I live in a small religious community. We are a small House of four devotees at various stages of training and experience and we are setting down the seeds of what we hope will grow into a proper, sustainable temple and religious House complex. It may take us years to realize this dream, but we are well on our way. As such, we’re always looking for ways to improve and, if possible, streamline our regular cleansing and purification protocols, just as we’re always trying to find ways to deepen our prayer practices. I’ll write about prayer at another time (though I think it’s the single most crucial thing anyone lay or specialist can do) and today I want to add more to what I’ve previously touched on with regard to cleansing.
In addition to everything else we do, we have selected one night each week to do divination for the week, divination for other questions and issues that might arise, and more serious and more intense cleansing rituals. One important part of that is uncrossing. This is a conjure and hoodoo term (I got my start with conjure and I’ve studied and practiced it for years. I’d moved away from it for awhile, but lately I realize how foolish that was) for a cleansing that removes any curses, hexes, or other malefica thrown at one. So much of what rare fragments of conjure that I learned as a kid was about keeping the home free of negative spirits. Then as an adult when I really studied it (instead of just doing what my grandmother herself had done by rote – she hadn’t realized that her spiritualist aunt was also a conjure woman), I discovered how proactive in keeping spiritually clean and bringing luck and peace to a home some of these practices really allowed one to be. (Hoodoo itself is a blend of Afro-American, Native, Scotch-Irish, English, German, practices all smooshed together – it’s eminently practical and what I learned from my grandma has a PA Deutsch feel to it as opposed to what I learned later from active practitioners).
So, on that night, we take massive cleansing baths: varieties of salt, beer, milk, khernips, various herbs, flowers, honey powder, vinegars…in any combination thereof, depending what we feel needs to be cleansed and how we wish to fill the space that has been cleansed (nature abhors a vacuum. I always do a blessing after a cleansing). Usually I like beer, salt, and khernips OR milk, salt, and khernips. Those without tubs can pour the blend over their head and bodies while standing in the shower – this is actually a bit more traditional.
Then, we do a cleansing with stalks of specific herbs, partly as an uncrossing and partly as blessing. I’ve been quite taken with this blend for some time now: hyssop, basil, rue, and marjoram. One might also add mint. We grow all of them in the herb garden. One of us will pick the largest stalks of each we can find and collect them together like a bouquet. Then, we take turns, sweeping it over each other’s [clothed] bodies, slapping the plants over them like a babushka cleaning herself in a Russian bath house. This is done in a downward motion. At the end, the plants are burnt (or taken out into the trash immediately and outside the house. Burning is better).
Before the div, we make offerings and tend all the shrines, and then after all the cleansing work, we spend time in prayer. More and more, cultus to Askr and Embla has been growing as an essential part of recentering ourselves. Finally, at least once a week we have a full spectrum of protection, exorcism, purification, and blessing prayers that we do. The full rota takes about an hour, sometimes a little more.
Our weak spot is that our home is cluttered but little by little we’re addressing that as we can (bookshelves are at a premium!). I wrote this mainly to give readers some sense of how seriously we take cleansing protocols and also a glimpse of how they can be integrated, relatively easily, into one’s devotional life. I’ll close by sharing one prayer in that rota that I note above. Feel free to use it, but please do attribute it me.
Prayer of Purification
Hail to You, Oh great good immortal Gods, Mighty Brothers Odin, Hoenir, and Loður,
Sovereign Powers over all the Worlds, Unyielding Conquerors in the face of evil, You Who made all creation, setting into place the orbits of moon and sun, crafting and honing the bones of Ymir into the beauty of Midgard, Who wrought the Nine worlds by will alone, and sacral vision, You Who ward and protect Your children, hear my prayer.
Odin, Sig-Father, unafraid of sacrifice, Who blessed Ask and Embla, and every human after with breath and soul, Who brings healing when all other healers have failed, I beseech You now to stand as healer to my soul.
Hoenir, Who infused Ask and Embla and every human after with sense and intellect, bless my mind that it may remain free of the fury of the Unmaker. Turn my mind to You and the works the Holy Ones have made. Always.
Loður, Who blessed Ask and Embla and every human after with life and warmth and feeling, increase my love and devotion to the Gods a thousand-fold, until my prayers are a raging inferno burning away anything unholy. Fill me with the fire of devotion. Always.
