Dionysian Purity

Dionysian Purity
by Sannion

What role should miasma play in the devotional life of an average Dionysian?

Well, first off, I don’t think that there is such a thing as an “average Dionysian.” We are all unique, our experiences with him are unique and what he expects and requires of us is unique. That means that if you want to know what you should be doing for him the person you need to be going to about this isn’t Sannion but Dionysos himself. And if you don’t have a strong enough connection to him that you can just ask and reasonably expect an accurate response (or if there’s some other temporary reason why your signal clarity is bad) you can always resort to divination (that’s why it’s there!) or consult someone who is a diviner or doing oracular work whose results you respect and trust. (That’s why they are there!) Alternately you can ask him to show you through signs and such or just experiment and figure out what works and why through trial and error.

Another important option is to look back at what the ancient Dionysians did and build up your practices from that since it’s fairly safe to assume that an approach that proved successful for them is still more or less going to meet with favor from the god, keeping in mind two caveats: (1) gods, like anyone else, are capable of changing their minds over time (whether they actually have or not is an entirely separate matter, but to deny them such agency deprives them of personhood and that seems the height of impiety to me); as well as (2) context is everything.

Even if they had not reached our level of saturation, the Greeks were a highly literate people so we have an abundance of primary source material to draw upon – material that comes from and reflects all strata of their society. In fact, we have far more of this material than folks seeking to restore and breathe new life into the polytheistic traditions of the ancient Celtic, Slavic and Germanic peoples. And luckily enough for us, much of it has to do with the cult of Dionysos.

Therefore it is absolutely vital that one know how to evaluate this material within its proper context.

Where does this text come from, what was going on at the time of its composition, what is the agenda of its author, how well does it reflect wider cultural norms, etc., are the type of questions that we should be asking ourselves any time that we read an ancient source. (And reading that source in translation should bring up all sorts of other questions.)

For instance, we may derive an understanding about certain aspects of domestic Dionysian cultus (a topic sadly under-discussed if you ask me) by reading accounts of Olympias or Pompeiia Agrippinilla or what was done during Anthesteria – but in the case of Anthesteria you’ve got a specific festival dealing with inversion, transgression and pollution; Pompeiia Agrippinilla was a wealthy noblewoman who led a private mystic cult association; and Olympias was fairly unconventional even by the standards of Hellenistic royalty, considering the degree of zealousness with which her piety manifested. (Many preferred to call her superstitious since her piety drew on primitive Thraco-Makedonian traditions and had a strong Orphic influence.) None of these will give you a proper indication of what a simple Dionysian on the streets of Athens might have done or believed.

Likewise a lot of information comes from private cult associations, whether those dedicated to enacting certain mysteries or groups consisting of nothing more than a bunch of guys who liked to get out of the house from time to time, get drunk, make business contacts, perform weird rituals that outsiders weren’t privy to and have their funerals paid for and attended by members of the club as we find, for instance, in the Athenian Iobacchoi whose statutes read like something from the Masons or Oddfellows.

It is also important to remain mindful of the distinctions between private and civic cultus, as well as the special requirements to gain admittance to a temple. Most of the information we have, in fact, is concerned with these temples and reading through that material makes one thing abundantly clear. Each temple operated as an autonomous and localized body and a number of factors shaped what constituted an acceptable degree of purity for that temple. For instance we never find just a temple to Dionysos, even if it’s referred to that way for the sake of convenience by later commentators or even contemporary sources. What you find is a temple to Dionysos en Limnaios or Dionysos Bakcheios or Dionysos Aisymnetes or Dionysos Psilax and so on and so forth. Each epiklesis refers to a different form of the god and each of those forms had specific functions and associations that distinguished it from the others. Therefore purity requirements were specially tailored to enable the individual to come into the presence of the god and align with him in this particular form. And while there were broad commonalities there were also instances of considerable divergence, which could result in conflicting requirements among the temples. This is why most temples had a long list of sacred regulations posted at the entrance so that visitors would know what had to be done for them to be in the proper state to proceed beyond that point and people didn’t just assume, “Since Dionysos and I are buds I don’t have to obey the rules!” or “This is how we did it back home, so by gum this is how I’m gonna do it here!”

That just isn’t how ancient religion works.

I was first compelled to think seriously about these matters a number of years ago when I encountered a sacred law code from a Dionysion (temple of Dionysos) in Roman Asia Minor. At least, that’s where I think the temple was located, but it’s been a while and I unfortunately didn’t bother to write the information down at the time, something I’ve been kicking myself over ever since. So they’re going through the sorts of things you find in these codes – if you’ve eaten such and such food you are considered impure for so many days, you must abstain from sex with your wife for X number of days, Y for a free person and Z for a slave. (Interestingly, although this is a concern in the temples of most of the Greek gods, a number of Dionysian temple codes leave out any mention of sex though they exhaustively cover other areas, suggesting that Dionysos might not have had the same concerns in this area that his fellows did. Except that there are also plenty of inscriptions that do mention it.) And then I read something that stopped me short: a woman who aborts her fetus is liable to the same degree of impurity as a murderer.

