Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pollution and Purification (Wisdom Way 2)

Life contains terrible things. Fate weaves as it weaves, and all beings make our way by our wit and strength
among the weavings. For some, life presents terrible moments. Fear, pain, disgust, horror are the unpleasant, mind-torturing results of the exposure of a common mortal to those moments.

For most people disease and violent crime are common causes of such reactions. Natural disasters and random destruction can happen anywhere. The mortal heart reels when the material things of a lifetime are washed or burned away in hours.

I am, on Wednesdays, an animist. My animism tells me that all these things must have or be spirits. The ancients understood this. Many of these terrible things were the province of the Shining Gods. Apollon ruled the plague, Poseidon the earthquake, Ares ruled war. Here is a mystery – all these terrible things are holy. Gaelic lore tells us that poets are often made great only when their hearts are turned by some terrible moment. However we also know that many are broken by those same events, and many struggle long and hard before the choice between broken and whole is clear.

The ancients held that exposure to such duress produced spiritual and social ill. They referred to this tendency as “impurity”, and worked rites and customs to purify those who had been exposed. It is safe to say that in ancient times these ideas were caught up in notions of morality. However in our time we may, if we like, take a more therapeutic approach without losing the flavor of the old customs.

I believe that in our time we suffer needlessly from a lack for formal method for relieving the stress and horror of life’s ill times. As we develop our Pagan ritual set, it seems to me that rites of purification, relief and heart-healing can be a valuable. Again, this need not imply that impurity equals moral wrong, any more than does material dirtiness. It merely acknowledges that some effects are unpleasant, and that we will be better off without them.

This isn’t a scholarly paper, and I don’t intend to review what we know about Hellenic or Roman or Vedic spiritual pollution and purification. Instead I’m going to do what I usually do, and try to summarize and synthesize some sense out of my fact-salad brain. I’d like to try to discern the core ideas behind the things that were considered to be polluting.

1: Death, Risk of Death, and Injury – In terms of producing fear and lasting trauma, nearness to death and the circumstances that might cause it must be top of the list. For the ancients this produced a taboo on handling corpses and on contact with blood.

In our time there is little that is more unsettling than contact with injury and death. From the passing of a
loved one, to a random encounter with death on the street to even an account of death in the media, closeness to this great and frightening thing produces shock and fear. Spilled blood remains such an intrinsically powerful moment that a few people will always have a palpably physical reaction of revulsion. I’ve seen folks fall right over at the sight of blood.

Disease falls into this category as well. Any disease of sufficient strength can remind us of death, in ourselves and others. The ancients sometimes attributed physical disease to spiritual causes, especially to pollution and contact with taboo circumstances. While we need not go so far, we can recall that a troubled mind does not best support the health of the body. From the animist perspective, again, we must assume that diseases can or do exist as spirits, or as the attacks of spirits that can be approached in a spiritual way.

What are we to make of this? I’m suggesting that if events disturb our hearts, if they gnaw at our calm or distract us from our interest then there may be an advantage in a meditative and ritual purification. It’s like having one’s hands dirty as one approaches the cooking – best to wash off.

2: Sex, and the Desire for Sex – Let’s take as a given the thick layers of patriarchal, theological and modernist moralizing about this subject. All of that aside, the urge to indulge in sexual pleasure is innate, and the new adult will develop what strategies they can. The balance between fleshly inclination and social permission produces levels of stress that can seem (especially to the young) equivalent to risk of death.

Ancient Greeks depicted sexual desire as daemons with whips, lashing poor mortals through the world in pursuit of their imagined ideals. Great tragedies hang on the foolish choices we make in pursuit of our ‘One True Love’ or ‘Perfect Lay’. This was entirely contrasted with what was understood as domestic love, and familial or friendly affection. While I think that modern cultural trends have somewhat relieved the burdens of medieval moral codes the driving goad of sexual desire can disturb our hearts as surely as can fear.


Among our Druids we have had occasional discussions about what ‘sexual impurity’ or ‘illicit sex’ might consist of in our context. The list was not long. I suppose my favorite answer is “sex you regret’.