I beseech You, oh Great Good and Glorious Gods, render powerless, banish, and expel every diabolical power, presence, and machination; every evil influence, malefica, or evil eye, and all actions aimed against Your faithful servant (NAME). Where there is envy, jealousy, hatred, and malice, grant us instead an abundance of victory, benevolent blessings, endurance, and piety. Oh dear Gods, Makers of all the Worlds, Who love us faltering human beings as fathers love their children, I pray that You extend Your wills, that You reach out Your powerful hands, and come with mighty arms and focused power to our aid.
Help us, weapons-wise Allfather, cunning and clever Skyfarer, and Mighty Marsh Lord, help us Whom You have so carefully crafted. Send angels and disir and good but fierce helping spirits to watch over us, and to protect us body and soul.
Keep at bay and vanquish every evil power, every servant of the Enemy, every poison, malice, or malefica invoked against us by corrupt, envious, and bitter people. Free us from oppression that we may serve You in gratitude and joy. You are our shield and buckler, invocation to You the weapon in our hand, Your blessing our preservation and salvation from harm. Whom should we fear? Who is as powerful as You? Under Your gaze, I shall ready myself for battle. Under Your gaze, and in the solace of Your protection, I shall gird my spirit as I prepare to engage the foe. Let my hands, my will, my words, and my soul never falter and let my mind ever be turned to You, and the works You have so carefully wrought. ALU.
Distrust anyone who doesn’t take spiritual and ritual cleansing/purification seriously. That’s my general rule of thumb, largely because it shows that, for whatever reason, they either aren’t taking what they’re doing seriously, or they haven’t been fully or properly trained. I cannot emphasize the importance of cleansing too much. It is one of THE single most important things you can do, right up there with regularly honoring your dead.
As I said recently on twitter, the only people I’ve ever had whine and bitch about cleansing, purification, and the need to avoid miasma are those too polluted to be able to stand to be in spiritually clean space with integrity. That’s actually a thing too. I think some people are so mired in the shit of this world, so miasmic, so polluted, so disconnected from the holy that clean, ordered, holy space feels bad to them. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve seen.
There are a number of reasons to be concerned about spiritual pollution and it’s incredibly easy to wash it away.
- Firstly, it can really cloud and clutter one’s spiritual discernment.
- It can affect one’s health and well-being.
- It can exacerbate depression and anxiety.
- It can damage one’s luck.
- It can cause disharmony and arguments between friends, family, etc.
- It slowly occludes the devotional connections that we share with our Holy Powers.
- It can open one up to the influence of evil spirits and malefica.
- It makes it more difficult to connect when in sacred space and actually pollutes that sacred space.
- It is contagious and can affect others.
I probably missed a few things but at the moment, these are the primary dangers that come to mind. Why, in the name of all that’s holy would you NOT want to deal with this? Miasma and spiritual pollution isn’t difficult to remove (there are exceptions to this but since most of us aren’t behaving like Pelops or Pentheus usually it’s not that hard!).
Now, if you’re a spirit worker, priest, or other spiritual specialist, the requirements for cleansing might be a bit more intense, but still, it’s not rocket science. All it requires is a bit of mindfulness and consistency.
Here are some things we do in my house to keep ourselves clean (this is not a comprehensive list).
- We take regular cleansing baths. There are any number of things that can be added to a cleansing bath to remove miasma. I usually combine salt (I like pink Himalayan salt, but any salt will do. Black salt is particularly strong for cleansings), beer (beer baths are awesome), milk, and khernips. I make the entire bath khernips. I might also add other things like a scented oil, Epsom salts (not for removing miasma but to help my old and aching joints), bubble bath, etc. So I combine cleansing pollution with regular bathing.
- I put a cup of khernips in every load of wash (yes, I also use detergent!).
- Every morning we cleanse our head, heart, and hands with khernips.
- I wear protective charms and sometimes cover my head when I feel pollution is particularly bad. I also routinely cover my head when I pray. For the lay person, this can be as simple as wearing an evil eye charm or a Thor’s Hammer or other religious symbol. Cleanse it regularly and if you can, bless it.
- I vacuum and clean my house weekly (though it is cluttered), and khernips the hell out of it.
- We light candles, do fire blessings, and pray almost every night as a family.
- I pray regularly throughout the day.
- I khernips my bed whenever I make it.
- If I have been in a potentially problematic situation, I’ll change my clothes and asperse with khernips when I come home immediately.
- Then of course, before prayer and ritual, we again asperse with khernips or do some other cleansing. It’s simple and fairly easy.
