It’s about more than just showing up

There has been quite a bit of discussion about miasma of late. I’ve seen discussion threads and articles and posts cropping up all over the place. Unfortunately it seems that many of the people writing on the topic lack the faintest idea of what miasma actually is.

The idea of miasma and spiritual pollution is absolutely crucial to our practices. It’s important therefore not to stretch the meaning to fit some political agenda, not to misidentify and mis-equate one thing with another, and not to transfer monotheistic ideas of sin and shame onto these pre-Christian religious terms. It’s important to understand precisely what we’re talking about, why it’s so important, and how best to put it into practice. So let’s start with what miasma actually is.

Miasma is spiritual pollution. I’ve written on it before here, and here and here. Likewise I wrote about the Roman idea of ‘nefas,’ which is somewhat analogous to ‘miasma’ here. (I think that the biggest difference between the two is that nefas has a definite and very negative charge, whereas miasma is neutral. Even positive things can carry miasma as we shall see). I think that while these pieces have been a good starting point to the discussion for me personally, my understanding of the topic has deepened and become far more nuanced over the years.

The seminal work on miasma is a book titled “Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion” by Robert Parker. In that book, he discusses miasma thusly, looking first at the root of the Greek word:

“The basic sense of the ‘mia—‘ words is that of defilement, the impairment of a thing’s form or integrity.” (Parker, p.3).

This is crucial information right here: miasma is about integrity. It is a twisting of things out of true. If we think of it as some impairment to the integrity of a person, place, or thing, then that can help us move away from thinking about miasma as ‘sin.’ One does not have to do anything wrong to fall into a state of deep pollution. It is the natural side effect of certain experiences. For instance, if I spend an extended amount of time in the company of people who are themselves in some way polluted spiritually, then I may also end up miasmic. Why? Because miasma is a spiritual contagion; just like dirt or germs, it is easily passed from one person to another. If I am in lengthy company of someone miasmic, I may find myself influenced by their words, ideas, and actions. I may start behaving, thinking, or approaching the Gods similarly. Without ever meaning to, my spiritual integrity may be corrupted. Drama is not a necessary component to this at all. What is necessary is attention to what we absorb, to whom we pattern ourselves after, and to the influences in our immediate social world.

I recently fell into an intense state of miasma after reading a book. A colleague had recommended this book detailing the incredibly abusive upbringing of the author. It was extremely well written but the subject matter was searing. I read through it in one sitting and found myself upset – furious on behalf of the child—jagged, and so out of balance within myself that there was no way I could even think about approaching one of my shrines to pray. I didn’t realize what was wrong, only that I felt this terrible ugly energy, as though I had been coated in grossness. I was talking to my husband about what I’d read and how horrible I felt (it had a tremendous impact on me) and he told me to go do some cleansings. I did and felt immediately a thousand times better and I realized that one can end up in a state of miasma from things experienced second and third hand – they still have the ability to shift one in head and heart and spirit out of integral balance. Anything that closes us off to the Gods, that clogs us up like dirt in a drain is problematic. Anything that shifts us out of true, “impairs” our inner “integrity” can put is in a state of miasma. (1)

I’ve had the same thing happen with watching certain movies. I felt spiritually polluted afterwards. It was the same when I witnessed an act of verbal blasphemy during a ritual. I, everyone there, and the space itself were polluted simply by having been present when such a thing occurred.

Miasma doesn’t have to be from things so obviously – dare I say it? –dramatic though. In his book, Parker goes on to note:

“Things that in English we term ‘dirty’ are a common source of such defilement, but there are defilements deriving from things that are not dirty in themselves, or not deriving from matter at all. Miaino can be used for the pollution of a reputation through unworthy deeds, or of truth through dishonesty, justice, law, and piety are in danger of defilement. (p. 3)”

This clearly points to how one positions oneself in their world. How do you carry yourself, behave on a day to day. How are you situated with respect to your neighbors? All of these things combined to create what we might term ‘character.’ Part of good character to our polytheistic forebears involved piety.

Of course, as my friend L. pointed out, the roiling energies of community drama can create situations that may lead to miasma but so can a wedding. Seriously, amongst the list of things that put one in a state of spiritual pollution are weddings. These are happy things, the union of two families, a building block for one’s community and its longevity but (like birth and death) they create imbalance. They create pollution. There’s nothing bad at all about them, but they still put those present in a state of miasma. Some situations just do that. We may feel perfectly fine. We may even feel happy (for instance at one’s own wedding) or celebratory but we are no longer in a state of spiritual attunement.

