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)
The topic this week has been miasma and pollution and how to deal with it. I’ve a longer piece in progress that I was hoping to get done today but that didn’t happen so it’ll probably have to wait until next weekend now. Instead, I find myself thinking a lot about a slightly different aspect of miasma. Most of us within our various traditions (hopefully) have our standard regimens of cleansing before rituals, before approaching our shrines, or after encountering something that carries miasma. What do you do though, when you suddenly and unexpectedly bumble into pollution or realize – oh shit—you’re surrounded by it?
I’ve had this happen a lot because of my work and I started really paying attention to it over the past couple of months. I’ve noticed, both in myself and others, that it can have an immediate (spiritual, emotional, mental, and sometimes physical) effect. What do you do when you read something or see something or engage in some way (either in person or online), or walk into an area that carries or causes unexpected miasma? What do you do when you are, or instance, engaged in a debate and you realize that you’re dealing with a massive amount of pollution? Often it’s not tenable or even possible to withdraw and cleanse. What do you do when you are stuck?
I’m still working this out for myself. I mean, obviously, I have regular cleansing regimens, and then the tradition specific stuff that I do before rituals or tending shrines and for a long time that was enough. I almost think though, that the more we work to be clean, the more this is a priority, the cleaner we become, the more sensitive we get to that which is not clean. Things that perhaps were not a problem a year ago, might become problematic after that intervene time focusing on cleansing. So what do you do?
Right now – and I’m still working on this—I have a two fold approach. First, I have a very specific prayer that I wrote that I use when I find myself stuck or surprised by miasmic things. Secondly, I carry holy water and spritz the fuck out of myself at times. Right now that’s about it, but I hope to develop this type of troubleshooting further. I’d love to hear people’s ideas.
Here’s the prayer that I use. When I asked to which God I should offer the prayer, (I venerate the Norse Gods and the Greco-Roman Ones), I was told Apollo. I wasn’t thrilled with sharing it but I did divination and was told that it would be best to do so, so here it is.
Purification Prayer to Apollo
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.*
Bright Apollo, far shooting God of healers and prophets,
I offer this prayer to You today.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
Most Holy Apollo,
Klarios, Oulios, Alexikakus,
Who averts all harm,
protect me, oh my God.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impure may stand.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impious may find purchase.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
keep my boundaries strong,
that no pollution may affect my mind,
my heart, my soul, my work.
Boedromios, preserve me,
as I wade into this filth.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
I lay my petition before You, Shining God,
that I may stand in the light of Your protection.
To You, Lord Apollo,
(*this line is every so slightly adaped from the song “Sparrow Falls” by David Eugene Edwards)
This is a brilliant article by Kenaz Filan over at PolytheismUncucked. It’s the culmination of several days worth of conversation on the predation of cultural marxism, modernity, and monotheism (#evilms) on our communities and their religious awareness.
I think this is a really important piece. go and read.
Disgust is an instinct which saves us from eating contaminated foods and poisons. We feel a sense of revulsion upon seeing vomit, rotten meat, excrement — all things which would sicken and kill us should we consume them. As Daniel Kelly, author of Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust says:
You have this quick, reflex-like tendency to move away from whatever you find disgusting. You might not actually move, but you’ll have this flash of motivation to jerk away from it. Some of the really interesting things about disgust are the more psychological components of it. When you’re disgusted by something, it captures your attention. It seems offensive and tainted in some way, and we think about disgusting things as though they have the ability to contaminate other things. So, if something we find disgusting touches another object, that object becomes disgusting as well. We track where the…
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A friend sent me a clip from an article that had me just shaking my head. In it, a Pagan was talking about pollution and why she never “needed” to do any cleansing work. Doing so, the misguided author said, would imply that she was dirty.
Um…yes, buttercup it does but this is not a moral judgment. When you take a shower in the morning or a bath at night, is that some grave moral judgment on your inner sense of self? Or your character? Your identity? When you wipe your ass, are you saying your butt is bad? One would hope that you actually do take those showers and wipe. I mean really…and if you clean your ass, as my friend quipped, you can take the time to clean your soul.
This is going to be an ongoing theme. I’ve had a lot of questions lately about miasma. I’ve gained a few insights through my own deepening taboos around purification, been thrown for a few unexpected loops, and I’ve been seeing a lot of really screwed up pieces, like the bit I quoted above making the rounds. I’m not even sure where to begin here.
