Praxis: Miasma and Why I Don’t

The subject of the week has been Miasma, a word used in Hellenismos to describe a spiritual pollution that affects an individual in a negative way and ultimately could end up disconnecting them from their gods. It also exists in the common lexicon:

“Miasma” carries the connotation of taint, sickness and contagion: witness its common use in English:

pconqcesdyjyfeprhfxea vaporous exhalation formerly believed to cause disease; also :  a heavy vaporous emanation (see emanation 2) or atmosphere: miasma of tobacco smoke

an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt: miasma of poverty — Sir Arthur Bryant; miasma of fear — The Times Literary Supplement(London)

(I am taking this from PolytheismUncucked‘s post because my temporary computer is not handling formatting through multiple windows at the moment.)

The entire spark of this off was my attempt to engage in a conversation on a post by Galina Krasskova, that was ultimately a fruitless effort, though the lovely writer of PolytheismUncucked  realized that what I was trying to discuss was a difference of worldviews and not that miasma didn’t exist, or that there wasn’t a need for spiritual cleansing in some practices. I had referenced sin-eating as well as my own personal practice, which led to an interesting discussion about Postmodernism (it’s an excellent read, especially if you get all up in arms about Postmodernism in general like I do.)

Ultimately, what I came down to in a discussion with Anna, who is an Irish Polytheist (IriPol from here out) about spiritual pollution and the ideas that ritual purification and “accumulation of miasma” are necessesary- is the fact they they simply don’t exist in some worldviews.

There’s something important here to note. I do not necessarily disagree with any of the assertions made by PolytheismUncucked or Krasskova. I may find the language imprecise because I, like Anna, believe that we should be using proper terminologies as applicable to our worldviews. Now, that being said- as a “catch-all” term, miasma does function and so while it may may my jaw twitch because I’m a particular old cuss, it’s really not worth my time to get up in arms about. It is also important to note, for me, that I consider Nothern Tradition Shamanism to be a “denomination” of Heathenry. There are different approaches to the same gods, and the fact that those differences exist does mean that we will inherently disagree about praxis.

To that end, when I attempt to have a discussions about those differences, I’m doing so in an attempt to challenge and further myself rather than to convert someone to my way of thinking or prove the opposing belief incorrect. That’s a useless waste of my energy and time.

PolytheismUncucked, in their most recent post about miasma addresses the root of this conversation and why my perspective is so hugely different.

First you must recognize that there is a problem: you cannot deal with spiritual pollution until you acknowledge that it exists.  If you are reading this essay there is a good chance you’re ready to take that step. Perhaps you are still on the fence. You know in your heart and in your gut that something is very wrong, but you’re not quite ready to entertain silly superstitions about invisible magic muck.  Taboos, shunning, and charges of impiety evoke images of theocratic dystopias. Surely we’re far too civilized for such nonsense. We know “Gods” are just symbols and “miasma” merely a convenient metaphor for our personal distastes.

I will not seek to dissuade you from those preconceptions.  I will simply ask that you engage briefly in what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Imagine that miasma is a real and tangible thing and that your vague disquiet is a healthy response to being in the presence of spiritual pollution. Now follow that thought to its logical conclusions. What are its ramifications and what are your possible responses? Nothing is required save a few minutes of your time: you may conclude this whole idea is nonsense and be none the poorer for your efforts. Or you may decide this hypothesis fits the facts better than any of the other available explanations.

I think this is a very well-spoken and valid argument about the existence of miasma. So why don’t I hold it to be a part of my practice and worldview? Simple. The entire premise is based on the idea that the world is full of spiritual pollution and the Postmodernist, Christianholdover from pre-conversion is affecting ones ability to look at the world from a polytheist perspective so therefore, that needs to be changed. Personally, I don’t disagree, though I do find the anti-monotheist dialogue disturbing. (That’s not a value judgement of those that are as people, it’s just my perspective on the matter, especially as a Heathen.) With that, the premise itself starts to fall apart when someone, like myself, doesn’t have those holdovers.

I don’t reject “purity” as something to rebel against, I just define it differently. Just as I believe that the world is in an absolute tailspin, but I don’t think of it as polluted (outside of greenhouse gases and spilled oil tankers and all that environmental jazz) because life is cyclical. Things grow, die, and change. And just as I will eventually grow old, die, and maybe be turned into a pile of ash- so will the world. It may sound apathetic, but survive at all costs is the core of my theology. (That’s a gross minimization but bear with me as I’ll be addressing it this weekend.)

