Written by Lesley Madytinou
Never omit to wash your hands before you pour to Zeus and to the other Gods the morning offering of sparkling wine; they will not hear your prayers but spit them back.Hesiod 'Works and Days', lines 722-725
Never pass through, on foot, a lovely brook of ever flowing water, till you pray and look into the beauty of the stream and in her clean, sweet water, wash your hands. For if you cross a river with your hands and crimes uncleansed, the Gods will punish you and bring you countless pain in future.Ibid, lines 740-746 
...and with hands unwashed I would take shame to pour the glittering wine to Zeus; there is no means for a man to pray to the dark-misted son of Kronos, with blood and muck all splattered upon him.Homer's Iliad, 6.266-8 
Lead on, bearing before me blazing brands, and, as sacred rites ordain, purge with incense every cranny of the air, that I may breathe heaven's breath free from taint; meanwhile do thou, in case the tread of unclean feet have soiled the path, wave the cleansing flame above it, and brandish the torch in front, that I may pass upon my way.Euripides' Helen
In the ancient world, those who had been exposed to Miasma in its various forms (pollution of the soul, body, household or city) were prohibited from entering the temple precincts until they had been purified. This monograph is thus a call for each of us to deliberate upon Miasma and the purity necessary for a closer relationship to the Gods. Miasma and the rituals of Katharmos bring us face to face with the genuine fear of Hellenes for their Gods. It also is a direct confrontation with what it may mean to incur the wrath of a God that we may unwittingly offend. This fear is very real and very necessary if one wishes to pursue a realistic relationship with the Gods who have created this amazing universe in which we live. The Gods are superior to all that they create and preserve. Respect is of the utmost importance. True respect always contains a measure of healthy fear. The absence of fear is not bravery, it is rashness.
The first section of this monograph is a general introduction to Pollution (Miasma) and Purification (Katharmos). The second section deals with the different types of Miasma and Katharmos connected with both Death and Life.
Section One - A Basic Understanding of Miasma and Katharmos
Miasma is a complex,, metaphysical, non-moral term that covers activities from dreams to murder, the common thread being activities that inspire in society dread and awe. It is a term that explains otherwise inexplicable events and therefore appears to be a supernatural responseC. M. J. Sicking & J. M. van Ophuijsen
[Miasma is akin to] a conception of sin as a kind of deadly sickness that infects the sinner and his whole neighbourhood, creating a need for cleansing and healing. This approach to sin reflects the realisation that sin is something deeper than an offense of the law, a breach of a regulation.The sin and the sinner were identified and must be separated. Much more drastic and positive remedies were required than legal process could supply.Roy Gane
Of all the beliefs of the ancient Hellenic religion, none were as feared as much as Miasma (pollution). This form of pollution differs from the modern conception of dirt. Within the ancient context miasma has supernatural origins. There is no direct translation of the word in English and the closest approximation to the total concept associated with the word miasma is 'psychic contamination/defilement'.
In Antiphon's Tetralogies, miasma seems to be equated with the anger of the dead or with a supernatural agent whom the dead person employs. Miasma should be understood as the state of having the dead angry with one.Sarah Isles Johnston
A living comparison to the ancient understanding of miasma may be found in Indigenous African religions and the belief that the anger of ancestral spirits could bring death, illness and misfortune to individuals and villages alike. In much the same manner as tribal healers and diviners will conduct the rituals to cleanse the afflicted person or village and appease the ancestral spirits with sacrifice and prayer, so too did the ancient Hellenes perform Katharmos (purification) to cleanse and reconcile the suppliant with the supernatural agents who bore them anger and malice.
Miasma may take many forms:
In a likewise manner, miasma may have different causes as the archaeological evidence of the Cathartic Laws of Cyrene (Dorian Hellenic settlement in Libya) and Selinous (Dorian Hellenic settlement in Sicily) illustrate:
In other words, Miasma results from the disturbance or diversion from the natural law and order of earthly life. The milestones of birth and natural death were attended with particular rites (hygiene rituals) and if the necessary purification rites were not performed, the minor miasma surrounding birth and death could lead to illness and death. These Cathartic laws pre-empted the spread of possible miasmic contamination with general safety laws designed to ensure hygienic living conditions. To deviate from these rituals was a transgression of the natural law. Murder was also a transgression of natural law as were any actions that ignored other divinely prescribed behaviours.
