Postmodernism & Miasma V: Laughter and Lunchtime

Cass has mentioned “sin-eating” as part of her Sami heritage. I know little about Sami practices and nothing about their treatment of “sin-eating” so I will refrain from comment on that aspect.  However, I am aware that similar practices are found in other European and European-American traditions. From a Welsh history site:

According to one local account of the ‘Coeden Bechod’ (The Tree of Sin) in the Parish of Llanllyfni, the family of the deceased would place a potato or cake that had just been taken out of the oven, onto the chest of the corpse and leave it there to cool. People believed that the food would absorb all the sins of the departed. This food would then be placed under the Tree of Sin, where, at a later time, it would all be consumed by the sin-eater as he took upon himself all the sins of the deceased. Also, a small amount of money would be left for the sin-eater who was usually a person shunned by decent folk.

In other parts of Wales and the Borderland, the sin-eater would come to the house of the deceased in person and eat the cake prepared for him beside the coffin in the presence of the mourners and accept the cash. He would then have to leave amid the curses of the mourners.

19th c. English “sin-eater” at work

I note that rather than contradicting the concept of miasma, sin-eating reifies it. The sin-eater takes away the corpse’s sins in exchange for a free meal and some money: where water is used to wash away impurity in many traditions, the sin-eater consumes it.  It is also noteworthy that the Welsh sin-eater is shunned and cursed: he occupies a liminal position within a society that views him as inherently tainted. While I cannot speak to Sami tradition, similar taboos apply in other areas of the British Isles where sin-eating is found.  This is an alternate method of dealing with spiritual pollution, not a sign that spiritual pollution does not exist or that other cleansings are not required.


I did not discuss sin-eating in my first installment because I did not intend my treatment of purification methods to be encyclopedic.  Cleansings by water, “smudging” or other forms of ritual purification are far more common than sin-eating: they are also considerably safer. Taking ritual pollution into yourself and transmuting it is a highly specialized skill, not something which everybody can or should do. (Raven Kaldera describes a variant on this approach in his excellent The Ethical Psychic Vampire).  Those who attempt this without the proper precautions and qualifications, outside an established ritual tradition, put themselves and others in danger: oppression, obsession and even full-on possession are possible, as well as the spread of contagion to others.

Another method of purification which has become popular among practitioners of Chaos Magic is banishing by laughter.  Chaotes believe that by laughing at our fears we can overcome them: instead of taking the darkness seriously, we can mock it out of existence. This can certainly useful when dealing with irrational anxieties or with pompous people whose egos need deflating: its value as a psychological release or a debating tool is obvious.  (Indeed, Discordianism teaches us there is nothing worth taking seriously and the proper response to everything is a self-aware mocking smirk).

Within a humanocentric system that treats Gods as archetypes and religion as psychodrama, banishing by laughter may be all you need. If you accept the existence of ritual pollution as something outside yourself, as a subjective rather than an objective state, things become more complicated.  If your apartment is infested with cockroaches laughing loudly will do little to discourage them: if you drink poison, an emergency room will be more helpful than a comedy club. Within its proper sphere, banishing by laughter can be a powerful therapeutic tool.  When dealing with miasma it is useless. And taken to illogical conclusions (see Discordianism), it can become actively toxic. Not everything is funny: those who think otherwise should sit through a few Adam Sandler movies.

Finally Clifford H. Low noted in several Facebook comments that certain magicians deliberately sought out ritual impurity and gained power by it. His examples included witches deliberately seeking out graveyards and other contaminated places: I also noted the Aghoris of India who sleep amidst funeral pyres and drink from human skulls. Again, I would note these are minor sects which exist outside a larger tradition and which affirm the social order even as they blaspheme it: the power of Sacred Transgression depends on an order to transgress. There are also considerable social and other costs to those who follow these arduous paths: Aleister Crowley’s final years come to mind immediately, as does the fate of many witches whose reputation finally roused their community to take violent action.

Clifford also noted that the term “spiritual pollution” is so broad as to be nearly meaningless, given the wide variety of taboos and requirements across social and spiritual traditions. Wine might be impure hence miasmic to a devout Muslim or Evangelical Protestant:  a Catholic or Priest of Dionysos might consider the same bottle a tasty blessing and incur no spiritual ill from drinking it.  There are indeed few absolutes as to what constitutes “spiritual pollution” across all traditions. (There are a few which occur repeatedly, notably contact with dead bodies: I also have yet to find a religion which didn’t have a tradition of wearing clean clothes or “putting on your Sunday best” when attending ceremonies).

But we have to remember that miasma is also something which is out of place.  To hearken back to an earlier example, a compost heap is a perfectly fine place for rot: a compost heap on the dinner table is a problem.  The exact details of where spiritual and physical things belong in an individual’s life depends on many cultural, social and spiritual factors.  That those things should be kept clean and in their proper places is a universal imperative. In following the dictates of our Gods we recreate Their role in bringing order out of chaos.

2 thoughts on “Postmodernism & Miasma V: Laughter and Lunchtime

  1. I think the common sense corollary to spiritual pollution is the knowledge that what we consider pollution and how we deal with it is determined by which Gods we venerate and what tradition we practice. the specifics are tradition specific.

    Liked by 1 person

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