Purification and How We Talk About It

Today is a purification day, so it’s the perfect time to talk about purification.

Because I often do long posts with a bunch of headers, here’s a guidepost: I’m going to (a) talk about what I do on a monthly basis for purification just in case you haven’t read anything else I’ve said on KALLISTI and (b) discuss a Twitter thread I wrote a while ago (c) about vocabulary splits in recon/revivalist Hellenic polytheism (at least in the non-Greek communities) because linguistics is fascinating.

Purification in the Lunar Calendar

In the calendar I use — which is based on the one from Baring the Aegis — the 18th and 19th days of the lunar calendar are purification days.

On the 18th lunar day, I do the purification ritual as outlined in LABRYS’ Hellenic Polytheism: Household Worship with some minor modifications — I use long-steeped tisane more often than wine because dry tisane is shelf-stable and I almost never have alcohol outside of the Anthesteria. I generally use mountain or tulsi tisane that I’ve prepared and chilled beforehand. (It’s a modification that isn’t traditional, but I know that there are others reading this who don’t drink or who are too young to acquire wine. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.) I use a tambourine instead of a bronze noisemaker because I couldn’t find a bronze noisemaker locally or via online shopping sites. What I have works.

Purification rituals feel good. Especially with the one from LABRYS, the combination of the sound and the incense make the air almost hum, as if everything is drenched in light that cannot quite be seen. I usually do the purification ritual on the 18th before even customary household prayers, and I like doing longer prayers after the purification ritual because everything feels light-drenched and finely-etched, and I have the kind of giddy-in-the-stomach feeling that I imagine everyone gets after using noisemakers and being loud in a ritual context.

On the 19th day, I generally pray to Dionysos using the prayer beads I’ve reserved for a purificatory prayer. Prayer beads are also not traditional. I like to use them because they provide a good focus for repetitive chanting without requiring a person to actually keep count or time, which lets one focus more on the chant itself — the prayers are over when the end of the beads is reached. Whichever persons came up with prayer beads initially were brilliant.

Something new: I really liked the break I took from social media earlier in the secular month. It was mentally cleansing. Going forward, I’ve decided to log off of social media on both the 18th and 19th of the lunar calendar. (I don’t place WordPress in the social media category.) Mental purification matters, and this is giving me some much-needed time to be present and to let my brain reset itself and flush out emotions. Freedom.to in lock mode is merciless.

A Twitter Thread on Purification

On June 30th, I retweeted (Twitter’s term for amplifying something someone else has posted) a link to something about white sage, its endangered status, and things about smudging/smoke cleansing. I then did a short-ish Twitter thread that I will rewrite here with some additional comments/context.

In the thread, I started by contextualizing my comments about purification against the New Age “smudge” (really, smoke cleansing) kits that are all over the Internet. My youngest sister had a baby early in the calendar year, so I decided to send her a baby welcoming gift so she could purify her home. What happened next is probably obvious — I went onto Etsy to look for a purification kit, and almost all of the kits’ descriptions are a cultural appropriation horror show. I am not a crafter, so I did the best that I could during the selection process.

However, I would like to see better kits.

Fire is purifying, but fire is not the only purifier. Thinking in a PIE-descended cultural context, many purifications involve water instead. Spring, river, and seawater have a long history in this context. You see this from Gaul to Greece to India and beyond. In Attica, the prenuptial bath was an important purification step during the ceremonies surrounding marriage, and water usually came from sacred springs (as described in J. Larson’s Greek Nymphs on and around p. 111). In Gaul, there’s evidence to suggest that water was often used to purify sacrificial victims and during the process of personal cleansing before ritual.

I did some searches to see if something smudge-like was done in Europe before bookstores had a New Age section, and it looks like the answer is no. As a caveat, my search was not thorough — I stuck to religious contexts, not to folk magic or practices.

Fire is purifying, but fire doesn’t always have to mean smoke. Purification by fire can mean that something (or someone) goes over the flames, as in jumping a bonfire. It can, in the case of Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries, be imagery of fire and light to describe something else, such as the immaterial “fire” of the gods that has a purifying effect on the soul through theurgy because doing ritual and acclimating to the presence of the gods leads to pure interior (and sometimes exterior, in the case of healings) states.

