[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.

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Good news for Hellenic women and “teh dredded m00nbl00dz”

It’s not miasma.

I’ve reasoned this before, but didn’t feel arsed to citing a source before.

Today, I was looking through old threads in a LiveJournal community, and came across a thread discussing this topic, and some-one in the comments said they could cite quotes from Walter Burkert on this, that menstruation ≠ miasma. I had Greek Religion literally sitting in front of me as I came across that, so I decided to look it up.

Interestingly, the index contains no reference words to “menstruation”, so I decided to search Google Books for this keyword, and there is very little. Indeed, the most direct reference is AN ENDNOTE. The note is to the following passage on page 78:

The Indo-European word for sacred, hagnos29 is defined and narrowed down in Greek through its opposition to defilement, mysos, miasma. The conception of specifically cultic purity is defined by considering certain more or less grave dislocations of normal ife as miasma. Disturbances of this kind are sexual intercourse,30 birth,31 death, and especially murder. … Curiously, the hagneia may even involve a prohibition on bathing: the contrast with everyday life or some future act of cultic purification is more important than obvious cleanliness.

That last part included for what should be painfully obvious reasons.

Endnote #31 references a German essay (“Die Gebrauche der Griechen nach der Geburt”) and summarises:

Menstruation is understood — even medically — as purification (katharsis); the cult take notice of it only insofar as a number of priesthoods are expressly reserved for older women.

I was able to find the original German essay, but since I don’t read German (and only have the vaguest comprehension of spoken German in art films) I relied on Google’s translation abilities, and needless to say, Google borked it up good, so I’m going to take Burkert’s summation of this as it is. After all, Greek Religion was originally published in German, and with English being a Germanic language, this arrangement of nouns and such is not something that can be easily borked in translation by a human translator. So, yep, menstruation is the vag washing its hands, as it were.

So, there you have it: Menstruation is not, Not, NOT “miasma”, and anybody who says it is obviously hasn’t even cracked open what’s generally regarded as a definitive text for Hellenic reconstructionists — or perhaps just never read it thoroughly, or is just too stupid to understand what he read.

And for those of you who didn’t gather from the last part of the quoted passage, “ritual purification” isn’t merely approaching the Theoi with a physically washed body — indeed, ritual purification varied by cult, so while mainstream poleis cults had khernips stations at the front of the temples for suppliants to douse their hands and faces before entering the main area, this is but one example of what hagneia entails.

Miasma & Menstruation

This topic comes up pretty frequently, so I’m going to make a post about it that hopefully covers everything in the best ways possible:

Boeotian vase painting with Artemis

Boeotian vase painting with Artemis

Long story short, it’s actually been concluded that —while unusual for the Mediterranean in ancient times— the ancient Hellenes didn’t appear to consider menstruation as a producer of miasma, in and of itself. In fact, there are very few mentions of menstruation at all, outside of medical texts — one of which even suggests sex during menstruation to aid erratic periods (and while this may have nothing to do with irregular periods, many doctors now suggest that sexual intercourse, or at least masturbation during a woman’s period may relieve cramping). In fact, some regions even had a girl’s coming-of-age rites to include sacrificing her first menstrual towels to Artemis.

Now, that said, some women have incredibly painful periods, and that painful cramping, headache, nausea, etc…. It’s a popular argument that this physical ailment, in and of itself is “miasma”, because of the idea that “our minds are not fully engaged in worship”; Dver explains quite succinctly that miasma is not about our “feels”, it’s about what is regarded as ritual and spiritual pollution to a certain god or gods. So, basically, the uterus performing its regular function? Even if it’s painful for you? Not likely miasma. And as others have noted, unwashed hands, on their own, are not miasmic, but disrespectful to approach Ta Theoi with — so I figure women who are experiencing an especially “heavy flow” day may not wish to approach the altar or shrine on account of it simply being “less than fresh”, not because of the (apparently false) notion that “menstruation = miasma”.

That aside, ancient Hellas is, as I said, rather unusual for the ancient world, especially the Mediterranean regions, in that there is virtually nothing suggesting that menstruation (and thus all fertile-bodied females, inherently speaking) as being somehow “unclean”, spiritually or otherwise — or at least no more so than any other day-to-day thing that can cause physical uncleanliness. Pretty much everything we know about women’s menstrual culture of ancient Hellas is in medical writings, bits about the cultic rites of Artemis and menarche, and the occasional interpretation of a vase-painting as depicting menstrual dress.

As for it being “miasma” in that it’s “contact with blood” — well, it’s mostly a mix of placental tissues and and uterine and cervical mucuses, and thus not technically blood — the average menstrual cycle contains maybe a teaspoon of blood from torn capillary veins (as the endometrial tissues slough off); I furthermore have it on good authority from women who’ve actually tasted menstrual fluid as well as actual blood that “blood tastes metallic, menses does not”, so if you have the ability to try it out yourself and wish to test their assurance that “menses ≠ blood”, then by all means, do so — or you can just do what I do, as a non-menstruating human, and take the word of doctors who ought to know these things.

And basically, I’ve had paper-cuts that produced more blood than the average woman’s period. My solution for a paper-cut before ritual? Rinse it in salt-water (my mother was a nurse and says it can actually be helpful, so even pre-polytheism, I’ve always done this), say a prayer to Asklepios, slap a bandage on it, and forget about it. My suggestion for menstruating women? Take a relaxing bath in some bath salts (this can also help relieve cramping) and then change your pad / tampon / cup / towel / whatever before ritual, offer a prayer to Hygaea and Rhea (as menstrual blood seems sacred to Rhea), and forget about it (well, until you need to change your stuff, obviously). The act of menstruation itself is not miasma, the menstrual fluid itself has about as much a taint of “miasma” as a paper-cut — the ancient Hellenes didn’t see menstruation as spiritual uncleanliness, and I see no reason to change this model just because a dozen centuries of Judeo-Christian influence have women running around screaming “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!” more-scarier than Diamanda Galas once a month.

As for “contact with blood”, in and of itself being miasmic, well, as Dver had noted, that’s not really as open-and-shut as a lot of people on the Internet want to make it out to be. Animal blood is not miasma, or the temple priests would not have sacrificed all those animals on the temple grounds. The blood of war was not on the same level as a murder, and I’ll have to look again, but I recall some offerings to Ares including swords and spears still holding the blood of enemies. Sannion has also cited sources on certain Dionysian rites that hold purification for the ritual to be washed in blood. Sannion also has explained some thorough guidelines for miasma abstention time. In general, it seems one’s own blood (especially to those who want to hold to the erroneous belief that “menstrual fluid = blood”) was not a source of miasma. So that papercut? Put a bandage on it. Your stitches from a surgery? Well, I guess as soon as you’re up and about, just make sure your dressings are clean. Your menstrual period? Pop in a tampon, slap on a pad, stick in a cup, or do whatever else you do (we’re assuming you’re not freebleeding; that’s probably not appropriate for those who choose to employ the recon method), take a muscle relaxer if you feel it necessary, and go on with your practise, because it’s not a source of miasma.

If a woman still wishes to abstain from ritual during your period, well, that’s her prerogative, I suppose (and I’m just a guy who doesn’t bleed down there, so feel free to not listen to me all you like), but it’s not spiritually necessary in Hellenismos, even staunch recons, for menstruating women to abstain from anything in their practises.


(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.