culture of Hungarian and other peoples, in particular for the purpose of healing in modern and traditional practices, are very well-known. Today, I would like to ask you a few questions regarding your scientific research in this area. The theme of my particular interest is the study of water in the context of medical anthropology.

Tell me, why have you started studying this particular theme? What are its prospects from your point of view?

C.I.: Long time ago, being a student, I got interested in some typically „woman” themes like every day customs and habits, as well as particularly female activities – cooking, clothing, sewing, body care etc. The things that intrigued me most were some aspects of the intimate sphere – for example the changes in woman underclothing and body hygiene since the beginning of the XX-th century in the context of social and economical transformations (the transition of the peasants from rural to civil society).

I have been studying the question of „washing” since 1989 and have published several studies on specific aspects since 1991, when I wrote my PhD thesis Popular Customs of Washing in the First Half of the 20th  Century. One book („Have a wash”, 2006), numerous articles, and an exhibition at the Hungarian Open-Air Ethnographical Museum are the result of long years of fieldwork, in the course of which I carried out surveys among the inhabitants of various localities belonging to Hungarian-speaking territories. I also organised an interdisciplinary conference on the topic of cleanliness, washing and bathing customs and edited a volume of the presented papers („Pure lines – essays on the concept of cleanliness and cleaning”, 2009).

All the while I have discovered many of the sub-areas related to the concept of water and cleanliness.  I have conducted research into everyday body-care practices since the early 20th century until now; from the archaic rural practices to the globalised, consumerised practices.  I have dealt with the role of water in rites involving ritual-magical washing. Bathing and spa culture has developed into a separate area, as it has been playing a particular role in Hungarian history and society.

In brief I can say the diversity of the area has provided me with a particular viewpoint from which I can examine different sociological, historical tendencies, phenomena from a new perspective, so it can be very instructive for anybody.

V.Kh.: We all know that water is one of the main means of preventive treatment and hygiene in most cultures. Since ancient times, water was considered a specific environment, connected to nature of magic. Russians (all the slaves, and not slaves only) have a lot of beliefs about water environment: there are water spirits and mermaids in the ponds, the owners of the water areas; water can be pernicious or recreational, healing; it can talk; there can be water of “life” and “death”. What did the Hungarians tell about water and its magical manifestation?

C.I.: According to folk belief, water surrounds the entire universe, and water holds up both earth and sky. Three worlds are nestled in this water, and mankind lives on the middle one. There is an upper world, with a lake of milk lying in it. Angels bathe in this and frequently visit heaven from there. The lower world can be reached through a hole. It is called Dragon Country (Sárkányország), or sometimes hell (pokol). The end of the world is located where these worlds come in contact. The concept of this layered universe is fairly widespread in the Hungarian world of beliefs, but in some places it is made up of even layers in people’s imagination. (I quoted Mihály Hoppál)

Hungarians believed that the gods of the rain, the winds, life, death, winter, summer, the trees, the water, the day and the night, had a better and greater influence on human life and all its events than the highest god; and therefore they offered burnt-offerings to the ‘little’ gods, and thought that they were the counselors of the highest god. Fate-telling fairies (usually three, but also seven, or nine in number) are also prominent figures in Hungarian folk-belief, dwelling near a spring, well, or brook. These fates are usually considered beneficent. Other fairies dwell in lakes and rivers, and there are, besides mermen (vízi emberek) and mermaids, who often form love-unions with human beings. Many springs are regarded as holy, and drought follows if stones are thrown into them, while folk-customs often retain traces of the wide-spread belief in the magic properties of water.

Various procedures aimed at healing and/or protecting the body or soul from enchantment or witchcraft are based on the real, imaginary or mythical properties of water. There are also rites connected to moments of transition (birth, initiation, marriage, death etc.), as well as cathartic rites to renew or safeguard health and beauty, which take place on a particular day or in a specific season (mainly springtime).  Daily washing habits and rituals, and magic forms of washing/bathing belong to a well-defined, comprehensive system. Every act of washing, bathing or rinsing signals the intention to get rid of something undesired, that is, to prevent or ward off physical dirt, moral impurity or a magic spell. When washing and cleansing are considered as complex healing and preventive activities, with a combination of the four counter-terms depicted in the system illustrated below, every human practice developed around washing and cleaning can be described. This system represents the theoretical background of sayings such as “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

V.Kh.: Often there is water of life and death present in fairy tales. Today there are certain enthusiasts trying to prove that fairy tales are just a forgotten truth: they discover water of “life” and “death” in the Himalayas, for example… What could you say on the subject? How often do people tell such stories in Hungary, if they do at all? Are your scientists interested in this subject (specialists in natural science – biochemists, for example)?

