Mongol Hygiene, is it all it’s cracked up to be? – Part IV

Dear Readers:

Today concluding my review of this piece by author and historian Orynganym Tanatarova.  Where we left off, we learned about Tatar-Mongol customs, such as tooth-brushing and using smoke to ward off germs, which were subsequently adopted by their Russian neighbors.  One of the good qualities of the Russian people (historically) is that they are open-minded and not necessarily resistant to new ideas, when they see the benefit; and even when those ideas come from sometimes hostile sources.

“Khan, if my son marries your daughter, will you loan me your toothbrush for the wedding?”

Fortunately, life is not always just about war.  When the battle is over, people get to know each other, and sometimes even fall in love.  One recalls the plot of Russia’s national poem, “The Tale of Igor’s Regiment”.  There is a horrific war.  Prince Igor fights a brutal battle against the Polovetskian (Cuman) Khan, loses it, and is taken captive, along with his son, Prince Volodimir.  While in captivity, Volodimir falls in love with the Khan’s daughter, and they subsequently get married.  One can imagine many such mixed families, and not just among the aristocracy.  Volodimir’s wife might have introduced him to family customs, such as brushing their teeth, smoking their living room to remove “evil spirits”, not to mention new delicious recipes of Cuman cuisine.  In turn, he and his Russian relatives would have taught her Russian, possibly converted her to Christianity, and also taught her some delicious recipes.

Next we approach the subject of head-shaving.  As everyone knows, who has watched the miniseries “Godunov”, medieval Russian men did not shave their heads.  Quite the contrary, they were quite hairy beasts, allowing hair and beards to grow out at will.  They must have looked like American hippies of the 1960’s, or members of the Manson Gang.  One shudders at the thought of what could be growing inside those beards.

Mongol men, to the contrary, typically shaved their scalps, according to historian Evgeny Kychanov, in his biography of Genghis Khan.  Well, at least the warriors did.  Typically they would shave most of their head, leaving 3 swaths of hair:  a curly braid in the front and sideburns.

And actually, I have to correct something I wrote in a previous paragraph, about all medieval Russian men looking like hippies.  Maybe that was just the Novgorod-Moscow crowd.  Apparently Kievan Prince Svyatoslav Igorevich also sported the steppe-people doo with just the one braid on the side.  This was testified to by Byzantine chronicler and fashion correspondent Lev Diakon, who had seen Svyatoslav with his own Byzantine eyes and described him as being completely bald except for that one braid hanging down the side of his head.  A fashion tip that he had picked up from the Pechenegs, and which marked him as a Russian aristocrat of the southern steppes.

Having shaven heads was a complete necessity for steppe warriors.  Their nomadic and highly mobile lifestyle made it mandatory, otherwise they would pick up parasites in their hair.  Here fashion was dictated by hygiene concerns.  (Leaving just one braid was a kind of compromise to woo the ladies with their lovely follicles.)

As mentioned, this hair-do for males was quickly picked up by Russian Slavs from the southern parts.  It became the style for the Zaporozhian Cossacks and explains why modern Ukrainian Nationalists have adopted it.  That, plus the front-knot can be straightened and turned into Hitler-type bangs.

The Impact Of Islam

At a certain point in history, citizens of the Golden Horde adopted Islam as their state religion.  According to historian Alexander Khannikov, the conversion to Islam occurred during the rule of Khan Uzbek in 1312-1342.  The change affected Mongol hygiene practices, but only in a positive way.  Most Americans only see stereotypes and probably don’t realize how fussy Muslims are about tidiness and cleanliness.

“Thanks, Tatar-Mongols!”

The Muslim religion codified and organized daily hygiene practices of the already tidy Tatar-Mongols.  A believer was required to bathe often, take very good care of dental hygiene, clip his toenails, and shave his armpits and pubic area.  (In those days, when you went to the salon, you didn’t ask for a “Brazilian”, you asked for a “Mongolian” — little joke there…)  The Muslim believer was also required to wash up after every visit to the toilet.  In the days before sinks were invented, that was not an easy requirement.  For this purpose, members of the Golden Horde would create their own portable bidets, which they called a kumgan, and take it with them to the outhouse every time.

Nearby Russians, Tanatarova speculates, may have observed their neighbors performing these hygienic rituals, and possibly even borrowed something from them!  Thus contributing to the creation of a modern, clean and healthy Russia.


P.S.  Continuing on with “Russian History Month” at the Avalanche, tomorrow I begin a series of posts (hooked to a review of a TV miniseries) about medieval Russia and the Time of Troubles.  A time so troubled that all Russian men looked like members of the Manson family and nobody could afford a portable bidet.

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