Polytheist Religion 101 – Thoughts on approaches to Piety and Purification

Posted: May 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

The problem with most people’s definitions of piety, purity, impurity, purification and so forth, is that they don’t understand that a system which includes a structure of piety does not necessarily exclude or ban impiety. It is just understood as a transgression. The purpose of the structures isn’t to force constant all-the-time compliance. That is not actually what rules and guidelines are for, and whoever keeps suggesting that they are, is wrong.

For example, the word itself comes from Hellenic polytheist religion and philosophy. And yet, so does Dionysian religion. Dionysian religion is inherently transgressive by Hellenic standards!

But even within those transgressions, there is acknowledgement of piety and pious structures, even if those structures are being transgressed.

Without “lines” of piety (or lines of any kind), there is no such thing as transgression, and therefore also no such thing as catharsis, or differentiated identity. Without a system of purity, there is no understanding of impurity, and therefore no rites of purification… which are essential to nearly every world religion, ever!

It isn’t about dogmatic “mono-answer” orders-and-authority-and-forced-compliance, it is about affirming that stepping over a line has consequences. That doesn’t mean don’t step over the line, and even often means that you MUST step over the line, for that line isn’t meant to keep you from doing so in all cases, but instead to indicate when additional actions — e.g. purification rites — are called for.

Think about it this way:

If you are out doing yard work in a library’s small outdoor garden area and the sprinkler system explodes, and you are covered in both soaking water and mud (after slipping and falling into the now very wet dirt), you’re “not clean” anymore. Pretty obviously and visibly.

Basic common sense suggests that you probably shouldn’t walk into the library dripping and sloshing mud all over the place, or for that matter start hugging people as they come out of business meetings or the like. You’re “unclean”. You’re dirty. Literally.

So, the lines — conventions, customs — that prevent you from rubbing that water-and-mud off on others are there to also suggest that maybe you should resolve this state by becoming clean, through certain customary actions (washing your hands, taking off your shoes, patting-dry your clothes with a towel and wiping off the mud) so as to not “contaminate” other spaces (thereby making more work for somebody else, communicating disrespect for the library, or for the janitorial staff, etc). Neither you, nor the mud, should be considered morally judged as wrong for this state of uncleanliness, or the need for actions to make one’s self clean: the only judgment would come in disregarding this state and harming others in the doing. Neither you nor the mud is “in the wrong”; mud isn’t “bad”, but it is definitely messy.

The customary lines of cleanliness and acceptability are here in our world, even in our most anarchic world: they’re customs we just don’t call by a name, because our society autopilots through this shit. Piety is like that, but for religious/spiritual considerations around actions, words, or regards. Within Polytheist religions, we have various systems (as per our individual traditions and cults) for navigating these topics, but in most cases, these considerations are not considered symbolic, but literal. The spiritual may be invisible to us at a human optical level, but it is not without impact and effect, nor is it without consequence and consideration. These “lines” which some would attempt to argue are there to control or coerce or moralize are actually there to empower.

These considerations — piety and purity, impiety and impurity, and resolving rites of purification — are not lines to control, they are lines to conduct in orderly and respectful fashion even transgressions, so that the transgressors have the ability to know that they are transgressing, and thereby at least be able to consent to such rather than do so in ignorance. Because transgression is way more satisfying when it is intentional, right? Fuck yeah.

Every traditional religious or spiritual practice in the world that I have ever encountered, heard of, seen, or read about which has transgressive acts, even acts which are essential to their holiest of works, also have systems of purification to precede or follow such things. Which is to say, every religious tradition, because there is no religion without some level of guidelines and therefore an implied set of transgressive actions, views, or considerations. See? Transgression is a part of religion!

The modern idea of being “anti-purification” as a default comes from reactions to certain dominant world-power religions (e.g. corrupt edifices doing fucked up shit) who have spent centuries misrepresenting what these concepts mean in order to control people. That’s shitty and disempowering. Fuck disempowerment. (Unless it’s consensual, in which case it isn’t disempowering, but consented power exchange, which is totally different. And hot. Because consent is sexy.)

However, again, these systems of lines, correctly applied in Polytheist religions are NOT systems of “control”; they are instead systems designed literally to maximize consent. And that’s sexy. Right? Because consent is sexy. (We’ve already established that.)

A person who is not provided the systems of understanding these “lines” who then therefore transgresses them in ignorance is actually disempowered by this lack of awareness of the lines and structures, because such lines and structures still exist even without their awareness. Being ignorant of them prevents them from having the chance to choose whether to cross them or not. Every time a choice is taken from us, we are disempowered; our consent is prevented from joining the world as an expression of our agency. This is a violation of consent. This is a violation of will. Violations of agency and will and consent are the opposite of sexy, and not the kind of transgressions that should ever be tolerated, encouraged, or permitted.

