Yesterday’s essay on Postmodernism and Miasma inspired several conversations, as did the post wherein Galina Krasskova started this whole brouhaha. Initially I was surprised to see any controversy concerning miasma. In my experience the concept is universal: I have yet to encounter a traditional religious practice that does not recognize spiritual pollution and offer means of dealing with it. But with further thought I understand the confusion and hostility. When you grow up in a culture that celebrates impiety, rebellion and blasphemy it is difficult to grasp the importance of piety, obedience and cleanliness in word, thought and deed. But while that explains the pushback it does nothing to alleviate miasma’s danger or fix the damage it causes. Hence these clarifications.
This entire discussion was sparked by an article written by Shauna Aura Knight, “I Don’t Believe in Purification,” wherein she said “I believe that the entirety of the world, of the universe, is divine. So the idea of ‘making sacred space’ or ‘purifying’ doesn’t really fit into my theology or cosmology.” Be that as it may, something tells me she wouldn’t pet a sacred cobra, eat holy hemlock or snort a fat line of divine anthrax spores. Nature may be sacred — is sacred — but “sacred” has never been a synonym for “safe.”
Knight goes on to clarify her position by saying:
For me the idea of purification implies that I’m dirty. It also implies that there’s something outside of me that can make me clean. For me, purification is a process of becoming present, becoming centered. Not cleansing away the “bad”, so much as focusing my intention, moving past those “talky self” distractions to connect to my deep self.
I presume that after defecating Knight takes something outside herself (toilet paper) and uses it to make her anus and buttocks clean. If she instead chose to become present, centered and connected to her deep self post-pooping, she would soon face a whole host of medical and social problems. Nobody attaches any particular moral stigma to her condition: neither do we argue that wiping is unnecessary because some folks rely on a bidet, corncob or smooth stone to accomplish the task at hand.
(On a related note: it is fascinating to see how discussions of “ritual purification” invariably get bogged down in commentary about racism and sexual prudery. The bigot’s obsession with “pure blood” and the homophobe’s obsession with “filthy sodomy” are certainly two examples of dysfunctional approaches to “purity.” What I find telling is they are the only examples that get raised when we talk about miasma. We could compare miasma and ritual purification to washing your dirty hands before preparing food; to pulling weeds from a flower bed; to treating an infection with antibiotics; or even to wiping your ass. Yet every time we try to talk about miasma we’re invariably hit with images of ethnic cleansing and gay-bashing).
On Galina’s blog Anna noted that miasma is a Hellenic term and questioned its application to non-Hellenic practices:
I don’t agree with “Chakras”, “Horse”, “Ashe”, or any other appropriated words being used in Polytheism outside of the religions and practices they come from- just like I do not agree with “Miasma” being used to refer to all Spiritual Impurities or Pollution across all Polytheistic faiths. I’ll accept that others might, and that’s their prerogative. But I don’t, and I won’t because they have specific meanings within their parent practices, and many times those meanings are dependant on certain ideologies or concepts held within those faiths that may not have equivalents outside of them (which either forces you to strip a portion of its meaning, or otherwise redefine it to work outside of those systems. Neither of which is an action I am ok with participating in).
There is something to be said for Anna’s approach: witness the way American Pagans and New Agers talk about “good karma,” a concept which would be as senseless to a Hindu or Buddhist as “good cancer.” But ultimately languages are fluid: terms and concepts are exchanged between peoples and words redefined to suit different purposes at different times. In the case of “chakras” many non-Indian sensitives have noted their existence. Using “chakras” to describe specific points in the astral body is no more appropriation than referring to a particular style of math with the Arabic “algebra.”
“Miasma” carries the connotation of taint, sickness and contagion: witness its common use in English:
an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt: miasma of poverty — Sir Arthur Bryant; miasma of fear — The Times Literary Supplement (London)
While we should distinguish between the Hellenic and contemporary definitions of “miasma,” there is no reason why “miasma” cannot serve as a useful catch-all for the various terms used for spiritual pollution. As with “chakras,” “miasma” defines a tangible thing which can be objectively measured and defined. There are variations in what constitutes spiritual pollution for any given individual or community and in how one cleanses it. There appears to be near-universal agreement that this pollution exists and that it can be extremely dangerous if left untreated.