[What’s That?] Miasma

So, Dver made this recent post about miasma, and I want to repeat something from it that seems very much worth repeating:

“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.

That’s one of those modern notions that just never sat well with me, because it just doesn’t follow logically.

This seemed like a minority notion about seven / eight years ago, when I first got into the community, and now seems a very close second to that disinfo of “miasma = lacking personal hygiene” that seemed to really take off with Pope No-Life and His Talking Butt-Plugs about five years ago. The idea that “miasma is that which distracts us from the gods and” seems pretty popular now, and I have to agree that it really lacks historical basis.

Now, I’ve probably just kind of passively went along with that in the past –in fact, I’d say my post about menstruation really does give a passive permission to the notion that miasma is at least sometimes about how we feel, when that just doesn’t fly with the history.

Miasma is spiritual pollution. If it’s there, it’s there whether we “feel it” or not. Your feelings may also be giving you a false positive –in other words, Judeo-Christian indoctrination about how your menses is dirty when (pardon the pun) bleeds over into your own personal feelings doesn’t suddenly give you a taint of miasma, nor will cramps and headaches. Your feelings might also give a false negative –maybe you’ve just had sex and now all your thoughts are on Aphrodite, or Eros, or Dionysos, well, unless you’ve been given a pass on that, too fucking bad, break out the khernips before approaching that shrine.

In general, the rules about what does bring miasma is pretty specific, almost absurdly so. If you’re a devotee, spouse, or slave to a certain deity, you may get a pass on some things, but not others, and you may have some additional taboos (one woman I know who is devoted to Artemis has been forbidden by her goddess from marrying, and though sex seems permitted, I get the impression that she needs more than a sprinkling before entering the temple room), but chances are still good that, if worshipping in an historically accurate Hellenic context, you’re still not going to be allowed to scrap all pollutive taboos.

Furthermore, what survives concerning miasma seems to at least mostly concern temples and public shrines, which are regarded as homes for the Theoi here on the face of Gaia. It’s also easy to interpret Hesiod’s taboos from Works & Days, as an extension of what counts as miasma for household worship –which makes sense, as the hearth basically functions a shrine to Hestia.

“Blood on the hands” or contact with blood is pretty much one that everyone agrees is miasma, but not all blood was the same, historically. Animal blood clearly was not a pollutant to the temples, or else there wouldn’t have been so much animal sacrifice —the mystery cults that maintained bloodless sacrifices being a noted exception, but the thing is, they are an EXCEPTION, not a part of the general inclusion. Furthermore, it takes more than just some khernips to wash out the stench of a murder from your soul, though getting your own blood on you (and maybe a co-workers, at most) the every-day abrasions from work in the fields, or at a tavern, or so on, as best as I can tell from what I’ve read, various ritual cleansings at the entrance of the temples probably took care of that –but if you lost a leg in battle, or a scythe accident or something, you obviously needed to heal to a sufficient degree first, and likely needed a more intense ritual. Killing in self-defence or in battle probably required a bare minimum at a temple of Ares (I gotta admit, i just don’t know much about this one), but to worship at a shrine to Eirene, you might need to do more than that before you had properly cleansed yourself. That said, as I’ve said before, there are apparently no historical taboos against menstruation in Hellenismos. If some-one tells you there were/are, they’re full of shit.

Sex, childbirth, and death also carry spiritual pollutants, in general, but there are exceptions. In some regions of Hellas, if a woman died in childbirth, it was standard practise to sacrifice the clothes she wore at the time at the local temple of Artemis / Eileithyia —this flies in the face of the general convention, but again, is an exception. The fact that funeral processions were a big thing in Hellas, and a pretty widespread practise, may seem to fly in the face of the conventional miasma associated with death, but the procession and funerary rites were outside the temple, and I can’t help but think that it’s a sort of ritual enactment of the soul’s journey via Hermes Psychopompos, one of few Theoi that aren’t believed to shun the dead. Miasma, again, is typically a taboo to temples and shrines.

Illness was also generally considered miasma to most temples, but it was common for people with certain kinds of sicknesses to leave an offering at shrines to Asklepios.