- I try, but often fail, to make sure there are no dirty dishes left before I go to bed. There’s an ATR tradition about warding off a particular type of evil spirit if the sink is completely devoid of dishes.
- I bless the salt in the house and keep it in one large container in the kitchen and this is used for all our cooking and food.
- We regularly bless our food and drink.
- Before any divination or spiritwork, we do special prayers, offerings, and cleansings.
There are a few other things too that we do to protect our home.
If we take our Gods seriously and understand that every time we step into ritual space we have the opportunity to reify Their creative process, then this isn’t too much. With the exception of what we do as specialists, which admittedly is more than the average lay person need worry about, cleansing away pollution and miasma is no more problematic than brushing our teeth, washing our face, and dressing in clean underwear every morning. Anyone who makes it more than that, who goes on and on about how problematic it is, how it’s a red flag, etc. etc., well, take a step back and look at why they’re saying that. Perhaps they themselves are so polluted that such cleansing rites are painful to them. Perhaps they have no desire to be truly clean before the Powers. Perhaps they have no respect for those Powers. Perhaps they are so mired in pollution and foulness that cleanliness seems aberrant to them. Or, perhaps they’re just assholes.
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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’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.
Lately I’ve seen some egregiously bad advice percolating around tumblr (no surprise). The most recent is the idea, articulated as though it was historical fact, that to refer to the Gods as ‘my God’ or ‘my Goddess’ is hubris.(1) I’m not sure where this nonsense is coming from but it’s just that: utter, misguided bullshit.(2)
Each devotional relationship with a Deity is unique. To indicate ownership of that relationship by using the possessive acknowledges that reality. It articulates responsibility for one’s role in that relationship. It acknowledges that someone else may have a very different relationship with the same Deity, that the Gods are independent Beings, capable of relating to Their devotees as individuals, unrestricted by the narrow confines of anything written about Them.
To say “my God …” also articulates an essential difference between one’s own tradition and that of whatever interlocutor with whom one might be speaking. It expresses uniqueness, as each Deity is unique and each devotional relationship is unique, while at the same time giving voice to the tremendous power of such relationships. It is indeed possible to engage with the Gods in significant ways. One’s own engagement does not impinge upon someone else also having an equally significant devotional reality. Language is often problematic when it comes to discussing spiritual reality, the Gods, or indeed anything Holy but I do not believe that this is a situation that falls under that particular rubric.
If we rule out such intimate language than we are tacitly agreeing with the idea, promulgated so frequently in academic circles, that polytheists in the ancient world had no personal devotional relationships with their Gods. This is, of course, also nonsense. Use of the possessive acknowledges the unique nature of each devotional relationship and the rich complexity such relationships bring to one’s devotional and religious life. The only hubris lies in not acknowledging that.
- Not only is it anything but hubris, in many indigenous religions, particularly certain ATR, it is common parlance to refer to “my [insert Deity name here]” precisely as a matter of respect, and a reference to certain initiatory realities. If using such language is “hubris” in one tradition, then the implication is that it is “hubris” in every tradition, which I’m sure was not the intent of the original tumblr post. Still, language is a precise instrument, a tool to foster clarity of expression and sentiments like this matter. Now the main focus of the tumblr in question is a rather narrow type of progressive politics, and I cannot help but wonder if the idea of articulating distinctions in one’s devotional and religious worlds bothers the poster because it is creating a border, distinguishing clearly between your tradition and mine, your Gods and mine, your praxis and mine. I don’t think such distinctions are bad things. I think, for the integrity of traditions, they’re necessary. It also brings clarity to any conversation about these topics; after all, one is not by such possessive usage speaking for the Gods, which would indeed be ethically problematic.
- So is the same poster’s advice on miasma. Katharmos (cleansing) is NOT just for murder/killing. There are many, many reasons that some type of cleansing might be required. I would suggest R. Parker’s classic text “Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion” or “Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion” by A. Petrovic and I. Petrovic. My Gods, I wish people would read and critically consider what they read. Also, maybe go beyond Homer, ffs.
Owlet asks: “How do you make right after participating in a ritual or group that is disrespectful?”
This is a really good question and I’m glad you asked it here. It’s something that I’ve had to learn through a lot of trial and error, especially when I was much more open to participating in rituals outside my House, and when I was working in the interfaith world. My answer is two- fold.
