Miasma is a form of spiritual pollution described as the lingering aura of uncleanliness that various things pertaining to the material realm of generation may give off. Miasma is both contagious; and certain events, actions, places and people in particular states can inflict miasma upon others with whom they came into contact with. Though miasma causes separation from the Gods, it’s not a form of original sin. Rather, it is a natural dirt accumulated from merely living.
Miasma is troublesome since, if left untreated, could cause a spiritual blindness that prevents us from being able to bear witness to the light of the Gods; thus causing ill fortune to fall upon us and putting us in communion with spirits of punishment. Furthermore, it could infect areas that are sacred to the Gods themselves, such as a temple.
For this, those who have been exposed to miasma in its various forms (e.g. pollution of the soul, body, household or city) are prohibited from approaching the Gods or entering the precincts of a temple until they’ve been purified, as since the Gods are all-good and pure, we must respect Their purity.
Miasma can take many shapes and forms:
- The miasma of the body; in the form of disease and death
- The miasma of the soul; in the form of impiety and vice leading ultimately to crime and/or sacrilege
- The miasma of the household; in the form of misfortune and calamity for an entire family and the descendants that will follow
- The miasma of a city; in the form of plague, injustice and natural disaster.
- The miasma of the land, waters or atmosphere; which results in fever, illness and epidemic diseases
In a likewise manner, miasma may have different causes, which were illustrated in the Cathartic Laws of Cyrene, The Sacred Laws of Selinous and Julian’s laws he passed on the Roman Empire during his time in Antioch:
- Miasma caused by foreign agents. These foreign agents were usually empousa; the spirits of those
- (a) who had been murdered
- (b) who had died with miasma
- (c) souls who had been denied entry into the Underworld because they had died without proper burial rites. These Empousa were vindictive spirits who were forced to wander this world without rest.
- Miasma in particular locations caused by unsanitary conditions due to
- (a) natural phenomena
- (b) human settlements
- (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 blinded one from the Gods.
- Minor Miasma caused by contact with childbirth or natural death
- Minor Miasma caused by certain actions
In other words, Miasma results from the disturbance or diversion from the natural law and order of earthly life.
In Hellenism, natural law is called Themis. The Goddess Themis is present whenever natural law is present, however, if such laws should be transgressed, Adrasteia (alternatively named Nemesis) appears, who is present whenever natural law, the light of the Gods, is absent. The companion of Adrasteia is the Goddess Aidos (Shame). The daughters of Adrasteia are the Erinyes (Furies), who are the anger and agents of miasma, spirits of punishment who harass the soul for its impurities.
Miasma is, ultimately, a tool of divine law; one that embodies the inevitability of righteousness and justice over unlawful actions.
Since certain events, actions, places and people in particular states were said to inflict miasma upon others with whom they came into contact, the purification rituals varied and were specific to whichever form of Miasma had been contracted. Things such as birth and natural death are to be attended with particular rites (hygiene rituals) and, if the necessary purification rites weren’t performed, the minor miasma surrounding birth and death may potentially lead to illness and, ultimately, death. To deviate from these rituals is a transgression of the natural law. Murder is also another transgression of natural law, as are any actions that ultimately ignore other divinely prescribed behaviours.
Katharmos (Καθαρμός) are the practices of purification. While Miasma refers to any form of corruption or defilement; Katharmos is indicative of the special cleansing rites that had the ability to expel the corruption and discord of particular types of Miasma and restore the innate harmony of purity. Katharmos is of the utmost importance in the daily religious life of Hellenes alongside prayer and sacrifice.
Katharmos may take many forms:
- Minor purification before prayer and sacrifice. This entails
- (a) Pinning up hair (if you’re a female with long hair) since hair is only worn loose in ritual if one is in mourning or specified for a particular festival
- (b) Removing shoes
- (c) Washing hands and face prior to ceremony or prayer
- (d) Purification of sacrificial items by ‘thrown barley’ and/or ‘lustral’ water made by plunging a flaming torch or flammable twig (rue or some such other purifying herb) into water.
- Specified Katharmos that must be performed following certain actions before entering a temple.
- Specified Katharmos upon the birth of a child or the death of a loved one.
