A word oft misused, a concept sorely misunderstood. Miasma is the Greek word for ritual impurity. I have decided to explore the topic of miasma in hopes of demystifying the concept and making the topic less frightening to the less experienced practitioner.
It being me, I’m not just going to write about my feelings on the subject. I have sequestered 10 quotations from primary sources, 15 journal articles from JSTOR, and 5 passages from this book by the Petrovics and this oft-cited book by Robert Parker. I recommend both books to anyone who wishes to follow along at home.
Both of those books will tell you roughly the same thing: while purity and purification are well attested, references to miasma are sparse, and evidence for beliefs surrounding the concept of baneful impurity are overwhelmingly from Greek Tragedies.
To put that in perspective, imagine what kind of a practice a Christian might have if they reconstructed their practice from the writings of Shakespeare. Playwrights take liberties for the sake of plot. They are not theologians. What they write *is* evidence of how people in their culture thought about the world, but it must be taken with a grain of salt.
I’m going to start with a quotation from the Iliad, as a way of framing this exploration.
But upon Glaucus came dread grief as he heard the voice of Sarpedon, and his heart was stirred, for that he availed not to succour him. And with his hand he caught and pressed his arm, for his wound tormented him, the wound that Teucer, while warding off destruction from his comrades, had dealt him with his arrow as he rushed upon the high wall. Then in prayer he spake to Apollo, that smiteth afar:
“Hear me, O king that art haply in the rich land of Lycia or haply in Troy, but everywhere hast power to hearken unto a man that is in sorrow, even as now sorrow is come upon me. For I have this grievous wound and mine arm on this side and on that is shot through with sharp pangs, nor can the blood be staunched; and my shoulder is made heavy with the wound, and I avail not to grasp my spear firmly, neither to go and fight with the foe-men. And a man far the noblest hath perished, even Sarpedon, the son of Zeus; and he succoureth not his own child. Howbeit, do thou, O king, heal me of this grievous wound, and lull my pains, and give me might, that I may call to my comrades, the Lycians, and urge them on to fight, and myself do battle about the body of him that is fallen in death.”
So spake he in prayer, and Phoebus Apollo heard him. Forthwith he made his pains to cease, and staunched the black blood that flowed from his grievous wound, and put might into his heart.
— Iliad, Book 16, 508-529
Follow this train of blog posts until its conclusion and you will be quite satisfied that corpses are ritually impure. You will also be satisfied that purification before prayer is a well-attested practice and a Good Idea.
Here, we have a prayer spoken to Apollon, a god renowned for his concern with purity. The prayer is spoken amid corpses and filth. No hands are washed. No ceremony is observed. No physical offering is made. No physical offering is promised.
There is no concern that anyone other than Apollon may answer. Not only does he answer, but he answers with a miracle. He answers, in no small part, because he cares about the outcome of this human war.
No matter what else I may write on this subject, and no matter what else you may read, know this: Hellenic deities are deities who answer prayers. They are beings deeply invested in human life and human societies. They care enough to answer even when the prayer is spoken in the midst of the direst miasma. Caring about human affairs and human opinions is a defining characteristic of this pantheon.
Miasma need not be feared. We need not fear that we will be rejected by our deities in times of need because of our inability to do enough ritual.
Purity, however, is a manner of showing respect, and the more we know about it, the more we are able to do to honor these gods and make them feel comfortable in the spaces we invite them into. It need not involve shaming other people, it need not be coercive or done out of fear. It can simply be adhered to as a way of showing a deeper respect, offering a better quality of hospitality, and expressing our friendship by showing interest in their customs.