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Author Topic: Miasma  (Read 3803 times)
Carnelian
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« Topic Start: October 29, 2010, 09:55:25 am »

I just wanted to say a few words on miasma and maybe it will start up a discussion.

Miasma is ritual pollution, and it is more than just physical uncleanliness. If anyone has read the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, her work is really interesting and relevant to this topic. The gist of it is that "clean" is not necessarily "pure", and "pure" is not necessarily "clean." She  mainly focuses on modern traditions like Judaism and the Hindu caste system, but like paganism, those traditions have their roots in ancient culture.

On the topic of Hinduism, I have read about a pilgrimage to a deity that involves bathing in a sacred river to purify oneself before going to the temple. The thing is, part of the preparation involves emptying oneself, so the banks of the river are saturated with human excrement, and the author describes how after his ritual bath in the river, he combed human feces out of his hair. This relates to Mary Douglas' work, as it shows that something can be filthy and disgusting while still being spiritually "pure".

The Hindu Brahmin caste has interesting concepts of ritual pollution. For example, like in ancient Greece, sexual intercourse caused pollution. Most pollution can be removed through bathing and purification, except sexual intercourse, which not even bathing could purify. The same probably goes for death, bathing is not enough, a certain amount of time has to pass before one is ritually pure again.

In ancient Greece, miasma was also not just about physical uncleanliness, but recent activity. Killing causeded miasma, and time had to pass and a person had to be purified before he (or she) could approach the gods again. Adultery was a major cause of miasma, and if a woman was caught committing adultery, she could not participate in festivals again for the rest of her life. Greek ideas about miasma and sexual activity were probably similar to those of the Brahmins, with it being more about metaphysical pollution surrounding an activity that was considered impure, rather than physical uncleanliness. Being clean and presentable for worship is important, but miasma goes well beyond that.

Certain things were probably considered impure because they acted as a barrier to the gods, engaging in activities that the gods to not engage in, such as sex, death, bleeding, and birth. All of these things are characteristic of mortality, as sex leads to procreation, which implies that there will be death. As gods are immortal, they do not exist within the cycle of life and death, so things that suggest this cycle are considered unclean to them. This is why a person needs distance from such activities when he or she worships, so not engaging in sex prior to worship (I'm not sure about the exact amount of time needed to refrain from sex before worship; I would guess at least a day), and not approaching the gods for several days after a birth or death in one's household/family unit.
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RandallS
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« Reply #1: October 29, 2010, 03:52:15 pm »

Certain things were probably considered impure because they acted as a barrier to the gods, engaging in activities that the gods to not engage in, such as sex, death, bleeding, and birth. All of these things are characteristic of mortality, as sex leads to procreation, which implies that there will be death. As gods are immortal, they do not exist within the cycle of life and death, so things that suggest this cycle are considered unclean to them.

There's a problem with this idea with respect to the Greek Gods: Sex/procreation certainly was not something foreign to many of the deities. They were sexually active and had children -- both mortal and immortal.
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« Reply #2: October 29, 2010, 04:57:42 pm »

I just wanted to say a few words on miasma and maybe it will start up a discussion.

I'd consider the go-to book for this topic in regards to Hellenismos to be Robert Parker's Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion

It's a complex topic, and the rules and standards varied greatly, depending upon many variables (who, where, what, when etc), so some of your statements are a little general or a little too absolute (like your comments about adultery).
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« Reply #3: October 29, 2010, 05:18:17 pm »

There's a problem with this idea with respect to the Greek Gods: Sex/procreation certainly was not something foreign to many of the deities. They were sexually active and had children -- both mortal and immortal.

In regards to sexual acts, it seems to be more about underlining the separation of mortal and immortal natures, not particularly the activity itself (though a few acts were considered more polluting). This separation seemed to be most marked in terms of where (not in a sacred precinct) and when (lustration after sex in the daytime might be required, but the passage of night seemed sufficient separation from the act.)
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Carnelian
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« Reply #4: October 29, 2010, 05:35:12 pm »

There's a problem with this idea with respect to the Greek Gods: Sex/procreation certainly was not something foreign to many of the deities. They were sexually active and had children -- both mortal and immortal.

Yeah, that's a problem that has been brought up before elsewhere. I'm not sure how to explain it, maybe the ancients didn't take their myths as literally as modern people do, or maybe they understood the way gods had sex and gave birth as different and more pure than the way mortals do.

I'd consider the go-to book for this topic in regards to Hellenismos to be Robert Parker's Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion

It's a complex topic, and the rules and standards varied greatly, depending upon many variables (who, where, what, when etc), so some of your statements are a little general or a little too absolute (like your comments about adultery).

You're probably right, as it's a topic I've just started looking into more deeply. I'll have to find that book you mentioned.

In regards to sexual acts, it seems to be more about underlining the separation of mortal and immortal natures, not particularly the activity itself (though a few acts were considered more polluting). This separation seemed to be most marked in terms of where (not in a sacred precinct) and when (lustration after sex in the daytime might be required, but the passage of night seemed sufficient separation from the act.)