What made this so shocking is that you simply do not find that distinction made anywhere else. Not in other Dionysions and as far as I’m aware not in the temples of any of the other Greek gods either. The translator of the text was just as surprised by it and remarked that unlike us the Greeks generally did not regard fetuses as independent living beings and it only became a child once it was acknowledged and accepted by the father. Even after birth children were legally treated as the property of their parents (read father) with infant exposure being a common practice, especially among the lower classes for whom resources were scarce. And yet at this temple, at least, all life was sacred and the mother had to undergo extensive purification before she was permitted to return.

The translator, unfortunately, did not include any details about the form of Dionysos honored at the temple, though it is interesting to note that the young (whether human or animal) are given a special place within the cult of Dionysos. Think about the maenads nursing baby animals, the imagery and rites associated with Dionysos as Zagreus and Liknites, the way that children received their first tastes of wine on Choes, participated in grand civic processions at the Dionysia and Oschophoria and underwent rites of passage and new clothing representing their new status in the Italian Liberalia and similar festivals in Greece. But what really drives home the point is that the greatest punishment meted out by the god in myth was to drive a person insane so that they slew and usually cannibalized their children. Although this inscription is perhaps unique within the realm of Greek religion it isn’t all that surprising that a temple of Dionysos would demonstrate such concern over young life.

Of course I bring this up to demonstrate the diversity that one finds within the cult of the god, not to suggest that Dionysos somehow hates women who have had abortions. It may have simply been that the form of Dionysos honored there was especially or primarily concerned with promoting fertility, and abortion – by definition – is the antithesis of fertility. Or that it was felt that women who terminated their pregnancies needed the psychological consolation that going through rites of passage and purification ceremonies confer and this wasn’t being properly addressed within the society at large so they instituted these special rituals. Or something. The truth is we don’t know anything more than that someone in charge of putting together this compilation of sacred law for this particular Dionysion felt the need to include such a clause. We don’t even know how rigorously it was enforced.

And that is why I don’t think it is particularly helpful to take a single written source and extrapolate about Dionysian worship in general from it. As a rough guideline, sure. But when things were clearly done differently depending on when and where you’re at and there was often massive contradictions involved, a little more thought needs to be put in if you’re going to do Dionysos worship properly.

In order to understand why it’s necessary for miasma to be removed you need to understand what miasma is.

Miasma is not sin and for the most part it is a morally neutral condition. Obviously there are certain acts such as murder, blasphemy, sacrilege and attending marriages that are simply wrong as well as being miasmic but the miasma produced by these acts is quite apart from their wrongness and most forms of miasma simply arise from our natural human condition. They’re what happen when we brush up against the boundaries of mortality – birth, sex, illness, madness, death all impart it, yet life would not be possible without them. So don’t think of miasma as an inherently bad thing – it’s just something that repulses the divine like a pair of magnets turned back to back or more accurately it clouds our perception so that we have difficulty discerning their presence around us.

If it helps you conceptualize it better, envision miasma as a spiritual substance, something analogous to a cloudy mist or dirty film that collects around us like soap scum or a black, sticky resin that’s incredibly difficult to get off your fingers once it’s there. It’s like the afterbirth of creation, the sweat of mortality – and when left to accumulate it befuddles the senses, makes you dull and dense, dragging you down. Just as you’d want to be clean if you were meeting an honored guest (let alone a romantic partner!) so should you desire to come before your gods and spirits in a clean state.

The most effective way to remove miasma is by performing rituals of purification. These rituals always contain a physical component, because the Greeks understood physical and spiritual as part of a continuum, as Suda s.v. Hêraïskos makes clear:

Hence his life also reached such a point that his soul always resided in hidden sanctuaries as he practiced not only his native rites in Egypt but also those of other nations, wherever there was something left of these. Heraiskos became a Bakchos, as a dream designated him and he traveled widely, receiving many initiations. Heraiskos actually had a natural talent for distinguishing between religious statues that were animated and those that were not. For as soon as he looked at one his heart was struck by a sensation of the divine and he gave a start in his body and his soul, as though seized by the god. If he was not moved in such a fashion then the statue was soulless and had no share of divine inspiration. In this way he distinguished the secret statue of Aion which the Alexandrians worshiped as being possessed by the god, who was both Osiris and Adonis at the same time according to some mystical union. There was also something in Heraiskos’ nature that rejected defilements of nature. For instance, if he heard any unclean woman speaking, no matter where or how, he immediately got a headache, and this was taken as a sign that she was menstruating.

You purify by manipulating natural and primordial elements. Look at what the Greeks purified with – fire and water and fragrance and plant matter and sound and movement and blood and mud and wool and oil and milk and wine and many other similar things, the more effective ones combining a variety of methods. There was always something real to it. You don’t purify by thinking happy thoughts and reciting some pretty rhyming couplets. You gotta dislodge that shit! No reason you can’t take a sacred bath and smudge and asperge yourself and the area with chernips and then again with wine while chanting the epithets of your god and dancing. No such thing as being “too pure” unless you happen to be on certain particular paths, I say.

