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