I should probably explain what ‘miasma’ is. In ancient Greek religion, it was the word given to ‘spiritual pollution.” Now, I almost hesitate to use the word ‘pollution’ because of its negative connotations in our language. To my mind, miasma was a natural thing, neither good nor bad, a natural consequence of certain actions or coming into contact with certain things. Sometimes this is inevitable and then you perform the appropriate ritual cleansing. No big deal; except it is. Ritual purity was practically an obsession to ancient Greeks and maybe it should be for us as well. (1)
I think there is more opportunity in our contemporary world to enter into a state of miasma than in the world our ancestors faced. After all, so much of what is common in our world stands diametrically opposed to the values and virtues the Gods would have us cultivate. Not all miasma is the same either. I once, tongue in cheek, said there was big miasma and small miasma but in a way, that’s true. There is the miasma that comes when one accidentally blunders into an unclean situation. There is the miasma that comes of doing a necessary or kind act but one that led to contact with something unclean (such as handling a relative’s body to help prepare it for a funeral), there is the miasma that comes of consciously choosing to expose oneself to something disrespectful to one’s Gods, there is the miasma of certain horrible crimes. (2) How one deals with a state of spiritual contamination depends largely on what caused it.
There is positive contamination too, which complicates the issue a bit. Anyone who has had direct experience with the holy may be in a state of what I term positive miasma. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s very, very good. But, it leaves a mark, an energetic signature by which others may be contaminated, others who have not prepared themselves properly for such contact. Shamans have this, which is why few of us are touchy-feely types of people. Anyone who has just been possessed by Deity has this. Anyone who has just had a powerful encounter with the sacred carries it. The sacred is a type of positive contamination. This is why in “Till We Have Faces,” C.S. Lewis has one of his characters speaking about the ‘smell of the holy.” (3) It does have a smell, a feel, a sense, a taste even I suppose---for those who perceive energy and presence very kinesthetically. This type of miasma, I would go so far as to say should be reverenced. It should be respected and attended to appropriately. I would, however, counsel that the person in this state of holy contamination understand that transitioning back into kronos—that mundane headspace that I spoke about several articles back on my blog – might be difficult, painful, may even cause a moment or two of emotional and cognitive disconnect. I would counsel such a person to be gentle with him or herself and to take the time necessary to process and experience the after-effects of such contact. I would also counsel them not to rush back into kronos and the places and things and people associated with it.
This article isn’t about positive miasma though. It’s about the more negative kind. Why do I call it negative when I said above that miasma isn’t something good or bad in and of itself? Well, the type of miasma I call ‘negative miasma’ is the type that came about because of the conscious (and poor) choice on the part of the individual. Sometimes it’s a lack of mindfulness. Sometimes one accidentally falls into this type of miasma though not having all the necessary facts beforehand. I’ll give you two choices using myself as the necessary guinea pig.
A couple of years ago there was a public winter solstice ritual held in my town and I was invited. There was, of course, a bonfire. The woman serving as ritual facilitator was incredibly unskilled. She had no concept of the sacred whatsoever. The man building, lighting, and tending the fire did to some degree but not enough to challenge what occurred. The ritual was already suspect from the beginning because there was a sense in these two facilitators that it was a performance piece. While there is an element of performance inherent in a good ritual, the purpose of this is to enhance the cultivation and experience of the ritual state, not as an end in and of itself. So, as the fire was blazing, after invoking the elemental powers (poorly), the man says that now it is time to give offerings to fire. Fire blazed up at that. The woman interrupts and says ‘no, we’ll do it later.’ (So already you have a violation of ritual protocols right there…banter and incompetence have no place in ritual. On top of that there is the denial of promised offerings). She goes on to deny fire any offerings. At that point, being initiated to fire as I am, I was in a state of massive miasma. All of my taboos as a fire-worker had been violated, ritual protocol had been violated, and a family of spirits with whom I am very close had been shown massive disrespect. I pushed my way to the fire, made offerings despite what the two of them had said (Gods and spirits trump humans any day of the year in my book), and left. When I got home, I made massive offerings to the spirits of fire with my apologies, and underwent a full ritual cleansing. Then I wrote an article about it to educate other people on how to behave both in ritual and around fire (i.e. here’s a negative example: here’s what not to do!). Because I recognized the ritual violation and knew that miasma would attend it, I was able to deal with it appropriately right away, instead of waiting until it ran its course (never a good thing) bringing with it misfortune, possible illness, and the anger of a family of good and gracious allies.
My second example is far more mundane.(4) I went to the movies. As a child, I’d loved the original “Clash of the Titans” (I went through a period when I was seven or so when I was obsessed with Greek cosmology) so when the remake came out, I eventually got around to watching it. I was appalled. It was nothing like the original and was, in fact, one of the most vile and singularly disrespectful presentations of myth that I have ever seen before or since. I was sickened. I also came away from the movie feeling to the core of my being as though I was now polluted, tainted, utterly ritually and spiritually unclean. I wrote about this at the time (the link to that article may be found in note #4) and I was heartened to find other polytheists had experienced the same thing. Perhaps this wouldn’t have affected someone else as deeply but for me, it rendered me spiritually filthy. It was several days of meditation, prayer, and deep cleansing before I felt like anything approaching my mundane normal again, and even longer before I felt ready to approach the Gods properly in ritual space. I had exposed myself willingly to that which impugned the Gods.
