Some comments from last year’s Miasma post

(I know Sannion recently linked to the previous post, but just in case you don’t read comments on principle [I’d understand if you did not –blog comments can be a hotbed of idiocy, as a general rule], I figured I’d post this exchange.)

Conor O’Bryan Warren on 15 April 2013 at 2:12 pm said:

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.

Ruadhán J McElroy on 15 April 2013 at 3:45 pm said:

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 Hellenelings, 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 [observation of miasma] so lax [when Hellenes were incredibly religious]? 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”, as 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.


(ETA on 27 July 2014)
Hey, did you know that I’m STILL raising funds for my upcoming move back to the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area. Want to know how the town got the name Ypsilanti? I think I’ll do my next post on that…. Trust me, it’ll make my practises double-plus Hellenic.

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.