C.I.: Our tales speak of the water of life and death, mostly in particular types of “the prince who wanted to be immortal” and of “rejuvenating water”.  They state that the sources of the water of life and death are on either side of the throne/ besides the bed/ in the castle of the fairy, king or queen protagonist. In certain regions water consecrated during religious festivals (Christmas, Easter, Greek Catholics’ Epiphany) is even called the water of life.

This water of life gave people youth, cured from misfortune and disease, became a source of catharsis for a man. Bathing with the purpose of renovation during the Christmas fasting, on the first day of the New Year, washing and bathing during springtime (on the Good Friday, the Easter Monday) trace back to the ancient rites. Sprinkling with water on the Easter Monday has pagan origin. The ancient name of this rite – “The water Monday” – meant emerging in water, not sprinkling. Pagan rites entwined with the Christian ones, as the baptizing often took place during the Easter. When the Christian church changed the rites, people kept the ritual sprinkling.

Nowadays these traditions and beliefs have already faded away, but water and its quality as a fundamental element of life is still an essential issue for all of us.  In modern Hungary a few companies call running water “dead” and they sell water “revitalised“ by their own methods or sell equipment that can transform dead water into “living” water.  One of them is PI water, or there are so some kinds of oxygenated, revitalised, purified and other treated types of water.  Distributors promise their customers longer, healthier life, or treatment for incurable diseases (cancer).  Quite a few books have been published, mostly by publishers specialized in esotericism, describing the special “messages”, “wisdom”, healing power, and other miraculous capacities of water, emphasizing how all these qualities are destroyed or disturbed though the addition of chlorine or other chemical substances  to tap water.

V.Kh.: What do the keepers of the folk tradition and natural scientists say about the springs that are believed sacred?

C.I.: The question about these springs is a different problem. Most of the pilgrimage destinations were close to the holy springs. Some pilgrimage destinations became such due to the legends telling about the miracle of healing with holy water. People came here to heel different eye and foot diseases; tried to heel rheumatism, gout and lots of incurable diseases as cancer, paralysis, blindness. There were „universal” pilgrim destination – there people could heel any decease, and some specialized sacred places – for the heeling of particular dysfunctions. One of the later is Matraverebiysenkut, which I visited myself several times. There are three springs here – their names remind of miraculous heeling.

V.Kh.: Tell me, please, if a sacred, holy spring is always a spring with some kind of particular heeling water? Do folk beliefs always coincide with the objective analysis of the mineral composition and its beneficial qualities?

C.I.: It is important to note here that there are many thermal springs in Hungary, whose healing power is already proven.  There are a few mineral water sources as well, e.g. in Mátrafüred, or Balatonfüred,  mostly used in drinking cure due to their medicinal contents.  The holy water wells of popular pilgrimage destinations usually contain good-quality mineral water, without any proven healing effect.  Even the informers claim the miraculous healing power comes from faith, or God, Christ, Virgin Mary or other saints rather than from the medicinal components of the water.  In Csatka, for example, some chant the following while washing: “Jesus and our Virgin Mary, please help me. “  As one woman said, “water can manifest its full power only if we pray for God. We have to be prepared in our souls when we join the functions of indulgence.”

V.Kh.: Did Hungarians (and further – Finno-Ugric peoples) use open spa springs, including the hot ones, for preventive and heeling practices? Did they have the tradition of wet sauna, “banya”, which is extremely popular among Russians? If they had, what kind of tradition was it?

C.I.: The hydrological features of Hungary are quite favorable: it has the 5th largest thermal water supply in the world after Japan, Iceland, Italy and France, and the Hévízi-tó is the largest hot-water lake in Europe. Hungary possesses a full range of natural spas and thermal waters: effervescent, alkaline, earth, calcareous, salty, sulphate (so called keserűvíz- bitter water), radioactive springs and springs which contain iron, sulphur, iodine and bromine.  These features fundamentally define the bathing customs and habits of the Hungarians.