Miasma is a thing. It exists. It is not a statement about the character or worth of any given person. In fact, in most cases, it’s no more personal than spilling something on yourself and having to wash it off, or tracking mud inside, and having to clean it up. To say that one doesn’t need to cleanse is exactly as sensible as saying one never needs to bathe, that is not at all.
Miasma is a type of spiritual pollution. One can pick up miasma by exposing oneself to things that are antithetical to the Gods and Their traditions. These things can shift a person’s head and heart space out of receptivity and reverence for the Gods. They can also leave a taint. Over time, it destroys our ability not just for any discernment with the Powers and spirits, but even our ability to tell what is good and holy from that which is not. That’s one of the dangers of pollution and our world is riddled with it.
Sometimes though one falls into miasma through actions or experiences that are good: for instance there is a particular miasma associated with the dead. That’s why if one touches a dead body, cleansings are necessary before approaching one’s shrines. Well, visiting the graves of relatives is a good and pious act sanctioned by the Gods. The moment one does so, however, one is in a state of pollution and should really cleanse after returning home. Likewise, there is miasma associated with childbirth. Does that mean that everyone should stop having babies? Of course not. It means one learns the appropriate protocols within one’s tradition and uses them.
These purification rites can also be a form of psychological catharsis, helping one to make transitions back into ordinary life. Imagine how much better off our soldiers would be if they had these kinds of transitional and purifying ceremonies to guide their entrance back into civilian life? Instead, we just leave them in the gutter.
Proper piety is important. It is what enables us to maintain right relationship with our Gods. That’s a huge part of why we should want to be clean! Moreover, extended miasma can cause mental, emotional, and even physical problems, not to mention damaging one’s luck. Of course, this presupposes that one values being in right relationship with the Holy. This is where it starts. It presupposes that this is a priority, that we’re willing to examine our culture and society and interactions and influences and take action when miasma is present.
Now just because a thing causes miasma, does not mean it has to be avoided. Some things are only miasmic with certain types of worship, and with certain deities, or for roles and types of work (ancestor work vs plant work, shaman vs. seer vs. laity—there will be different taboos and requirements). Sometimes when you’re called to work with certain Powers and do certain work, that cuts off certain opportunities. That’s too bad. That’s just the nature of devotion. It’s possible to appreciate from a distance without being able to engage.
Sometimes what we read or watch may cause miasma. It affects our headspace. It puts us in headspace that’s not conducive to interaction with the Holy. This is a bit trickier. No one should tell you not to watch or read something. That’s a decision you have to make for yourself with your Gods and ancestors. Divination can help with this. We don’t want to be, after all, like the Abrahamists who fence themselves off from life and authentic experiences with all their rules and regulations, afraid to read a novel for fear it will destroy their faith. Sometimes also, depending on one’s work, one might have to read things or watch things or go places that put one in a state of miasma. Here, it’s important to sit down maybe with a diviner or priest and suss out how to cleanse oneself, what rituals and prayers to do, to restore oneself to cleanliness. (Just because a particular book or movie might put you out of alignment, doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad’. It might not affect someone else the same way, especially if they’re working with very different Powers and traditions. The key is mindfulness and being willing to consider that even things we like may be problematic and require those extra ritual steps or even forgoing gratification in service to something Higher).
Now I’ve noticed something about the people chirping the loudest about how cleansing isn’t necessary. All of the ones I’ve encountered have been anti-theist or humanist ‘Pagans.’ I think that is perhaps the key here. This is a clash of cultures and traditions. Do you serve the ancestors or political ideology? Do you want to reverence the Gods with your entire life or some human economist? Is this real or is it just something people make up in their heads? Do you value the Holy, or are you hell-bent on convincing the pious that it doesn’t exist (generally by trolling them online)? Those espousing a disdain for cleansing and purification are more often than not, those expressing a similar disdain for the Gods and everything else associated with Them. I’ll let y’all do the math. (If Stalin says that 2+2=5, the party believes that 2+2=5).
What I know is that cleansing is crucial. There is a caution here: against what Christians call scrupulosity. We should attend to all the proper rites and rituals for dealing with pollution, but not fall into obsessiveness or excessive anxiety over it—what the Greeks termed δεισιδαιμονίᾳ.
