eleuthera02 (eleuthera02) wrote,


(as published in Ancestral Folkways Summer 2009)

Section One - A Basic Understanding of Miasma and Katharsis

"Miasma is a complex, metaphysical, non-moral term that covers activities from dreams to murder, the common thread being activities that inspire in society dread and awe. It is a term that explains otherwise inexplicable events and therefore appears to be a supernatural response"

C. M. J. Sicking & J. M. van Ophuijsen

 Of all the ancient Hellenic religious beliefs none were as feared as much as Miasma (pollution/contamination). This form of pollution differs from the modern conception of dirt or unhygienic conditions although these factors do play a role in certain types of miasma and within the cleansing and purification of most forms of miasma. Within the ancient context miasma has supernatural origins. There is no direct translation of the word into English and the closest approximation to the total concept of miasma is 'psychic pollution, contamination and defilement'.

 In Antiphon's Tetralogies, miasma seems to be equated with the anger of the dead or with a supernatural agent whom the dead person employs. Miasma should be understood as the state of having the dead angry with one.

Sarah Isles Johnston

A living comparison to the ancient understanding of miasma may be found in Indigenous African religions and the belief that the anger of ancestral spirits could bring death, illness and misfortune to individuals and villages alike. In much the same manner as tribal healers and diviners will conduct the rituals to cleanse the afflicted person or village and appease the ancestral spirits with sacrifice and prayer, so too did the ancient Hellenes perform Katharsis (purification) to cleanse and reconcile the suppliant with the supernatural agents who bore them anger and malice as well purifying the physical affects the miasma.

Miasma may take many forms:

·        The miasma of the body as disease and ultimately death;

·        The miasma of the psyche (soul) as impiety and vice leading ultimately to crime, sacrilege or hubris;

·      The miasma of the Oikos (household) as misfortune and calamity for an entire family and its descendents;

·        The miasma of a city in the forms of plagues, injustice and natural disaster alike.

·        The miasma of the land, waters or atmosphere as that which results in fever, illness and epidemic diseases

In a likewise manner, miasma could have different causes as the archaeological evidence of the Cathartic Laws of Cyrene (Dorian Hellenic settlement in Libya) and Selinous (Dorian Hellenic settlement in Sicily) illustrate:

·        Miasma caused by foreign agents. These foreign agents were usually an empousa; the spirits of those (a) who had been murdered; (b) who had died with miasma or (c) souls who had been denied entry into the Underworld because they had died without proper burial rites. An Empousa was a vindictive spirit who was forced to wander this world without rest.

·        Minor Miasma caused by contact with childbirth or natural death

·        Minor Miasma caused by certain actions

·        Miasma in particular locations due to (a) natural phenomena; (b) human settlements or (c) violent/sacrilegious/tragic events that had occurred.

·        Miasma as a form of divine justice in punishment for certain crimes such as murder and miscellaneous actions that were either unlawful or earned the disfavour of the Gods 

In other words, Miasma results from the disturbance or diversion from the natural law and order of earthly life. The milestones of birth and natural death were attended with particular rites and if the necessary purification rites were not performed, the minor miasma surrounding birth and death could lead to ancestral disfavour, illness or death. The Cathartic laws that regulated the expulsion of or aversion from miasma were designed to promote purification as a primary foundation for a life without miasma. To deviate from these rituals was a transgression of the natural law. Murder was also a transgression of natural law as were any actions that ignored other divinely prescribed behaviours.

In ancient Hellenic religion, natural law is called Themis. According to Pindar, the Goddess Themis is the first wife of Zeus, the King of the Gods. Whenever natural law is present so is Themis but if such laws should be transgressed, Nemesis appears. Nemesis is the antithesis to Themis and she is present whenever natural law is absent. The companion of Nemesis is the Goddess Aidos (Shame). The daughters of Nemesis are the Erinyes (Furies) who are the anger and agents of miasma.

  [The Aescyhlean Erinyes] may be understood as the animate agents of miasma embodying anger.

Robert Parker

Thus miasma is ultimately a consequence of divine and natural law that embodies the reciprocity of unlawful actions and the inevitability of righteousness and justice.