From the beginnings of the Hungarian state in the Árpád period (10th-12th centuries) bathing in thermal spas was one of the most important healing methods in the Middle Ages is evident from written sources. In the 16th-17th centuries the whole Western Europe gave up visiting the formerly so popular steam and public baths and at the spas people also preferred to have a drinking cure. It was because after the great pandemics physicians believed that the diseases got into the body with the water through the pores that enlarge after having a bath. During these two centuries the central part of the Hungary was occupied by the Turks and it remained so for 150 years. During that period, based on the findings of the great historian Balázs Sudár, the Turks operated 75 baths, several beaches, and quite a few private “stove baths” on the occupied territories. From the Turkish baths 18 buildings survived, the domed pools of some of them like the Rudas, Király, Rác, Lukács baths in Buda, or the bath in Eger are still used today.

V.Kh.: The question emerges right here: did the Turkish bathing culture influence Hungarian customs? Did the Hungarians use the baths of the Turks?

C.I.: The answer is not simple. It is known that the hot water open baths were also continuously used by Hungarians as well on the occupied territories. According to the written sources from the period on the remaining free area of Hungary, resembling a narrow collar, bathing culture was flourishing at an everyday level, but unfortunately no Hungarian bath buildings from the 16th-17th centuries or before survived the damages of wars.

V.Kh.: Which bathing cultures did Hungarians have?

C.I.: On the territory of the late Mediaeval and early Modern Hungary several important European bathing cultures met. They knew the wet steam chamber of the Northern- and North-Eastern Europeans in the Middle Ages, and the dry air-chamber appeared in the Modern period. Bath tubs, common pools and showers were used as early as the Middle Ages, which were found at the same time and place only in Hungary of all Europe. Furthermore, there was the aforementioned Turkish influence.

Besides the customary bathing cures of the 16th-17th century, which could simply serve hygienic purposes or done as drinking or healing cures in Hungarian bathing culture, the demands for social life at the bath was greater and greater on the free Hungarian territories, even in the times of wars and difficulties. This was reflected in several travelogues, diaries and other official documents that were processed in detail by educational historian Gábor Várkonyi.

While noblemen visited baths mostly for relaxation, leisure, socialising, health prevention, and only partly for curing, peasants went to spas only in case of illness. Even then they did not visit bathing establishments, they preferred natural spas, let us take for example the farmers and vineyard workers mentioned by Miklós Oláh or the poor people having their baths in Alhévíz described by Evlia Cselebi.

The use of Hungarian hot spas in curing illnesses was based on experience for a long period, but the age of enlightenment wanted to discover the secret of their powers. Maria Theresa ordered a scientific survey of spas and hot springs under her sovereignty in 1763. Her son Joseph decided to utilise them as well, in the following areas: medical tourism, regional development, employment and commerce.

The development of spa resorts began.The development of the middle classes after the Compromise gave a new impetus for the development of baths. The roots of modern medical treatments can be dated to this period as well.  The examination of the effects of hot water cures began, they were supplemented by physiotherapeutic treatment. The chemical constitution of mineral waters was analysed for the first time and they were first used in dietetics. Later, as medicine developed, more and more problems were possible to treat effectively. So, besides locomotor disorders and post-traumatic rehabilitation spa treatments were successfully applied to cure upper respiratory problems, the disorders of metabolism, secretion, circulation and the nervous system as well as gynecological problems. The special importance of baths is shown by the establishment of the National Association of Balneology in 1891, and well-trained balneotherapists replaced the old bath attendants even from the smallest resorts.

The golden age of baths and spas was in the period after the Compromise (1867). At that time many baths were built all around the country.  In the year of the Millennium of the Settlement there were 286 registered resorts, most of which are beyond the borders of Hungary today. Besides the developed middle-class bathing culture in the period of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy the open baths of the peasants continued to operate, sometimes near the aristocratic establishments, mostly used in the same way as it was described at the previous period, primarily for cures.

Since the middle of the 20th century customs and also the social composition have also changed. While until the end of the 19th century baths and spas were mostly frequented by upper classes, who would spend a whole season there.

