Happy St. Patrick’s Day: How the Celts handled hygiene

17 03 2011

A Celtic warrior, presumably fresh from a good bathe and very well manscaped (photo credit: Bart Vetters, via Creative Commons)

In honor of St. Patrick’s day, those of us at PKIDs with a wee bit o’ the Celt in our genes decided to look into the hygiene of our ancestors. Just how clean were those bodies wearin’ the green (or blue), anyway?

You may think that ancient peoples, like the Celtic tribes, didn’t practice great personal hygiene. It’s true that during the medieval period, you wouldn’t want to have been trapped in a crowded room just about anywhere in Europe. But for many ancient Celts, hygiene was an important part of their culture. Did you know that they often get credit for having invented soap, or at least for passing it off to the Romans? Before the Romans acquired this tallow-made cleanser, they used urine to clean just about everything, although for their skin, scented oils were the unguent of choice. The Iberian Celts suffered under the accusation that they brushed their teeth and washed with stale urine (ewww), but since the source of this information was a chronicler from the enemy’s side, it must be taken with a wee bit of salt.

Whether Celtic Gauls truly did introduce the Romans to using animal-fat soap (sheep tallow), as Pliny credits them, these ancient peoples certainly had a number of hygiene routines that were practically cultural laws. In fact, they were simply expected. For example, according to some sources, a Celtic warrior had to bathe before a meal or before battle.

Warriors (and possibly others) also were known for shaving their entire bodies (or maybe burning the hair off with lye–ouch) except for the mustache and head hair, which they grew very long. They would then paint themselves with blue dye from the woad plant to provide a terror-inducing visual for the enemy. In that long hair, the warriors used a lime-based pomade that turned their lengthy locks white. In other words, Celtic warriors manscaped.

In spite of the bathing and manscaping, practices at the table may not have been up to today’s norms. The Celtic style for aristocratic men was a long, handlebar-type mustache that, during eating, would capture bits of food that drinking strained away. Ewww, again. In spite of the soup-straining facial hair, however, the Celts were very much into shaving, which kept away pestilent vermin, and even had nail clippers to keep their fingernail growth in check.

Celts probably even washed their hands in the mornings with their tallow soaps and as they bathed. Given how embedded their cultural hygiene practices were, their hand-washing rates may have far exceeded today’s rates in the United States, which fall below 50% for many groups. Ahem, citizens of the United States. Are you going to let the ancient Celts out-do you in hygiene? This St. Patrick’s Day, we wish you the luck o’ the Irish…and Celtic hand-washing rates, as well.