Every year, as summer approaches, there’s a raft of newspaper and magazine articles exploring swimmers’ concerns about people peeing in the swimming pool. In May 2017, the New York Times published ‘Come On In. The Water’s Fine (Mostly).’ In May 2019, Forbes published ‘Please Stop Peeing in the Pool, CDC Says’. In July 2021, Prevention magazine published ‘How Bad Is It to Pee in a Pool? The CDC Is Here to Remind You That It’s Not a Good Idea.’ In May 2022, the St. Louis Labor Tribune published ‘Summer’s here: Don’t pee in the pool.’ There are whole pages of memes around this fear, not to mention the popular urban myths about a chemical that will make the water turn red if anyone misbehaves. Even ocean swimming worries many people. Thus Business Insider, in 2014, published ‘Is it OK to pee in the ocean?’, and in 2018, the Sun published ‘Urine Trouble: Why You Should Never Wee in the Sea when Swimming in These Places’.
Doctors assure us it’s safe to swim, so why the recurring, exaggerated concern? We might look back to the nineteenth century. A terrible worldwide cholera pandemic, eventually shown to be spread by contaminated water, surely got people thinking about what other dangers might be lurking in their water. Around the same time, the invention of better microscopes, allowing scientists to really see and understand bacteria, led to a flood of popular pamphlets and newspaper articles alerting people that cleanliness and even sterility was the way to avoid infections. Cities all over the world built dams, created reservoirs and laid thousands of miles of pipe to supply clean water to their residents and carry away sewage, separating sewage from drinking water. The vast new 19th c. enthusiasm for swimming encouraged an association between these public health concerns and the new public pools. All of these factors surely did play a role.
But concern about people peeing in the water goes back thousands of years, long before people knew anything about germs, and long before Europeans knew how to swim. Ancient people worried about pee in the water throughout Southwest Asia and Europe, at least as long ago as the early Iron Age and probably as far back as the Bronze Age. It goes back to a time even before many people in Europe or Southwest Asia knew how to swim.
The Greek poet Hesiod gives us the first literary exposition of this idea of defilement, writing around 700 BC. He warns us to ‘never cross the sweet flowing water of ever flowing rivers on foot before you have prayed, looking into the beautiful stream, and washed your hands in the much loved clear water. Anyone who wades a river without washing the evil from his hands, the gods resent him and send him trouble later. Hesiod admonishes his readers, ‘Never urinate in rivers flowing to their mouths, or in springs; but be careful to avoid this. And don’t defecate in them: it’s not right.’
μηδέ ποτ᾽ αἰενάων ποταμῶν καλλίρροον ὕδωρ
ποσσὶ περᾶν, πρίν γ᾽ εὔξῃ ἰδὼν ἐς καλὰ ῥέεθρα,
χεῖρας νιψάμενος πολυηράτῳ ὕδατι λευκῷ.
ὃς ποταμὸν διαβῇ κακότητ᾽ ἰδὲ χεῖρας ἄνιπτος,
τῷ δὲ θεοὶ νεμεσῶσι καὶ ἄλγεα δῶκαν ὀπίσσω….
μηδέ ποτ᾽ ἐν προχοῇς ποταμῶν ἅλαδε προρεόντων
μηδ᾽ ἐπὶ κρηνάων οὐρεῖν, μάλα δ᾽ ἐξαλέασθαι:
μηδ᾽ ἐναποψύχειν: τὸ γὰρ οὔ τοι λώιόν ἐστιν. ( Hesiod, Works and Days, ll. 737–41, 758–9.)
Hesiod here doesn’t mention swimming, because hardly anyone in his audience would have known how to swim, and he surely didn’t know how himself. But he’s definitely against peeing (or pooping) in the water. And he adds the warning not to ‘clean your skin in women’s bath water,’ because it’s ‘temporarily cursed.’
μηδὲ γυναικείῳ λουτρῷ χρόα φαιδρύνεσθαι
ἀνέρα: λευγαλέη γὰρ ἐπὶ χρόνον ἔστ᾽ ἐπὶ καὶ τῷ
Hesiod almost certainly got this idea from Asians further east, who were also not swimmers. In the 500s BC, the prophet Ezekiel, writing in the non-swimming Levant, explicitly blames Egyptians (who were enthusiastic swimmers) for disturbing the water and angering God:
Cry for Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and say to him, You think you are a lion of the nations, but you are like a dragon in the seas. You burst forth in your rivers; you trouble the waters with your feet, and foul their rivers. Thus says the Lord God: I will . . . water with your blood the land in which you swim . . . I will destroy all the livestock [of Egypt] from beside the great waters, so neither men’s feet nor beasts’ hoofs will trouble them anymore. Then I will let the waters run clear (Ezekiel 32:2–14.)
In the 400s BC, the Greek historian Herodotus informs us that the Persians were even more careful about polluting the water than Hesiod suggests. The Persians, who were also not generally swimmers, ‘never urinate or spit into a river, nor even wash their hands in one; nor let other people do it; instead, they greatly revere rivers.’ North of the Persians in what is now Ukraine, Herodotus tells us that the Scythians bathe in hemp-seed steam baths, ‘for they absolutely will not wash their bodies with water’.