In ancient Hellenic religion, natural law is called Themis. The Goddess Themis is the first wife of Zeus, the King of the Gods. Themis is present whenever natural law is present but if such laws should be transgressed, Nemesis appears. Nemesis is present whenever natural law is absent. The companion of Nemesis is the Goddess Aidos (Shame). The daughters of Nemesis are the Erinyes (Furies) who are the anger and agents of miasma. More will be said on these various Deities in later modules dealing eith the Gods.
[The Aescyhlean Erinyes] may be understood as the animate agents of miasma embodying anger.Robert Parker
Thus Miasma is ultimately a tool of divine law that embodies the reciprocity of unlawful actions and the inevitability of righteousness and justice.
Katharmos refers to the rites of purification that averted from or expelled miasma. Awareness of miasma and the necessary Katharmos was of the utmost importance in the daily religious life of Hellenes along with prayer and sacrifice. Katharmos may take many forms:
The God who was famed for his ability to cleanse and purify miasma is Apollon. This ability is bestowed upon him due to the miasma that Apollon incurred himself after he slew Python to avenge his mother Leto. His Katharmos was nine years of exile before he was purified sufficiently to rule freely at Delphi. This nine year period was maintained in the Delphi cycle in a festival that was re-enacted every nine years to honour the Katharmos of Apollon and to empower the Priests at the various shrines of Apollon in all the Hellenic City States to act as the official centres for Katharmos. Those seeking purification could thus come to any of the shrines of Apollon to purify themselves from defilement after the proper prayers and sacrifices had been offered. In this capacity, Apollon was called both Katharsios (the Purifier) and Apotropaios (the Avertor) and his decree of purity was considered final. After the Katharmos of Apollon, none could dispute the purity of the supplicant. Apollon together with his son Asklepios presided over the healing arts and thus the cleansing of the miasma of the body too.
Plato discusses Katharmos in the Socratic dialogue 'The Sophist' as an aspect of the science of division:
Of the kind of division that retains what is better but
expels the worse, I do know the name . . . every division of that
kind is universally known as a purification.Plato
These purifications are purely physical actions that are symbolic of higher divisions of the Universe. The rites of purification express and exemplify the natural divisions of sympathy and antipathy. Miasma will naturally find sympathy with other Miasma and repel purity in an antipathetic action. Purity will likewise be in sympathy with other pure essences; Virtue will find its own reflection in virtuous acts. Purity is akin to Agathon (the beneficial Good) and thus the rites of purification seek to preserve the Good and avert from or expel the bad. Miasma is naturally antipathetic to purity and thus through maintaining purity in body, soul, household and city, Miasma and its corruptions would be expelled through the universal division of sympathy and antipathy. The simultaneous petition for purity and the expulsion of pollution in any of its manifestations is the standard conclusion to all the Orphic Hymns.
Miasma was believed to be contagious and dangerous. Certain events, actions, places and people in particular states were said to inflict Miasma upon others with whom they came into contact. Thus the purification rituals were specific to whichever form of Miasma had been contracted. The Katharmos were the special cleansing rites that had the ability to expel the corruption and discord of particular types of Miasma and restore the innate harmony of purity. Miasma generally refers to any form of defilement or corruption while Katharmos indicates the rituals that consecrate once more that which was desecrated by Miasma.
The rituals of Katharmos differed from Cult to Cult and from region to region. The Greater Eleusinian Mysteries had a pre-requisite purification ceremony at the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries that had to be attended prior to entry at Eleusis almost a year later. The Greater Mysteries were also largely centred upon the Katharmos of the initiate. This form of Katharmos involved the ritual of dance, music, a torchlight procession, bathing in the sea combined with the rite of Pharmakos (the ritual sacrifice of a scapegoat that in this instance was a suckling pig) to Demetra that represented the death and purification of the initiate. The music, the dance, the salt sea water, the fires of the torches and the sacrifices are all elements of Katharmos and it is through these rites that the initiates purified themselves to hear 'that which is forbidden to be heard'.
