On purifications- some details…

Again an ‘open article’, to which new particulars will be added from time to time…

Contamination-miasma-breaks the relationship between Gods and men, and the purification restores it, restoring also the natural course of things. The ceremonies of purification have the general name of ‘katharmoi’, whose task is to restore the religious order, either daily or in specific circumstances; ‘katharos’ means clean, tidy, both in a concrete and in an ethical sense- from which results that any material purification has no meaning if, together, we do not purify ourselves inwardly through the constant practice of the rules of Eusebeia. For example, the couplet written at the entrance of the temple of Asklepios at Epidaurus: “Those who enter the fragrant temple must be pure. To be pure means to have holy thoughts” or “may ritual and moral purity be present at the perirrhanteria and beyond the doors of the temple. ”
Since the causes of contamination are many, these are many means and rituals of purification, but they all share on one hand, the cancellation of the state of impurity through specific practices, on the other, the finding of and removing the causes which provoked the impurity.
The purification is a prerequisite for any ritual: the sacrificer must be pure body and soul; in the various Hellenic and Italic shrines the purity standards were engraved on stone at the entrance of the sanctuary itself; especially important for the behavior that must be observed to keep ourselves pure in respect to the Gods, the priests, the sacred places and in every activity of worship were the rules of the ‘Sacred Laws’, which did not undergo any change from the archaic to the imperial period.

In this paper, I will limit myself to the purifications in ‘normal’ circumstances, those we encounter every day, in a separate article, then, I will treat the special  purifications in the three critical moments of birth, marriage and death.

“The law requires that we pray to the Gods in chastity: this refers to the soul, of course, that includes everything, but does not exclude the purity of the body. Yet one must make it clear that when you are careful to have a pure body in addressing the Gods, much more must be careful with the purity of the soul, which is much more higher than the body. The physic impurity, with a sprinkling of water or letting a little ‘time elapses, disappears, the stain of the soul nor in time disappears nor exists a water that can wash it away. ”
Cicero, De legibus.

“The Purifications are divided into two parts, one concerning itself with the physical body, and the other with the “luminous body.”
The Deliverance of the Soul is accomplished by “Dialectics, which science is the intimate inspection of beings.”
Of the two former, one purifies through diet and the whole management and usage of the mortal body; and the other employs the Mathematical Sciences, Meditation, and Religious Ceremonies.
All three Purifications must be accomplished if man would become free, and Godlike. It is to be noted that they deal with (1) the body, (2) the emotions and lower mind, and (3) the higher mind.”  NOTES ON THE GOLDEN VERSES OF PYTHAGORAS FROM THE COMMENTARIES OF HIEROCLES, 67


_Water: the essential requirement is the purity of the water: it must come from springs (one or more) and must be running water-this rule applies to washing, sprinkling and any other action that requires the use of water.

The ‘chernibeion’ is the vessel, or lustral basin, always round, intended to contain the water used in purification; in the State’s ceremonies, this basin was of gold, in private of silver, bronze or copper . The hands have to be dipped into it, and, if you have an assistant, this one will pour purified water on your hands. To the water may be added sacred herbs (such as laurel, olive, verbena and rosemary).

A very valid alternative is the sea water, because “the sea cleanses all human impurities.” Its excellence in this field is also evident from the fact that it has to be used for the purification of the person as also of the priest: “The priest sacrifices and sprinkles himself with sea water.”