ἐς ποταμὸν δὲ οὔτε ἐνουρέουσι οὔτε ἐμπτύουσι, οὐ χεῖρας ἐναπονίζονται, οὐδὲ ἄλλον οὐδένα περιορῶσι, ἀλλὰ σέβονται ποταμοὺς μάλιστα.
οἱ δὲ Σκύθαι ἀγάμενοι τῇ πυρίῃ ὠρύονται. τοῦτό σφι ἀντὶ λουτροῦ ἐστι. οὐ γὰρ δὴ λούονται ὕδατι τὸ παράπαν τὸ σῶμα. (Herodotus, Histories 1.138.2, 4.75.)
By Herodotus’s time, aristocratic Greeks were beginning to pride themselves on their swimming, and Herodotus plainly means to distinguish the Greeks, who love water, from the Persians and Scythians who fear it. But he’s not wrong. Asian sources agree with him on the perceived dangers of disturbing the water’s surface. Zoroastrian hymns, or Avestas, dating back at least to late antiquity if not further, recount a story that the river spirits ‘were dissatisfied by the defilement of still water, so that they would not flow into the world’. The Lord Ahuramazda ‘will pour six-fold holy water into it and make it wholesome again; he will preach carefulness.’ Late antique Sasanian and Manichaean writers are also convinced that bathing equals sin, so that ‘at the warm baths which many have frequented . . . the pious went in, and came out wicked’. These writers warn against entering rivers and pools, like ‘that wicked man who, in the world, often washed his head and face, and dirty hands, and other pollution of his limbs, in large standing waters and fountains and streams, and distressed Hordad the archangel.’ A particular prohibition, echoing Hesiod a thousand years earlier, forbids swimming, or even approaching water, during menstruation.
Looking back on these ancient concerns from today’s perspective, they may seem like simply reasonable concerns about clean water. But ancient writers and doctors didn’t know the germ theory of disease. Their concern with not disturbing the water is only partially about cleanliness. In other contexts, they delivered babies with dirty hands and shared drinking cups. Hippocrates instructs surgeons about the light, their posture, and the size, weight, and finish of their instruments, but says little about cleanliness. Bandages were to hold the wound closed or compress it, not to keep it clean. The ancient emphasis on not disturbing the surface of the water suggests that not cleanliness, but a religious sense of water’s sacredness was uppermost in people’s minds.
That sense is still very much with us today. It not only underlies people’s deep concern about people peeing in the pool, but also shows up in other common concerns around swimming. Europeans are often concerned to minimize splashing in the water; they explain that swimming breaststroke, as many Europeans prefer, reduces splashing and is calmer and more respectful of the water. Even Britain’s radical ‘wild swimmers’, who swim in rivers and lakes, repeatedly mention the desirability of swimming ‘without kicking or thrashing around’, being ‘considerate of your effect on others’, and the ‘meditative’ aspect of swimming. They prefer to enter the water ‘gradually while keeping your head above the surface’. British swimmers bemoan the ‘recklessly vigorous breaststroke’ and prefer ‘slipping’ into the water. This aversion to disturbing the water is surely descended from ancient religious strictures.
From antiquity to today, this fear has raised much more serious barriers for many would-be swimmers. Both medieval Muslims and modern Turks have been forced out of the water on the grounds that they smelled bad. European missionaries were told they were too dirty to swim. Americans have been told they were too dirty, and Aboriginal Australians that they were unhygienic. Roma children were banned from pools and Italian Jews were barred from Mediterranean beaches on the grounds that their bodies polluted the water. In Eastern Europe and Russia, 20th c. swimming pools demanded doctors’ certificates of good health. People object to sharing swimming pools with people who have cerebral palsy, paralysis, or amputations. They feel the same way about swimmers who are overweight, or old. Swimming pools bar swimmers for having the wrong lotion, the wrong haircut, or the wrong type or color of swimsuit. Swimmers even reimagined Blackness as dirt that might come off in the water, so that in 2009 white women in Philadelphia still pulled their children out of the water rather than let them swim with Black children. Even young white women are routinely asked whether their bodies are ‘ready for the beach’.
This fear of disturbing the water keeps all of us from swimming, and even from learning to swim. Mara Gay, in a recent New York Times article, warned that many New York children can’t swim at all, and listed the many fear-oriented prohibitions of New York’s public pools, from ‘no phones’ to ‘no pool noodles’, ‘no baby strollers,’ and ‘no colored t-shirts.’
Even though much of our enthusiasm for swimming derives from the enthusiasm of ancient swimmers from Cato to Agrippina, much of our fear of the water and of entering the water is also inherited from the ancient world. We must learn to see ancient Greeks and Romans as merely one group of humans among many, right about some things and wrong about others. In swimming, at least, we would do better to be guided by other cultures—African, Native American, Maori, Southeast Asian—with more enthusiasm for swimming and less fear of the water.’
Karen Eva Carr is the author of Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming (2022), just out from Reaktion Books. She is Associate Professor Emerita in History at Portland State University, and has also written on Roman and Visigothic Spain, on the Roman pottery of North Africa, and on the history of hand fans.