- Katharmos to purify the atmosphere.
- Katharmos to purify particular locations.
- Specified Katharmos to expel foreign agents of miasma (such as empousa)
- Specified Katharmos to unblind us from the light of the Gods through supplication and sacrifice.
- Katharmos (medicine) to purify the miasma of the body.
- Katharmos (music/dance) to purify the miasma of the soul.
- Prescribed Katharmos to avert and dispel the miasma of a household and its family.
- Katharmos to cleanse the victim of a violent crime (that is specific to the instance)
- Special Katharmos to purify a murderer or one who had accidentally killed.
- Cult Katharmos to purify the soul (including the Katharmos of theatrical tragedy).
- Particular purification festivals
Here reconstruction of purification laws will be presented, based largely on LABRYS’ reconstruction of them based from various sources.
The Miasma and Katharmos of Natural Death
The specific Katharmos relating to the miasma of natural death applies to anyone who has died of natural causes and includes fully formed still-born infants.
When death occurs, Katharmos must take place on different levels of the social structure
- (a) The corpse must be purified
- (b) The city’s hygiene must be preserved by cremating and entombing the remains of the dead outside of the city boundaries. Death Rites must not take place within the city boundaries, and furthermore, must take place at night as to not spread miasma among the living.
- (c) The relatives of the deceased must be purified after the death rites and again following the completion of the mourning period.
- (d) Visitors who come to pay their respects to the relatives and the deceased before the corpse has been removed must purify themselves upon leaving by washing in the vessels of sea/salt water that must be placed outside the doorway of the household.
- (e) The house of the deceased must be purified three days after the death with sea water. The hearth (fire) and water supply must also be purified.
Eggs are offered as food for the newly dead to ensure the transference and purity of their souls. This is due to the sulphur content in eggs that acts as an agent for Katharmos.
The Miasma and Katharmos of the Dead
- The eyes and mouth of the corpse must be closed as soon after death as possible.
- The body is washed by the women of the household with sea water if available.
- Pregnant women are prohibited from attending the dead.
- If the deceased was killed in battle or by violent means; the wounds are cleaned and dressed.
- A chin strap is placed under the jaw and bound on top of the head to ensure that the jaw does not gape.
- Coins are placed upon the eyes to pay for the boatman Charon for the passage of the soul to the plains of Arrival in the Underworld.
- The body must be cremated as the fire purifies the dead.
- Miasma is incurred by both the women who prepare the body and by the men who carry the body to the pyre and/or entomb the remains. The Katharmos of the relatives must be performed by all those who attend the dead as well.
The Miasma and Katharmos of Childbirth
- Neither the baby nor the woman giving birth is the source of the miasma, but rather it’s the act of childbirth itself that has miasmic properties.
- The household (house and resident family members) where childbirth has taken place, if it happens, incurs a period of miasma in a similar manner to a place where where death has occurred. (Please go to a hospital if possible, both for the safety of the mother, the child, and to not spread miasma in the home)
- If childbirth does happen in the home, though; the household must be purified on the fifth, tenth and fortieth days following the birth
- Anyone coming into contact with the woman who has given birth within the first five days is said to have incurred miasma for a period of three days
- Those who attended the birth are polluted until the fifth day Katharmos
- The miscarriage of unformed infants is treated as childbirth miasma, not as death miasma, and the Katharmos of childbirth must be performed.
The Miasma and Katharmos of Sexual Intercourse
- Personal bodily Katharmos (bathing) is required after sexual intercourse before entering a temple or presenting offerings and prayers to the Gods.
- The miasma of sexual intercourse is largely centered on semen
- Rape incurred miasma to the victims (of both sexes) of the sexual violence and special Katharmos is necessary.
The Miasma of Katharmos of Murder and a Murderer
Murder is considered to have the worst kind of miasma, and is especially dangerous.
- The presence of an undiscovered murderer in a city is said to bring the miasma of infertility to humans, livestock and crops.
- Even worse miasma is incurred if the murder is committed in a precinct sacred to the Gods.
- The miasma incurred by the murder of a Priest or Priestess is dire. The Katharmos required for the miasma of a Priest’s murder was the ritual sacrifice of a Pharmakos.
