Saturday, August 9, 2008

Commentary on Miasma

I wrote an article for the Neos Alexandria website, and I'll share it here, too.

Miasma

It's somewhat embarrassing, but until the last couple of weeks, I did not really understand what miasma was. Oh, I understood it in a historical sense, but not in a truly personal sense. It didn't seem to apply to me, in the here-and-now. We live in a world where such things as spiritual “dirtiness” are verboten – they smack too much of Christianity, which many of us have left behind, and thereby brings up bad memories. While I was never Christian, I still grew up with the idea of sin because it is the most vocal and public of the religions where I live.

Most of the gods I have worshiped have been cthonic deities. In other words, they have no worry about the general types of miasma picked up by people nowadays, those associated with death and birth. Hekate is said to be one of the torchbearers showing the dead soul to the underworld, and Dionysos revels in birth, death, and other unsavory subjects usually suitable only to mortals.

Lately, however, I have been garnering a relationship with Zeus and Hera, whom I see as the supernal father and mother. I also have begun to give honors to Hestia. These are not cthonic deities, to say the least. They are quite Olympic in nature, and that changes my way of worship. Much of my “general” worship has remained the same, but there are details which have changed.

The change was most noted this past week, when I was mourning the death of our unborn child. My sisterwife was 17 weeks pregnant, and the baby died due to genetic issues. It was a very sad time for us. For the first few days, I held everything together, and kept my grief close to my chest. I felt that it was my duty, in a way, to keep things on an even keel for my family. I am the priestess, the minister, and it's my job to help others deal with their grief. However, I was not giving myself time for grieving. After everyone else was over the worst of the emotional storm, I finally broke down.

When I learned the child had died, I immediately covered my altar upon which I keep my Olympic deity items. Zeus, Hera, and Hestia were all shrouded, kept apart from my grief. I didn't feel it was necessary to shield Dionysos or Hekate, as they have often been my companions in grief in the past. Initially, I shrouded the altar because I had heard it was something others did when they were “polluted” by death. I wasn't sure it was necessary, but I wasn't certain that it wasn't necessary, either.

I'm glad I shrouded the altar. When I broke down, I took a shred of comfort from knowing that Hekate and Dionysos were with me, but I also looked up at the covered Olympic altar and realized that it was very right that it should be veiled. There was no need for the Olympic gods to see me wallowing in my own mortality.

That was what I realized, then. The idea of miasma is not one of sin, but one of pollution. It isn't so much that the gods would be offended by our grief, but that they have no need to see it. Their interest in us is as servants to them, as worshipers of them, and supplicants to them. During the deepest days of grief, or the days just after a birth, our focus is not on the gods but on ourselves, or our families. That is not wrong, but it is not serving, worshiping or asking something of the gods. It is a time to be mortal, and to fully embrace our mortality. If we did not, we might be bordering on hubris, and that is decidedly not a good thing.

The Greeks used a variety of methods by which they cleansed the body and soul of miasma. These ranged from the simple washing of the hands (something done before prayers and meals alike, as all were considered sacred) to the slaughter of a pig and the sprinkling of its blood. It's unlikely that those of us living in modern North America are going to have pig blood handy for cleansings, however it's not beyond us to use water, either spring water or purified tap water. Some people also advocate the use of salt in water, while others feel this is contrary to the idea of purification. Like most things we do within the Hellenic Polytheistic communities, each of us must use our personal feelings and study both historical texts and modern experiences to find the most appropriate methods.

The Greeks of the Hellenistic era followed certain rules in regards to funerals and miasma. When someone died, they would clean and dress the body with oils and perfumes, and put the body into a clean outfit, usually pure white. Then the body was attended for a time (and I have heard that the lying out time was anywhere between 24 hours and 3 days; my guess is that it depended a lot on the temperature, as if it was hot out, the body would spoil quickly). After the relatives watched over the body, it would be taken in a long procession to the place where it was to be buried or burned on a pyre, and a funeral rite would be conducted. Three days after the completion of this ritual, the participants, relatives, and those who had actually touched the body would undergo a purification process, and would go to the burial or pyre location and make libations and sacrificial offerings. The offerings would be made again nine days after the initial funeral rite, and a last time 30 days after the rite.

Keeping this in mind, I went through the worst of my grief (unintentionally) 3 days after the death of the baby. Though we have not had a formal funeral, I am considering the day of my intense grieving to be the funeral day. Three days later, I underwent a cleansing that I created myself, spontaneously.

We are lucky enough to have a largish above-ground pool in our backyard, and I went into the pool during the morning, and floated in its cool water, allowing the warm rays of Apollon to burn away the last of my grief. Just after noon, I went into the pool again, this time making an effort to physically scrub my body while in the pool. Late in the evening, after it was quite dark outside, I went into the pool one last time. This last time, the water was quite chilly, and the air was chill as well. I spoke an impromptu prayer, thanking the gods for being patient with me in my grief, promising offerings the next day, and asking for their continued love and blessings.

When I returned to the house, I felt very alive, very alert, and much lighter in spirit. Though I was tired because of the late hour, I was revived and I felt very good about taking the veil off of my Olympic altar. I exposed Hera and Zeus and Hestia, and spoke prayers to them, and made offerings of barley and fresh water.

This morning, I showered and washed vigorously with a lye soap that I made myself. I picked fresh flowers and made a special bouquet which I placed on my Olympic altar as an offering for Hera. I also dedicated a special gift for Hera as well.

The miasma is gone, washed away in the light of the sun, in the caress of the waters, in the earthy strength of my soap. My soul feels brighter, and I am happier. Perhaps my practice was not what an Athenian in 300 BCE would have done, but then again, perhaps it was.

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