From the second half of the 20th century bathing became a mass phenomenon, available for anybody. It was cheap and uniformised everywhere in Hungary. The consumer culture after the change of regime changed the bathing culture and way of using bathes. The beginning of the 21st century saw a revival of spa culture and it became a key area of tourism development. Hungary is still a leader in the bath and spa segment. All around the country more and more spas are discovered, the already existing institutions are being renewed and expanded, now offering a huge variety of services in the name of wellness apart from bathing, swimming and healing.

V.Kh.: How do the informers you work with explain the magic of water influence? I mean, are there any realistic explanations of the water beneficial influence, apart from the mythological ones? What determines their comprehension of the beneficial qualities of water: myth or reality?

C.I.: Legends say that the image of Our Lady of the Snows lay hidden for 80 years in the Csöpörke Lake near a church in Szeged, so according to popular belief the water became sanctified, and bathing in it was beneficial. The water of holy wells was considered sacred by the people, and pilgrims took some of the water home to cure themselves. The effectiveness of sacred springs and wells is explicable with rather transcendental than realistic arguments.  Yet there are also some realistic explanations:  “It is extremely clean water, you cannot imagine, how clean it is.” Spa water is different, however.  There are signs all around, advertising the components and their curing benefits. Naturally, if one spends a whole day soaking in the pool, they can hear different, “unofficial”, quite weird theories as well.

V.Kh.: The rehabilitation medicine using old practices of curing with water develops rapidly nowadays. Are there any particular changes in the practices that are used at the resorts and wellness centers? Practices with use of water especially? For example, I have seen that on Russian resorts there are new chambers of traditional heeling practices (Chinese, Tibet etc.), where specialists offer services in addition to standard water procedures.

C.I.: Wellness centers also try to attract more customers by offering extra services besides the high-quality spa.  It is more and more widespread to offer exotic-sounding treatments advertised as coming from faraway countries.  However, neither the public nor wellness specialists can clearly define what can be considered as “traditional” Hungarian bath culture.

Discovering it and raising public awareness is not only a scientific task but also it can bring measurable financial benefits to Hungary, as international competition in medical tourism is quite fierce. We can only achieve something if we can offer something that carries our national characteristics as an exotic attraction or “Hungaricum”, besides following international trends.

V.Kh.: Tell me, have you studied, if ancient methods of water treatment have been useful for the rehabilitation and wellness treatments in Hungary, and to what extent?

C.I.: I am just beginning a new research project in which we are trying to discover to what extent and how traditional practices can influence modern, officially approved and alternative medicine.

V.Kh.: On the modern resorts in different countries, specialists use actively spa and thermal springs. How do they use them in Hungary?

C.I.: As I have said before, our country has a millennial tradition of utilizing medicinal water.  Nowadays a large segment of society simply cannot afford buying the ever more expensive entrance tickets. Fortunately still there is a working system in which every citizen can get annually 2 subsidised spa treatments consisting of 10 sessions each upon the GP’s prescription, financed by social security.  Yet there are many people who cannot afford even this price that is approximately one third of the original fee.

V.Kh.: I have another question in this concern: have you ever studied, if medical workers control the use of thermal and mineral waters is done according to the prescription and in medical purposes only? Do patients follow the indications? It is well known that soaking in the waters of some springs is not always safe. But I have witnessed situations when in officially approved resorts people used thermal water without prescription, or against it (for example, soaked feet in the water running in the channel, telling others about the beneficial effects of this practice, while physicians objected strongly). Medical workers told me dealing with people was absolutely impossible: any kind of instructions was in vain.

C.I.: Once we visited the spa in Szklenófürdő (Sklené Teplice, Slovakia), and we were surprised to see how different our spa culture is.  In Slovakia, there was a strict time limit of how long one can stay in the pool, and there was a corpulent lady supervising very earnestly, preventing anyone from exceeding the time limit.  I think Hungarians are rebels in this respect. Although here there are warnings of the time limit everywhere but nobody takes them seriously. Also nobody really cares about the components of the spa water, maybe only after they have some physical complaints.  In many places thermal water is carried home for everyday use form public wells. In Gyoma, my hometown, crowds queue up at the thermal well at any time of the day, and the water is not only taken away for drinking or cooking but people also use it for their hot evening baths. This way they do not have to pay for drinking water or bathing water, nor for warming up water (as the temperature of the water from this well is 62 Cº). Doctors, however, discourage people from regular consumption of this water due to its high mineral content and radioactivity, the majority of the locals swear that this is the healthiest and tastiest water on earth.

