Gods of Rot and of Decay?

In a private discussion, a colleague told me that someone argued against the need for cleansing on the basis that Gods like Hela and Ereshkigal were Gods of rot and corruption and decay. Another person brought up compost heaps, where decay fuels further growth, all apparently (unless I misunderstood what my colleague was saying) in order to object to the idea that cleansing pollution is fundamental to healthy spirituality (you know, like bathing is fundamental toward not smelling like a dung heap).

This is going to be short and sweet. I have neither the time nor the patience for a long article breaking this down so allow me to get right to the point.

The Gods of the Underworld are not Deities of corruption. They are Deities that guard and nourish the dead. They are often likewise Deities of initiation, and/or Deities that in some way govern the mysteries of the earth and its wealth. It is true that in some cases the Heavenly Powers may not be able to cross into the dwelling of the Underworld Powers (Odin, for instance, cannot cross into Helheim though His sons can. Minerva cannot cross the threshold of the Erinyes’ dwelling. Inanna must undergo purification and ordeal to cross into Ereshkigal’s realm). This is largely because the positions and the power Each holds is so different. To maintain proper boundaries and proper functioning of Their respective realms, there can be no breach of protocol. It would upset the natural order of things.

Corruption is likewise different from rot. Rot is a natural part of the cycle. It is that which allows substance to be repurposed by nature. In this way, yes, I would say that some of these Underworld Deities like Hela are Gods of rot, but not in a way that transcends the need to be mindful of miasma. They allow for the transformation of souls, for the earth to receive what it needs from the rotting bodies of the dead. In its own time and place, that is good and holy. For us, being neither Gods nor dead, contact with that process is miasmic. It is not however, bad or corrupt.

I will say again, as I have many, many times before (perhaps pretend a man is saying it and then it might make more sense to some of you, hmm?): Miasma is not necessarily bad. It is a neutral thing. Sometimes miasma happens as a natural result of coming in contact with something that in and of itself is good (cemeteries, weddings, babies for instance). That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to cleanse. Rotting for instance, is a natural process. One would not, however, (I hope) stick your hand in a rotting piece of road kill and then eat finger foods without a serious engagement with soap and water first. This is no different.

I think to honor the Gods of the dead with the rituals of the Heavenly Powers and vice versa would bring miasma, because that is twisting things out of their natural order, but those Gods Themselves are not “concentrated miasma” as one critic averred. That which is Holy is not miasmic. That does not mean that we might not be rendered miasmic by contact with certain Beings, holy or no. The Holy carries with it a contagion. It marks us and changes us and we have to be careful bringing that back into everyday space. Sometimes it is appropriate to do so, but sometimes not.

We do, in the Northern Tradition have a Holy Power that is fully focused on transmuting Rot, Nidhogg, the great dragon. She takes in rot (like the compost heap) but it doesn’t remain ‘rot’. It’s transmuted, just as purification transmutes.

To quote Kenaz Filan: “Even rot and decay are not in themselves miasmic. A compost heap is a fine thing. But when you put a compost heap in the dining room you have miasma.”

In the end, polytheism is large and flexible enough to contain exceptions such as sin-eating and working with spirits of decay, but these exceptional things don’t invalidate the general need for purification. It is unfair to apply the standards of a rare form of devotion (like sin-eating) to every single polytheist out there. Because that transgressive work, and the necessary flouting of conventions and precautions which doing so requires takes a tremendous  and sometimes devastating toll on the devotee. Why should Jane Heathen, who just wants to make offerings to her household Gods, have to endure those problems, which is what you’re advocating when you suggest casting aside ancestral tradition and things like purification rites? Way to shoot yourselves in the feet, folks.



(Piety Possum, walking away from all your bullshit)


About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on February 21, 2017, in Polytheism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Black Metal Valkyrie

    I think part of our problem as polytheists is that the “Pagan” community has traditionally attracted outcasts and alternative type people. But those kind of people cannot make up a whole movement, especially in our communal traditions. Our traditions that have something for everyone.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Have you heard of the concept of “Outsiders” withing Celtic/Gaelic Polytheist practices? It connotes itself to sound like this kind of rejectionary, isolationist practices but actually has significantly more to do with building communities.

    May be an interesting perspective to delve into.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been meditating on the idea of the “Fringes” in Polytheism. Gods such a Set, Dionysos, Loki, etc. as Gods of “outsiders” and “outcasts”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Outsiders caste in pagan Ireland is a very challenging perspective, especially because it’s more related to the devotees rather than the deities themselved.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think they are confusing rot and decay with the Underworld. Romans had the God of Shit, Manure and the Goddess of Sewers. They were separate from the Underworld all together. The former had to do with fertility of fields and the like. The latter with removing pollution from the cities. Neither had to do with the Underworld but with Ceres and Venus respectively.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This comes from the modern problem of not really understanding composting, natural cycles and cities being destroyed by trash (like plagues being from rats drawn by garbage). We try to make anything we don’t go away or white wash it, death being no exception. Home funerals and wakes are now expensive procedures done in funeral homes for ungodly amounts of money. I do feel that is changing some though. I love the opossum. Poor overlooked creatures.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I have to say I’m surprised by the pushback you get about the issues of miasma and purification. Perhaps it’s because I came to Polytheism from a Wiccan background, but purification of self along with space before ritual was just one of those automatic Things You Do, and didn’t seem to generate much discussion, much less argument. The rationale may have been different–less about cleansing before approaching the gods and more about placing oneself in an appropriate state for effective magic–but the ritual actions seem similar. If Eclectic Witches embrace spiritual cleansing, I’m confused why Polytheists are having trouble with the notion.

    I didn’t want to jump into the comments last week, as they got rather more heated than I’m comfortable with, but I’ve been wondering if “saining” isn’t the Gaelic Polytheist version of purification. At the very least, it should be readily adaptable to that purpose, as it involves blessing with fire and/or water. Something we Celtic practitioners could investigate, anyway.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I don’t get why people have such a hard time understanding miasma. It’s more or less the spiritual equivalent of getting dirt on you, not sin or moral wrong doing. When we get dirt on us, we wash it off. In fact I got some dirt on my hands yesterday. I went and washed them. That doesn’t mean I’m privileged, body-phobic, or some kind of Puritan. It just means I know about basic hygiene. Miasma seems very much the same to me. If I get some on me, I fully intend on washing it off as soon as reasonably possible.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Ryan, i think you summed it up pretty nicely.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. I describe Miasma as the equivalent to Body Soil. The sweat, and dead cells that cover your body not to mention the other ick you get by being out and about in the world. Miasma is the daily stuff you get on your soul.

      Getting into the habit of cleansing is a bit problematic to us newbies in Polytheism. Questions like “When?” “How Often?” “What to use?”, “Is there such a thing as cleansing too much?”

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I like that quote. It really sums up the situation nicely.

    Liked by 1 person

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