I strongly recommend that folks experiment with different methods and combinations of methods in order to determine what works best for them and their divinities. Note how you feel while you’re doing it, once you’ve moved on to the devotional or working portion of the ritual and also once everything has commenced. Sometimes it’s only much later on that we realize, “Hey, my spirits have lifted, everything seems cleaner, fresher, less stagnant; I don’t feel all closed in, my connection to the gods has improved, and why even my luck is getting better!” Should you find yourself saying that, I think it safe to assume that you have properly conducted a purification. But if you’re in doubt, you can always confirm it through divination.

Once you’ve hit on something that works you should stick with it so that that set of ritual actions will accumulate the power and weight of tradition through repetition. Don’t worry if your practices seem piecemeal and unlike what the ancients did because there’s no way to perfectly recreate what they did. You may have a proper replica oil lamp and incense-burner but do you have a black puppy you’re willing to cut in half? No? I didn’t think so. Besides, innovation and cobbling stuff together is exactly what the ancients did!

There wasn’t one all-purpose purification ritual that they used. People drew on a common body of practices and concepts, but with enough flexibility that they could adapt it to meet the needs of the situation. In fact it was the job of religious specialists to advise and direct people through this process or create something new if circumstances so required. It’s interesting to watch the novel ways that these disparate elements were combined so that you find widely divergent groups doing roughly the same things. Therefore as long as you’re drawing from the well of tradition and make an effort to understand what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it and are careful not to bring together disharmonious elements I think you should be alright, regardless of what you end up doing. And if you aren’t successful do more and try different things.

You should also make an effort to avoid contamination as much as possible leading up to a big ritual. The attention that doing so requires will help you remain focused and mindful, making for a better ritual experience in general. Any time that such exposure is unavoidable – as it so often is, especially if you’re leading a rich and deeply engaged life – then you should absolutely take the precaution of doing purification because even if you don’t feel it that doesn’t mean the miasma isn’t there.

In fact miasma can result from internal conditions beyond our control as much as anything external, so unless you’ve got total mastery of your thoughts and emotions – and if we’re honest, none of us can claim that – you’re probably walking around in a low-grade state of miasma all the time.

Unless you have a prior arrangement with the divinity and are constantly doing devotions at their shrine you should at least perform a minimal level of purification any time that you approach them, any time that you set foot in their territory. At the very least you are demonstrating right protocol and proper respect through your actions and it helps signify to yourself that you are leaving behind the concerns and bounds of mundane existence in order to engage in holy activity. It helps set your intent and focus and all of us, no matter how experienced and intimate we are with the gods, require that. (If you got crystal clear voices in your head 24/7 you’re either a saint or a fucking lunatic.) That’s why when I’m doing anything beyond the most casual and spontaneous of devotions (and plenty of times even then) I start off with some form of purification, no matter how simple, especially if I’m doing something at a shrine or for a divinity outside of my very small personal pantheon.

Holiness and power emanate from a shrine that is enlivened by worship. Think of it as a benevolent radiation that spills out from the presence of a divinity, it’s charis or grace. This is why we must be in a pure state to approach the shrine.

Consequently that means that whatever comes into contact with the shrine takes those qualities into itself. Thus something like a food offering, an ex voto or any of the material objects that constitute the shrine must thereafter be treated differently than you would ordinary objects. Since the shrine is essentially a foothold of the deity in this world and a battery that collects and stores up their abundant life energy that is produced during manifestation (varying in degree with the level at which that occurs) it is necessary to maintain a clean and orderly shrine and remove perishable objects before they succumb to decay and rot, as these belong to the antithesis of life. (Even if death is what life arises from, they exist on different frequencies and so repulse each other. It is also worth noting that there are gods and especially spirits who are not life-aligned and their spaces will naturally require different treatment.)

Since these objects have soaked up the effulgence of divinity, when it comes time to dispose of them one must treat them with special care. In my article “After the Smoke Clears” I outlined a variety of methods for properly disposing of these offerings, but I believe that the most appropriate method is to burn or bury them or add them to composting if that is possible. It is also permissible to expose them provided that they are biodegradable and are not toxic to the animals of the area. Whatever method you employ, be sure to remove the items in a timely fashion so that they do not pollute the shrine through their decay. Even if you are not concerned with the religious purity aspect, it’s slovenly and disgusting to let rotten shit just sit there in your home stinking up the place. And while I’m loathe to speak on behalf of the gods and spirits I can tell you that I’d be offended if someone claimed to be keeping space sacred for me but couldn’t be arsed to look after it or remove stuff before it got all slimy and stinky. But who knows, there could be gods and spirits out there who aren’t bothered by that sort of thing or hell even require it of their devotees. Y’all know about Demeter’s pig pit, right?

The reason I’m so fond of the idea of composting perishable offerings is because it puts them back into the web of life and what’s more it does so while those items are imbued with divine potency. Imagine if you raised your own plants which were then offered to your divinities – plants that were nourished on the offerings of the past. That is a powerful chain you are creating there and if you share some of those offerings in a feast with your divinities then you’ll be taking even more of that divine potency into you, bringing you yourself more directly into the web. It’s like a concrete expression of charis, the reciprocal relationship we maintain with the gods and spirits. Something that I feel is the heart of true piety.