Firstly, what you describe (which I quote further below) is the real danger of community involvement and I am so very sorry to learn that this happened to you. It hurts my heart to know that your own devotion was impacted by this. It can be very, very hard to come back from such a thing but I will say this: as we learn better, we do better. You’ve had a valuable experience about what is NOT proper community. That will serve as an incredibly useful lens through which to evaluate every other group with which you consider becoming involved in the future. That can be a great blessing. Hopefully, also, others can learn from your story as well.
Now, you ask what one can do. Firstly, ideally, don’t participate in those groups. It is far, far better to remain solitary than to pollute yourself. I think that the desperation to communicate and share with like-minded individuals sometimes pushes us into these situations and it’s so important, early on, to commit to not compromising where piety and respect for the Gods, ancestors, and land are concerned. In this, compromise is nota virtue. Evaluate their theology, their politics, their values, their lifestyles, the choices they make large and small. Separate your personal feelings from these things, because a person can be nice and friendly but in the end, poison ideology leads to poisoning of the tradition and our lives. Do the choices they’re making serve the Gods and the tradition or do they seek to elevate the people and ego-stroking, etc. etc. Is it all about the human condition?
It is absolutely lovely to find like-minded polytheists, and to build communities – and in truth, I don’t think our restoration can endure intergenerationally without lived community. The thing is, it’s important that those communities prioritize the Gods qua Gods and if they don’t, shun them like poison. I would add that we’re never really alone. We have our Gods, we have our ancestors and we can learn from Them and hopefully when we’re ready, They will guide us to working, solid traditions that will augment our relationships with the Gods, not shit on them.
So first and foremost, I would say, avoid these senseless or impious groups. That means making conscious devotional choices about what to prioritize, and about your religious life, and with whom you share that. It means doing some research, asking uncomfortable questions before participating. It means being willing to walk away from groups and people that do not nourish one’s piety. That means weighing everything and most of all being absolutely unwilling to compromise on the key fundamentals of polytheistic practice. I think with the influence of pseudo-progressivism in our communities, we’ve been indoctrinated to think of ‘compromise’ as a virtue across the board. It’s not. If I’m in a ship and the hull is compromised, that’s not a good thing. That is in fact, life threatening. It’s the same with the type of pollution that we can all too often find in certain places.
Owlet’s post continued: “I spent many years as a solitary pagan and polytheist, because I lived in an area where the culture was unusually hostile to such things. When I moved to a large urban center and university town, I immediately got involved in pagan events and groups. I was desperate to be a part of a community. To one group , in particular, I donated hundreds (or more) volunteer hours, a great deal of money, handcrafted ritual items…everything I could give. As I learned over the years, the people running and organizing these events and rituals often did not believe in the gods as anything more than thoughtforms or maybe archetypes, or were at the core monotheists or Christians with a thin overlay of pagan dress. Their disrespect spread from their relationship with the gods, to their relationship with the land, to the ancestors, and to other people, and I played along and became complicit. Now that I’ve left and can stand back, I feel heartsick at the compromises I made to please these groups. The service I gave to these communities distracted from and damaged my relationships with the holy powers instead of strengthening them.”
Again, it hurts to read this and my heart goes out to you, but look at it as a learning experience. It’s often difficult, especially when we’re all hungry for community and companionship, to recognize when something or someone is problematic. We learn, often from harsh experience. I would encourage you to not carry guilt over this. Go before your Gods and ask Their forgiveness if you feel the need, and do a ritual cleansing and then commit to doing better. Sometimes, it’s really, really important to have these bad experiences so we have a baseline from which to clearly and accurately evaluate practices. The most important thing in what you’ve sadly experienced is that now you can look on these things clearly and make better, informed choices. There’s no need for shame about any of that. You contributed to a community that you thought shared your piety. That’s a good thing to do. It’s not your fault that the community was not what you thought. Please don’t carry the guilt from this. Sometimes we appreciate devotion and piety and right relationship all the more when we’ve had an experience of its opposite and the effects of that.
What I would suggest is prayer – we cannot pray too much—and regular cleansings. Whenever I find that I’ve been exposed or have inadvertently exposed myself (and sometimes my spiritual Work requires this) to pollution, I will pray and cleanse myself, sometimes using divination to figure out what type of cleansing is needed. I always suggest going to the Gods, going to the ancestors, going to the land and reconnecting. Ask Them for help and cleansing, ask Them for guidance and don’t be afraid to set boundaries with would-be communities.
