Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness
I feel weird whenever people come to me with questions about miasma and ritual purity because it really emphasizes how different my spiritual path is from the one that so many others walk. A lot of the advice I end up giving isn’t actually stuff that I myself do because, frankly, most people have no business doing the kind of stuff that I do unless they’ve undergone the sort of initiations that I have. Even then it’s a fine line and there are dangerous consequences for straying too far. I’ve run into some real trouble over the years because of what I’ve been called to do, the energies I work with – and that has given me a unique perspective on why some of these rules are in place.
These customs provide a buffer between us and the elemental forces of creation which is necessary because too deep or prolonged an exposure to such power warps the soul and diminishes our humanity, making it harder to function in ordinary society. These rules and practices are a way back to regular life and consciousness, a process of reintegration and the reestablishment of order to our personal world. Most forms of miasma, after all, are concerned with the boundaries of mortality: birth, sex, death, madness, etc.
Although contact with these things pollutes us it is important to keep in mind that this pollution carries with it no moral stigma. Miasma is not a state of sin from which we are in desperate need of deliverance – in fact we often have moral and religious obligations to engage in activities that cause pollution as when we conduct the proper ceremonies of mourning for the deceased (which their posthumous fate may depend on) or a soldier doing one’s duty for their homeland and people or couples begetting children to ensure that the family line continues and there will be future generations to honor the gods and ancestors. Even though these acts are right and necessary they still impart miasma and that impurity must be ritually addressed.
Our modern culture has lost its innate sense of the sacred and the rituals by which this territory is navigated. Without them, people have a much harder time finding their way back. Consider how many women suffer from postpartum depression or all the military personnel whose lives are destroyed by PTSD or the folks who years later are still grieving the loss of a loved one. It’s because these individuals experienced a violent rupture with the ordinary and yet were thrust right back into the currents of life without anything marking their internal transformation, no means of ritually demarcating this passage from one state to another. They are expected to behave as if everything has gone back to normal even though their experiences have left them feeling as if nothing is the way it was before and never will be again. I do not mean to suggest that miasma and the rituals associated with it are purely psychological, therapy through theater. There’s a whole lot more going on there, particularly on an esoteric spiritual level – but it isn’t necessary to understand all of that to see the tangible benefits that come with performing these ceremonies.
There also seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the role of the gods in all of this. Some people are profoundly bothered by the notion that miasma interrupts our relationship with them. They argue that when we are in such a state we are often most in need of the comforting presence of our divinities, so the idea that they would distance themselves from us is doubly cruel. This often brings up a lot of unresolved mental baggage people have held on to from their Christian upbringing, notions of divine judgment and wrath and never being good enough, pure enough, pious enough to warrant love and acceptance.
First off, I would say that a lot of people don’t understand what miasma precluded in antiquity. It was primarily concerned with access to holy places such as groves, mountains, wayside shrines and temples. The temples in particular were regarded as the abodes of the gods and repositories of their awesome power and consequently for a person to set foot in them required that person to undergo a greater than normal degree of purification, especially since religious functionaries were exposed to this power on a deeper level and a more regular basis than some random pilgrim visiting the site on a festival day. (Think about the extra precautions taken by dentists and x-ray technicians who are daily exposed to radiation. It’s such small doses that it won’t harm you if you’re just getting your teeth fixed but being constantly surrounded by it they have to act more carefully.) In fact most festivals were conducted outside the temple and most people were never permitted past a certain point within it and certainly not where the cult image was housed.
Most of the purity codes and sacred regulations that have come down to us are concerned with access to temples and the proper performance of priestly offices – not the affairs of the average citizen and how they conducted their personal worship in front of their domestic shrine. No matter how deep in a state of miasma one was in they could still pray to their gods and perform rudimentary ritual actions. Indeed purification would not have been possible without carrying out these ceremonies so it is absurd to suggest that one should cease all religious activity while in this state. Indeed we have accounts of the gods and spirits making numerous battlefield epiphanies and coming to the aid of women in distressed labor and all manner of things like that, so just because a playwright used a goddess abandoning her chosen hero as he expired as a plot device does not mean that we should surmise that the gods will have nothing to do with us while we are polluted. It can certainly be more difficult to feel their presence or receive communications from them at such times, but I suspect that this has more to do with impurity clouding our perception than it does divinities actively disengaging from us.