 "Lead on, bearing before me blazing brands, and, as sacred rites ordain, purge with incense every cranny of the air, that I may breathe heaven's breath free from taint; meanwhile do thou, in case the tread of unclean feet have soiled the path, wave the cleansing flame above it, and brandish the torch in front, that I may pass upon my way."

Euripides' Helen

The means to expel or avert from miasma are the rites of purification called katharsis. Awareness of miasma and the necessary katharsis was of the utmost importance in the daily religious life of Hellenes along with prayer and sacrifice.

 "Never omit to wash your hands before you pour to Zeus and to the other Gods the morning offering of sparkling wine; they will not hear your prayers but spit them back"

Hesiod 'Works and Days', lines 722-725

Katharsis may take many forms:

·        Minor purification prior to prayer and sacrifice. This entails (a) Pinning up hair (if you are female and it is long) as hair was only worn loose in ritual if one was in mourning or if especially specified for a particular festival; (b) washing hands and face prior to ceremony or prayer (c) purification of sacrificial items by 'thrown barley' and holy water made by extinguishing a burning rue twig in a bowl of water

·        The specified katharsis that had to be performed before entering a temple after certain actions or events has transpired

·        Specified katharsis upon the birth of a child or the death of a loved one

·        Katharsis to purify the atmosphere

·        Katharsis to purify particular locations

·        Specified katharsis to expel foreign agents of miasma

·        Specified katharsis to pacify the Gods through supplication and sacrifice

·        Katharsis in the form of healing and medicine to purify the miasma of the body

·        Katharsis in the form of music and dance to purify the miasma of the psyche (soul)

·        Prescribed katharsis to avert from or dispel the miasma of a household and its members

·        Katharsis (specific to the instance) to cleanse a victim of violent crime

·        Special katharsis to purify a murderer or one who had killed accidently

·        Cult katharsis to purify the psyche (soul)

There were also particular purification festivals such as the Diasia which is derived from an ancient Athenian festival for Zeus Meilichios (the Kindly One). Zeus Meilichios is a Khthonic form of Zeus that appears in the form of a snake, a bull, or as a seated Zeus holding a cornucopia. It is said that when warriors returned from battles, they would make offerings to Zeus Meilichios in order to cleanse themselves of the miasma of war and foreign ground. Another such festival was the Thargelia, the principal festival of Artemis and the Delian Apollon in Athens. The Thargelia was a cleansing festival for the city and its populace. The festival centred on the rite of the Pharmakoi (the scapegoats). Two convicted criminals were chosen to represent the male and female citizens. These scapegoats walked through the streets to collect the entire miasma of the city and its people after which they were executed. The miasma they collected was expelled from the city with the death of the Pharmakoi. These criminals were thus sacrificed to expel the miasma of others.

The God who is famed for his ability to cleanse and purify miasma is Apollon. This ability is bestowed upon him due to the miasma that Apollon incurred himself after he slew Python to avenge his mother Leto. His katharsis took nine years of exile after which he was purified sufficiently to rule freely at Delphi. This nine year period was maintained in the Delphi cycle in a festival that was re-enacted every ninth year to honour the katharsis of Apollon and to empower the Priests at the various shrines of Apollon in all the Hellenic City States to act as the official centres for katharsis in their regions. Those seeking purification could come to any of the shrines of Apollon to purify themselves from miasma after the proper prayers and sacrifices had been offered. In this capacity, Apollon was called both Katharsios (the Purifier) and Apotropaios (the Averter) and his decree of purity was considered final. After undergoing the Katharsis of Apollon none could dispute the purity of the supplicant. Aside from the general cathartic rites of the temples of Apollon, the God together with his son Asklepios presided over the healing arts and the cleansing of the miasma of the body.

For a more philosophical understanding of the subject, Plato discusses katharsis in the Socratic dialogue 'The Sophist' as an aspect of the science of division:

 'Of the kind of division that retains what is better but
expels the worse, I do know the name . . . every division of that
kind is universally known as a purification (katharsis).'