Miasma is considered an extremely dangerous condition (Parker, p. 4). For this reason it’s important not to misinterpret it as being reliant on our emotions, how we feel in a given moment. Can one often feel the pollution? Yes, but not always. This is why it’s so important to have and maintain proper spiritual protocols with respect to cleansing and purification. Have your traditional protocols intact and try not to deviate from them and then this takes care of itself. Of course it also helps to take equal care in keeping your environment clean and surrounding yourself with people who are themselves not polluted.(2)

Why is miasma so crucial? Its effects are long term. It’s not like the Gods are going to smack one down for being in a miasmic state after all, but it corrodes and compromises one in one’s relationship with Them. It impairs signal clarity and a lot of times the consequences of it aren’t immediately noticed, in fact, may not be felt at all until suddenly the spiritual relationships that were once so vital and present and true are blurry, distant, and hard to reach.

It impairs luck and health. It twists all that is spiritually balanced and good, beneficial and ordered into something plebeian, mundane, and gross. It lowers us in the eyes of the Gods and part of the reason that people may not recognize when they are in this state, or approaching it, is that our world is so out of balance. Our world is riddled with spiritual pollution on every level. In a society where people are blowing up mountain tops from sheer greed, poisoning our food supplies, where children are picking through mountains of garbage for food, and the Kardashians are considered role models it’s difficult for people to recognize such spiritual disease. When once piety and purification were the expected adult norm, now it’s the exact opposite and people look askance, even in our communities, when one seeks to take proper precautions around one’s spiritual health by insisting on healthy boundaries.

Not only do we need more conversations about this, we need to take more action, especially when we’re doing group rituals and gatherings.

 

Notes:

 

  1. For those wondering, would I still have read the book knowing all of this beforehand? Yes, absolutely but I would have gone in with my eyes open and would have prepared myself better and immediately cleansed afterwards.
  2. Two further comments on this that I’d like to offer: 1. This is where divination can be extremely helpful, if one is uncertain of whether a particular person, place, or thing might be polluted and 2. What to exclude, whom to avoid are not decisions that can be made for an individual by anyone else. What is miasmic to me, may not be to my husband and vice versa for instance. We serve different gods, have different levels of purification expected of us. What to allow into one’s world and whom to associate with are decisions that each person must make for themselves after careful consideration and perhaps prayer and divination.
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Posted on August 9, 2016, in Bacchic Things, community, Heathenry, hellenic things, Interfaith, Lived Polytheism, Polytheism, Ritual Work, Roman Things, Spirit Work, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I was aware of a similar definition of miasma but I like the perspective of it as spiritual pollution much better and I agree there is a great deal of it pervading many aspects of life these days. As you point out, it impairs luck and health and we should work diligently to take action against it and guard ourselves from it. Thanks again!

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  2. Your post clarifies. Thankyou.

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  3. I should really buy that book, one of these days. Miasma is a topic I am not too familiar with. May I ask what you do to spiritually cleanse yourself after contracting miasma? I assume bathing is part of it, but I often feel like I have accrued miasma and don’t know how to get rid of it beyond bathing.

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  4. I think that some folks confuse miasma with warding and keeping the area safe. I see it as a state of mind as well. If you approach the Holy, you need to be clean body and mind. Laughing at miasma seems to me a sign of impiety.

    Again impiety seems to be the norm rather than the exception. The greater Pagan community is more worried about human to human relations, and making people comfortable in an orthodox fashion. I see some of the more prominent blogging collections to be enforcing an orthodoxcy which is centred on making people comfortable in themselves and their ideas. Difference is not tolerated, at least difference that would bring questioning to the community. The blogs are more to soothe people and to guide them into a leftist, social, man-centred view point.

    I think piety makes people uncomfortable because it means bringing in The Other. Focusing on The Other. Since I do not think that religion is politics and politics is religion, I would have a personal problem being with a group who did. Especially when they insist that non-political Gods be political or at least define non-political Gods as political. That to me is impious, placing the human in the centre and telling the Gods what They are. So I would regard such a gathering for me miasmic.