This second incident really brought home to me the nature of miasma. This was the turning point for me in my conception of it and of its impact. I believe that if one’s mind, heart, and spirit are centered rightly on the Powers, if one is acting from heart-felt piety and devotion that perhaps the impact of such contamination is minimal and easily cleared away (for all that it might conversely be felt more astringently). For those who, as I did, blunder into such situations oblivious to the potential for contamination, it is far, far worse. We have an obligation to ourselves and to our Gods to be mindful. Always. There are times where entering into a state of miasma might be inevitable, but we should consider where we go, with whom we spend our time, to what influences we expose ourselves. They matter: these things, no matter how small and mundane matter.
It also made me realize that as much as it is about external contamination, miasma is also about keeping one’s mind, spirit, heart, and body in a proper state and properly centered on expression of one’s spiritual connections and fulfillment of one’s spiritual duties (whether that is communing with the Gods, holding ritual, teaching, raising a family, running a farm, or heading off each day to an office so one can support one’s family). It is about endeavoring to do this consistently and cleanly. One might easily shake off external miasma, not so easily when it’s a matter of mind, heart, or spirit.
There is a concept in Buddhism called ‘right mindfulness,’ and in many ways (as I understand it), this means this means directing your thoughts and attention to spiritually wholesome endeavors, focusing on those things which will enhance one’s spirituality.(5) By doing so, one enhances one’s life. I think that starts with the small things…like what movies one chooses to watch and how one behaves in ritual. I think it should expand until it encompasses the large: like how one treats the homeless man hungry on the street, and how one reacts when legislators threaten to begin fracking in one’s neighborhood. In the same way, I think that we don’t just court miasma by foolish choices and mistakes in ritual, we court it by the decisions we make every day, by how we choose to live in our world and the harm we choose to permit pass by unattended, unchallenged, unchanged. These things make a difference.
Now some people may have specific taboos, or duties that either render certain types of miasma more damaging or put one in a position to court miasma more readily. The advice I offer there is to develop a ritual of cleansing and purification before and after engaging in such acts. For instance, according to ancient Greek religion (if I’m not mistaken), performing a sacrifice had the unusual effect of both being a potential curative for a state of miasma in the one requesting the sacrifice, but also rendering the ritual priest performing the sacrifice in a state of miasma. But this is inevitable miasma and I would warrant easily cleansed away as anyone trained in such rituals would have doubtless learned in the course of training. This, by the way, is my theory about why so many Pagan rituals ancient and modern stressed entering the ritual space clean, or even incorporate(d) some type of cleansing into the ritual itself (something that Christianity with its holy water, and Islam with its required ablutions adapted): it was a means of ensuring that those entering ritual space were free of miasma.
In my House, we make liberal use of Florida Water (our version of lustral waters I suppose) before, during, and after rituals to ensure cleanliness. We will sacrifice if need be, though this is unusual and usually saved for special offerings to the Gods. We care about each other and will subtly help ensure that whoever happens to be speaking doesn’t forget or neglect some aspect of ritual protocol. We work together to ensure that the rituals are engaged in properly, fully, absolutely respectfully and with as little lack of mindfulness as possible (which also means taking time beforehand to prepare everyone for what is going to happen, give them some idea of the order, what will be expected, and what is and is not permitted and doing divination before and after to make sure all was properly attended to and well received by the Gods and ancestors) and we try to carry that mindfulness away into our lives. We all fail or muck this up on occasion, but it’s an ongoing goal and way of being. How we behave in ritual and with each other in ritual affects how we engage with our world in our daily lives and that’s as it should be. When miasma happens, we’re ready for it and know that we have support in dealing with it no matter how bad it might be or possibly become.
Understanding miasma, what it is and how negatively it can impact someone, is an essential component to ritual studies, one that I feel has been sadly neglected within contemporary polytheisms until now. I hope to see that changing. We need more mindfulness in our communities, both within our rituals and without.
- “Miasma” by R. Parker
- A brief Google search on the term ‘miasma’ brings up multiple references to the house of Atreus, in which misfortune follows misfortune because of heinous crimes and the slaughter of children. That’s massive, massive miasma of a level beyond what I’m discussing in this article.
- “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis, p. 11.
- I wrote about it here at the time: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pantheon/2010/07/a-conundrum-of-conscience/. One of the comments pointed out that the movie wasn’t about Heathen Gods (the Norse Gods) as if that mattered. I strongly believe that if we are present, it diminishes us to allow any Deity to be shown disrespect and I do not believe that our Gods, those we claim as “ours” would necessarily protect us from any ill consequences of such blindness and bad manners.
The image of the bowl of lustral waters used in this picture was originally found here: http://www.humanflowerproject.com/index.php/weblog/comments/songkran_with_lustral_waters/. I thought it pretty.