Lastly: Miasma has nothing to do with personal hygeine. I really have no idea where that little bit of disinfo started, but it needs to stop, like, yesterday. (ETA – 16 April 2013) OK, so upon reading a bit more, I seem to have a fair hypothesis on wher this confusion might stem from. See, for centuries, there was this belief that “poisoned air”, or similar, caused sickness; around the 19th Century in the UK, maybe as early as the 18thC (CE, of course), this collection of practically worldwide belief of “bad air = cause of certain diseases, like cholera” became colloquially known as “miasma theory”, in a similar manner that the worldwide phenomenon of spirit-workers became known as “shamanism” or animal guides as “totemism”. This re-purposing of the word “miasma” basically took it out of a spiritual context, and in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the “poison air” hypotheses basically became replaced with the current “germ theory”, that is, diseases caused by foreign bodies, from the bacteria on unwashed hands to an assortment of vira. “Miasma as disease theory” has NOTHING to do with the spiritual miasma of ancient Hellas, and conflating the two is no less ignorant than nonsense like “Artemis and her consort, Apollon”, or something. (/ETA)

The act of ritually washing the hands and face before entering the temple, or before approaching the household shrine, has practically nothing to do with bodily cleanliness. Khernips is all about a physical ritualisation of spiritual clean-up. It’s preparation of the soul through a ritual on the body. At some temples, you wouldn’t even get a personal khernips bowl, an image popularised via dramatisations on The History Channel, but sometimes a priest or even a neokoros would just toss water, or do other purfication rites on people in the procession into the temple –yes, even people who’d clearly just finished up some manual labour and couldn’t make it to the baths in time. If miasma was simply about “personal hygeine”, then surely these temples were committing great blasphemies, non? Of course not, don’t be silly. Logically, if the ancient Hellenes knew the religion better than the average nub on the Internet, then clearly those temples knew what they were doing with regards to miasma.

Now, you’re certainly free to say “I don’t care about religious reconstruction, this is all irrelevant to me”. On the other hand, if you DO care about reconstructed practise, you can’t just go picking and choosing which rules of miasma you like and which ones you don’t —reconstruction is about rebuilding from existing evidence, and you need a fair knowledge and understanding of the evidence before you can evaluate whether or not it applies to your practise. When you know what does and does not qualify religiously as miasma (pro tip: I’ve only given the most common situations and a few exceptions), only then at some later stage can you really evaluate the subject.

To recap:

Miasma has nothing to do with what’s on your mind, or whether or not you feel spiritually prepared enough to approach the Theoi. Miasma, if present, will exist regardless of what’s on your mind, and regardless of how you feel about it.

Miasma has nothing to do with your personal hygiene. Miasma is spiritual pollution. Rituals to cleanse miasma are there to ritualise the cleansing of ordinary pollutants from ourselves before entering ritual space. The fact that the most common of such rituals is to wash the hands and face (and sometimes feet) still doesn’t make it about personal hygiene, and the fact that we just washed ourselves is merely a byproduct of the spiritual cleansing.

Miasma rules, as they existed in ancient Hellas, mostly pertained to temples.

Miasma rules were not monolithic in ancient times, there is no reason to see them that way, now.

Certain devotees might have more or less taboos, similar to (though not necessarily the same as) miasma; this is a matter between them and their gods.

If you don’t care about historical accuracy, religious reconstruction, etc…, you’re perfectly welcome to scrap the idea of miasma altogether —but if reconstructed practise *is* important to you, then it really makes no sense to pick and choose.

Honey badger don’t give a shit about your miasma.


(ETA on 27 July 2014)
Cos this has been recently referenced in places, I figured I’d take advantage of this opportunity to inform people reading this for the first time that I’m raising funds for my upcoming move back to the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area.

I’m also giving away Heathen goddess prayer cards.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

17 thoughts on “[What’s That?] Miasma

  1. I like this post. though I don’t share a similar stance. I was, however, under the impression that purification rituals developed as a physical cleanliness thing, then came to take on ‘deeper’ connotations I don’t mind being wrong of course.

    My own stance is one on a more emotional level, an inability to connect with the Gods due to self-imposed restrictions. The reason why, mainly, is because I found myself VERY uncomfortable with the thought that the Gods would be so inclined to disregard the prayers of an unwashed person (for whatever reason that they are unwashed) simply on account of that. I’m very abstract with my interpretation I suppose, though I take purification very seriously. I don’t think you can go ‘WHELP, I’M SUPER HAPPY, TIME TO GO PRAY’. Hell, I make my boyfriend wash his hands and face if he plans to get close to the shrines, and he doesn’t share my faith or pray at them or things of that nature. My interpretation may be modern, but my approach, practice, and treatment of miasma isn’t.