Good point.
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« Reply #5: October 29, 2010, 10:38:42 pm »

In regards to sexual acts, it seems to be more about underlining the separation of mortal and immortal natures, not particularly the activity itself (though a few acts were considered more polluting). This separation seemed to be most marked in terms of where (not in a sacred precinct) and when (lustration after sex in the daytime might be required, but the passage of night seemed sufficient separation from the act.)

I was commenting more on the explanation given as to why sex acts were considered polluting as that explanation just does not make much sense with respect to the Greek Gods. I think we need to look elsewhere for an explanation for these deities.
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« Reply #6: October 30, 2010, 12:17:28 am »

I was commenting more on the explanation given as to why sex acts were considered polluting as that explanation just does not make much sense with respect to the Greek Gods. I think we need to look elsewhere for an explanation for these deities.

Parker (like Douglas) posits that miasma association with death and birth involve the ritualization of transitional moments; that pollution is a property that either violates societal concepts of boundary, or that lies in the liminal spaces between. The more elaborate purification rituals (usually associated with blood-letting and/or murder) have strong elements of reintegration; the individual, having trangressed societal boundaries, must be specially prepared to rejoin society after the act. (Of course this is not an all-encompassing explanation; not all transitions are/were considered polluting or transgressive.)
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« Reply #7: October 30, 2010, 08:05:39 am »

Parker (like Douglas) posits that miasma association with death and birth involve the ritualization of transitional moments; that pollution is a property that either violates societal concepts of boundary, or that lies in the liminal spaces between. The more elaborate purification rituals (usually associated with blood-letting and/or murder) have strong elements of reintegration; the individual, having trangressed societal boundaries, must be specially prepared to rejoin society after the act. (Of course this is not an all-encompassing explanation; not all transitions are/were considered polluting or transgressive.)

This explanation works much better in the context of the Greek Gods, at least for me.
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« Reply #8: October 31, 2010, 09:25:28 pm »

On the topic of Hinduism, I have read about a pilgrimage to a deity that involves bathing in a sacred river to purify oneself before going to the temple. The thing is, part of the preparation involves emptying oneself, so the banks of the river are saturated with human excrement, and the author describes how after his ritual bath in the river, he combed human feces out of his hair. This relates to Mary Douglas' work, as it shows that something can be filthy and disgusting while still being spiritually "pure".

The Hindu Brahmin caste has interesting concepts of ritual pollution. For example, like in ancient Greece, sexual intercourse caused pollution. Most pollution can be removed through bathing and purification, except sexual intercourse, which not even bathing could purify. The same probably goes for death, bathing is not enough, a certain amount of time has to pass before one is ritually pure again.

I am watching a show on NatGeo about prostitution and noted that the concept of pollution vs. purity is applied to prostitutes, even when the women are sold into it.  The pollution is considered to apply not only to them, but to their children and to the vicinity in which they are found.  The example location was Dauladtia, which is a sex slum in Bangladesh.

I mention this, in this topic, because the concept of pollution when one has no control over it and is, in fact, doomed to it without chance of purity seems rather imprisoning.   Even when a woman buys her freedom, no one will hire her and she cannot quit prostitution.

How can there be a condition of eternal pollution without chance of regaining purity...if one is not polluted of his/her free will?
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Carnelian
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« Reply #9: November 11, 2010, 08:55:50 pm »

Parker (like Douglas) posits that miasma association with death and birth involve the ritualization of transitional moments; that pollution is a property that either violates societal concepts of boundary, or that lies in the liminal spaces between. The more elaborate purification rituals (usually associated with blood-letting and/or murder) have strong elements of reintegration; the individual, having trangressed societal boundaries, must be specially prepared to rejoin society after the act. (Of course this is not an all-encompassing explanation; not all transitions are/were considered polluting or transgressive.)

That sounds very Van Gennep-ian, also.

This explanation works much better in the context of the Greek Gods, at least for me.

Well, miasma is a Greek word, and most of what I've read about it comes from a Greek context. I suppose that the way the gods were worshiped in cult was different than how the myths portrayed them. Ancient people probably didn't interpret them as literally and dogmatically as modern people do in a Judeo-Christian influenced culture.

I am watching a show on NatGeo about prostitution and noted that the concept of pollution vs. purity is applied to prostitutes, even when the women are sold into it.  The pollution is considered to apply not only to them, but to their children and to the vicinity in which they are found.  The example location was Dauladtia, which is a sex slum in Bangladesh.

I mention this, in this topic, because the concept of pollution when one has no control over it and is, in fact, doomed to it without chance of purity seems rather imprisoning.   Even when a woman buys her freedom, no one will hire her and she cannot quit prostitution.

How can there be a condition of eternal pollution without chance of regaining purity...if one is not polluted of his/her free will?

I guess one has to understand that this comes from a hyper-patriarchal context, where women were viewed as the property of men, and men try to control the reproductive abilities of women through marriage. Prostitutes are threatening to patriarchal society because they aren't marriageable and the paternity of their children is not provable (except through the modern innovation of DNA tests Tongue). I'm generalizing here, but pollution has a lot to do with societal norms, in my opinion.
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