It can also refer to fire that has been extinguished in water. Khernips is made when someone extinguishes a burning herb in water, sometimes water that has been salted (which I do; I have a large container of sea salt that I use just for this). I use rosemary, and others might use bay or another herb. Adding small amounts of sulfur has also been done by some, but I do not do this. Baring the Aegis has a good summary of it.

The Twitter thread deviated very rapidly from that base. In short, I love linguistics, and language can be distracting, and I did become distracted.

Purification generally means that one is purifying some being/thing by removing something else. That thing, in the Hellenic polytheistic contexts I know, is miasma. Miasma is where I started on the usage rabbit hole, and I think it’s fun and interesting enough to write about this on WordPress, too.

Linguistic Splitting: Jargons of Purification

I people-watch on the Internet, and I am a huge linguistics fan. I love analyzing the speech others are using, and when people talk aloud, I do listen to their consonants, vowels, formality register, and grammatical variants.

A few years ago, I started noticing that there was a jargon split, specifically between the Hellenic polytheists subcommunities on Tumblr and the ones who stick to WordPress/Blogger/&c., Reddit, and Twitter.

This was fascinating to me. Tumblr’s reblogging and ask features are semi-unique. It makes the entire site a riveting communication and idea transmission medium if you’re a librarian who thinks it would be extremely fun/rewarding to analyze its information ecosystem. (I’d need IRB approval, though.) Social media is ephemeral and difficult, and so Tumblr users curate master posts of resources to share with one another — it’s very democratic, and as a librarian, I notice the types of sources (and the creators of such sources) such lists refer to, including things like the ratio of intra-Tumblr to external linking. From what I’ve seen, these collated lists include Tumblr posts, scholars’ work, and links to helpful websites.

Scholars and most Hellenic polytheists tend to use miasma as a broad term for a range of ritually impure things. The word I see used on Tumblr, though, is lyma, and I wasn’t sure where it came from; in that subcommunity within Hellenic polytheism, miasma is reserved for legit awful things like rape and murder and life-changing events like death and birth.

It occurred to me that this usage difference in jargon might make people unaware of the difference prone to misunderstanding one another. If someone in an Internet community that has a distinction between something like lyma for quotidian miasma and miasma for the big-deal miasmic things, le could misinterpret many things written outside of that subcommunity. Are there other places where terminology diverges, and if so, is that creating similar stress points? We’re all online and communicating via words, so whether or not we understand one another’s jargon matters a lot.

The term miasma itself is ambiguous and messy. Yes, it’s impurity, but it contains antonymic symmetry within it — the positive and negative bundled together in a single term. Rape, murder, genocide, and the like give rise to miasma, and these are immoral things; sex and childbirth are positive events, and yet those also lead to a state requiring purification from miasma. I think it’s interesting that there is a subcommunity that has looked at the lack of clarity and gone another way with how to refer to ritual impurity.

The book that lays out lyma is called Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion, Volume 1, by Andrej Petrovic and Ivana Petrovic. I’ve only read parts of the introduction, conclusion, and skimmed a few chapter sections that look interesting, so I’m not analyzing the book right now. However, I do want to talk about it!

Petrovic and Petrovic are analyzing texts that deal with purity/purification. Their monograph pulls out words that carry a purity/purification semantic meaning within the text’s context, and it uses those words to map out a territory of the words each text’s author was using and what le meant. As with most things in linguistics, a word being used in a purificatory sense doesn’t mean it isn’t used in other ways outside of the context the scholars are analyzing.

Lyma, the word in question, seems to be used in a “meh” (read: you’re impure, but it’s nothing to worry about if you follow some basic cleansing protocols) context on both Tumblr and in the scholarly monograph.

