Life contains terrible things. Fate weaves as it weaves, and all beings make our way by our wit and strengthamong 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
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.