    Simply because one does an impious action, doesn’t mean the Gods will smite said person. That seems to be an hold-over from the monotheistic religion of that Gods smiting people left and right. It may be an accumulation of miasma over time, that the Gods turn away from the person. It could be that They leave the person to their own devices.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      THIs. exactly this. May i pull this out and share it as a separate post?

      I think you are spot on in every point here.

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    • I totally agree as well…and in relation to the specific incidents where “laughing” (which wasn’t at miasma, but instead at the very *concept* of it and the possibility that it might arise or be present) occurred recently, it demonstrates that there was no understanding whatsoever what the different distinctions between miasma (for which purification is needed), spiritual protection (for which warding is useful), and “banishing with laughter” (which can work, but was not what was going on there at all). Trying to explain it to anyone who doesn’t already get these things, especially in the situation concerned, is a lost cause at this point, I suspect.

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  5. whitepinegrove

    Okay, question for you.

    (I’m asking this as a genuine seeker, trying to deprogram myself from too many years in a certain religious monoculture, and genuinely wanting to cultivate a healthy spiritual sensibility. I’m emphatically NOT suggesting that anyone – not you, not PSVL, not anyone else involved – was overreacting in the present case. I also haven’t read Parker’s book yet, though it’s something I intend to get to very soon.)

    In the monotheism that I was raised in, there was the notion of scrupulosity with regard to sin. Basically, while accepting that sin is problematic, something we needed to avoid, something we needed to confess and receive absolution for, etc., there was also a danger to being so afraid of sin, of seeing sin lurking in every thought or action, that this fixation could actually become an impediment to spiritual growth, something crippling or paralyzing. (Certain of the saints were held up as examples of people who had to overcome a tendency toward scrupulosity in order to progress spiritually.) To be sure, this was sometimes invoked by people who didn’t believe in or take seriously the notion of sin, but it was also discussed by the other side, too, as a genuine problem.

    I realize that miasma is not the same as the monotheists’ idea of sin, but I’m also still struggling to fully integrate that knowledge into my actual religious sensibility. My question is, where, if at all, we can draw a boundary between a healthy concern for miasma, on the one hand, and a paralyzing fear/potentially crippling overreaction, on the other.

    (In just the way that the virtue of courage is a mean between excessive fear and reckless disregard for danger, good discernment or healthy concern here would seem to be a mean between the paralyzing, scrupulous fear of pollution and the reckless disregard for impiety, but I’m not sure exactly how this would play out in practice.)

    I hope that you, and others here, can help me to understand how the differences between sin and miasma play out in the context of “scrupulosity,” and what some general guidelines for exercising healthy discernment with regard to “scrupulosity”/”overreaction” in avoiding impiety might be. Thanks!

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    • ganglerisgrove

      This is a really good question and I appreciate your opening clarification. I’m familiar with the idea of ‘scrupulosity.’ I want to clarify right up front — not that you said anything to this effect but to reiterate for new readers–that miasma is not sin. it’s a fairly neutral concept on its own. So part of deprogramming is catching these unconscious equations as much as possible (we’re works in progress, after all!). miasma is not at all equivalent to sin. there’s no moral judgment on saying something is miasmic. Miasma happens. I mean, i can walk through a muddy field to see a glorious sunrise and i’m going to ruin my shoes. the mud isn’t bad, but the damage was a logical consequence of my actions and more importantly of my locale. It’s really really really important not to equate miasma with sin, not even a little bit. 🙂

      I’m still learning about miasma myself. I’ve actually become more sensitive to it over the years as my practices have deepened. That has made me more careful about situations that would have given me little concern say five years ago. One thing that I have found tremendously helpful overall, is to have a set of protocols that I follow come hell or high water in my life. Before I decide to go to a conference, for instance, i will do divination. Before I go on a trip, I do divination to see if there are any precautions I should take. Each day i do specific cleansing before approaching my shrines. Once a week I do more intensive ritual cleansing. When I see clients, I have a more intensive protocol that I follow. I also divine for myself once a week — nothing in depth (if an issue is emotionally charged for me, i have another diviner read on it) but just to suss out the pattern of the week to follow, the ups, downs, and whether or not I need to be especially careful. Keep in mind though, that I’m a specialist and likely dealing on a daily basis with more pollution than a lay person (maybe not though—our world is a horrifying place sometimes).

