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Author Topic: Miasma  (Read 3835 times)
Carnelian
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Religion: Greek paganism
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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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