Postmodernism and Miasma II: All Else is Commentary

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:


Ludvik Dolezal, the “filthiest man in Europe,” has not bathed in over 60 years


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:

  1. pconqcesdyjyfeprhfxea vaporous exhalation formerly believed to cause disease; also :  a heavy vaporous emanation (see emanation 2) or atmosphere: miasma of tobacco smoke

  2. 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.

 Cass and Clifford Low offered counterexamples to “ritual purification.” Cass mentioned “sin-eating” while Cliff pointed to the way ancient witches and sorcerers gained power by ritual defilement and blasphemy. My first thought is that these are exceptions to the rule and serve to reify rather than contradict the concept of ritual purity.  A culture which makes use of “sin-eaters” to ritually consume impurity proves that it believes in impurity:  transgression, sacred or otherwise, only makes sense when there is something to transgress against.  I also note the liminal positions typically held by those practitioners: they may play important roles within their community but are generally kept at a distance when they are not needed. This reinforces the connection between spiritual pollution and contagion: shunning was not seen as a punishment for bad behavior so much as a quarantine that protected the community.

5 thoughts on “Postmodernism and Miasma II: All Else is Commentary

  1. I don’t know that I’d say I started the whole brouhaha. I think people determined to miss the very simple point of my article started it. But this piece here is a useful followup. The more we discuss miasma, pollution, and related topics, the better. This is a conversation that our communities need to be having, even when — perhaps most esp. when–we don’t agree.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Thank you for writing this because it’s given me a jump-point to explain my own worldview (especially as you asked me to 🙂 ) and sort of address some of the things Anna and I spoke to you about how the communities talk about their practices and interact with each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Galina: I agree that we need to keep talking about miasma and spiritual pollution. Unfortunately, trying to explain miasma to people living in our culture is like explaining water to a fish: when you’re swimming in it, it’s easy to forget it exists.

    Cass: I look forward to seeing what you have to say and am currently reading your blog. (I may offer some commentary on a couple of your posts if I get a chance tonight).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I would very much enjoy and look forward to that! I think we’ve got quite a lot of things that we could discuss and debate. 🙂


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