The monograph, though, isn’t just about purification — Petrovic and Petrovic are using their discussion of purification to argue that people in antiquity were actually religious, so they’re triangulating there with textual evidence related to purification. For context, people in Classics are still fighting an uphill battle to get ancient religiosity taken seriously. This is something that we also see in recon polytheist circles. In both cases, it’s usually due to Christian bias/baggage (the authors actually acknowledge that). The authors are doing what they can.

(Also, tangent: If we went into Platonism — and especially Late Platonism — I think that many people have a false sense that what Platonists were doing was especially extra when even a cursory look at anything shows that there’s a lot of continuity with the normal range of what very pious people had already been thinking. A lot of what is present in Petrovic and Petrovic’s monograph is echoed in Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries, and I do not understand why people treat one as radically different from the other. This seems related to the above.)

Petrovic and Petrovic have this to say about their triangulation process:

We propose that inner purity was equally fundamental to the conceptualization of this relationship: elusive, immaterial, and slippery, concealed from all but the individual worshipper and the gods, and often sidelined and underappreciated in modern scholarship, inner purity crops up time and again tightly intertwined with ritual, from Hesiod onwards. To be of ‘pure’ inner disposition, that is, to be pure of mind, soul, or thoughts when approaching the gods and performing rituals, was, as we intend to demonstrate, an integral part of the Greek notion of piety (eusebeia) and an elementary prerequisite for successful interaction with the gods. A ritual perspective is fundamental to our study, since Greek texts concerning the purity of worshippers were usually formulated in the context of a sacred space or of participation in a religious ritual. Accordingly, we concentrate on the representations and evidence of ritual practices. Rather than focusing on the normative structure, institutional embeddedness, or socio-political function of the rituals, we instead trace and reconstruct the role that the inner attitudes of the worshippers played within them. (Introduction, p. 4)

Some of the broader implications of this book, though, are what it says about the mental, emotional, and physical states of a worshipper and how they impact purity and lead to — or fail to lead to — correct, pious ritual. For example, a worshipper’s thoughts and emotions need to maintain a religiously receptive, focused state; morally, one needs to be sound, with a backbone of behavior to act as momentum to prove it; physically, one needs to be clean.

A longer discussion of ritual purity goes beyond what I said in the Twitter thread about purification. As I mentioned, I’ve also only read a small part of the monograph, so there are plenty of opportunities for me to be surprised or delighted by something I did not expect — so I will be brief while closing with a discussion of my own experience.

When I’m mentally scattered or emotionally distracted, ritual generally doesn’t go well. I have the Headspace app, so when I do ritual and know I need to collect myself first, I will sometimes do a 2-3 minute focus exercise in the app. It’s purifying (washing my brain?), and I notice a perceptible difference on days when I do it. Obviously, it’s harder than that sometimes. I do ritual in the morning. For me, two things that can make ritual focus even harder are (a) autopilot checking Twitter between when I wake up and leave for work because that never fails to throw me into stress and/or (b) not getting enough sleep. Headspace will probably not help either, so I embrace the struggle to set good boundaries.

This is a less pronounced version of what I mentioned during a full purification ritual above, where the combination of all of the things in the ritual lead to a very wired and ritually engaged state — the noisemaking, the fire-in-water cleansing, the prayers, the burnt offerings. I savor purification due to the heightened engagement it makes room for, and I do what I can to be collected and together.

Quick Postscript: Agos/Enagēs

There’s another word, agos (adjective enagēs) that I really like, probably because I worship the Erinyes. As with miasma, it has antonymic symmetry. People most often think of it in terms of someone doing something so wrong that one is now consecrated to a deity in the sense that that deity will fuck lim up. The positive sense of the term occurs when one is swearing oaths — you swear something by the power of a god, and your action is now consecrated to that god. If you don’t adhere to the oath, a god will fuck you up.

Agos and enagēs are the terms to associate with the hostility land spirits and the dead in an area feel towards blood crimes and genocide that happened there (e.g., the Sullivan Campaign in Upstate NY). You can’t wash that away. The Erinyes are not easy to appease, and they demand work. People who actively embrace the legacy of settler-colonialism &c. in the United States, for example, are focusing that impure state on themselves like a lens. I’ve written about these things before on KALLISTI.

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