Once a month I do readings at a local shop. The owner is a friend of mine, it helps her out, and I usually enjoy doing it. Yesterday was one of those days. Now when I do this, I don’t take my entire kit. I choose two or three systems and yesterday, I decided to make offerings to Hermes, Apollon, and Dionysos with the intention of reading with a sortilege system owned by Apollon, and the Dionysian leaves. I had one client. It was a clusterfuck.
The client Mikey (yes, his actual name. after what happened, fuck it. I’m not using a pseudonym) came in asking with what decks I read. I carefully explained that I would not be reading with tarot, and explained the systems I use. He asked me and the young man behind the counter several times, a little confused that I didn’t use cards. I’ve found that tarot is so well known that people often have trouble understanding that there are other systems of divination out there, so I didn’t mind the questions but I had a feeling that he was going to be an unpleasant client. Still, people don’t generally come to us when things are going well (though they should! It’s best to get divination quarterly – I do for myself as a matter of course and was always counseled to do so by my elders because it is preventative) and it’s our job as diviners to sometimes deal with people in crisis. He was supposed to have a half hour reading. It lasted about an hour and a half and from the beginning it was ugly.
I began the reading with a system dedicated to Apollon and, of course, as always before seeing any clients, I did my opening prayers, which included a prayer to Apollon. Mikey was unhappy and irritated that I was using a sortilege system and not cards. He kept getting frustrated when he received answers he didn’t like. He kept asking the same question or series of questions in different ways because he didn’t like the answers. He outright refused to do any prescription given to him to better his situation and then he started getting rude and rather aggressive. At this point, I told him that if he was unwilling to do the prescription then he wasn’t going to get what he wanted. He started to argue, becoming both whiny and belligerent and …that’s the point when Apollon gave him a seizure.
I felt Apollon reach through the crown of my head and push out and at that point Mikey had a seizure ( just when his level of disrespect for the ordered space of the mat, the divination process, the diviner and by extension the Gods involved reached a certain level. It didn’t help that he sort of insulted Apollon’s mother). I sat through it, gave him some further advice when it was done (more counseling than divination) and finally got him to leave. He staggered out and it is my sincere wish that he never, ever returns to plague any future diviner who might happen to be on the premises.
I found out from the young man handling the counter that Mikey has a long history of becoming verbally abusive to diviners and has even made one particular diviner cry. When he’s not told what he wants, he verbally attacks them. It never got that far with me (probably good for Mikey’s sake, because I’d have bodily thrown him out. I don’t take shit like that from clients or anyone else). Apparently, several diviners who frequent the shop have refused to read for him. My question to the shop: why do you allow him to keep coming in? I don’t find that particularly ethical.
At any rate, the level of pollution was so intense that I felt the need to do divination to see if I could keep seeing clients or if I needed to go home and cleanse. Pollution is one thing, and Mikey was riddled with it, but being hit with pollution (as when a client moves from passive pollution to active offense against the Gods) when in an altered state is worse. Ironically the diviner is extremely vulnerable when in that open headspace. I initially asked “Do I need to leave?” And the answer was ‘no.’ Then I asked “Does Apollon want me to leave.” And I got a definite ‘yes.’ So I followed up by using Apollon’s oracle to ask for confirmation and received the following verse:
“Take the tripod and carry it from the temple…”
I immediately packed up and went home, texting my husband on the way to prepare a cleansing bath. As soon as I got home I went through intense cleansing and then did divination to see if I could continue to read in such a venue. (I can, but I now have new protocols for all in person clients).
Sannion also told me something that I didn’t know or had forgotten: there are accounts of Apollon doing exactly this in antiquity when his oracles were shown disrespect. Some Gods are more forgiving of such violations than others, but in the end, it’s not a game, it’s not a parlor trick, and it’s not for entertainment. Divination is sacred and when the diviner is at the mat he or she is serving in some cases as a direct mouthpiece for the Gods and ancestors. It is sacred work. It’s unfortunate that most clients no longer realize that and I think those of us who do this work in our communities have the added burden and obligation of teaching people anew how to position this as a sacral practice and how to approach the mat with reverence…because there are consequences when one doesn’t.
It’s not our job, as I was told yesterday, to make the client comfortable. It is our job to do the work. It is our job to be clean interpreters and transmitters of what the Gods and spirits provide. It is however, a reality that we will deal with clients – many quite well meaning—who do not know how to behave. I’m still a little stunned by yesterday and I have no answers for that. My protocols have been tightened to give them better warning and I do prepare most clients as well as I can but still…as the saying goes, shit happen. Sometimes, that’s going to backfire on those clients. Apollon especially is not a God with which to trifle. He protects those in His service.
