Continuing my review of this piece by author and historian Orynganym Tanatarova. Where we left off, we learned that the Mongol-Tatars possibly invented the toothbrush! Or it could have been invented by the Chinese a century earlier, but the Tatars then eagerly adopted the practice of dental hygiene and introduced it to Russian Slavs. While probably saying something like, “We see you Russians do love your garlic and onions…[hint hint]…”
As we know, Tanatarova continues, brushing one’s teeth is very important, not just for the sake of physical beauty and sweeter breath, but also to remove dangerous microbes. Many Asian peoples were concerned about microbes and bacteria, even before they knew what they were. Without a solid scientific background, they just intuited (correctly) that there were invisible things or particles in the air, which could harm one. Empirically they discovered (and Asian peoples have wonderful empirical minds) that the use of smoke could help to dispel these invisible particles. Hence such customs as “smoking” one’s living abode and also subjecting people and their clothing to smoke. Not knowing exactly how infections are spread, and not possessing the scientific background to perform double-blind placebo-controlled experiments, they could still tell, empirically and intuitively, that the smoke helped. Not understanding the underlying science and without possessing antibiotics, they called the unhealthy particles “evil spirits” and literally tried to smoke them out. Once again, this isn’t as stupid as it sounds, and the smoke actually helped to fight infections. In other word, not all the sham-ans were shams!
The Mongols in particular were very rigid about preserving this custom: Before a visit to a high-ranking person, every visitor was obliged to walk between two smoky bonfires. By doing this, the visitor affirmed his good intentions. Practically speaking, the smoke may have removed parasites and microbes from his skin and clothing, thus protecting the host from disease-spreading visitors. Again, it’s not as effective as the modern custom of obsessive hand-washing and donning latex gloves before shaking hands with a guest; but it was better than nothing and certainly helped to mitigate the risk of infection.
Sadly, some Russian Princes balked when asked to perform this “fire-walking” trick while visiting the Khan of the Golden Horde. It wasn’t because they were scaredy-cats and afraid of fire, not at all! These were brave and good Christian men, and in their minds, fire-walking was a form of paganism. Historian Dmitry Volodikhin in his book about the Ruriks (Moscow 2013) wrote that Prince Mikhail Vsevolodovich Chernigovsky came up against this situation in 1246. He was hoping to visit Khan Baty, but the fire custom was an impediment. “They demanded that the Prince bow to pagan idols and walk between two bonfires. Something that the majority of Russian princes were willing to do, when meeting with the Horde. But Mikhail considered this request to be incompatible with his Christian faith.” As a result of his principled refusal, the Khan had him executed.
From such tales we can deduce that the Russian Slavs, who were primarily of Indo-European stock, were unfamiliar with the Mongol custom of smoking out infections. And that this custom was introduced into Russian life by the Mongols. Where it was eventually accepted and adopted. To this day, Russian folk medicine preserves the custom of smoking up the house of a sick person, using various healing grasses and herbs as the fuel.
Contemporary specialists confirm that this staple of folk medicine is mildly effective. According to Aikido instructor and Alternative Medicine specialist Katsuzō Nishi, his (Japanese) people long ago discovered that smoking up the place really did fight colds, ameliorated rheumatism, and helped to mitigate infections.
Next: Head Shaving Pro or Con?
[to be continued]