“It is apparent that superstition would seem to be cowardice with regard to the spiritual realm. The superstitious man is one who will wash his hands and sprinkle himself at the Sacred Fountain, and put a bit of laurel leaf in his mouth, to prepare himself for each day. If a marten should cross his path, he will not continue until someone else has gone by, or he has thrown three stones across the road. And if he should see a snake in his house, he will call up a prayer to Sabazios if it is one of the red ones; if it is one of the sacred variety, he will immediately construct a shrine on the spot. Nor will he go by the smooth stones at a crossroads without anointing them with oil from his flask, and he will not leave without falling on his knees in reverence to them. If a mouse should chew through his bag of grain, he will seek advice on what should be done from the official diviner of omens; but if the answer is, ‘Give it to the shoemaker to have it sewn up,’ he will pay no attention, but rather go away and free himself of the omen through sacrifice. He is also likely to be purifying his house continually, claiming that terrible Hecate has been mysteriously brought into it. And if an owl should hoot while he is outside, he becomes terribly agitated, and will not continue before crying out, ‘O! Mighty Athena!’ Never will he step on a tomb, nor get near a dead body, nor a woman in childbirth: he says he must keep on his guard against being polluted. On the unlucky days of the month– the fourth and seventh– he will order his servants to heat wine. Then he will go out and buy myrtle-wreaths, frankincense, and holy pictures; upon returning home, he spends the entire day arranging the wreaths on statues of the Hermaphrodites. Also, when he has a dream, he will go to the dream interpreters, the fortune-tellers, and the readers of bird-omens, to ask what god or goddess he should pray to. When he is to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries, he visits the priests every month, taking his wife with him; or, if she can’t make it, the nursemaid and children will suffice. It is also apparent that he is one of those people who go to great lengths to sprinkle themselves with sea-water. And if he sees someone eating Hecate’s garlic at the crossroads, he must go home and wash his head; and then he calls upon the priestesses to carry a squill or a puppy around him for purification. If he sees a madman or epileptic, he shudders and spits into his lap.” (Theophrastos, On The Superstitious Man)
Being a polytheist isn’t about having the right hashtags or even necessarily about believing in many Gods. Believing in many Gods is the baseline, the fundamental definition, but we should aspire to so much more. Being a polytheist is also about cultivating in ourselves the type of awareness and character that the Gods would find pleasing. To do that, first and foremost, we must cultivate purity and an awareness of the nature of miasma and a willingness to attend to it. Then and only then, can we begin to cleanly and properly commune with the Holy.
So within NT shamanism we have a specific divination system to determine what type of purification will work best, in the event that we or our clients require purification. (Of course this isn’t the only thing we use but if all other types of div and discernment have failed, there is a specific system for this). That is more or less lineaged material but I happened to show it to my husband. His eyes gleamed and he got all excited and asked if he could use it as the basis for one of his own systems. Since while it technically is part of the lineaged material, it’s part that can be shared with non-initiates, I explained the extremely simple system to him. He nodded and disappeared into his office and emailed me the following about a half hour later.
It is an awesome system based on the Greek theory of the four humours. He gave me permission to share it here. This in turn has inspired a friend and colleague to do yet another riff on the system and I love the interconnectedness and mutually inspiring nature of this work. A Heathen makes up a system and it’s down, dirty, and simple. A Bacchic, southern Italian, Hellenic inspired Orpheotelest tries it and he gets all fancy. ^_^.
Here it is.
This is the method of prescribing cleansings.
You will need four stones, a die, and a pouch to keep them in.
The four stones represent the rizomata panton, the “roots of all things” or primordial elements which Empedokles described as follows:
Now hear the fourfold roots of everything:
shining Zeus, enlivening Hera, Aidoneus,
and Nestis, moistening mortal springs with her tears.
The stones should either have their Greek name inscribed on them or be of an appropriate color, as derived from the Galenic humours.
Fire = (πῦρ pur) = hot and dry = yellow
Air = (ἀήρ aer) = hot and wet = red
Earth = (γῆ ge) = cold and dry = black
Water = (ὕδωρ hudor) = cold and wet = white
Draw the stone out to determine where the root cause of the problem lies and then roll the die to determine the nature of the cleansing that needs to be prescribed.