The analogy used by Krasskova and PolytheismUncucked was to describe miasma like putting your hands in dirt or preparing food, if your hands or body gets dirty, then you would wash them. This is in opposition to the original assertion that the need for cleansing is completely irrelevant. I don’t deny that keeping ones body clean is an absolute necessity…hell, I’m Norwegian and Irish. Some of the prissiest, “brush and braid my hair everyday” groups that ever walked the earth. However, the fundamental difference here is that I separate what affects my body, soul, spirit, and psyche into three groups: things that I can affect, things I cannot, things I cannot explain.

The things I can actively change or alter? Those have nothing to do with my gods because I believe in self-reliance above all else. To that end- it is staying up with my hygiene, eating healthy, exercising, not participating in things that would harm my body or mind- if I do those things, it’s not because it would please my gods to do so, it furthers my survival and ability to function. And that is what they are concerned about, my well-being is ultimately irrelevant so long as it does not impede my ability to serve and fulfill the role I’m given. So I don’t pray when I brush my teeth in the morning, why? Because my gods don’t care. And while, yes, I can agree that if I don’t brush my teeth or put deodorant on in the morning, it’s going to make the world look at me funny; it’s not an all encompassing change that will affect me for weeks after I realize the infraction and rectify it.

Things I cannot change, like the behavior of others towards me, situations out of my control like death, illness, natural disasters, or accidents. Those got back into column 1: things I can change. I cannot change that what happened, but I can address how it’s going to affect me in the future. If that’s therapy, medications, a change in routine or job, giving up something I want to do. Again, my gods don’t care about those things. If it doesn’t interfere with my service and devotion, then it is irrelevant to them. If I let what is affecting me start to affect other people, then I’m being irresponsible- but it’s not because of a spiritual taint: I’m just being a narcissistic asshole who needs to give myself a reality check and remember that the world isn’t all about me.

This comes down to the final thing: that which I cannot explain. And this is where I’ll quote PolytheismUncucked because they made a good point:

Do you feel vaguely nauseated and uneasy around a person, place or situation? Do you get a sense of wrongness, an air of nastiness, an aura of (for lack of a better word) yecccch? You may very well be in the presence of miasma. First impressions are frequently correct: instinct often knows immediately while reason lags behind.  Instead of tripping over yourself to overcome your prejudices, maintain a polite distance until you can better suss things out.

This is something that I often reference as “it doesn’t smell right,” and would be the thing that makes my metaphorical hackles rise, though if I needed to- standing my ground or investigating is going to be my instinctive reaction rather than maintaining a distance. At this point, yes, I absolutely do believe that miasma as a thing exists. I generally choose to use more specific language to describe things based on my observations and investigations of such which is why I tend to say “it doesn’t smell right,” because I don’t like using the word. That’s a personal preference, though.

If you find yourself unable to escape miasma, spend more time on cleansings and protections until such time as the situation changes or you can change your situation. Intuition, like everything else, gets stronger with regular use: as you rely more on your gut you will find your instincts grow sharper and your hunches more reliable.

This is where things break down for me. I was raised with a Sami cultural influence from my grandmother, from my childhood, I was taught to trust my instincts and I have lived my life doing so. There was never a need for me to adjust or learn or “protect” myself because I was always picking up everything around me like a radar (which goes back to ulfhednar) and since it was simply a reality, I just learned to shrug it off. If it didn’t actually follow my home and attack me, then it didn’t affect me any further once I left it alone than a simple shudder and shrug.

In that, is where I have to address what I mean by eating something. In the practice I learned (and I have to begin being vague here because it is familial and not to be shared outside of bloodlines or adoption) things that have a spiritual “ick” to them can be consumed. Rather than banishing something harmful or dangerous, you’d eat it. The individual who engages in this practice does not “purify” themselves before or after because the idea is that their body is reinforced to break down such things. Much in the way of eating food. Eating rotten food will obviously make you sick and the analogy breaks down because of legitimate dining concerns like sepsis and botulism, but lets instead suggest food that tastes bad or is unpleasant- like spicy, or something that is too salty, or sweet, or burnt. It won’t actually hurt you more than giving you a stomach ache or making you throw up if it’s really that distasteful, but it can be consumed and then the body will break it down into fuel just like it does with regular food. In that worldview- I’m not tainted by the things I do or investigate or allow near myself. In one way or another, they are gone.

And to disclaim, at the end of this, I’m not trying to win followers to my point of view. But I am lucky to be involved with several fianna, berserkr, ulfhednar and assorted warrior groups that all have a distinctly similar worldview and assessment. And I think it’s an important perspective to offer for those who may feel uncomfortable with the alternative but also don’t fall into that Postmodernist category.



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