The Katharmos of Eleusis prepared the initiate to enter the Underworld and stand before the Goddess at the initiation of the Greater Mysteries and was the central purpose of the Lesser Mysteries of Agrai. It was said that these Lesser Mysteries were founded as a favour from Demetra to the semi-divine Herakles. Of his many labours, one specified that he had to descend to the Underworld and capture the Hound of Hades but to enter he had to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. Unfortunately there was an Eleusinian restriction that prohibited those who had taken human lives from being initiated into the Mysteries. Herakles along with countless other soldiers had the 'Miasma' of blood upon his hands. A special purification was required for Herakles and as a favour the Katharmos of Agrai (the Lesser Mysteries) was founded by Demetra to enable Herakles to be purified from his Miasma. The mythical Katharmos of Herakles from the blood of those he had slain is attested to by the archaeological findings of the Eleusinian Mystery Cult.
The Orphics and their legendary teacher Orpheus taught that the essence of all earthly existence is two-fold in quality. One aspect is called the Titanic and is that which the Orphics viewed as the source of all misdeeds, owing to its appetites, passions and inherited miasma. This is the most primal quality of life that is purely physical and subject to material decay and further contamination from miasma. Plutarch saw this Titanic nature as the violent, unreasonable and chaotic part of earthly life. When the Titanic nature dominates a life form, its existence is finite and hopelessly bound to the material world.
This is the ancient doom that Socrates spoke of in the Meno, which befell earthly life as a consequence of its misfortunate origins (inherited miasma). Fortunately, as the Fates ordained it, the curse of mortal existence holds a blessing too. Deep within life, the Titanic nature exists alongside the spark of Dionysos and this is the seed of our deliverance from the bonds of Titanic being. This divine germ manifests within us as our personal daemon (spirit) and is united with the God eternally. This second aspect of earthly nature was named the Dionysian. From this multiple tincture of Divinity the spirit of life gained the gift of indestructibility from its immortal benefactor and participant. The divine spirit is entombed in matter in the form of earthly life and is subject to punishment and suffering due its dual existence with the Titanic nature.
The spirit must suffer inside the body and atone for the sins of our Titanic ancestors until we exalt and purify the Dionysian (spiritual) aspect of our natures. In life the spirit is trapped within the physical body and like a prisoner is subject to limitations owing to the intoxication of the spiritual senses by the influx of matter. There have been many references from both ancient and modern authors recounting the Orphic way of life that upheld purity as the means for a spiritual existence and the means of ending human torment.
All Titanic characteristics must be averted from and dispelled while the Dionysian spark within life must be treasured and nurtured as one would a child. Although there does not appear to be any definitive reference to the exact nature of the Katharmos that the Orphics advocated; some sources refer to the lifestyle of the school of Pythagoras that reportedly contained many Orphic disciples and disciplines. These indicate that both birth and death were seen as Miasma/pollutants, murder was prohibited and due to the unified nature of all earthly life the eating of animal flesh was discouraged unless at a ritual communion sacrifice. Free will, personal responsibility, prayer, ritual and lawful sacrifice combined with childlike innocence and pleasure was seen as positive steps towards redemption and purification from the misfortune of the Titanic nature. Purification was a necessity for communion with the God, as the inborn Divine Spark of Dionysos remained submerged and imprisoned until the Titanic characteristics were overcome. The conflict between these two opposing natures does have a higher purpose.
The variance between the Titanic and Dionysian qualities is mediated by the harmony of Apollon into the combined nature of creative evolution. Accordingly, the purification of the Dionysian nature was thus a return to harmony after the discord of Miasma. This divine spark within life seeks to be reunited with Dionysos to whom it originally belonged. This gives rise to latent spiritual urges. The life journey is the expression of the spirit's motion to reunite with its source. One who lived a pure life that was in harmony with the God (and thus all life) was rewarded with an immortal soul that was blissfully free from the wheel of birth, death and rebirth.
Both Eleusis and the Orphics taught of the Katharmos that was so closely associated with the soul's journey to the Underworld after life. Plato spoke of similar ideas when he stated that a vast majority of people led a neutral existence during their life times. They were neither good nor bad in character. Of these souls, Plato spoke of their sailing upon the Lake Akherontes in the Underworld wherein they would undergo purification until their time came to be born upon the earth once more as living creatures.