 From this perspective, the rites of katharsis express and exemplify the natural divisions of sympathy and antipathy. Miasma will naturally find sympathy with other Miasma and repel purity in an antipathetic action. Purity will likewise be in sympathy with other pure essences; Virtue will find its own reflection in virtuous acts. Purity is akin to Agathon (the beneficial Good) and thus the rites of purification seek to preserve the Good and avert from or expel the bad. Miasma is naturally antipathetic to purity and thus through maintaining purity in body, soul, household and city, the pollution would be expelled through the natural divisive principles of sympathy and antipathy. The simultaneous petition for purity in all its manifestations and the expulsion of different forms of pollution is the standard conclusion to all of the Orphic Hymns.

The rituals of katharsis differed from Cult to Cult and from region to region. The Greater Eleusinian Mysteries had a pre-requisite purification ceremony at the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries that had to be attended prior to entry at Eleusis almost a year later. The Greater Mysteries were also largely centred upon the katharsis of the initiate. This form of purification involved the ritual of dance, music, fire and bathing in the sea combined with the rite of a Pharmakos (the ritual sacrifice of a scapegoat in the form of a suckling pig) to Demetra that represented the death of the postulant and the purified state of the initiate. The music, the dance, the salt sea water, the fires of the torches and the sacrifices are all elements of katharsis and it is through these rites that the initiates purified themselves to enter the Underworld, stand before the Goddess and hear 'that which is forbidden to be heard'. It was said that the Lesser Mysteries were founded as a favour from Demetra to the semi-divine Herakles. Of his many labours, one specified that he had to descend to the Underworld and capture the Hound of Hades but to enter he had to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. Unfortunately there was an Eleusinian restriction that prohibited those who had taken human lives from being initiated into the Mysteries. Herakles along with countless other soldiers had the miasma of blood upon his hands. A special purification was required for Herakles and as a favour the katharsis of Agrai (the Lesser Mysteries) was founded by Demetra to enable Herakles to be purified from his miasma and to gain entrance to the Greater Mysteries that would enable him to enter the Underworld. The mythical and symbolic katharsis of Herakles from the blood of those he had slain is attested to by the archaeological findings of the Eleusinian Mystery Cult.

Another cult teaching concerning katharsis may be found among the Orphics who taught that the essence of all earthly existence is two-fold in nature; Titanic and Dionysian. The Titanic nature is the source of all misdeeds and this is due to the inherited miasma from the original crime of the Titans in dismembering the infant Dionysos. As this Titanic nature is purely physical and subject to material decay, it is highly susceptible to the contaminating effects of further miasma. There are insightful parallels between the violent and erroneous behaviour caused by the Titanic nature and the behavioural consequences of contracting miasma. The hope for humanity is found in the second aspect of human nature; the Dionysian. The Dionysian nature may predominate over the Titanic through the katharsis of the body and psyche (soul) thus ending the suffering and torment of a life governed by the violent Titanic urges and miasma. Accordingly, the purification of the physical and Titanic nature was the exaltation of soulful and Dionysian nature and a return to natural law after the discord of Miasma.

 [Miasma is akin to] a conception of sin as a kind of deadly sickness that infects the sinner and his whole neighbourhood, creating a need for cleansing and healing. This approach to sin reflects the realisation that sin is something deeper than an offense of the law, a breach of a regulation…The sin and the sinner were identified and must be separated. Much more drastic and positive remedies were required than legal process could supply.

Roy Gane

Both Eleusis and the Orphics taught of the katharsis that was so closely associated with the soul's journey to the Underworld after life. Plato spoke of similar ideas when he stated that a vast majority of people led a neutral existence during their life times. They were neither good nor bad in character. Of these souls, Plato spoke of their sailing upon the Lake Akherontes in the Underworld wherein they would undergo purification until their time came to be born upon the earth once more as living creatures.

Katharsis was thus required not only prior to death to prepare for the Underworld but also prior to life in preparation for the Earth. These essential concepts were formative in the beliefs concerning the miasma surrounding death and childbirth. Purity in death and life is central to the spirituality of Hellenes.
(continued in part two)

Tags: catharsis, hellenic polytheism, miasma

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