      I think that if you are mindful and cleansing regularly, and as I was taught, seeing a diviner quarterly (I was taught to check in quarterly to make sure that you’re in right relationship with the Gods and ancestors. most people see diviners when things are falling apart, but it’s better to see them as a preventative!) that will go a long way toward taking care of the worst of it. I’m playing with the idea of whether or not it’s possible to be overly careful with issues of miasma. comparing it to scrupulosity …that was a really good question. I”m still batting my answer around. I think it could go there if one isn’t careful. I think we have to guard against that and i’m thinking about how I do. I live with a diviner so we check each other. that helps tremendously. I mean, we shouldnt’ be afraid to leave our homes and engage because of miasma. Perhaps understanding that to some degree, it’s natural. When I engage with my ancestors, which I do every day (or almost every day), that can put me in a state of mild miasma. it’s not bad. In fact, one should be engaging with one’s ancestors but that is very specific headspace and very specific energy and I need to do a basic cleansing before doing so and after. …to transition.

      This is making me wonder if miasma happens most at the points of confluence, the interstices of engagement between ourselves and others, Others, and transitional points. I have to think further about that. your question really centers on discernment and that’s tough. OMG that is really tough and we need more discussions about it. How do you develop discernment? It’s certainly a process. The more you engage, the more you learn how to engage (and how not to). This is one of those areas where Gods, ancestors, elders, community can all work together save that our community isn’t there yet either. I have found it helpful to have a small group of colleagues to whom I can go, with whom I can discuss things. We keep each other honest and one of the things we often talk about is how to develop discernment.

      (sorry–you’re very much getting stream of consciousness here!). For me, divination is one of my checks and balances. I also try to be very aware of my environment. sometimes i’ll watch or read something that for me, puts me in a state of miasma because of how grievously it shifts my headspace and then I’ll think ‘well damn. didn’t see htat coming!” but then I will take care of it. I’m learning to stop before I blunder into something like that and ask myself “is this something I can watch?” or “is this book going to mess me up and do i need to be prepared for that?” or “should I go to that gallery opening or not?” I try to evaluate and often will divine on things. it’s important enough to take the extra steps. I do a lot of cemetery work — automatic miasma. So i come home and clean. it’s just a matter of adjusting to necessity. I’m not afraid of becoming polluted because I know I can take care of it if that happens but likewise if i can avoid situations of pollution I will. it’s a balancing act.

      I’m afraid i probably haven’t answered your question very well—it’s one I’ll be thinking about now for awhile. really good question! I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.

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      • whitepinegrove

        Thanks for a thoughtful reply, and for taking the question in the spirit that it was intended. I’ll look forward to any further insights you (and others) have, as we continue to consider this. In the meantime, there’s lots for me to reflect about in what you’ve written here.

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    • That is a brilliant question and an excellent point, and while I don’t have a lot to add (Galina has covered it pretty well!), since you did mention me, I think it’s important to clarify something that seems to have been lost by lots of the critics of my viewpoint on MGW and miasma.

      In my post on the 31st, I never once said “Don’t go! Don’t attend the conference! MIASMA MIASMA MIASMA!” Contra Jason Mankey, I never suggested a “boycott” of it. I simply advised on a situation that was (and still is) present, only to those who wanted to know, and likewise encouraged ignorance as a potential way to deal with it (though outside of that post I will always advise otherwise, since ignorance is never a good idea in my view)…and still all sorts of people shared it around and talked about it and made it a joke at their event. By doing so, they caused some miasma through their impiety, whether they like it or not.

      For me, if I were to attend, it would mean I am putting my own social desires (yes, there were people there I’d have loved to have seen and hung out with), or even the “needs” of the “community” (and I put both in quotation marks because I resent the idea presented by John Beckett that some of us should have been there/should have “showed up” because that’s how one makes a difference…any religious community that doesn’t organize itself around good service to its Deities and their specifically expressed wishes to individuals is no religious community I want anything to do with), ahead of the good standing of my devotional relationship to my Deities. That Beckett further argued that he is Gods-centered, and there are all sorts of ways to do polytheism that are all valid (the former of which I’ll concede, and the latter of which I definitely agree is true), but then kind of poo-poo’d those of us who (for various reasons) deliberately decided not to attend this conference, makes me wonder if he really thought through his words or not on this matter, as there is a clear caesura between his stated ideals and his advice for and attempted shaming of those of us that didn’t attend. So much for druidic peace-making, it seems.