    • Well, the thing about the idea that the miasma concept evolved from bodily cleanliness, and only later took on deeper meaning, well, it seems to make sense for some things, but not for others. One clear anomaly in that theory is the virtual non-issue of menstruation in ancient Hellas —only later did the ancient understanding of menstruation, medically, really get to form, but you’d think that if it was *ever* considered a “pollutant”, then the ancient medical hypothesis of what menstruation actually is would be shaped by older notions, and that the idea of it as a “spiritual pollutant” would prevail –but it doesn’t. Even playing Devil’s Advocate and assuming that there was a time that it was considered a “dirty” presence in the Hellenic temples –well, it’s pretty damned weird that nothing survives of this. And I don’t mean “practically nothing”, which is basically shorthand for “one or two super-obscure fragments at most survive” —I mean nothing of the sort. Considering how widespread the idea of a woman’s cycle as being “dirty” was in the Mediterranean —even “Hellenised” Rome found this idea hard to shake from their own culture— it’s absolutely remarkably unusual that Hellenes have absolutely no taboos against it at all, not even at a time when it was less-understood than it became were there Hellenic menstruation taboos. It was just one of those “women’s mysteries”, and it seemed the men would assume women knew best how to deal with it.

      This isn’t really something I can just shrug and go “oh well, agree to disagree” on, cos the menstruation anomaly isn’t the only one that exists within the history of religious miasma. The “first hygenic, later spiritual” hypothesis seems to just stink of this atheistic ideal within modern Western Classical Studies that aims to paint pre-Christian Hellenic religion as this sort of proto-Jungian borderline atheism. In some taboos, the “first hygenic…” hypothesis seems to make sense, but from early on, there were a lot of anomalous quirks to miasma. Furthermore, for the most part, miasma simply didn’t extend to household worship –or it was at least treated far less rigorously by the ancients (unless you were Hesiod —but Hesiod’s got subscriptions 😉 ). I know the ancient Hellenes liked to preen and loved their baths, but with kids getting sniffles left and right, one’s own parents and grandparents dying, often in the house, and one and one’s Missus fucking like rabbits sufficiently far from the hearth, in order to maintain a steady population of Hellenlings, it’d be a wonder that people could leave the house at all, much less sit to eat a meal, if they were religiously bound to washing themselves before every meal, or passing the shrine to the household gods. Hell, it’s a wonder even Hesiod didn’t die by scrubbing himself raw, if miasma was a widespread major household taboo. If it was “first hygenic”, then why was household practise so lax? Surely people noticed that they got sick from their family members more often than others, even in Hesiod’s day. If it was “first hygenic”, then why a complete absence of menstrual taboos? If it was “first hygenic”, then why parade dead people through the streets, potentially infecting the whole neighbourhood?

      The reality is that spiritual miasma actually far predates “miasma” as an all-purpose word for “poison air disease theory”, when the word was repurposed in the 19th Century for the “poison air” hypothesis of how diseases spread. The link with the word “miasma” and physical pollution, as best as I can tell, is far newer than miasma as spiritual pollutant.

      • Thanks for that thorough and rigorous refutation. I’m rarely ever wedded to ideas or suppositions about things, and your argument is pretty compelling against the hygiene theory. I mean, whether it is or isn’t doesn’t change an incredible amount, Though, inevitably the shift in the developmental theory of it will shift some of my stances with time, but eh, changing opinions happen. That is the gift of though, eh?

        • It’s really hard for me not to rant all pedantic-like about the difference between opinion and fact right now, you know. 😉 For starters, perhaps you were previously mistaken, but this was never a matter of opinion, it was a matter of facts. If it were ever a matter of opinions, I would’ve simply written about how I feel about miasma in my personal practise.

          • Indeed, though a shift in view WILL shift opinion, at least for me. A lot of my current opinions on it are based around the fact that I thought it was more physical than spiritual, but it being a largely, perhaps solely, spiritual thing means that my opinion and view point on it will shift. A shift in the base reason will shift everything a little bit, so I’m appreciative of the lecture.