Katharmos was thus required not only prior to death to prepare for the Underworld but also prior to life in preparation for the Earth. These essential concepts were formative in the beliefs concerning the miasma surrounding death and childbirth. Purity in death and life is central to the spirituality of Hellenes. The Hellenic aversion to Miasma in both life and death are critical factors to understanding Katharmos.
Section Two - The Miasma of Death and Life
Section Two of the monograph is a partially reconstructed guideline to the cathartic (Purificatory) Laws concerning Miasma in its different forms that have been collected from archaeological findings and the fragments of ancient references to it. It is by no means a total reconstruction due to the large amount of literature that has been lost over the passage of time. Enough references to the Cathartic Laws of various regions have survived to understand that Miasma and Katharmos are intrinsically linked to not only Hellenic religion but also to the legal justice system and the city state laws. An adequate understanding of the Cathartic Laws is integral to the ritual worship of the Gods. Miasma and Katharmos are central concepts that exemplify the intimate relationship of the immanence of the Gods with their creation.
The Miasma and Katharmos of Natural Death
But to the natives of this land my voice proclaims, from this pollution far remove,
Art thou attendant at the shrine, who liftest pure to the gods thy hands, or nuptial rites
Dost thou prepare, or pregnant matron; hence, begone, that this defilement none may touch.Euripides, 'Iphigenia in Tauris'
The specific Katharmos relating to the miasma of natural death applies to anyone who has died of natural causes and includes fully formed still-born infants.
When death occurs, Katharmos must take place on different levels of the social structure (a) the corpse must be purified (b) the city's hygiene must be preserved by cremating and entombing the remains of the dead outside of the city boundaries. Death Rites must not take place within the city boundaries. Cicero attests to this ancient Athenian law. (c) The relatives of the deceased must be purified after the death rites and again after the mourning period has been completed. (d) Visitors who come to pay their respects to the relatives and the deceased before the corpse has been removed must purify themselves upon leaving by washing in the vessels of sea/salt water that must be placed outside the doorway of the household. (e) The house of the deceased must be purified three days after the death with sea water. The hearth (fire) and water supply must also be purified.
Eggs are offered as food for the newly dead to ensure the transference and purity of their souls. This is due to the sulphur content in eggs that acts as an agent for Katharmos.
The Miasma and Katharmos of the Dead
The eyes and mouth of the corpse must be closed as soon after death as possible.
The body is washed by the women of the household with sea water if available.
Pregnant women are prohibited from attending the dead.
If the deceased was killed in battle or by violent means; the wounds are cleaned and dressed.
A chin strap is placed under the jaw and bound on top of the head to ensure that the jaw does not gape.
Coins are placed upon the eyes to pay for the boatman Charon for the passage of the soul to the plains of Arrival in the Underworld.
The body must be cremated as the dead are purified by fire.
Miasma is incurred by both the women who prepare the body and by the men who carry the body to the pyre and/or entomb the remains. The Katharmos of the relatives must be performed by all those who attend the dead as well.
The Miasma and Katharmos of Childbirth
Neither the woman giving birth nor the baby is the source of the miasma. The act of childbirth itself has miasmic properties.
The household (house and resident family members) where childbirth has taken place incurs a period of miasma in a similar manner as a place where death has occurred.
The household must be purified on the fifth, tenth and fortieth days following the birth
Anyone coming into contact with the woman who has given birth within the first five days is said to have incurred miasma for a period of three days
Those who attended the birth are polluted until the fifth day Katharmos
The miscarriage of unformed infants is treated as childbirth miasma and not as death miasma and the Katharmos of childbirth must be performed.
The Miasma and Katharmos of Sexual Intercourse
Personal bodily Katharmos (bathing) after sexual intercourse is required prior to entering a temple or presenting offerings and prayers to the Gods
The miasma of sexual intercourse appears to have centred on semen.
Rape incurred miasma to the victims (both male and female) of the sexual violence and special Katharmos is necessary.
The Miasma of Katharmos of Murder and a Murderer
[Miasma] is a kind of institution, the metaphysical justification
for a set of conventional responses to the disruption
of life through violent death.Robert Parker
Murder was considered to bear the worst kind of miasma.
