After the soap reached its “point”, they withdraw it from heating and wait to cool down until it is possible to shape as balls, bars or like a bread. In the shaping of bars, they usually dump the soap in a wooden or pasteboard box and then cut it using a knife after completely cooled. The other formats are made according to Mrs. Aparecida: “And before it stops to cool, roll it. Because if you let it cool it becomes hard, therein you can’t do. You only have to wait it gets firm there that you can put the hand, right?”. It means that the soap solidifies with cooling and there is an ideal temperature to shape it. After that they store it in dry places, often wrapped in sheets of paper, pasteboard, corn straw or in banana or mammon leaves. They use it to wash clothes, kitchen utensils and in bath, highlighting its benefits for skin.
Rosa: Yes, it’s good. It serves to wash clothes, serves for us to clean the kitchen, serves to wash the head, that it is good for skin, right?
Aparecida: And here it foams like a hand soap. It´s cool.
A characteristic of the ash soap is that it is composed by a mixture of different salts or soaps according to the variety of fatty acids found in the animal fat. However, all produce potassium salts in the reactions with dicuada, which are softer than those of sodium derived from the reactions with caustic soda. Therefore, the ash soap is softer in skin contact. It also acts as anti-inflammatory agente by softning the tissues, “can use it for burns, can use it for everything with no problem”, and it helps to keep the skin hydrated, which is enhanced by its glycerol content.
The ash soap also presents the following property:
Aparecida: The climate changes, the soap also changes, right? It sweats…
Rosa: Yeah, it sweats. It usually wets.
Aparecida: It´s like salt, right? Cause the salt too, the climate changes, it gets wet.
The fact that “it sweats” can be related to water absorption from environment, to its hygroscopy, such like cooking salt or sodium chloride. It may also lose composition water on hot days. However, the women believe that the phases of the moon influence the ash soap making. Izabel said that “in the new and in the full moon it throws out too much. You have to put it in the waning to withdraw in the waxing crescent”.
As the Moon turns around the Earth, it passes through repeated cyclic stages throughout the year. The four main phases of the Moon (New, First Quarter, Full and Third Quarter) occur in this order for a period of approximately 29.5 days (Silveira, 2001, p. 1). Its appearance for an earth observer will depend on the relative position between itself, the Sun and Earth and each phase will represent the face illuminated by the Sun that is turned to the observer on Earth. The number of days between consecutive phases is seven or eight, but this can vary and occur at intervals of nine or six days over the course of a year. Taking seven days as the average time between one phase of the moon and other, Izabel´s soap must be prepared in a period longer than 14 days as the process must be interrupted during the Full and the New Moon, because “it throws out too much” in these phases.
As the Moon describes an orbit approximately elliptical on their turns around the Earth showing different phases, its relative distance varies also. When hitter the distance is 221,705 miles and 252,550 miles when further (considering the average distance between the center of Earth and the center of Moon) (Silveira, 2001, p. 6). The distance variation is also related to the Moon phases and its gravitational influence over oceanic waters, which together with the gravitational force of the Sun causes the tides. If we consider the same kind of influence over the ash soap making, it is, however,
(…) very small (it is the weakest of the known physical forces). Being so small, the gravitational force only becomes noticeable when very, very big masses are involved, such as, for example, the masses of the Moon and of the oceans of the Earth (clarifying: it is proportional to the masses of the bodies and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them). That is why, as you will be unable to realize tides in a glass of water, also our body will not feel any discernible influence of the Moon. (Reis, 2005)
Even though we consider water masses smaller than those of the oceans and bigger than the water in a basin:
Even in a large lake, tides are extremely small. On the Great Lakes, for example, tides never exceed 2 inches, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which adds, “These minor variations are masked by the greater fluctuations in lake levels produced by wind and barometric pressure changes. Consequently, the Great Lakes are considered to be essentially non-tidal. (Britt, 2009)
If the Moon does not influence significantly small quantities of water, how to explain its influence over the ash soap making? Another belief shared by the women regards to the influence of a “fat eye” in the soap making, an evil eye, which makes it “diswalk”. Therefore, they usually make the soap apart from strangers or known soap’s “bad luckers”, people whose presence is admittedly maleficent for the soap. Because of this, they make prayers in the beginning and during the process and put branches of rue – Ruta graveolens, behind the ear or close and tied to the pot.