Piety, purity, etc, are not lines to prevent transgression (except transgressions which violate agency, will and consent!), but instead to provide the opportunities for critically applied consent to one’s own reality and expressions, transgressive or not.

For example:

It is transgressive to enter my Temple while wearing shoes; this is an act of great disrespect and impiety (and also impurity, because ew, you wear those in public toilets). However there are times where it MUST happen, such as a medical emergency with one of the Temple serpents, or in the event of a fire: the “piety structure” that governs the dynamics of that misdeed does not prevent me from responding in necessary way to the emergency (shoes on!), but instead provides me the rubric for resolving the transgression, specifically because I know I have transgressed. The system includes a “gradient of transgression” in fact, providing a selection of transgressive options which have progressive deeper implications of offense, and therefore more invested procedures for resolving (purification!) later.

Polytheists affirm not only that the gods are real, but that the gods have power and effect: transgressions, therefore, are not merely symbolic. Ever. (Neither are symbols, for that matter, but shh. That’s too meta for a Wednesday.)

Neither is purity, or impurity, or contagion merely symbolic. Nor are they “moralized” in the way that other groups have tried to present, in order to gain control oriented compliance.

These are the very systems whereby consent is made possible. And consent is sexy.

Piety is sexy.

Lines are sexy.

(So are circles, and all other kinds of shapes. Religion is sexy. Sexy is good.)


  1. caelesti says:

    “Dionysian religion is inherently transgressive by Hellenic standards!” Good point- this is why it really matters what your cultic focus is- for example in ADF rituals, we have the concept of the Outdwellers/Outsiders, forces/spirits whose presence is not conducive to the worship & work of the rite. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad per se- just as a thunderstorm isn’t bad- it’s just not something you want in your living room.

    I’m trying to figure out how purity is viewed in Celtic & Germanic traditions- I know it’s still present, but it seems less strict than the rules of purity in Hellenic, Roman and Kemetic traditions. I know one aspect is that there’s a lot of emphasis on how doing X or Y can affect one’s luck and wyrd (individual, group or family) and that works in a similar way to purity.

    • I love that you’re working on tradition and region and pantheon specific considerations in this.

      My goal with this writing — as with most of my writing — is to broad-stroke some foundations of thought and practice, which can be understood at an accessible level, and then plug into specific platforms (e.g. “Germanic Polytheism”) as appropriate and informed by those things. The reality is that ALL religions (and secular state cultures!) have some level of understanding re: piety and purity; these are normative considerations. While I am a big proponent of studying moral theory and the philosophy of ethics, I think that a lot of mainstream religions have done a lot of VERY bad things with regard to people’s understanding of how such things apply (and, also, what “rules” and “guidelines” are in the first place).

      You’re doing great work in your thinking, and I’d love to hear more of your findings and thoughts.

  2. Thrax: Thank you very much for writing about this, as this topic has been on my mind for some time. I think you outline the major ideas very well. In looking further afield to try and triangulate conceptions of purity in Germanic tradition (which is very laconic on the subject), I came across the Greek concepts of “miasma” and “agos”. If I understand it correctly, “miasma” corresponds, in your example, to being wet and muddy; “agos” corresponds to being wet and muddy and walking into the library and rifling through the rare books and randomly hugging the patrons, etc., i.e. it is a spreading of one’s miasma to places that should be kept free of it. Does that sound right?

    Caelesti: The view of purity in Germanic tradition is something that I’ve been trying to get a handle on for some time now, and I think that the overall concept and the specific forms it took are something that is best discovered by inference from the sources we have: Tacitus’ mention of a particular grove where one could only enter bound, and where one could not pick oneself up if one stumbled: mentions in sagas about temples where one could not bring weapons, or fields sacred to specific gods where blood could not be shed, etc. I have developed bits and pieces of purification in my own (Germanic) religious practice, mostly learned through comparison with more-or-less closely related or cultures and applied experimentally. Needless to say, I’m always trying to find out more about what the actual concepts were and how they were applied.

    It seems to me that it was not quite the case that the rules were less strict (the ones we know of seem to have been assiduously applied), but that we know less about them because the source material doesn’t focus on them that much.

    I do think that you are right insofar as thoughts on how certain actions can effect one’s luck or wyrd are (I think) tied into notions of purity: luck is something that can be influenced, and I think that transgressions against the sanctity of a place, person, object, god, etc. can most certainly influence it for the worse. There’s a saga where someone’s luck takes a bad turn after he spills someone’s blood on a field sanctified to Freyr, for example.

    What are your thoughts?

  3. […] Polytheist Religion 101 – Thoughts on approaches to Piety and Purification May 6, 2015 […]

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