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Hot springs and thermal baths have been enjoyed by humans (and animals) for thousands of years. They ...
2021-04-12 09:00:00

Hot Springs Eternal
The Benefits of Thermal Baths

Paul Gauguin, “Women bathing (Dieppe)”, 1895, Tokyo National Museum of Western Art (public domain)
Hot Springs Eternal
Hot Springs Eternal

Mother Earth has provided us with natural ways to relax and heal our various ailments. All we need do is find some hot springs and hop in. Some people consider it sinful to indulge your body, but practice and science say otherwise.

Read in 3 minutes

We drove to Mutnowska Sopka in a massive, off-road bus with big wheels – one of those exotic vehicles that can only be found in the wilderness of Siberia and the Americas. We stood for a moment with our backpacks in the middle of the mountain wilderness – 120 kilometres from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, 800 metres above sea level, at the foot of one of the dozens of active Kamchatka volcanoes. It was warm, there was a smell of sulphur in the air. We could hear rhythmic hisses and whistles accompanying the sudden bursts of steam from the Earth’s interior. After a 30-minute walk, we found ourselves in a valley similar to the Valley of Geysers, but smaller and less well-known. We pitched our tents on the hot ground among stains of sulphur efflorescence, between the bubbling lakes and small geysers. We were near the relatively environmentally-friendly Mutnowska Geothermal Power Plant, built at the start of the 21st century. It was the most awesome place I’d ever stayed.

Cooking on gas

The underfloor-heating effect in the tent made up for the lack of a bathroom, especially since we were just a few hundred metres from a hot spring, where you could bathe like it was an outdoor pool with a view. And quite a view it was, even after dark. The power plant emitted a fluorescent glow across the whole region, like something out of a Soviet science fiction film, which, combined with the infernal hisses and columns of steam, created a unique 24-hour spectacle, complemented at night by the Milky Way stretching overhead.

The only thing missing was hot tea – how nice it would have been to watch the stars with a mug of green tea in hand! We’d brought drinking water with us, but nothing grew on the sulphur and we had no way to light a fire. I imagined a gastronomic drama playing out – it seemed that for the next few days we’d only be eating dry bread and spam washed down with cold water. Then Jurek had an idea for how to make use of the energy of nature which was warming our posteriors so nicely: he set up an aluminium pot of water in one of the bubbling lakes and covered it with a lid. All we had to do was wait patiently until the water in the pot reached the right temperature to almost-brew tea and almost-cook buckwheat. We were saved.

Humans and macaques

The phenomenon behind these attractions is the Earth’s liquid core. Although our planet is 4.6 billion years old, the temperature in the core is still around 6000°C. Is that the devil at work? Not quite. The temperature results from extremely high pressure and the decay of uranium, thorium and potassium isotopes. The resulting geothermal energy makes itself felt through earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and various types of hot springs, including geysers that ‘spit’ water and steam. This happens either in seismically and volcanically active regions, or in areas where rainfall water penetrates into the deep layers of the earth, where it heats up and is returned to the surface by hydrostatic pressure (e.g. in Jaszczurówka near Zakopane). The puddle bubbling with poisonous gases in which we heated our tea water near Mutnowska was a fumarole – figuratively speaking, the volcano’s exhaust (the scientific name is ‘exhalation’).

Geothermal energy, a renewable energy source, is used in dozens of countries around the world. The total capacity of all geothermal power plants in 2012 was 11.4 GW and this figure is constantly rising. In Poland, geothermal installations account for only 0.03% of the primary energy produced. However, no measurable benefit can compare with the simplest delight of thermal baths – this is especially indisputable in spring, when the bodies and bones of Central and Eastern Europeans are radically underheated after the long autumn and winter. This pleasure is as old as man. Actually, that’s an overly humanist point of view – the habits of Japanese macaques prove it’s not only humans that love a natural bath. Hot springs are one of those joys that connect us as different species. They also have many benefits that are almost impossible to express in gigawatts.

Nymphs in springs

There are no people in the history of the world who had access to hot springs and didn’t use them, but it was the ancient Greeks who turned this phenomenon into a popular cultural practice. The Greek goddess Athena is attributed with inventing the geothermal bath: it was at her request that the god of fire Hephaestus (called Vulcan in Roman mythology) cut the first hot springs into the rock for Heracles, who was weary from his 12 labours. We know that bathhouses were a part of the famous palace complex in Knossos, Crete, but most Greek evidence on this topic comes from the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. The poet Pindar mentions nymphs bathing in the hot springs, and Homer praises the high temperature of one of the tributaries of the River Scamander. Of all the Greek tribes, only the Spartans and the Macedonians considered the hot baths unworthy of a warrior; the rest of the Greek world joyfully splashed in the warm water, which was said to have healing powers.

The Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, devoted a passage to thermal waters in his work De aere, aquis et locis, in which he described the chemical and organoleptic properties of water and the effects of hot and cold baths on the human body. He believed that all diseases were the result of fluid imbalance, so to improve the health he recommended water and steam baths, as well as exercise and massages. In Greece, thermal baths became centres of social and intellectual life (as Plato testifies), as well as religious worship. They were part of gymnasiums, as well as religious healing centres devoted to the god of medicine, Asklepios. Generally, they were located right next to the springs, in beautiful natural surroundings. Nature, and especially water – which for many Greek philosophers, with Thales at the helm, was the first matter and principle of the world – was associated with divinity. No wonder people expected it to perform miracles.