How can we explain the influence of a “fat eye” over the soap considering that chemical reactions are happening? Generally, the occurrence and development of the reactions depend on several factors and the “fat eye” is not one of them. Initially, it is essential that meetings occur, collisions between the reactants with the amount of energy required to destabilize the atoms and cause rearrangements to produce new molecules, the products of the reactions, the soaps. These reactions depend, therefore, on the frequency of successful collisions in the reactional medium, which in turn depends on the activation energy, that in the specific case of ash soap is favored by supplying heat. How could a “fat eye” influence the collisions between the reactants or the activation energy of these reactions? What phenomenon could be involved?
Anthropologists search for other explanations in order to understand this kind of belief. Clifford Geertz (1999), for example, mentioned that the belief in witchcraft usually appears when “common expectations fail”, when “anomalies or contradictions” occur, acting like an “iron forehead” in the system of common sense’s thought. If this is valid for the “fat eye” case, then it sounds like an excuse, as the soap was not made rightly. On the other hand, this belief indicates also that the women may be seeing the ash soap making as something magical and thus susceptible to other magic. After all, it is prepared from rude and coarse materials, as ashes, dicuada and animal fat, which are mixed and transformed into a more valuable material, apparently purest and that permits to clean and promote hygiene and health. Maybe that´s because the women believe in the Moon´s infuence over the making but from phisics and astronomers or for the science point of view the gravitational influence over small amounts of water is negligible and will not influence the soap making.
It must be remembered that the making of this soap requires much attention to control and adjust the relative quantities between the dicuada and the fat, which is not easy to accomplish in practice. According to the chemists a “fat eye” will not effect the saponification reactions, being more likely to say that there was some mistake or lack of control over the process. A person near, for instance, could provoke absence of mind or distraction on who is doing the soap. Anyway, the women are not guilty because they do not know the other “invisible order” underlying the ash soap making. In the other hand, they did not need this knowledge to produce the ash soap either.
Howsoever, scientific understanding on the chemical composition of fats, saponification and the technological advances that occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth century changed tremendously the production of soaps in world. If before there were many “artisans”, from there any homemade or craft production could compete with who considered these advances on soaps’ production (Gibbs, 1939).
It was Michel Eugène Chevreul who put the manufacture of soaps in a scientific basis for the first time. Starting from previous studies, he carried out research and after 10 years published a book entitled Recherches Chimiques su les corps gras d’origin animale (Chemical research on the fatty bodies of animal origin) with experimental details and theoretical conclusions. Other advances were the use of steam heating and large scale production of caustic soda. What this tells us is that science and technology have changed the course of soaps’ production in the world and those originally made with ashes were replaced by current soaps and cleaning agentes, with great diversity of colors, textures, smells and other qualities. Still, there are who prefer the ash soap, as Dona Rosa said: “I make. I always make. Little, but I do!”.
Britt, R.R. (2009). Moon Myths: the truth about lunar effects on you. Found at: <http://www.livescience.com/7899-moon-myths-truth-lunar-effects.html>. Last Access: Nov 19, 2014.
Geertz, C. (1999). O senso comum como um sistema cultural. In: Geertz, C. O Saber Local: novos ensaios em antropologia interpretativa. 2. Ed. Petropolis: Vozes, 111-141.
Gibbs, F. W. (1939). The history of the manufacture of soap. Annales of Science, 169-190.
Reis, W.P. (2005). Mitos: a lua cheia influencia nosso comportamento, o crescimento dos cabelos, etc. In: <http://www.projetoockham.org/boatos_luacheia_1.html> Last Access: Nov 19, 2014.
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Silveira, F.L. (2001). As variações dos intervalos de tempo entre as fases principais da Lua. Revista Brasileira de Ensino de Física, v. 23, n.3, p. 300-307. Found at: <http://www.if.ufrgs.br/~lang/Textos/Tempo_fases_Lua.pdf>. Last Access: Nov, 2014.