  2. I like this post. though I don’t share a similar stance. I was, however, under the impression that purification rituals developed as a physical cleanliness thing, then came to take on ‘deeper’ connotations I don’t mind being wrong of course.

    My own stance is one on a more emotional level, an inability to connect with the Gods due to self-imposed restrictions. The reason why, mainly, is because I found myself VERY uncomfortable with the thought that the Gods would be so inclined to disregard the prayers of an unwashed person (for whatever reason that they are unwashed) simply on account of that. I’m very abstract with my interpretation I suppose, though I take purification very seriously. I don’t think you can go ‘WHELP, I’M SUPER HAPPY, TIME TO GO PRAY’. Hell, I make my boyfriend wash his hands and face if he plans to get close to the shrines, and he doesn’t share my faith or pray at them or things of that nature. My interpretation may be modern, but my approach, practice, and treatment of miasma isn’t.

    • Well, the thing about the idea that the miasma concept evolved from bodily cleanliness, and only later took on deeper meaning, well, it seems to make sense for some things, but not for others. One clear anomaly in that theory is the virtual non-issue of menstruation in ancient Hellas —only later did the ancient understanding of menstruation, medically, really get to form, but you’d think that if it was *ever* considered a “pollutant”, then the ancient medical hypothesis of what menstruation actually is would be shaped by older notions, and that the idea of it as a “spiritual pollutant” would prevail –but it doesn’t. Even playing Devil’s Advocate and assuming that there was a time that it was considered a “dirty” presence in the Hellenic temples –well, it’s pretty damned weird that nothing survives of this. And I don’t mean “practically nothing”, which is basically shorthand for “one or two super-obscure fragments at most survive” —I mean nothing of the sort. Considering how widespread the idea of a woman’s cycle as being “dirty” was in the Mediterranean —even “Hellenised” Rome found this idea hard to shake from their own culture— it’s absolutely remarkably unusual that Hellenes have absolutely no taboos against it at all, not even at a time when it was less-understood than it became were there Hellenic menstruation taboos. It was just one of those “women’s mysteries”, and it seemed the men would assume women knew best how to deal with it.

      This isn’t really something I can just shrug and go “oh well, agree to disagree” on, cos the menstruation anomaly isn’t the only one that exists within the history of religious miasma. The “first hygenic, later spiritual” hypothesis seems to just stink of this atheistic ideal within modern Western Classical Studies that aims to paint pre-Christian Hellenic religion as this sort of proto-Jungian borderline atheism. In some taboos, the “first hygenic…” hypothesis seems to make sense, but from early on, there were a lot of anomalous quirks to miasma. Furthermore, for the most part, miasma simply didn’t extend to household worship –or it was at least treated far less rigorously by the ancients (unless you were Hesiod —but Hesiod’s got subscriptions 😉 ). I know the ancient Hellenes liked to preen and loved their baths, but with kids getting sniffles left and right, one’s own parents and grandparents dying, often in the house, and one and one’s Missus fucking like rabbits sufficiently far from the hearth, in order to maintain a steady population of Hellenlings, it’d be a wonder that people could leave the house at all, much less sit to eat a meal, if they were religiously bound to washing themselves before every meal, or passing the shrine to the household gods. Hell, it’s a wonder even Hesiod didn’t die by scrubbing himself raw, if miasma was a widespread major household taboo. If it was “first hygenic”, then why was household practise so lax? Surely people noticed that they got sick from their family members more often than others, even in Hesiod’s day. If it was “first hygenic”, then why a complete absence of menstrual taboos? If it was “first hygenic”, then why parade dead people through the streets, potentially infecting the whole neighbourhood?

      The reality is that spiritual miasma actually far predates “miasma” as an all-purpose word for “poison air disease theory”, when the word was repurposed in the 19th Century for the “poison air” hypothesis of how diseases spread. The link with the word “miasma” and physical pollution, as best as I can tell, is far newer than miasma as spiritual pollutant.

      • Thanks for that thorough and rigorous refutation. I’m rarely ever wedded to ideas or suppositions about things, and your argument is pretty compelling against the hygiene theory. I mean, whether it is or isn’t doesn’t change an incredible amount, Though, inevitably the shift in the developmental theory of it will shift some of my stances with time, but eh, changing opinions happen. That is the gift of though, eh?