Seneca’s torments

The golden age of the thermal bath, however, didn’t come until the Roman Empire adopted both the local Etruscan traditions and the heritage of Greece. Bathhouses were built in Rome and the conquered territories. The public baths were created at the expense of the state and named after emperors: Agrippa, Caracalla and Diocletian. Thanks to the invention of the aqueduct, they often took the form of gigantic complexes that could accommodate hundreds or thousands of people. They were called thermal baths or SPAs (from the Latin sanus per aquam – ‘healthy through water’). In addition to the main bathing and sauna area, they also had gardens, shops and libraries. The entrance fee was symbolic, so at certain times you could meet civilians of both sexes and all statuses, as well as soldiers healing their war wounds.

The Roman baths had few critics, but occasionally one would make themselves known. “I lodge even over a bath,” writes the philosopher Seneca the Younger in his Moral Letters to Lucilius. “Suppose now all kinds of sounds that can be harsh and disagreeable to the ears; as when the strong boxers are exercising themselves, and fling about their hands loaded with lead…, or when I meet with an idle varlet, who anoints the ordinary wrestlers for their exercise, and I hear the different slaps he gives them on their shoulder…; or if a ball-player comes in, and begins to count the balls, it is almost over with me…; and also those who dash into the pond with a great noise of the water…; suppose a hair-plucker every now and then squeaking with a shrill and effeminate tone…; add to these the various cries of those that sell cakes and sausages, the gingerbread baker, the huckster, and all such as vend their wares about the streets with a peculiar tone” (trans. Thomas Morell).

Scholars were more constructive. The hot springs never ceased to intrigue Galen and Celsus, who studied the composition of the waters and their healing properties. It had been known since the times of Ancient Greece that thermal waters have a beneficial effect on the skin and reduce joint and muscle pain. Roman medics increasingly recommended baths for various ailments.

Taking the waters

With the fall of the Roman Empire, thermal bath culture saw a decline due to Christianity’s attitude towards the body as a hotbed of sin. The human body was now supposed to be scrupulously covered, not soaked in a pool with other naked people. Only the Renaissance brought thermal baths back to life. Research into the properties of different waters yielded new discoveries, and thanks to the invention of the printing press, this knowledge spread faster than ever before. Hot springs began to specialize in certain types of healing. The progress of science in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the introduction of the experimental discipline of medical hydrology. Studies on hot springs took off at universities. Based on biochemical analysis, doctors were now able to match a bathing resort with a particular condition. For the first time, the European public heard the names of the fathers of modern hydrotherapy: Vincenz Priessnitz (from whom we also get the Polish word for ‘shower’: prysznic) and Sebastian Kneipp. Hydrology started to merge with ecology.

In the period leading up to World War I, the culture of hot baths became a luxury pastime for members of high society. SPA centres for the rich, with elegant hotels, casinos and restaurants, were springing up all over Europe and the Americas. ‘Taking the waters’ meant going somewhere, under the pretext of treatment, to enjoy refined pleasures with people from your social circle, wealthy types of various provenance, and famous artists. This sweet life spent in sandals and bathrobes was only brought to an end by the two world wars that left a large part of the globe in ruin, causing a powerful socio-economic crisis. The post-war development of pharmacology also contributed to the shifting of hot springs into the background – thermal baths now played a supportive role at most, rather than being the main element of therapy.

Wellness and nature

In the 21st century, it seems that water has returned to favour thanks to the persistent efforts of physiotherapists, hydrologists, pharmacologists and biochemists. The preventive, curative and rehabilitative benefits of waters in relation to many ailments have won recognition. Nobody disputes the fact that sulphur baths support the treatment of rheumatism, carbonic acid baths help with diabetes, peloid baths cure inflammation, and saltwater baths relieve stress. Nowadays, therapeutic goals are combined with a holistic vision of a healthy lifestyle, which goes by the marketing term ‘wellness’. SPA centres offer customers a range of additional services, from cosmetics to culture and art, and the wellness tourism sector has become a veritable gold mine in the era of late capitalism.

However, exclusive SPA centres can be intimidating or provoke awkwardness. Just as not everyone likes restaurants with starched tablecloths, not everyone feels good in the atmosphere of hydrotherapeutic consumerism disguised as a love of nature. There are easier ways to bathe. I know from experience that the thermal baths that bring the most joy are those in the open air, surrounded by nature, be it spring, autumn or winter. And there’s no need to go to Kamchatka, Japan or a Greek island – you can just head to Slovakia or Hungary. Or at least to an aquapark with a thermal pool and a good sauna. Your body and soul will thank you for it. Stepping out of the hot water and vapours always feels like being reborn – for a few moments, it’s like seeing the world for the first time.

Try our perceptiveness test!

In which order are the following shown in the pictures below:

1) a computer simulation of the cosmic web of dark matter and ordinary matter;

2) stained glial cells in a rat’s brain;

3) reflections of light on the water in a swimming pool.

Reveal the answer

1) a computer simulation of the cosmic web of dark matter and ordinary matter. Source: NASA, ESA, E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)
1) a computer simulation of the cosmic web of dark matter and ordinary matter. Source: NASA, ESA, E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)
2) stained glial cells in a rat’s brain. Source: Orchinik Lab, Arizona State University – Creative Commons
2) stained glial cells in a rat’s brain. Source: Orchinik Lab, Arizona State University – Creative Commons
3) reflections of light on the water in a swimming pool. Source: Artem Militonian/Unsplash
3) reflections of light on the water in a swimming pool. Source: Artem Militonian/Unsplash


Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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Renata Lis

is a writer and translator, whose works include “Lesbos” (a book about love and exile), and completely unique biographies of Flaubert and Bunin, for which she was nominated for awards (one of which she won). She can’t decide whether she’s a pine dreaming of being a palm, or the other way around, so she alternates her travels between Greece and Russia; she’s been as far as Kamchatka.