V.Kh: I know that in Russia in the last two decades there have been appearing places, known as “savage spa”. These are thermal springs without any medical control whatsoever. Here, the radon waters are used freely, with no instructions. Is such a thing possible in Hungary?

C.I.: We also have such places. There have always been, in fact.  The history of most spas begins with a natural hot spring erupting from earth and people who needed cure bathed in the water of the pit carved by the force of the spring. This phenomenon can be observed these days too, where thermal springs come up after drilling test wells to find oil for example in Hortobágy or near Szeged and they are not exploited later.  There is a place near my home where a hot spring came up during the construction of the Árpád Bridge, and people from the nearby workers’ district came to have a hot bath, while homeless people tried to survive freezing cold nights submerged in hot water with their heads resting on their clothes on the edge of the pit.

V.Kh.: Tell me, modern thermal resorts in Hungary are no doubt international. How many Russian tourists come there? It seems to me that in the last few decades people here have forgotten about unique national resorts that are situated in some incredibly beautiful places, they go to a particular place just because it is abroad and it’s fashionable. I know that among Russians Czeck spa resorts are extremely popular. I think, in Hungary Russian tourists come to the lake Balaton during the summer, don’t they?

C.I.: The most renowned Hungarian spas are crowded with foreigners. As far as I know, Russian tourists especially favor Hévíz, which has also specialised in caring for their needs. Russians are often seen in Budapest spas, but I would say they are immigrants, not tourists.  Those who are going to read the book we are planning together can also learn more about it from the interview with Andrea Szegedi Aranyossy. Hungarians also like visiting Hungarian spas as the range is wide, from luxury wellness hotels to rural spas affordable to the middle class as well.

V.Kh.: Are there any springs with “miraculous water” in Hungary? The ones where people are heeled in a magical way? Do you know any modern legends of that kind?

C.I.: As in Hungary there are hundreds of official thermal spas all around the country, there are not many of such legends.  Such stories are mostly connected with pilgrimage destinations, but even these are not very recent. 

V.Kh.: According to people is it connected with the peculiarities of water, or the sacred place? Or, maybe with some special people (charismatic individuals, unique heelers, for example?)

C.I.: Here we first of all have to mention healers. There are many and many kinds of them, ranging from religious healers, chiropractors to the ones who cure through the imposition of hands and other practices.  In our planned book we will include an overview of this with the assistance of the editors-in-chief of the two most important magazines of alternative medicine.

V.Kh.: I’d like to ask a rather strange question. In Russia, on the eve of the orthodox holiday of Epiphany (January, 18) it is customary to bathe in icy water – people jump in the holes made in ice in rivers and lakes. Usually, priests consecrate water before people bathe – from the point of view of the religious people it prevents them from catching a cold or getting sick. Sometimes they present stories in mass media about how many people ended up visiting doctors after such “purification”. Still, the general attitude towards this practice in Russia is positive, maybe due to another period of the intense promotion of religion. The same could be applied to bathing in cold sacred springs. Is there any relation with the situation in Hungary? Do you have anything like that in your culture?

C.I.: In Hungary it is only the tradition of the Greek Catholic Church to consecrate rivers and natural waters, and even this practice has been introduced at the highest levels of the church only recently. At this time nobody enters the icy water.  While at the dawn of Good Friday people all around the country went out to natural sources of water or if they had none nearby, to the wells, to have a bath, to wash their face.  At this time it is the death of Jesus that “consecrates” these waters.  As Éva Pócs pointed out, the meaning of the relationship between death and water is “to return to the Chaos”, also bearing the promise of rebirth, as the relationship between woman and death also contains the motive of fertility.  These universal features of the mythologies of water can be found in the folklore and even the rites of Hungarians and other European people. Their essence is that the “good” dead can transmit the fluids of life to mankind.  By now, ritual spring bathing and Easter sprinkling have already faded out. I think the Russian soul is still more spiritual than Hungarians, and also the Hungarian spiritual desire has other forms of manifestation.

Translated by V.V. Shiryaeva

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