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This is a collection of my writings to date on the topic of miasma and pollution. This book also contains essays by Kenaz Filan, Markos Gage, Virginia Carper, and Sannion (y’all will get contributor copies. I’m waiting for them to arrive).
Here is the blurb from the back of the book:
“Miasma, or spiritual pollution, is a frequently misunderstood concept within contemporary polytheism. While recognized as vitally important to guard against and treat in most traditions, it is nonetheless often ignored or even dismissed as a concern today.
And yet, everything good and solid in our practices begins with purification. It is what prepares us for devotional engagement, for encountering the Holy, for developing discernment, for being a practicing and devout polytheist. We can never hope to properly approach our Gods without taking into account the need for cleanliness in our work.
This book examines the nature and causes of miasma, sets forth the arguments for taking it seriously, and discusses simple and effective methods of cleansing the body, mind and spirit for both ritual and daily life.”
Be sure to check out my other sites:
Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.
I’ve been talking about pop culture a lot this past week on social media and there have been a few good discussions and a few not so good and I find myself moved this morning to post about it here. Two things prompted this. Firstly, I watched last week’s “American Gods” and posted the following:
“”American Gods” is beautifully shot. Parts of it are intensely profound but in the end, it is peppered with pollution, the attitude clearly stated that the Gods are dependent on us, that humans are greater than the Gods, and the typical screed of modernity. I am so disgusted. It does show the danger of modern culture but…I wonder how many people are seeing that underlying message of disrespect? The same scenes and same story could be told without the line “humans are greater than gods” and yet they just had to put that in. Gaimon et al couldn’t help themselves.”
You would have thought I’d kicked someone’s dog. Many people were deeply bothered by the fact that I criticized Gaiman and this work. Let me be clear, I enjoy the show. It’s beautifully shot and beautifully directed but, because I enjoy it, it’s all the more important to criticize it, to be critical of it, because this show like so many others, presents our Gods in ways that are deeply problematic. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
The second thing that happened today was that my friend Wyrd Dottir posted a review on her fb of the new “Wonder Woman” movie and again, apparently, the Gods are the villains. (I’m disappointed to hear this. I loved the WW television show as a child and I was looking forward to the movie but I won’t be wasting my money on it now). It was at this point that I felt pushed to write something for my blog.
I’ll state right up front that while I may abstain from media like this, I am not actually advocating not reading a book or watching a movie because it is disrespectful or impious. Everyone has to make the choice of what they give space to in their heads, what they indulge in during their free time, and what they expend energy on for themselves. I am, however, deeply concerned about how uncritically polytheists will immerse themselves in media and pop culture without giving it the slightest bit of thought.’ I enjoy it, so it’s ok’ seems to be the rule of the day.
What we watch has the power to affect us. It sets up programming in our minds, unconscious attitudes that then influence how we approach our world. It patterns us to accept or not certain things as normal. What we expose ourselves to has the power to change our inner landscape and thus the way we process and relate to the world at large. It programs us. That’s why I find the attitude (across the board in pop culture) of the Gods being less than humans, or of humans being able to defeat the Gods, or of the Gods being childish and less evolved than we so problematic. This is the attitude enmeshed in modernity and pop culture and it’s polluting because it is everywhere unquestioned. I know works like “Wonder Woman” or “American Gods” are fiction and yes, it saddens me that our cosmologies are up for grabs this way. For most Pagans, these attitudes will pass by most unrecognized and unquestioned and frankly, on a large scale, I think they pollute and entrain the mind to dismiss the Gods when they are accepted without question.
People will argue that in the ancient world poets and dramaturgists often wrote in similar fashion of the Gods but I would counter that there was a cultural context deeply rooted in piety and respect for the Powers that counter the damage this might have done (and it wasn’t accepted unquestioningly. There were discussions in the ancient world about the propriety of presenting the Gods in such a liberal fashion. Certain philosophers actually condemned the practice because of the potential for impiety). We have neither that cultural context, that embedded polytheism to shape us, nor the willingness to challenge those things we enjoy. THAT is why it is so deeply problematic.
