Miasma: ritual pollution or defilement.
Is mental illness, and disease in general, inflicted by the gods as punishment for hubris and other “sins”? Are we punished for approaching the gods when afflicted by Miasma (ritual impurity), or simply ignored? Or, is Miasma the result of physical and mental illness, which when afflicts us, bars us from approaching the theoi (gods)? If so, what can we do to seek Their help when we most need it (when ill) and yet do so with respect?
How did the ancients approach this issue?
The quote below is controversial. But bear with me here, it presents the questions that lingers in the back of our minds. The emphasis in bold below is mine:
Still in the sphere of values, a question arises about the relation of pollution to morality; the irrationality of the former, perhaps, makes it hard for a rational system of the latter to develop. The religious historian may wonder how pollution relates to ‘sin’, prime source of religious danger in a different tradition; this question becomes of central importance in the case of those alternative
religions of the Greek world whose goal was salvation and principal route towards it ‘purification’. The subject is not irrelevant even to the historian of science, since the Hippocratic doctor, in seeing ‘impurity’ as a cause and symptom of disease, is an heir to the prophet or oracle. The origin of disease raises the more general question of how the early Greeks, individually and collectively, responded to the afflictions that befell them. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion, pg. 2
Here is my answer based on research and discussion with others of the same faith…
The general idea is not to approach the gods while you’re exposed to miasma; that is, when you’re likely to be distracted (by intercourse, being ill, dirtied, having spilled blood, or associated with the ill) at formal gatherings and rituals.
Although, it seems that the ancients were also concerned about miasma spreading, carrying with it disease. The implication in that old belief, now, is how stigmatized the ill (physically and mentally) are. Such belief would cause the good Hellenic practitioner to avoid the ill, and those who treat them, to avoid offending the gods by approaching Them. Is this an antiquated view of the ill, one that should be cast aside like misogyny and human sacrifice.
I worried about this for some time as I work in Psychiatry and see the mentally ill nearly every day. What we know of miasma for formal ritual settings would imply that I am ritually dirtied every day I work and interact with patients. Theoretically, I couldn’t honor the gods until after a full day had passed and I’d bathed. If I were simply dirtied from the day’s work, or from being intimate with my husband, that’s another matter. A simple bath, shower, or washing my hands would be enough. But not if I’ve encountered a murderer, prostitute, a house in which someone has died, a corpse, or the severely ill.
Yet, I dedicate my work to Asklepios (god of doctors) and His family (Hygea, goddess of good health among them). When acting on the gods’ behalf to help the very people who need it most. Surely it’s not unreasonable for the ill or medical professionals to approach him. Right?
Yet, many people I’ve encountered believe that the cleanse-and-avoid protocol only applies to very formal settings (as in, the demos or polis holiday sacrifice, or a rite of passage) and based on what I’ve read about certain gods (Asklepios as the chief example) there are some for who – it seems – it was expected you’d approach when you need that kind of help one needs most.
We can be confident in this conclusion, as those who were ill and injured came to Asklepios’ temple in order to receive treatment through divining the cure. He is a very gentle, tolerant, and accepting god. There is the story of him once receiving a boy’s offering of dice in exchange for his cure. Quite a break from protocol, isn’t it?
Also, I am doubtful that we can honor Hestia in the kitchen or Demeter in the garden (through doing actions that honor them – like cooking or nurturing plant life) without getting our hands dirtied. Can it really be that one should avoid all the gods at all times when tainted by miasma? I don’t think so.
Let me emphasize again: a big part of the issue for the mentally ill approaching the gods is being distracted in Their presence. If one is conflicted by psychosis (preoccupied with mental affliction and unable to focus) at a formal event, then one isn’t paying proper attention to the gods.
The solution? I suggest that this can be countered by being stable on medication. If for example, a schizophrenic patient is cognizant and focused on the ritual because they have the right treatment (rather than distracting others with outbursts against paranoid delusions or hallucinations), then there should be no offense to the gods.
In addition, usually unstable patients want relief and release from the mental affliction above and beyond anything else. In that case, the best gods to approach are Asklepios, Hygea, and Their family anyway; who would be accepting of “their patients”.
And the implications for health care professionals? Well, it’s about putting the gods first for this formal context, place, an time – not my worries about the patients I work with, not my own emotional conflicts (unless that’s what I’m praying for help with), not feeling dirtied by the sweat from the day’s work, but focused on the deity who I am tying to approach and honor. The separation between mundane life and spiritual life by washing my hands and time “decompressing” after a hard work day helps me focus on the gods.
The substance part of the issue is a symbolic act of leaving those distractions. Ritual hand (and sometimes face or space) washing is a powerful act in and of itself, which can help to focus one on the libation or ritual sacrifice to come.
This subject often comes up in dicussions of miasma. I won’t reinvent the wheel by covering this topic in detail. Instead, I’ll refer readers to Rhudian’s excellent article on how menstration applies to Miasma here: Miasma & Menstration.
* Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion by Robert Parker. Highly recommended for further reading.
In your modern opinion, what do you think causes miasma (ritual impurity)? When is it inappropriate to approach the gods and is it different for each god? Do you think mental illness is a form of miasma, or caused by it, or the product of it? How can the physically and mentally ill ask for help from the gods without offending them?
- Germ theory denialism: A major strain in “alt-med” thought (sciencebasedmedicine.org)
- Book Review: Schizophrenia: Medicine’s Mystery, Society’s Shame by Marvin Ross (blogcritics.org)
- Would You Want A Psychiatric Patient Living Next Door? (psychologytoday.com)