As the hygiene category steals the limelight, a quick ode to its eponymous owner, a Greek Goddess the world is worshipping, inadvertently. She has even been depicted on medicine bottles in the past.
Nearly every day, there’s a piece of news about a new type of product entering the suddenly hot hygiene segment. While mattresses, gadgets, shirts, fabric, and all manner of liquids, gels and sprays vow to kill 99 point something per cent of all viruses, and compete for a piece of the complicated hygiene pie, let’s take a minute to reflect on the etymology of the word hygiene.
The ancient Greeks worshipped Goddess Hygieia (in my head I’m pronouncing it as High-Jee-Ya and I’m sure it’s incorrect), the Goddess of cleanliness, sanitation and health, for her power to prevent – not cure, but prevent – sickness. In fact, Hygieia’s bowl – a flat cup with a snake around it – is an accepted symbol of pharmacy in many European countries. That’s how she is commonly depicted, as a young lady with a snake around her body or on her lap, being fed by her from a saucer.
Back in the day, Greek doctors who advocated the ‘prevention is better than cure’ notion were said to be Hygiean in their approach.
In the world of brands, one of the earliest, documented commercial depictions of Goddess Hygieia was on packs of Holloway’s Ointment, a popular-in-its-time multi-purpose medicine launched in 1837 by Englishman Thomas Holloway. Interesting as this was, it was not entirely true to the myth it borrowed from, was it? This ointment was meant for the cure of, and not the prevention of, illness.
Zbigniew Bela, director of the Pharmacy Museum, Cracow, Poland, writes in a 2012 article titled ‘Hygieia, goddess and pharmacy’s It girl’, on pharmaceutical-journal.com, “Throughout the Middle Ages until the 15th or the 16th century, no representations of Hygieia are found… However, in the 17th century, when the Roman Catholic church had lost a considerable part of its influence to the Protestant Church, representations of pagan Hygieia as the goddess of health reappeared… In short, between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Hygieia was in vogue.”
In the same article, the author notes the depiction of Hygieia in a context that predates Holloway’s ointment: “The oldest pharmacy related artefact that depicts the bowl of Hygieia is a coin minted in 1796 for the Parisian Pharmaceutical Society. However, (among) the most typical examples of the trend for using Hygieia in the pharmaceutical milieu is a catalogue published by the Viennese company Hammer & Voršak, which offered all kinds of products for contemporary pharmacies…”
The article has many more such details about the symbolic depiction of this lesser known Greek Goddess in the world of medicine.
In 2020, she is my favourite deity. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a surface to sanitise.
Actually, wait… this was where my week old LinkedIn post ended, but I decided to flesh it out after reading some of the comments it fetched, one of which raised a question about similar deities in the Hindu pantheon. I subsequently discovered many similar Goddesses, across regions, as I researched the subject. I did stray from the original theme of hygiene, but the gems I found made it worth wandering off topic.
For instance, Lopamudra Roy, CEO of research and business solutions firm Toad Not Taken, in a comment on my LinkedIn post, brought up the Hindu Goddess of uncleanliness Alakshmi, sister of the more popularly worshipped Lakshmi. As I looked her up, I discovered Sheetala Devi, Goddess of cleanliness, who cures poxes, pustules, sores and such. Like most Hindu devis, she’s an avatar of Parvati. In fact, there exists in our mythology a demon of fever, spreader of cholera, dysentery, measles and smallpox – Jwarasur – whom she destroyed.
That makes sense – ‘sheetal’ means cool or cold; a large part of curing fever involves lowering the body temperature of the ill. A version of Sheetala Devi is Ola Devi, popular in Bengali folklore, who saves her devotees from diseases like cholera, jaundice and diarrhea. In some villages of South India, she’s called Maisamma or Mesai and is worshipped specifically in the context of smallpox, and chicken pox.
Speaking of fever, the ancient Romans worshipped a ‘Fever Goddess’ called Febris, specifically in the context of malaria. Linguistically, this is logical; in medical science, a condition brought about by high fever is called a febrile condition.
There are similar Goddesses and Gods in Aztek, Celtic, Nordic and Egyptian mythology.
While Hygieia is by far the most compelling deity in the current context of hygiene, it’s fascinating how, over millennia and across cultures, countless divine entities were birthed by humankind’s need to triumph over specific diseases, that plagued specific regions.
The author is executive editor of afaqs!.