Who hasn’t cast aside their underwear and plunged – shrieking – into the waves? Yet skinny dipping as a ritual has roots in Celtic and religious traditions.
Some outdoor swimmers skinny dip to mark their birthdays. Some do it when they forget their costume and not swimming is not an option. Some do it for the sheer transgressive thrill of it.
But casting off your clothes and making for the water has a long-standing association with virtue and saintliness – of being a means through which to connect to the spiritual realm, whether it be religious or more earth-bound in nature.
Author and historian Nick Mayhew-Smith set out to explore this through re-enacting four ancient bathing rituals across the UK.
Naked, I approached a river sluggish with January chill, bare feet crunching on frosty reeds, and felt a timeless glow of peace descend on the ice-white water meadow. Unsure whether this was a spiritual blessing from creation itself, or a premonition of hypothermia, I uttered a few brief and not entirely holy imprecations, then braced myself to meet my maker. As religious rituals go, sacred bathing is nothing if not memorable.
On that morning last year, I was plunging into a ritual unchanged since the start of our recorded history: an authentic exercise in Celtic nature spirituality. Yet it has been entirely abandoned by mainstream religion, so I suspect my revival of such forgotten rituals might resonate more with the devoted souls in the Outdoor Swimming Society than any organised church.
Historical records of Britain and Ireland talk of devout monks and nuns slipping out of their monasteries to plunge into cold water, naked in all innocence before their Creator and quite often breaking the ice to demonstrate their resolve. In all, there are around 50 records of devout bathers across Christendom during the first millennium, of whom a remarkable 39 were from Britain and Ireland. Clearly something spiritual eddies in our lakes, lochs, springs, rivers and seas. After completing a PhD examining the scant documentary evidence, I wanted to find out what.
This brought me to the icy bank of the River Wey in Surrey. I’m happy to report back that these primal rituals still work today, which is perhaps no surprise to those who find a spiritual dimension to their own wild water immersions. Conventional wisdom says that early saints were merely trying to dampen their unruly libidos by plunging into the chill, a theory that sounds a little glib to anyone experienced in open-water swimming. It also raises the question of why the people of these islands were so troubled by sexual desire compared to everyone else.
My own theory is that it was part of a missionary strategy, designed to capture the attention of the sceptical, Pagan folk of Britain and Ireland. In a landscape teeming with tales of hostile spirits lurking in the wild, the best way to respond was to strip off and wade in, demonstrating the power of one Creator God to restore harmony between humans and nature. Caves mountains, islands and wilderness played their part, but it was water that held particular fear, and so into the water the saints plunged.
It is this notion of harmony with the environment that stands the test of time, the elements irreducible in their simplicity: a bare body and a river or sea. So, baring body and soul alike, I splashed my way through the four ancient bathing rituals
Source: The Outdoor Swimming Society
Original publication 19 June 2019
Posted on NatCorn 20th June 2021
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