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.)