However, even if that is the case I would argue that it is their prerogative to do so as gods. They are not obligated to shower us with attention and blessings and if they do not desire to or cannot because of something within their nature bear witness to such events, it is their right to remove themselves from that situation. They may even be doing so as a boon to us, however much it may not seem like that at the time. Facing such things alone gives us a sort of tragic dignity, allows us to suffer and experience what we must in solitude. While in such a state we are rarely at our best. It can be messy and gross and full of emotional turmoil, our thoughts erratic and perhaps expressing things we would never tolerate from ourselves ordinarily. I’d much rather have Dionysos take a step back, let me get my shit in order and really deal with things the way I need to and then approach him when I’m ready than feel the weight of his presence looming over me, observing the whole sordid and nasty ordeal. I am not actually permitted such grace because of the nature of our relationship, which requires me to be open to him always, in all things in my life – but that’s a discussion for another time. Instead of angrily berating the gods for their perceived absence at such times, we should view it as the kindness it truly is.
Lastly I would say that even if we do not feel that such periods of withdrawal and reintegration marked by our rituals of purification are necessary, we should still do them anyway.
It is a sign of respect, a demonstration of our willingness to be at our best when we come before the holy powers, an extension of hospitality which should govern all of our interactions with others regardless of their place in the great chain of being. If you were going to have an audience with an important person would you show up in filthy, ratty clothes, hair a mess, stinking of the brothel or worse? Hopefully not! (And if you answered yes, consider yourself permanently uninvited to all rituals – and hell, all social engagements – I host. Unless you’re a sadhu or something similar. Then we’re cool.)
Unless you’re some kind of stank ass trifling fool you’re going to put some thought and effort into your appearance and be on your best behavior while around them. Certainly the gods are worthy of the same decorum you would show to a politician or celebrity or your boss at work – indeed I’d say they are due even greater consideration!
More, the act of carrying out these preliminary rites of purification help focus the mind and prepare oneself for the solemnity of the devotion one is about to engage in. Even if it’s just taking a couple moments to quietly center and set the tone by sprinkling some sacred water, fumigating with aromatic herbs, or scattering the barley that can be enough to shift from mundane to sacred mode. Those who neglect such attention to detail in their rites often do not have very satisfying religious lives.
So that’s my take on all of this. Although I am a lot more comfortable with impurity than most people – indeed much of my work involves activities and cultivating mental and spiritual states that are deeply miasmic, which I won’t go into here as it’s not relevant to other people’s practice – I still observe basic protocol in such matters, especially when I am engaged in worship for divinities other than Dionysos and Arachne or worshiping alongside human people. I do these rites, in fact, for all but my most spontaneous and informal devotional activities because the mental and spiritual benefits they bring about more than make up for the minuscule inconvenience involved in doing them. In fact, I’ll go through the steps even when I’m just planning to make standard offerings at my shrine and then spend the evening drinking and smoking while in a loose devotional headspace because this act helps set my intent.
None of this is overly complicated despite people’s tendency to over-think everything, which so often is what gets them in trouble. If you wait until you’ve got it all sorted out you’re never going to get anywhere. Just do what has been prescribed and trust that these traditions of our ancestors which flourished for thousands of years are effective and meaningful even if you do not yet understand why. Only by immersing yourself in and directly engaging with these traditions will that understanding come to you, if it is meant to.
I’d like to close with a few words about religious prescriptions or taboos (keeping in mind that the English taboo is quite different from the Polynesian tapu.) You can tell a lot about the path a person is on and the Powers they serve through the taboos they observe, which is why one of the first conversations I have with other devotees, priests, god-spouses or spirit-workers is a run down of what is tabooed to them.
Taboos serve a number of vitally important functions. To begin with they are a kind of perpetual sacrifice and I do not mean sacrifice in the modern sense of “to give up something of value” although that is certainly a component of this, but rather in the original sense of the Latin which is “to make sacred” or “to give over to the gods.” Adhering to taboos blurs the artificial boundaries we set up between mundane and spiritual existence. It is saying that my religion is so deeply woven into the fabric of my life that it influences my choices about what I wear, what I eat and drink, what I purchase, what activities I engage in and so forth. I am mindful of the gods and spirits always, not just when I’m standing before their shrine in worship. It is saying that they matter more to me than my own desires and convenience.
Taboos also strengthen the bonds of solidarity that one shares with one’s co-religionists, assuming that one’s taboos are communal in nature and not personally imposed by one’s gods and spirits. For instance it was common among ancient Dionysians to abstain from wool garments and avoid certain animal foods. Other Greeks did not have these restrictions and so it marked the Dionysians off as a separate people, sometimes subject to mockery by society at large. In order to maintain their unique identity some Dionysians went so far as to establish their own private cemeteries so that the blessed initiates need not spend eternity in the company of the impure. Likewise it was only by scrupulously observing the customs of their ancestors that the Jews managed to preserve their autonomy in the face of such prolonged and bitter attempts to assimilate and eradicate them.