1. Pass fire over the body.
2. Walk on coals.
3. Write your afflictions down on scraps of paper and then give them to the fire.
4. Burn an effigy of your enemy.
5. Keep a flame burning for a month.
6. Wear red clothing for a week and work on cultivating the fire within.
1. Fumigate with bay or other purifying herbs.
2. Cleanse using music.
3. Cleanse through prayer, singing or intoning words of power.
4. Burn incense every day for a month.
5. Devote yourself to intellectual study and practice mindfulness and meditation.
6. Cover your head, especially when you’re outside the home.
1. Apply sacred ash.
2. Cover with mud and sit upon the bare earth for three hours.
3. Make offerings to the ancestors.
4. Make offerings to the land-spirits.
5. Ground and center.
6. Thoroughly clean and put your home in order.
2. Cleanse with chernips.
3. Take a cleansing bath, with milk and appropriate herbs.
4. Bathe in a river.
5. Cleanse through tears.
6. Wear all white for a week.
Continuing the conversation on miasma and purity, a reader emailed me this morning asking if I would give examples of what I do in my own practice.(1)
It would be too cumbersome (and I suspect boring) to go into detail of what I do day by day, but I can describe how I prepare myself for a ritual and hopefully that will give some idea of the practicalities of purification within a regular practice. (2)
If I know that I have a ritual coming up, about three days before the ritual, I start preparing. I’ll make sure that the shrine cloths, sacred statues, icons, etc. offering bowls and any other accouterments that I require are clean and in good working order. I’ll also make a list of what offerings I need to acquire and make sure I do that well before the day of the rite (except for flowers. Flowers I tend to buy the morning of a ritual in order to make sure that they are fresh). Once all that is done, I turn to getting myself into the right headspace.
The whole point of avoiding miasma, (and taking care of it quickly when it occurs) is to avoid being in a state that isn’t conducive to the presence of the Gods. Miasma can impact our headspace, our attitude, our energy, our discernment and shift us ever so slightly (or depending on the level of miasma greatly) out of true. We avoid miasma to maintain the best relationship possible with our Holy Powers. When we can’t avoid miasma (and we can’t – it happens as natural side effect to certain things. (3)), it’s important to cleanse it quickly.
So about three days before a ritual, I start taking care with what I read and watch on tv. I’m easily affected by what I take in visually. Under normal circumstances I read and watch what I want (within reason. I don’t want to pollute my mind so I tend to avoid exposing myself to certain things, particularly things that are really really violent. I don’t want the images in my brain) but since I know that I can be affected by media, I’ll limit myself for a couple days approaching ritual. This helps me to get into and maintain a good headspace for approaching the Gods.
I clean my house and make sure I have clean clothes for the ritual. All energetic cleaning begins first with physical cleaning, at least insofar as I was taught. So I’ll take cleansing baths for three days approaching the ritual. While I take regular cleansing baths anyway, usually with white salt or pink Himalayan salt (I find that different salts tend to be more or less intense in their esoteric cleansing properties) before a ritual, I’ll use black lava salt (which I find very strong). Sometimes I’ll also take beer baths – pouring a bottle of dark beer into my bath. It’s a German folk custom that really works like a charm (no pun intended) for cleansing or do some other type of cleansing bath recipe.
I don’t isolate myself during this time. I go about my normal day, work, school, art classes, whatever needs to be done, but I try to do so mindfully. When I get home, I take a bit more care than normal over what I watch or read. I aim to eat healthily and get enough sleep (not doing the latter is one of my migraine triggers and I don’t want to get sick the day of a ritual). I also increase prayers and personal offerings to whatever Deity or Deities for Whom we’re doing the ritual. I may also read Their stories and prayers to Them if I have any.
The day of a ritual, I get up early and set up the altar for the ritual. I go get flowers and whatever last minute items I decide I need and then I sequester myself for a little bit. I take a cleansing bath, dress in clean clothes (usually, if it doesn’t violate any of my taboos, in colors significant to the Deity or Deities involved). Then I take a half hour or so to ground and center myself, pray, and get into proper ritual headspace. Before the ritual begins, I’ll cleanse myself (usually with mugwort recaning or a fire blessing if it’s a Heathen rite, khernips if it’s cultus deorum) and partake of the rite. The only unusual thing that I sometimes find myself doing is covering my head in the days leading up to the rite, and especially the day of – all the more so if it’s a heavy ancestor rite. I find this helps my focus.