Others argued when I first talked about this on facebook that movies and television series like this are good even if they present the Gods poorly because they might bring people to the Gods and it’s a good way to spark and interest and learn about Them and Their stories. Maybe but I would counter that there were no records when the first people honored these gods. They had dreams, visions, the gods come through in ritual. They had piety. The lore is a map, not the territory. It’s a check, a useful tool, a reference point, it can teach secrets but nothing takes the place of direct encounters with these beings and that is a thousand times harder than it has to be when we approach them with unconscious attitudes of hubris.
Someone else said that shows like ‘American Gods’ were just an ‘alternative viewpoint’. Well, how is it an alternative viewpoint when the other side is never presented? Popular media only ever seems to present stuff that minimizes and attacks the Gods and devotion to them. Show me movie or television series that has pure, clean piety. (Please…I’d love to know of one). Show me one that isn’t 80% ok but 20% crap.
I reiterate that we need to approach our media critically because this plants seeds in our heads and grows the world inside us and one should be careful of that and learn to filter out the stuff that’s inimical to piety, which we can’t do if we refuse to even recognize it.
Lykeia rightfully points out:
“In terms of pollution if we consider that one can become unclean from entertaining exposure that which is contrary to our spirituality, a case for pollution (vis a vis media) can be made. Of course it can be entertaining while acknowledging it is spiritually polluting. One can be entertained and enjoy aesthetically things while recognizing a need for cleansing if choosing to indulge in it. Myself such things tend to deter me. I prefer not having that enter my spiritual space.
In polytheism conduct towards the gods and our relationship with them is an important issue (although perhaps not to the “wider pagan community which is one reason out of many I don’t affiliate to such). It is part and parcel to proper etiquette in developing relationships with our gods. A seed planted that the gods are dependent on us and thus leaving us in a position of power taints this relationship potentially which is why many polytheists treat it so gravely. We are virtually surrounded by popular media saying our gods are weak and encouraging hubris ( a huge no no). This is not an issue to this novel only but a common trend in media and so there is a need to be mindful of it and guard against it if necessary.”
Kenaz Filan writes, “We need to figure out how to teach people that everything we are and everything around us is rooted in the Gods, not vice versa. That may be our greatest task in re-establishing a Polytheism for the modern era.” And this is true. Every single argument and controversy in some way comes down to the question of do we prioritize the Gods or man, do we venerate the Gods, or ourselves. Do we value devotion or have we eaten the poisoned fruit of modernity wholesale and without question?
The question raised by American Gods, the nonsense about humans being greater than the Gods isn’t something to allow to slip into our minds unchallenged. To again quote Kenaz Filan,:
“If the Gods are the wellspring and foundation of Being, we exist as part of Their plans and Their actions. If the Gods are the creations of men then they (small t) are tools by which we understand the material universe until they are supplanted by a more accurate understanding. (Once upon a time we believed lightning was Zeus or Thor throwing thunderbolts: today we know better). They are aspects of the Overmind which connects humanity together the way the Internet joins computers. They are symbols which we use like letters in algebra and calculus to answer problems. All those things are centered in humanity. By centering Being in the Gods, we move closer to a worldview where humans are not “lords over earth and its dominions” but part of an intricately connected system created by the Gods for Their purposes”
There is nothing in the community more important than developing a sense of respect and piety toward the Gods. I think we need to seriously consider what kind of foundation we want to create for our traditions. If we can watch something that presents such a skewed view of our Gods and the act of devotion itself, without critically analyzing it, without even acknowledging that it’s perhaps not presenting us with the best example (at the very least), if we can’t look at our world and see the results of such doggedly entrained disrespect, then what hope is there for the future of our traditions. I think we need to be the most critical of those things we most enjoy because it’s what we watch when we’re relaxed, what we uncritically enjoy that’s going to creep by our mental censors. It’s those things we blindly consume that will do the most damage.
For me it comes down to not wanting to give space in my head to that which does not bring me closer to my Gods. I don’t want to give space within myself to that which doesn’t enhance my devotion. I don’t want to waste time on that which doesn’t nurture my piety no matter how much fun it may be. I’m not asking polytheists to go on a social media or pop culture fast but it would be nice if people could be a little bit more critical, a little bit more thoughtful of the media they do consume. We’re bombarded every day by messages that are deeply deleterious to polytheism. These things matter.
Here’s a sneak peak at an excerpt from my forthcoming book on Miasma and Pollution. This is taken from chapter 1.
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 vé, 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. (Thank you D. Loptson for your help in hunting up these etymologies).
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)