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.
- 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.
- 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.