“Apollo everywhere unites and elevates multitude to The One, and uniformly comprehends all the modes of purification; purifying all heaven, generation, and all mundane lives, and separating partial souls from the grossness of matter. Hence the theurgist who is the leader of the Mysteries of this God begins from purifications and sprinklings: “The priest in the first place governing the works of fire, must sprinkle with the cold water of the loud-sounding sea”…as the Oracle says concerning him.”
Proklos’ commentary to the Cratylus concerning Apollo

“… I arose with a joyful face, and moved by a great
affection to purify myself, I plunged my head seven
times into the water of the sea ; which number of
seven is convenable and agreeable to holy and
divine things, as the worthy and sage philosopher
Pythagoras has declared, and called the all-powerful deity.”
Apuleius, Metamorphoses XI, 1

Also “they washed, and threw the filth in the sea,” and in the purification before the sacrifices (to which I will return shortly after): “wash yourself and the others participating in the consummation of the entrails, take the water and purify, wash away the blood from the one who is being purified, then shake the dirty water and pour it in the same place. ”

“For protection, laurel (daphnê) or a thorny shrub (rhamnos), or the squill (skulla), or coral (kouraliou), or diamond (adamas) or jasper (iaspis). For knowledge of the future, the heart of a mole (hê tou asplakos kardia), and for purification, sulphur and seawater.”
Proclus, On the Sacred Art

A katharmos in honor of the Eumenides requires libations of water and honey, before the prayer-here’s the entire description as it is in the Oedipus at Colonus:

C. just do a purifying libation to these Goddesses (the Semnai of Kolonos) to whom you came pleading and whose land you tread.
E. how foreigners? Teach me.
C. First bring sacred libations from a perennial spring, drawing with pure hands as well.
E. And when I will have brought this pure water?
C. There are craters, the work of a skilled craftsman; crown the rims and the dual handles.
E. With branches, or wool, or in what way?
C. With tufts of young newly shorn sheep.
E. Well, then how do I make this rite?
C. Pours libations facing east.
E. These libations will I do with the vases you mentioned?
C. Three for each vase, and the last pour in whole.
E. What do I have to fill them, tell me that too.
C. Of water and honey, do not add wine.
E. And when the earth, dark with leaves, will have received libations?
C. Lay down on it with both hands thrice nine olive branches, and pleads with this prayer-
E. (Interrupting) I know this is the most important thing.
C. That as we call Them Benignant (Eumenides) with benign mind may They accept the suppliant as saviors. Pray yourself, or someone else in your place, talking quietly, without raising the voice, then withdrawn without turning …
And.. one person is enough to make the sacrifice in place of many, if piously disposed.

_ Salt: it is a means in itself, which purifies by its mere presence (for example, it must be sprinkled on both the altar and the offerings together with barley grains). It can be used either as just said or added to other substances used in purification; ‘chernibeion’ also means “to be cleansed with water containing barley grains and salt.”

“And they fear before red wool and grains of salt and torches and sea squill and sulfur ..”

About all these additional methods I’ll tell shortly after; about the red wool as described above, its presence can also be explained considering the rituals of consecration / demarcation of sacred places: the strings of red wool separate the pure from the profane space.

_ Fire and light: (see the common etymological basis of Greek pyr and Latin purus)
You have to shake torches-or move in a circular mode, clockwise, a source of light (oil lamps etc) – in front and around the person / thing to purify.

“Fire purifies everything and burned things seem to be pure, things not burned, contaminated”

Eustathius on Homer, Odyssey 10.481 πῦρ ζητεῖ ὀΔυσσεὺς ἐπὶ καθάρσει τοῦ δώματος. ἐδόκουν γὰρ οἱ Ἕλληνες οὕτω τὰ τοιαῦτα μύση καθαίρεσθαι διοπομπούμενα , “Odysseus is looking for fire, in order to purify the palace. It seems that in this way the Greeks used to clear off the uncleanness thrown away”

There is a specific method to get the fire from the altar, we have an early example about the uncontaminated fire in Delphi: “he purified himself with sprinkles and a laurel wreath, then he took the fire from the altar.”

_ Fumigation: sulfur is a powerful natural disinfectant and neutralizer of impurity, and its use in purification ceremonies (by fumigation) is widely attested;  even so, for the bitumen, together with sulfur.
“Lead me on with the lit-up censer and fumigate with sulfur the air according to the rite … and you purify by the flame the way”
“and you give me a double-edged knife; brings here the bitch. