A little rant on miasma

Taking a break from answering questions for a moment to comment upon this gem I recently found via someone on Tumblr (of course). The thread is about miasma. Now, I understand that this is a complex topic, difficult to fully understand without having been brought up in the ancient Greek worldview. But that isn’t an excuse for throwing it out the window because it doesn’t conform with our expectations. Instead, that should be a cue to look deeper. I’m feeling in a ranty mood right now, so let me respond to a few of the comments in this thread:

“I work with a very sexy-times kind of god. He has literally gotten His followers to rip a human being to pieces for Him. And His birth was kind of a big deal. I have a hard time understanding how birth, death, and sex would offend Him.”

The Greek gods are not monolithic in Their expectations, requirements and preferences. Dionysos (and I think that’s who we’re talking about here) is pretty well known for breaking most of the rules, which is why even in antiquity people were uncomfortable with Him. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can automatically assume He won’t maintain certain rules, nor can you apply the same attitude to any of the other gods.

Also “I have a hard time understanding X” is not actually a good reason for not abiding by X when it comes to the gods. A cause for further exploration, direct questioning, research, etc., sure. But the gods are beyond our ken, ultimately. To honor Them sometimes means doing things we don’t fully understand, because They’ve indicated that’s what They want of us. It’s not all about us, or how we feel or think or what we get out of it.

“I work with Hekate when dealing with spirit-work, death, and necrolatry so the preparation of my skulls and spirit vessels would be included in that work, but the miasma connected to those skulls should mean I avoid worship.”

Actually, not only is Hekate also a somewhat marginal deity and tends to have Her own set of rules, but animal death was not regarded the same as human death (nor was all human death regarded the same – much greater miasma applied to murder, for instance). Otherwise, how could they have conducted animal sacrifices on the bomos in front of a temple in the sacred precinct?

“Someone explained it to me once as a way of ensuring that we were fully engaged in worship; if we just experienced death, or birth, or even sex, our minds were probably occupied with ideas related to that and we weren’t giving our due respect and attention to the gods.”

That might seem like a nice thought, that once again makes it all about us and our internal landscape, but it has little basis in historical evidence. Miasma is not about how we feel about things. It’s a spiritual pollution, a FACT that happens regardless of our feelings. That spiritual pollution is anathema to many of the Hellenic gods. You may not like that, but it doesn’t change anything. Many of our gods tend to put a lot of distance between Themselves and the stink of mortality – which is most stinky during transitional times like birth and death. If it was just about our preoccupation, then there’d be no taint of miasma if someone close to you, but who you cared nothing for, died – but that’s not the case.

“I don’t understand how a religion that made such a big deal out of being part of the everyday lives of the people, would suddenly be uninterested in the most important moments of our lives.”

The religion as a whole isn’t uninterested – there are plenty of religious actions to take after death or birth. But the gods – at least, a good portion of Them – have made it clear that They do not want to be around those events until the pollution has been ritually cleared in a variety of ways They have prescribed. Yes, that means that sometimes the gods even abandon Their devotees at the moment of death, or when a crisis has happened. Sucks for us. But it’s not all about us. The gods do not exist solely to comfort us when we want or need it. They are not our therapists or our mothers. They are gods. They have power, and can affect things beyond our control and so we pray to Them and ask for help and give thanks when appropriate, and yes sometimes we also can develop a closer relationship, but that does not change what They are or mean that we as humans are the center of Their universe.

“If the best reasoning is that it is traditional, or that it was meant to keep people safe from the plague (which seems to be a big reason the Greeks were so big on cleanliness?), I think that a less than complete compliance with miasma rules is understandable in most cases.”

This person says “if” like there is not adequate information available, and all we can do is guess. I remind everyone that there are a TON of books about Greek religion, including an entire book written about miasma (Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion by Robert Parker). No, miasma has little to do with physical cleanliness or prevention of the plague. If it did, I think the rituals would be more involved then just sprinkling some special water on oneself, and it certainly wouldn’t matter if you had killed someone versus being near someone who died.

“What would be the difference in human bodily fluid in comparison to say, festival sacrifice which included a lot of blood and animal bodily fluid when the sacrifice was gutted before the altar in preparation for the fire? That’s death and bodily fluids all over the shop on sacred ground, yet the tiny amounts accrued by a living human being merely there for worship is somehow for offensive?”

Yes. I know that doesn’t make sense to a modern Westerner, but yes. That’s how they saw it. And that’s how the gods expressed Their expectations. Now, you can always go to a specific god and ask if those rules apply to your worship, and I can’t really argue if you get a reprieve, but there’s no cause to assume Their feelings have changed just because we don’t understand those feelings. IT’S NOT ABOUT US. Sometimes the gods are pretty damn alien – They are not humans, we need to remember that. Sometimes Their ways seem awful. You can choose not to worship Them. But you can’t pick and choose which of Their rules to follow just because you don’t understand, at least not if you want to be in right relationship with Them and truly respect Them.

(I should mention, as a sort of practical footnote to all of this, that a good deal of the rules governing miasma applied mainly to temples and sacred space, which were considered the homes of the gods Themselves. They did not necessarily apply to home worship, or internal prayer, or that sort of thing. I’d have to go back and do some re-reading to be more precise, but I believe there are not many prohibitions on daily prayer or small offerings or whatnot, compared to entering a temenos or participating in a state festival.)

~ by Dver on April 10, 2013.

24 Responses to “A little rant on miasma”

  1. >> “I work with Hekate when dealing with spirit-work, death, and necrolatry so the preparation of my skulls and spirit vessels would be included in that work, but the miasma connected to those skulls should mean I avoid worship.”

    >>Actually, not only is Hekate also a somewhat marginal deity and tends to have Her own set of rules, but animal death was not regarded the same as human death (nor was all human death regarded the same – much greater miasma applied to murder, for instance). Otherwise, how could they have conducted animal sacrifices on the bomos in front of a temple in the sacred precinct?

    Thank you for clarifying something that I’d been wondering for awhile. I also work with animal relics (not to mention that, since I am not a vegetarian, some of my meals involve meat of some sort, which is, of course, part of the dead bodies of animals.) I have been cleansing myself with khernips 3-6 times a day out of uncertainty; I would rather do it and not need it than need it, not do it, and offend the Deathless Ones.

    • Actually, that’s a good point – if animal death on its own created miasma, ancient Greeks would have had to purify themselves constantly whenever they ate a steak. No, I don’t think it was ever considered necessary just for handling dead animals. And as I said, most of the rules applied to temenoi anyway, not to home worship.

  2. Thank you, THANK YOU. Finally, someone who understands!

  3. I think a lot of pagans today are making the mistake of seeing the Gods(not necessarily just concerning the Greek god/desses) in a modern way!

  4. *applauds*

    I hate the whole “I have a hard time understanding X so I’m going to ignore it” type of argument when it comes to /anything/. It’s actually quite offensive, thinking the whole world has to be understandable to you or it doesn’t exist! I don’t understand, say, quantum physics – that doesn’t make the whole field of quantum physics disappear in a poof of smoke. :/

    • Well actually physicists don’t fully understand it!

    • Exactly. The “I don’t understand, so I’m going to act like it doesn’t apply to me” is the kind of response that most mature people realise is crap at some point in high school. I mean, seriously, think about it, when was the last time most people were in a conversation that went:

      Oneself: Why do I have to do this?
      Other: Because I asked you to.
      Oneself: But I don’t understand.
      Other: You will, eventually, now I asked you, so do it.
      Oneself: But why?????
      Other: We just went over this.
      Oneself: If I don’t get it, and you won’t tell me, then I’m not going to. If you won’t tell me why, then it’s not important!

      Seriously, most convos that go like that are with five-year-olds. A mature person would’ve ended it long before “but why???????” and gone and done it (assuming one wanrs to maintain a decent relationship with them). Cos why? Cos if the other asked you to do it, then obviously they need you to do it; whether or not you understand why they need you to do it is irrelevant.

      If people can be that mature about human relationships, why do they revert to toddlers when it’s the Gods?

  5. I’m not even of a Hellenic persuasion and I’m clapping.

    Honestly, thank you for explaining these bits of it. I happened to see the thread you’ve made mention of and I had to admit that I was quite confused by this miasma concept. In fact, usually, if I request Tumblr [Hellenic polytheists] to explain a concept that Kemetics, like myself, do not have, I end up confused.

  6. I’m actually currently reading said volume on miasma through interlibrary loan. I’ve only just started it, so I haven’t added much academia to the discussion, but did address this topic briefly. I don’t know if you’ve seen my comments, but they come from more of a “how to read and interpret” rather than a “do as the Gods will” sort of viewpoint. Thank you for that.

    • Actually, I found the thread via your Tumblr. :) It will be interesting to see what you can add after reading that book – it’s been a really long time since I read it so I’m rusty.

  7. (aaaand….I managed to close my browser halfway through writing this comment…fuck. Let’s try this again.)

    Considering that this entire post is pretty much a rebuttal to the things I posted, I feel I should make a reply here.

    Firstly, I just want to clarify; I am not, and probably never will be, a hard recon. I read and learn what I can, and I learn a lot from discussion (which is why I have no problem with your rebuttal here, especially considering how well-tempered and level-headed it came across…seriously though, thank you, because I might have honestly been a bit wrecked if you’d gone off the handle at me), but I don’t have the ‘researcher’s mind’ that I feel you need for so much reconstructionism. I never claimed to know more about miasma (or anything, really) than anyone. I have a lot to learn, but I am an incredibly slow reader and so historical texts are a slow-going thing in my practice, but I do what I can.

    That said, I feel like people (especially on the internet) often misinterpret the phrase “I don’t understand X” or “I have a hard time understanding X”. I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but when I say it, it isn’t in judgement or in confrontation (“omg, I can’t understand how anyone doesn’t drink only bottled water. Ick!”), I am honestly admitting that I don’t understand something. I may go on afterwards about how I understand it at that time, but that is only so that people can see where my head is and correct me, or at the very least discuss with me. I really mean “I don’t understand”.

    I don’t identify as a recon for the reasons I mentioned above, and because of that I also am honest about what I do ‘wrong’ by the standards I see elsewhere. Part of that honesty is owning my mistakes; so, if I end up eating godly shit for something I’ve said or done, I will own it and react accordingly. I know that I may be making mistakes, but a big part of my practice with Dionysus (however shallow it may seem it is from my very brief description in the thread you linked, because I was discussing with people who know my practice, so I was a bit glib) is to get out of my head, to give up a bit of control, and to actually do things. Stop stagnating. And so, I could take 6 months to read the book you suggested (and I probably will later, and it probably will take at least 6 months), and not do anything religious in the mean time. I could continue making excuses about perfect timing, perfect understanding, perfect research, perfect situations, and perfect lighting…or, I can get involved in my own spiritual life, and deal with the consequences of my choices. Does this mean I never research before I act? No.

    Now that I’ve said my piece regarding me, I really appreciate your point of view. It’s giving me some things to think about. I don’t agree with everything, but I’m not really concerned with that. I can’t count the myriad of relationships people have with any number of deities, I’m not here to try to make you see things ‘my way’.

    And, finally, to the person who said “I think a lot of pagans today are making the mistake of seeing the Gods(not necessarily just concerning the Greek god/desses) in a modern way!” Well, I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t think there is any mistake in bringing the gods into a modern context. If Dver and Sannion can reconstruct their path, but in a geographically modern context (‘I adore you, buffalo-faced’), why can’t others do it in other modern forms? If we see gods and goddesses evolve over time in ancient myths and historical texts, then why wouldn’t they evolve now? I mean this regarding miasma and the discussion above, sure, but I mean this regarding plenty of other things as well.

    • To my mind, if one is not a Recon, one doesn’t really need to deal with the issue of miasma at all. But *if* you’re going to deal with it, you have to really delve into it and not just dismiss it because it doesn’t make sense to the modern mind. That was my point. I didn’t take “I don’t understand” as making a value judgment, but rather as being an excuse for tossing out a crucial element of the religion.

      I’m absolutely for getting down and dirty with the actual practice from day one, and not waiting to research everything to death first. As you do more and more studying, you’ll probably end up modifying your practice in a number of ways, but that’s fine because it’s always a work in progress. Personally, though, I always erred on the side of caution when I was learning – start with the old ways which we know worked for centuries, and then once really steeped in the mindset and knowledgeable about the history, it’s a good time to start improvising.