Afterwards, I usually have to have time by myself again. I find the transition out of ritual space and back into regular quotidian space difficult sometimes. I’ll often take a cleansing bath again almost immediately afterwards, wrap up in soft, warm, and comfy clothes (the rattier the better LOl, you know, the ones you wear all the time) and get something to eat and drink.
For regular daily veneration and devotional work, I am not at all as diligent. I’ll usually lay out all my preparations (offerings, etc.), do a ritual cleansing (often just head and hands), meditate for a time, and then get on with things. But it depends. I do tend to avoid television, computer, and other media for an hour or so before any type of devotional work. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these things, but doing so helps me get into the appropriate focus.
Of course if I do anything to put myself in significant miasma (and this can happen during good and right things. For instance, when I visit a cemetery and make offerings I’m doing right by the dead, but because I’ve entered a place of the dead, I’m in a state of miasma. I need to do a special cleansing when I return), then I do special cleansings (and I’ll divine if I don’t know what the best type of cleansing to do might be). Otherwise, this is pretty much it. The only other thing that I do is divination before the rituals to see if anything special is required, and afterwards to make sure all offerings were accepted. I also have divination done for myself quarterly to make sure I’m not missing anything in my devotional life.
So I hope that answers my reader’s question. Feel free to shoot me any further questions if you have them, and let me know what you all do. I’d be very interesting in learning new ways to handle miasma and pollution.
- I use the term miasma for spiritual pollution. It is a neutral term (i.e. miasma is not sin, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, etc.) but it is Hellenic. Most of our traditions have some concept of purification but I find the term ‘miasma’ to be the most comprehensive (granted, this may be due to familiarity given my training as a Classicist). I would very much encourage people to see what the working terminology is or might be (we might have to do some linguistic research) within your own traditions. I plan to do this as soon as I have a spare moment with Heathenry. We know that pre-Christians Heathens had these concepts of purity and pollution (why sanctify a space with fire if it is already clean? Likewise, we have alternate names for two of our creator Gods (Vili, and Ve) that speak to inherent holiness and integrity. These are concepts that point in some way to the idea of miasma/pollution. We’re not as blessed as the Hellenics and cultus deorum folks out there in having a plethora of surviving material written by Heathens—a significant portion of our lore was written after conversion and little of it deals with religious praxis—but we can still infer a great deal from what we do have extant.
- Of course, purification isn’t something to worry about only when we are about to do a ritual. It’s important on a day by day too, for spiritual, emotional, and even physical health and well being.
- This doesn’t mean we’re bad or tainted, but it does mean that we’re miasmic and need to do the requisite cleansings.
One cannot be too concerned with purification. While the term ‘miasma’ is specifically Hellenic, the idea of ritual purification is not restricted to Hellenic Polytheism. The idea that we should be ritually clean of pollution both physical and spiritual when we go before our Gods is found in many, many polytheistic traditions.
Our Gods deserve the best we can possibly give Them, that includes taking the time to both prepare ourselves for approaching our shrines and for ritual engagement, and being mindful of pollution on an ongoing basis.
If this is too difficult, maybe find another religion that doesn’t have such baseline standards, or a religion that doesn’t give the Gods any thought at all.
Yesterday I posted a piece on miasma and pollution and one of the comments was so insightful, so cleanly and clearly summed up the issue with respect to our communities that I sought permission of the author to pull it out and post it here as a separate piece.
“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 orthodoxy which is centered 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-centered 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 center 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.” (V. Carper)
Bingo: laughing at miasma is a sign of impiety. I couldn’t have said it better myself. The rest of the commentary is equally spot on. There’s a lot of food for thought here.
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.
With Many Gods West coming up this coming weekend, author PSVL offers good, solid advice here.
“Miasma is unavoidable when going through life; but the miasma which is created by deliberate negligence and impiety is something else entirely, whether you think it is or not. Even if you have no part in creating that miasma, it can impact you. This has been the case in most polytheist cultures, from ancient Greece to modern Shinto, and we ignore it now at our peril.”
Well said, PSVL, and good for you for writing this. The suggestions for attendees are solid across the board here.