3: Family, and Social Duty – I’m writing this in the “Holiday’ season in the US, a time that for many brings the stresses of family and social interaction to the fore. Ancient notions of the duty that children and parents owe to one another still cling in our psyches, and conflict with modern notions of individuality and liberty.

Even outside the family, social obligations bring us into contact with sometimes-irreconcilable conflicts of expectation. Then there are those moments when we screw up. Oathbreaking, lawbreaking and the various smaller betrayals of life can also disturb our peace.


How can I put it? If it makes you feel fucked-up, it’s pollution.
It is the psychic or spiritual or magical residue of those encounters, those feelings, those small, biting imps, which we mean to wash away with ritual purification.

There are some very specific instances in our culture when I think such rites of purification might be of special value.

It was the business of supporting returning war veterans that prompted this reflection. In many cultures those who are sent out to deal death in the name of the people are offered various kinds of spiritual comfort. Psychological damage from participation in war can be extreme, as shown by tales from ancient times and statistics from today.

Traditional Christianity offers relief from the burden of ‘sin’, but that leaves soldiers in a funny place. Have they sinned in doing their duty? Perhaps they have not, but that does not relieve them of the disruption that killing and contact with death must bring, no matter how well justified. In the context I propose that deeds do not have to be morally wrong to be disruptive and polluting – they simply have to bring us into contact with fear, dismay and confusion.

Safety professionals find themselves in similar circumstances, as must medical professionals. Clergy, counselors and many helping vocations may find themselves entangled. Anyone who seeks a lover, keeps a job or raises a family may find themselves in need of purification.



There’s no end to the number of screwed-up emotional responses I can see to this. Most important, I think, will be to remove guilt and shame from this sort of impurity. This has been an ongoing process in late-Christian and post-Christian culture. We have largely eliminated the social stigma from cancer, though we are still working at it in terms of mental illness, diabetes and other diseases. In the same way we can realize that we need not be ‘at fault’ to require purification and healing. It is not an admission of error, in itself, though it may involve that. It is not an admission of weakness, though it may be an effort to grow in strength.

Especially, we must note that it is possible to become screwed up by doing things that are right and good. Neither the cosmos nor our minds and bodies have any intrinsic moral value or agenda. They do not care whether you had Every Right or No Other Choice. The course of wisdom and justice occasionally calls for terrible deeds. They do not cease to be terrible by being morally correct. To execute a criminal, slaughter a hundred animals or kill the opponents of one’s people is intrinsically disruptive to the human spiritual condition, however firm the rationalization that supports it might be. Even a war hero comes home needing to be relieved of the burden of stress (leave aside imagined ‘guilt’) that hard service gives.

From my perspective as a Pagan ritual priest I am interested in developing methods and customs that will allow those who have been in contact with ill to receive relief from the feeling of dirtiness and the social unwelcome that accompanies it. I have seen myself how a sense of disconnection and emotional imbalance encourages people to neglect spiritual work. If we don’t feel worthy it becomes difficult to worship. If we’re dirty it feels rude to come to the gods’ table.

As a Pagan priest I think it is sensible for us to work toward developing ritual and meditative methods that allow people to calm their hearts and refocus their minds on their path. These rites need to combine social efforts with personal trance and self-awareness, along with the active involvement of the gods and spirits. Meditative work should be crafted for householders and the only-mildly-religious; modular trance ‘spells’ can be accompanied with ‘teachings’ about emotional management. This is the kind of work that begins to make Yr Hmble a little nervous. I will experiment on myself with magick arte as I please (and maybe on my wife ; ), but when we start designing works intending to fiddle with the emotional constitutions of others I become a little twitchy. Nevertheless I think our communities can benefit by the effort.

I’m unprepared, as yet, to make hard prescriptions on this matter. Some notes:
Trance and Reframing:
• Separate moral guilt or social shame from the fact of pollution.
• Calm the body through relaxation and basic meditation

• Perhaps use Two powers: Underworld to dissolve and wash away residue, Heavens to restore original patterns and energize
• Could connect directly with Augeidies work – trance presence of the Agathos Daimon or Da Fein.