      I want to say, however, I do not feel I’m “bringing the gods into a modern context” in some deliberate fashion. I did not, for instance, just think hey, it would be neat-o to worship Dionysos as a buffalo here in America. I actually lived in Montana, saw the buffalo all the time, and had a UPG about Him. I experience the gods now, but I am not trying to make a statement by “modernizing” Them. The gods may evolve, and They may adopt new things when introduced to new lands, but I don’t see that it follows that They would change Their fundamental laws of purity just because us modern folks don’t understand that anymore. If a god eschews mortality, that’s pretty major, it’s not going to be different for us just because we expect or want it.

      • I can understand how in the thread you read it sounded like some of us were ‘tossing things out’, willy-nilly. However, and this got brought up on Tumblr after some of us read this post, this conversation (while public) was happening between a bunch of people that check-in daily on eachother’s practices and we are familiar with what each does or doesn’t do in regards to a lot of stuff. It might have sounded like I completely disregard ritual purity or miasma rules just cuz “i don’t get it”, but in several of my other posts I mention using khernips regularly, as well as smoke cleansing with burnt bay leaves, and using a ritual scourge for purification through flagellation. That is the minimum I do for ritual work, and if I have to time I will compound that with ritual hand/face washing or full-body bathing beforehand. Just because I don’t understand some of the finer points doesn’t mean that I completely reject the concept or the practice.

        And, I’m sorry if I oversimplified your modernization of your recon path; that wasn’t my intention at all. I’ll admit that by that point in my comment I was a bit spent, so I didn’t go into it much. I don’t think your work is like some kind of weird DeviantArt furry adaptation of your favourite Greek anime myths (if you understand what I mean). I think every choice you’ve made had reasoning and forethought, or at the very least meaningful experience that supported it. Similarly, my decisions regarding my faith, despite what that thread may have portrayed, are supported in the same way. Maybe not to your standards, or to those of others, but I can’t do anything about that.

        Again, thank you so much for being so respectful and level-headed about this. I really appreciate it.

        • I do understand that I might not be getting the entire context – however, since these comments are posted publicly, I feel they are fair game to comment on as-is. Even if my critique doesn’t quite apply to the people involved, it most certainly will apply to others, and the issues brought up are worth discussing.

      • The gods may evolve, and They may adopt new things when introduced to new lands, but I don’t see that it follows that They would change Their fundamental laws of purity just because us modern folks don’t understand that anymore. If a god eschews mortality, that’s pretty major, it’s not going to be different for us just because we expect or want it.

        VERY well -said.

  8. I have a question, because I just don’t have enough experience in Hellenic faith yet. How much of the concern over miasma could potentially be, not from the Gods themselves, but from the mortals who wrote the texts about the Gods – and they simply ascribed the concern to the Gods, when in truth, the concerns are really more about us and our hangups, than about Them? I find that I always worry that I am placing upon the Gods worries and concerns that stem from me/us as human beings.

    • Well, that’s always an important question to ask, and we can never know the answer for sure. But in this case, I think one clue is in the variety of miasma rules set by different gods and even different cults of the same god. If it was just a cultural prohibition, it would more likely be the same rule across the board. But the fact that different gods were felt to have different feelings on the matter, to my mind, makes it more likely that the rules are (like so many aspects of ancient religion) a result of many years of trial and error and collective gnosis.

  9. I’m absolutely for getting down and dirty with the actual practice from day one, and not waiting to research everything to death first. As you do more and more studying, you’ll probably end up modifying your practice in a number of ways, but that’s fine because it’s always a work in progress.

    Basically this is exactly what I’ve done. Dive headlong, and learn the more in depth academic stuff as I go. Just wanted to say I really like how this was worded.

  10. [...] a nice tie in with my recent miasma post, here are two questions I received regarding Greek [...]

  11. [...] posted ‘A little rant on miasma‘ which I found useful, though I don’t consider myself a Hellenic [...]

  12. [...] goes on a little rant about miasma and it’s [...]

  13. [...] Dver made this recent post about miasma, and I want to repeat something from it that seems very much worth [...]

  14. [...] to understand and interpret this taboo for their traditional lives in the modern age. Dver has a good article on respecting purity/impurity traditions as things dictated by the gods and spirits, and not as [...]

  15. […] because of the idea that “our minds are not fully engaged in worship”; Dver explains quite succinctly that miasma is not about our “feels”, it’s about what is regarded as ritual and spiritual pollution to a certain god or gods. So, […]

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