The presence of an undiscovered murderer in a city is said to bring the miasma of infertility to humans, livestock and crops.
Even worse miasma was incurred if the murder was committed in a precinct sacred to the Gods. A tale is told of a young harper who was murdered at the altar of Hera in Sybaris and a plague fell upon the city.
The miasma incurred by the murder of a Priest or Priestess is dire. The ancient geographer Pausanias records such an incidence in Potniai near Thebes where the drunken votaries of Dionysos murdered one of his priests. A plague fell upon the city immediately. The Katharmos required for the miasma of a Priest's murder was the ritual sacrifice of a Pharmakos.
The specific term Mysos was used to describe the pollution of patricide, matricide and the murder of a spouse. The Miasma incurred by the Mysos is the fundamental fragmentation of the continuity of generations that results in ruined crops that bear no seed and still-born children.
Murderers were often driven from a city to avert from the miasma they would bring to those around them.
It was believed that the Gods themselves cast Miasma upon those who have murdered as punishment
Miasma as a divine punishment applies to all types of crimes and is usually associated with a reversal of fortune that must be rectified through Katharmos
If a criminal walked around without being purified of his crimes, he could spread his miasma onto others
The Katharmos from the blood crime took place on two levels. Firstly, the murderer had to be freed from the empousa (vindictive and restless soul) of the person whose life they taken. Secondly, they had to be purified from the miasma of the blood crime itself.
If the murder took place in a house, specific Katharmos is required to purify the house and family members. An example of such a Katharmos is found in Homer's Odyssey when Odysseus cleansed his household from the miasma of murder by sulphur and fire.
The Miasma and Katharmos of the Household (Family & Family Home)
Miasma and the misfortune it brought to a household could often not only one generation but also the descendents of the family.
Due to the size of most families, a collective family responsibility was assumed by the religion and the state when dealing with the sacrilegious or criminal activities of an individual family member.
It was thus the family's responsibility to bring a relative guilty of crimes to justice. This included the crime of murder that was considered a private rather than public crime. The moral responsibility for each family member was thus firmly a collective liability.
If a family member was not brought to justice in a private manner and the proper Katharmos performed for any wrong-doing, it was expected that Miasma would be incurred by the negligent family.
The collective responsibility for the Miasma and Katharmos of the Household worked as a part of the state justice system.
In more general cases of Miasma such as childbirth and death, the household would need to be cleansed in accordance with the subscribed Katharmos. However, the family Katharmos of family member who has transgressed the laws is the legal prosecution of a wrongdoer. This is evident from Euthyphro's famous statement to Socrates on the following page (that is supported by Athenian Law):
The miasma is equal if you knowingly associate with such a man and do not purify him and yourself by prosecuting him. To bring a case against anyone doing an injustice; either in case of murder or thefts or sacred objects or going astray...whether he happens to be a father or a mother or anyone else, and not to bring a case against him is unholy.Euthyphro
The Miasma and Katharmos of the Atmosphere, Land & Waters
...the atmosphere there, which is stagnant from some flaw in the earth or from some inactivity
or the eternal darkness, is harmful to those breathing it. Or, when it has been tainted by the
poison of the internal fires, and is sent out from its long stay, it stains and pollutes this pure,
clean atmosphere and offers new types of diseases to those who breathe this unfamiliar airSeneca
The cause for such forms of miasma is usually recorded as unsanitary conditions. Ancient Hellenic medicine is very concerned with the natural harmony between soul, body and environment. A harmonious balance ensured health while an imbalance caused disease.
Certain bogs, marshes and irrigated grounds have miasmic properties and cause fevers in those who enter their vicinities
There are particular locations in the sea or rivers where drowning or illness may occur if someone should enter these waters. Pausanias records one such of these miasmic rivers; the Anigros whose waters lay in fetid marshes at the river mouth. The fish were so infected they could not be eaten. The source of this miasma had mythological origins in that it was said that the centaurs washed the blood from the wounds caused by the venomous arrows of Herakles in the Anigros thus poisoning the waters forever more. It was believed that one could incur miasma from using the same water supply as someone who was in a polluted condition or under a curse.
In certain locations where the course of rivers has been diverted and their channels obstructed, the waters have spread onto the plains. Terrible afflictions and diseases have arisen from the Miasma of flooded plains.
