What is a Strigil?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A strigil is a tool which is designed to scrape the skin after bathing, exercising, or taking a sauna. Strigils were used in both Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in some parts of the Middle East. Many museums have examples of strigils discovered at archaeological sites on display, and it is also possible to see depictions of strigils in friezes, wall paintings, and other works of art from the ancient world. Some people continue to use similar tools as part of a self care regimen.

A strigil was used to remove olive oil from the skin of athletes in Ancient Greece.
A strigil was used to remove olive oil from the skin of athletes in Ancient Greece.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, bathing was a complex process, with a multitude of steps, especially for the wealthy. People soaked in pools of various temperatures, received massages from slaves, and anointed themselves with various oils and unguents as part of the process. Bathers typically finished in warm steam rooms, where they would be scraped down with strigils to remove accumulated oil, sweat, and other substances on their skin.

A strigil may be utilized after taking a sauna.
A strigil may be utilized after taking a sauna.

The Greeks and Romans did not use soap, so the strigil was an important tool for cleaning the skin. The curved design of this metal, horn, or bone instrument was designed to smoothly but firmly skim the skin, removing dead skin, bath oils, and other materials. In addition to cleaning the skin, strigils probably also improved circulation by stimulating the upper layers of skin. After the application of a strigil, a bather might apply a thin layer of perfumed oil before returning to the outside world.

Athletes used strigils to clean themselves after competition or vigorous exercise. In Ancient Greece, athletes applied olive oil to their bodies before competition to condition their skin and provide some protection from minor impacts; after exercising, the oil could essentially be squeegeed off with the strigil, taking dirt and sweat off as well. Many depictions of athletes on vases include the use of a strigil, implying that this practice was quite common.

Strigils were only one among a lineup of instruments used in a traditional Roman bath. Seeing an array of Roman bathing tools can be rather intimidating, as the Romans also used tools like whips designed to slough off dead skin and stimulate circulation after a bath. Not all Romans used the full lineup of bathing tools, as many of them required assistance from others such as servants, but a strigil would have been a relatively common item.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

seag47

I can't imagine living without soap. It seems strange to me that people applied oils to their skin after taking a bath, because today, we try to wash oils off of our skin in order to feel clean!

I suppose that if I had no soap, a strigil would provide me with peace of mind. I could at least know that any dirt and sweat on my skin could be scraped off, but I think I would have had a hard time putting more oil on my skin after finally getting clean.

I really hope that they washed the strigils in between uses. It seems gross that they were used on everyone who entered the baths.

anon156031

This is great piece of information. thanks.

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