- The specific term Mysos was used to describe the pollution of patricide, matricide and the murder of a spouse. The Miasma incurred by the Mysos is the fundamental inability to continue generations which results in ruined crops that’ll bear no seed and still-born children.
- Murderers are to be jailed to avert from the miasma they would bring to those around them.
- It was believed that the Gods themselves cast Miasma upon those who have murdered as punishment
- Miasma as a divine punishment applies to all types of crimes and is usually associated with a reversal of fortune that must be rectified through Katharmos
- If a criminal walked around without being purified of his crimes, he could spread his miasma onto others
- The Katharmos from the blood crime took place on two levels.
- The murderer had to be freed from the empousa (vindictive and restless soul) of the person(s) whose life they taken.
- They had to be purified from the miasma of the blood crime itself.
- If the murder took place in a house, specific Katharmos is required to purify the house and family members. An example of such a Katharmos is found in Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus cleansed his home from the miasma of murder by sulphur and fire.
The Miasma and Katharmos of the Household (Family & Family Home)
Miasma and the misfortune it brought to a household might not merely affect one generation, but the family’s descendants. It was thus the family’s responsibility as a collective unit to bring any relatives guilty of crimes to justice. The moral responsibility for each family member was thus firmly a collective liability.
If a family member isn’t brought to justice in a private manner and the proper Katharmos performed for any wrong-doing, it was expected that Miasma would be incurred by the negligent family as a whole.
The Miasma and Katharmos of the Atmosphere, Land & Waters
- The cause for such forms of miasma is usually recorded as unsanitary conditions. As a result, Ancient Hellenic medicine was very concerned with the natural harmony between soul, body and environment; and in a way many forms of modern medicine are, too. A harmonious balance ensured health while an imbalance caused disease.
- Certain irrigated grounds have properties of miasma and can cause fevers in those who enter their vicinity.
- Certain bogs and marshes have properties of miasma and can cause fevers in those who enter their vicinity.
- There are particular locations in the sea or rivers where drowning or illness may occur if someone should enter these waters. It was believed that one could incur miasma from using the same water supply as someone who was in a polluted condition or under a curse.
- In certain locations where the course of rivers has been diverted and their channels obstructed, the waters have spread onto the plains. Terrible afflictions and diseases have arisen from the Miasma of flooded plains.
- Miasma of the atmosphere caused diseases, plagues and epidemic. Atmospheric Miasma could take the form of weather, unhealthy vapours and ‘seeds’ of disease. To treat atmospheric miasma, the famed ancient physician Hippocrates was said to have burnt bonfires of sweet-smelling unguents and wreaths to rectify and purify the air.
“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
“Never pass through, on foot, a lovely brook of ever-flowing water, till you pray and look into the beauty of the stream and in her clean, sweet water, wash your hands. For if you cross a river with your hands and crimes uncleansed, the Gods will punish you and bring you countless pain in future.”
-Ibid, lines 740-746
“… and with hands unwashed, I would take shame to pour the glittering wine to Zeus; there are no means for a man to pray to the dark-misted son of Kronos, with blood and muck all splattered upon him.”
-Homer’s Iliad, 6.266-8
“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.”
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave. Wright. The works of emperor Julian. London: Heinemann etc., 1962.
Krasskova, Galina. With Clean Minds and Clean Hands: Miasma – What It Is and How to Treat It. Beacon, NY: Sanngetal Press, 2017.
Madytinou, Lesley. “Purification.” LABRYS | Texts. Accessed August 13, 2017. http://www.labrys.gr/en/text_purification.html.
Panopoulos , Christos Pandion, and Vasilios Cheiron Tsantilas. Hellenic Polytheism: Household Worship. Edited by Panagiotis Meton Panagiotopoulos and Erymanthos Armyras. Translated by Mano Rathamanthys Madytinos and Lesley Madytinou. Athens, Greece: LABRYS Polytheistic Community, 2014.
Rienties, Mayra. “Baring the Aegis.” PBP: Miasma, katharmos and preparing for the Gods. July 01, 2012. Accessed August 13, 2017. http://baringtheaegis.blogspot.pt/2012/07/m-is-for-miasma-katharmos-and-preparing.html.