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.
I spent most of the day watching the news about Munich and then I found out about an attack on an indigenous holy site (by Christians) and an attack on a Wiccan Church and I actually felt as though the chaos and hatred were seeping into my veins. Every time we turn on the news it seems like there’s another attack. I think that we should be aware and engaged, but I also think we need to take care that we tend to ourselves as well, otherwise we will be consumed by the poison. It is poison, pollution, I would go so far as to say miasma. That being said, I know that I need to be much more careful how much time I allow myself to read the news. I’m only now realizing how much of an issue this is. Let me tell you a story.
Someone recommended a book to me last week. I got it and read it in one sitting and it infuriated me. It was the story of a girl who fled poverty and a bi-polar mother and alcoholic father (at the very least in terms of diagnoses) to the city only to have them track her down to “reunite the family.” it angered me so much I wanted to string the parents up and inflict upon them he same type of brutality they had inflicted upon their child through their own incompetence, unacknowledged mental health challenges, and unresolved issues. The story was autobiographical to the author which gave it that much more power. I was just wrathful after reading it and after I’d raged for awhile, Sannion told me to go do a cleansing. He’s got really good instincts so I did and afterwards I realized I’d absorbed miasma from the story that I’d been exposed to. It’s almost like virulent second hand smoke. The ideas, images, and emotional impact got in even though I was just reading words on a page. It shifted my internal world, my emotions and psyche around in a way that I was no longer centered or clean. I was no longer in a state of proper spiritual receptivity. I had to do a cleansing. If reading a book — however good and evocative it might be–can do that, how much more so can the constant barrage of hate and violence that is filling our world: black men being shot, cops being shot, terrorist attacks in major cities the world over, destruction of sacred places, and more on and on and on every single day. We can be affected by what we take in.
Tonight, I ended up getting my ass offline and going to dinner and a movie with my husband. I needed to cleanse my mind of the violence that I was imbibing. I had a ton of work I wanted to do, but having that moment where I could reset myself was more important. I can’t do clean work if i’m not clean myself. I can go back and read the news and ponder these things and write and engage later but for my own spiritual health, i needed to step back. I think it’s important that we do that from time to time. Get offline, read a book, watch a funny movie, go spend time with family and friends, go make offerings to the Gods, go for a walk in the woods — whatever restores your soul.
I also think that we can do something else. A long time ago, Sannion posted his “laws of Sannion” and I was amused and read them and thought ‘damn, that’s pretty good advice.” One of them is to redress the balance. How can we do that when there is so much horror in the world? I don’t know what answers each of you will come up with, but for me, i’ve decided that every time I see or read or hear something horrible, I’m going to go out and do some unexpected kindness for a random person. It’s a small thing, but it is a way of redressing the balance in myself and in my world at large — my territory if you will. I think that these things create ripples and those ripples expand outward, circles within circles and they do affect the wyrd.
That is all. Just…learn from my experience and don’t internalize the fear and hatred. We can address it most thoughtfully and efficiently if we do not in the end bow our heads and hearts to it, and that takes constant effort.
Recently in a discussion thread, the comment was made specifically with respect to polytheism, that “purity is overrated.” Nothing could be further from the truth and I was so taken aback by the comment (it really does highlight so well the issues facing our communities today), that I decided it required a response. After all, Purity is, in fact, essential to piety. It is the core of solid polytheistic practice. (1)
Purity is defined as “the condition or quality of being pure; freedom from anything that debases, contaminates, pollutes, etc.” (2). It is from the Latin purus, -a, -um, meaning ‘clean, free from filth, unstained, undefiled.’ (3) The opposite of purity is pollution and miasma.
Keeping ourselves and our practices free of miasma is essential for clear signal clarity with the Gods and ancestors. It’s what enables us to build and restore our traditions in ways that are both sustainable and pleasing to our Gods. It should be one of the defining factors—actually, I think it’s not too strong to say pre-requisites—for devotional practice. We should want to be as clean, i.e. as ‘pure’ as possible in our relations with our Gods and in our traditions. (4)
Restoration is a process of building something and why on earth would anyone of commitment and sense choose to build on a foundation that wasn’t solid and clean? So when someone says ‘purity is overrated’ I have to step back because not in polytheistic practice it isn’t.
- There are some practitioners whose work specifically with transgressive practices. Obviously, different standards apply there.
- See this entry.
- See the entry for purus, a, um
- It can also help us in determining what is actually a God or spirit and what is simply the sock puppets in our heads; with the prevalence of pop-culture ‘paganism’ I can think of no more important skill.