Miasma of the atmosphere caused plagues and epidemic diseases. Atmospheric Miasma could take the form of weather, unhealthy vapours and 'seeds' of disease. To treat atmospheric miasma, the famed ancient physician Hippocrates was said to have burnt bonfires of sweet-smelling unguents and wreaths to rectify and purify the air. This ritual purification continued until the Middle Ages.
In conclusion, Miasma should not be seen or understood as a superstition. Fear of miasma should also not become overwhelming and debilitating. A healthy perspective is necessary to understand the benefits of practicing Katharmos in our individual capacities (as much as is possible) within the modern world. The Katharmos of life and death is largely practical and pragmatic. Birth in ancient times was not the sterile, hygienic hospital procedure that it is today. The hazard of infections and germs placed mother, child and visitors at great risk. The handling of the dead in an efficient and hygienic manner is also of the utmost importance. Proper birth and death processes are integral to ensuring the healthy continuum of all life. The same is applicable to the environment in which we live. Many areas are polluted by human civilisation and the ultimate price for unhygienic living is paid for by humans themselves through the disease and death that result. The collective familial responsibility for the individual moral and legal welfare of both ancestors and descendents is a highly civilised approach to the interconnected manner in which a family lives within the legal system of any state. Legal law enforcement agencies cannot realistically be expected to ensure the safety of civilian life. Nor can churches and established religions be expected to ensure the moral and ethical instruction of our youth. It is thus the responsibility of each family to care for their own within every strata of human society.
It is crucial to understand what miasma truly is and not allow it as an institution to degenerate into irrational superstition. This can only be prevented through understanding the Cathartic laws, Katharmos and the purpose they serve the individual, the family household and the State.
1. Hellenic Cleansing Rituals: Nikolaos Markoulakis (Hellenic Reconstructionist)
2. Purgatory; The Hellenic Acherontas: Nikolaos Markoulakis (Hellenic Reconstructionist)
3. Funerary Practices; Greek Burial and Lamentation Rituals: Loretta M. Alirangues
4. Miasma; Pollution & Purification in early Greek Religion: Robert Parker
5. Death and Disease in the Ancient City: A case study by Eireann Marshall
6. Possession and Exorcism in the New Testament and Early Christianity: Eric Sorenson
7. Megara Hyblaia and Selinous. The Development of Two Greek City-States in Archaic Sicily. Oxford University School of Archaeology Monograph No. 57: Franco De Angelis
8. Eleusis: Karl Kerenyi
9. An overview of Classical Greek History (The Nature of the Gods): Thomas R Martin
10. Two Studies in Attic Particle Usage: Lysias and Plato: C. M. J. Sicking, J. M. van Ophuijsen
11. Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece: Sarah Iles Johnston
12. Agency Uncovered (Chapter 6; Dirt, Cleanliness and Social Structure in Ancient Greece): Astrid Lindenlauf
13. Cult and character: purification offerings, Day of Atonement, and theodicy: Roy Gane
14. The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece: Sue Blundell, Margaret Williamson
15. Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks: Robert Garland
16. The Omphalos and the Cross: Pagans and Christians in Search of a Divine Center: Paul Ciholas
17. Encyclopaedia of Taboos: Lynn Holden
18. The Economics of Justice: Richard A. Posner
19. Memoirs Relating to European and Asiatic Turkey: Robert Walpole
20. Hippocratic Lives and Legends: Greek and Latin texts of the classical lives: Jody Rubin Pinault
21. Oedipus the King: Uses And Abuses: Sophocles, Stephen Berg, Diskin Clay
22. Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology: Stephen Pattison
23. Myth, Telos, Identity: The Tragic Schema in Greek and Shakespearean Drama: Ivan Nyusztay
24. A Geographical and Historical Description of Ancient Greece: John Anthony Cramer
25. Air, the environment and public health: Anthony Kessel
26. The Theatrical Cast of Athens: Edith Hall
27. Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought: Arlene W. Saxonhouse
28. Herodotus: The Histories
29. Belted Heroes and Bound Women: The Myth of the Homeric Warrior-king: Michael J. Bennett
30. Opera from the Greek: Studies in the Poetics of Appropriation: Michael Ewans