On Pollution and Miasma in Heathenry

Affiliate Advertising Disclosure  

Every so often this topic rears its head again, because you know, it goes against our modern sensibilities that our religion should be occasionally inconvenient. I’ve heard people opining that “miasma” and “pollution” are Greek terms and have no purchase in Heathenry, a pathetic piece of sophistry that ignores the concept in favor of pedantically parsing terms. These are usually the same people who feel that offering so much as a teaspoon of water is so inconvenient as to be oppressive (cue hand to brow and vaporous gasping) and triggering. I could say more on that, but I’ll digress. What I will emphasize is that pollution and purification are absolutely terms of play in Old Norse.

There are numerous terms that might be translated as ‘purification,’ ‘pollution,’ or ‘miasma’ in Old Norse. This is because like most traditions, our ancestors had a sense of what was correct and safe in holy places. Any time you have a sense of sacred space (which we know just from the Sagas that the Norse had), the corollary is – whether written or not—a sense of what constitutes proper behavior within those sacred areas. This implies not only an understanding of spiritual pollution but also of the contagion of the holy. So, I’m going to get right to the point. Pollution and miasma were far, far from alien concepts to pre-Christian Heathens and the language itself bears this out.

Since Heathen Field Guide is talking about his here, and mentioned that he was having difficulty finding appropriate ON terms, I thought I would repost the ones that I have collected (and much thanks to D. Loptson for helping to compile this list). Most of the terms are laid out in footnote one of my book on miasma: “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands.”

I’ve had push back from Heathens and other polytheists for using a term that is specific to Greek polytheism but miasma as a word exists in English and it is a perfectly serviceable word to express a concept of spiritual pollution that is common to nearly all polytheisms. If Heathenry did not have a concept of pollution and cleansing, it would be quite unusual amongst the family of Indo-European religious traditions to which it belongs. We know the Norse and Germanic tribes had clear ideas of the holy and where there is a sense of the holy there is likewise a sense of pollution as a matter of course. Norse words pertaining to holiness and pollution include Helgan (f): sanctity, Helga (v): to appropriate land by performing sacred rites, to hallow to a deity, to proclaim the sanctity of a meeting, saurr (m): mud, dirt, excrement (defilement?), saurga (v): to dirty, defile, pollute, saurgan (f): pollution, defilement, saur-lifi (n): lewdness, fornication, lechery. Its opposite is Hreinlifi, which means chastity. Hreinn is the opposite of saurr. It means clean, bright, clear, pure, sincere (as a noun the same word means reindeer, interestingly enough). Hrein-hjartaðr (a) means pure of heart, Hrein-látr (a): clean, chaste, Hrein-leikr (m): cleanliness, chastity, hrein-liga (adv) cleanly, with purity. We also have Hreinsa (v): to make clean, to cleanse, to purge, to clear and hreinsan (f): cleansing. Then there is the word , which means “holy place,” (shrine) and which is such a powerful and important concept that the three creator Gods (Odin, Hoenir, and Loður) may also be called Odin, Vili, and Vé. So when Heathens complain that this is not relevant to Heathen practice, I strongly suggest they think again. It’s not just in the lore, but in the very language our ancestors spoke.

footnote 1 from With Clean Minds and Clean Hands: Miasma – What it is and How to Treat it

 I’ll add a final note. When we talk about pollution in this sense, it’s not a commentary on anyone’s worth. It is not equivalent to “sin.” Even with miasma, in most cases it’s a matter of certain situations having natural consequences and that’s neutral. For instance, I may go to the cemetery to put flowers on my grandmother’s grave. It is, within our traditions a moral good to care for the dead and visit graves. It also puts me in a state of miasma because of the contact with the dead. The solution is to do a cleansing when I return home before I engage with any other sacred thing. Easy enough to manage. This is all about being aware that Gods and spirits are real and that engaging with them affects us in ways we may not be able to see, but ways that nonetheless matter. Likewise, in relation to the Holy Powers, our actions matter too and we should, if we are rightly ordered in our minds, hearts, and spirits, want to be spiritually and energetically clean when we approach Them, or just in general, particularly since miasma and spiritual pollution can attract more pollution, up to and including illness and calamity depending on how much accumulates. It can also block our spiritual discernment. So do a fucking cleansing once in awhile you filthy animals. And don’t forget to wash behind your ears.

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 June 6, 2021, in devotional work, Heathenry, Lived Polytheism, Polytheism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. It boggles my mind that this argument is still ongoing. Never mind Indo-European traditions — you’d be hard-pressed to find ANY spiritual tradition which didn’t recognize ideas of ritual impurity and which didn’t offer some kind of ritual cleansing practice. Taboos, and rituals to cleanse taboo violators, are universal.

    As you rightly noted, working with the dead is a moral obligation, but contact with the dead and graveyards produces ritual impurity that must be cleansed. Menstruation is not sinful, but menstruation taboos are found all over the world. And where there are taboos, there are ways of purifying those who find themselves in that taboo state. This is Anthropology 101.

    It’s also pretty common for people to conflate “sin” and “taboo.” Contrary to what many believe, Christianity did not invent the ideas of sin or ritual impurity. Initiatory purification ceremonies were old well before John started baptizing people. The people who are trying to get “Christian” ideas of moral responsibility and codes of conduct out of Heathenry assume their ancestors had no sense of morality, propriety, or repentance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Heathens: The Indo-European traditions are linked and we should reclaim our ancient lifestyles.

    Also Heathens: *Looks at the concepts of ritual cleanliness and ritual pollution which are commonly attested all throughout Europe*

    “rItUaL pOlLuTiOn iS A fOREiGn cOnCePt fRoM gREeCe!!!”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I still reread your book on Miasma frequently, as a reminder to correct practice. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

    Like

%d bloggers like this: