11 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (22) Hygiene

Σταθμός υγιεινές … hand hygiene in a supermarket in Platanias in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Walking into the local supermarkets in Rethymnon, the signs direct me to the σταθμός υγιεινές or ‘safety station.’ They might as easily have been translated ‘hygiene stop.’

Although tourists and Greeks alike seem to be more lax about wearing facemasks in public places, there are hand sanitisers, for example, at every table in every restaurant and café. There is no getting away from the Corona virus on holidays, and no getting away from keeping up standards of personal and public hygiene.

Hygiene is a series of practices performed to preserve health. According to the World Health Organization, hygiene involves ‘conditions and practices that help to maintain health and prevent the spread of diseases.’

Personal hygiene involves maintaining the body’s cleanliness, but we can also talk about home and everyday hygiene, medical hygiene, sleep hygiene and food hygiene.

Many people equate hygiene with cleanliness. But hygiene also includes such personal habit choices, how frequently I take a shower or bath, wash my hands, brush my teeth, clip my fingernails, and wash my clothes, the attention I give to keeping kitchen surfaces and the bathroom clean.

We are used to some regular hygiene practices that we see them simply as good habits and good manners, while neglecting hygiene can be seen as disrespectful, disgusting, or even threatening.

The word hygiene, of course, has its origins in the Greek language. The word is first found in English in 1676, introduced from the French hygiene. This, in turn, comes from the Latin adaptation of the Greek ὑγιεινή (τέχνη) hygieinē technē, the ‘(art) of health,’ ὑγιεινός (hygieinos, ‘good for the health, healthy,’ and those phrases, in turn, come from the Greek ὑγιής (hygiēs), ‘healthful, sound, salutary, wholesome.’

In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Hygeia (Ὑγίεια) was the goddess of health, cleanliness and hygiene. She is related to the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius, who is the son of the Olympian god Apollo the healer.

Hygieia is referred to as a daughter of Asclepius and his wife Epione. She and her four sisters each performed a facet of Apollo’s art: Hygieia (health, cleanliness, and sanitation); Panacea (universal remedy); Iaso (recuperation from illness); Aceso (the healing process); and Aglaïa (beauty, splendour, glory, magnificence, and adornment). Apollo the healer, Asclepius, Hygieia and Panacea are all named in the original Hippocratic Oath:

‘I swear by Apollo, the healer, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:

‘To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art.

‘I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

‘I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

‘But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.

‘I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.

‘In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves.

‘All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.

‘If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.’

Personal hand sanitisers on every table in Pagona’s restaurant in Tsesmes, Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Yesterday: Holocaust

Tomorrow: Laconic

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