        • It’s really hard for me not to rant all pedantic-like about the difference between opinion and fact right now, you know. 😉 For starters, perhaps you were previously mistaken, but this was never a matter of opinion, it was a matter of facts. If it were ever a matter of opinions, I would’ve simply written about how I feel about miasma in my personal practise.

          • Indeed, though a shift in view WILL shift opinion, at least for me. A lot of my current opinions on it are based around the fact that I thought it was more physical than spiritual, but it being a largely, perhaps solely, spiritual thing means that my opinion and view point on it will shift. A shift in the base reason will shift everything a little bit, so I’m appreciative of the lecture.

  3. I’d like to ask a question, but I don’t want it to come off as confrontational or argumentative. I’m asking because I’d like to learn more, not because I’m trying to prove anything to anyone.

    *Why* were these things considered to be spiritual pollutants? I mean, I get it, it makes us ‘stinky’. I’ve heard that part already. But what I want to know is, in these rules that were laid down for us, does it explain *why* the rules exist?
    Does Zeus say “I find childbirth offensive because XYZ!”, or is it just “Ick, you have baby smell. Get that shit away from me!”?

    I just can’t (completely) wrap my head around “because They said so” or “They’re gods, we don’t have to understand Them.” That’s on me, and I know that. It’s not a judgement on those who can, but an honest assessment of myself. And this is trying to appease the logical part of me, not the spiritual, because even if it doesn’t make me understand why I do something (and as I said in a few posts after the instigating one…I do use khernips, smoke cleansing, and flagellation before any big ritual, so I do perform acts of ritual cleansing, even if I don’t understand miasma rules and my methods aren’t entirely traditional), I’d like to know why I am expected to, and be able to make peace with any discrepancies I can’t assimilate.

    Thanks for anything you’re willing to throw my way.

    • Well, what I’m curious about is why you think I can answer that any more to your liking than Dver’s ownpost and comments did.
      As to the best possible response I can think of, in my experiences, the Theoi answer all such questions when asked of them. Just keep in mind that sometimes that answer is “You’re mortal, you don’t need to know.”

      • I wasn’t looking for a response that was ‘more to my liking’, but just a different point of view.

        Thank you for your reply. And really, just for the article in general; it was very well put.

  4. I’d like to ask a question, but I don’t want it to come off as confrontational or argumentative. I’m asking because I’d like to learn more, not because I’m trying to prove anything to anyone.

    *Why* were these things considered to be spiritual pollutants? I mean, I get it, it makes us ‘stinky’. I’ve heard that part already. But what I want to know is, in these rules that were laid down for us, does it explain *why* the rules exist?
    Does Zeus say “I find childbirth offensive because XYZ!”, or is it just “Ick, you have baby smell. Get that shit away from me!”?

    I just can’t (completely) wrap my head around “because They said so” or “They’re gods, we don’t have to understand Them.” That’s on me, and I know that. It’s not a judgement on those who can, but an honest assessment of myself. And this is trying to appease the logical part of me, not the spiritual, because even if it doesn’t make me understand why I do something (and as I said in a few posts after the instigating one…I do use khernips, smoke cleansing, and flagellation before any big ritual, so I do perform acts of ritual cleansing, even if I don’t understand miasma rules and my methods aren’t entirely traditional), I’d like to know why I am expected to, and be able to make peace with any discrepancies I can’t assimilate.

    Thanks for anything you’re willing to throw my way.

    • Well, what I’m curious about is why you think I can answer that any more to your liking than Dver’s ownpost and comments did.
      As to the best possible response I can think of, in my experiences, the Theoi answer all such questions when asked of them. Just keep in mind that sometimes that answer is “You’re mortal, you don’t need to know.”

      • I wasn’t looking for a response that was ‘more to my liking’, but just a different point of view.

        Thank you for your reply. And really, just for the article in general; it was very well put.

  5. I’m sorry for posting a comment two years too late, but this is really bothering me and I need some answers; in your opinion, as a person who is and has been suffering severely from mental illness for a long time, can I worship the Hellenic gods or is it useless for me to even try?
    Do you believe mental illness and/or disability causes miasma(I have heard it does)? If it does, how would I cleanse myself of the miasma caused by my mental illness? It’s always there and I can never make it go away, would I have to ritually purify myself constantly?

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