Questions toward ritual practices:
•Confession – a Big Question. There are obvious merits to the practice, but some real theoretical concerns as well. If the pollution is the result of criminality, deceit of ill-deed, then I wouldn’t want to offer purification without social restitution. When the deed is inadvertent or sanctioned, as in war, then I’m far from sure I care to make the subject recite the items that trouble them.
• Restitution – My question is how to balance the personal and social values of this complex of customs. In typical modern Pagan fashion I’m inclined to have the business be about the individual, about their own peace and calm. Those who view social guilt and shame as an important goad to good behavior will be concerned about the idea of relieving ill-feelings without restitution for ill-deeds. On the other hand society is not well-served by cycles in which emotional confusion caused by a previous ill-deed becomes, itself, the goad to further criminality. Is it worthwhile to offer a service of grace, with confession and restitution a separate matter?
• Material symbols- this is the easy part. I would assemble as many members of the subject’s community as can/will come, and lay a sacrifice for the subjects’ preferred gods. There will need to be a hymn or litany written that has the right hooks. (A biggish challenge…) I would compose a set of water-and-fire customs to materially contain the purification power, and work the whole deal under the gods of the subject’s house.

Less serious pollutions can be dealt with much more simply, with water-and-fire blessings, ritual baths, etc. These should, in my opinion, become regular parts of Pagan spiritual practice, for the benefits of calm and freedom that they provide. Daily shrine practice for families and solitaries should, in my opinion, certainly contain simple versions of this sort of purification.



To lay the dog on the table, my goal is to aim for therapeutic goals while removing attention from the common self and focusing it on community, the gods and on the higher self. If we build a religious context in which people understand that the duress of life produces spiritual impurity that can be relieved by ritual action we will have a powerful set of instruments for helping non-specialists benefit from spiritual work.

6 comments:

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Great post --and certainly an area of work worthy of investment. Thank you.

Anna Munda at Enchanted Body said...

These are very important and real ways to help our communities, and our culture as a whole.

As a licensed body worker who also works with various energy therapies, such as traditional Reiki, we would need good training in energy anatomy -- each faith community would need to figure that out if they don't want to borrow from other cultures -- and also basic pastoral counseling techniques along with training on boundaries and ethics. I say this because even the simplest of cleansing rites can really alter how a person interacts energetically with the world, and even have a physiological effect. But this is important work.

Endovelicon said...

Erynn Rowan Laurie was working with a rite for veterans coming back from service, drawing upon the tales of the Fianna and their patroness, Brig Ambue :-)

firewomanpg said...

In criminal justice circles, there's a modest push towards incorporating various types of 'restorative justice,' whereby the victim(s) and offender(s) enter into a conversation about how to best 'make things right.' It's been somewhat successful in reducing recidivism, but is extremely unpopular, as one might imagine. Anyway, some of the customs, forms, etc. of that might help envision what you mean by restitution, and a few other parts of this. I seem to remember one of the programs being formed a la Native American healing circles (Bad Leesa can't remember which tribe...) but I can look for it if you like. Yes, it's borrowing from another culture, but cultures have done that throughout history.

Carrion Mann said...

Ian,

This work is wonderful and I look forward to discussing it with you further. I do want to comment about the restorative justice aspect of this type of purification. My thoughts are that you could you the process exactly as you have designed it and then have the person being purified make a votive offering to the powers in the form of if you aid me in purification then I will do 'something' to compensate the victim or community wronged. Just a thought.

Defiant Observer said...

One of the most effective rituals I ever experienced was "Howling At The Moon" at the Dark of the Moon at the Rites of Spring festival. Big circle of hand holders, weeping and wailing, and most importantly Confessing Publicly our loneliness, sadness, regret, shame, inferiority, ingratitude etc. etc.---then asking the Dark Goddess to cleanse us and refresh uss.