      It isn’t scrupulousness that made me not attend, as sometimes the miasma has to be braved for certain things to happen. It is that if I were to attend, I’d be stating by my actions (which are always heavier than words) that I prioritize things higher than my relationship to my Deities, and I simply won’t do that for anyone.

      Bit of a tangent there, so I apologize…but, given the title of this post being a response to Beckett, and your mention of me in your very good question and discussion, I thought it might be useful to state some of these things for the record, insofar as the comment sections of blogs are “for the record.” 😉

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      • Virginia carper

        It does appear in Beckett’s answer in the comments that he felt that miasma was an excuse for something else. I do agree that discernment about miasma and how to deal with it is necessary. As I stated and as you so eloquently said, if the religious community doesn’t share my basic sense of piety, then it would miasma for me to attend. However, I would do divination to decide if the Gods want me there and what it is I am supposed to be doing.

        The idea that we had to show up to make our voice heard or we are ignored or excluded make that particular conference seem to be of supreme importance, as in a congressional session instead of simply a small regional conference. This begs the question, how important really was this conference in the grand scheme of things to risk impiety, the pax deoum, and miasma? Could we be heard in other ways? Also, it is difficult to show up if some of your fellow practitioners were banned. All these things would need to be considered. Again divination would be needed.

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  6. ganglerisgrove

    Virginia, that’s what boggles me. If i’m going to a conference, or rather if i want to go i’m going to divine. if the Gods tell me no, then it’s no. no other consideration is important at that point. period. otherwise i’m putting my social life above the Gods and why the FUCK would any polytheist of integrity do that?

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    • ganglerisgrove

      and it’s not enough to say “well, representing polytheism is your job.” yes it is, but my Work is done for the Gods. If the Gods tell me not go to to a particular place then I guess that’s not where They want me working. it’s not a difficult equation.

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      • If someone is trying to shame you into doing something such as showing up when it has been made plain that you are not particularly welcomed, then what does that say about the event and that person? That alone would make me pause, think, and do divination as to why this event, why this time, and what do the Gods want.

        My particular Gods don’t react well to emotional blackmail in any form. I think that is a factor for me. Emotional blackmail tells me that this is a man-centred event with humans desiring certain outcomes such as a well-attended and well-spoken for event. For me, that means that I would not be able to be heard unless I complied to certain restrictions, which my Gods may not want me to.

        Besides, there will be other opportunities to speak and be heard. To people hosting a particular event, they want that event to be the centrepiece in people’s lives. It is simple pride and desire for appreciation.

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  7. Reblogged this on The Sovereign of Swords and commented:
    Important!!

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  8. “I recently fell into an intense state of miasma after reading a book. A colleague had recommended this book detailing the incredibly abusive upbringing of the author. It was extremely well written but the subject matter was searing. I read through it in one sitting and found myself upset – furious on behalf of the child—jagged, and so out of balance within myself that there was no way I could even think about approaching one of my shrines to pray. I didn’t realize what was wrong, only that I felt this terrible ugly energy, as though I had been coated in grossness. I was talking to my husband about what I’d read and how horrible I felt (it had a tremendous impact on me) and he told me to go do some cleansings. I did and felt immediately a thousand times better and I realized that one can end up in a state of miasma from things experienced second and third hand – they still have the ability to shift one in head and heart and spirit out of integral balance.”

    —–
    I’m really glad you posted about this experience, because it opened my eyes to a lot of things that I’ve been trying to figure out but hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on yet. I’ve been reading books about how to get over childhood abuse, and working through my history, ripping out the foundations of the abusive thought processes that I’ve internalized, etc. Afterwards I often get intense headaches and feel out of sorts. I knew it came from my emotions, but I had not considered that it could be a spiritual pollution as well. This is work I’m still going to do, but now I’m going to approach it completely differently and do cleansings afterwards.
    It also explains why I had such a hard time connecting to the Gods for a few years, which actually lead to me not practicing anymore and falling into an intense black hole of doubt. As long as my (abusive, sick) father was in my life, especially when he moved back in with me, I was polluted. His presence in my life and especially my home was actually so miasmic as to prevent my connecting to the Gods. No wonder I began to doubt my faith and wonder if it had all been in my head. Getting him out of my life wasn’t just key to my mental and emotional healing, but spiritual as well.

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  9. Thought provoking post. artfully composed. Thanks for your recent visit to my blog.

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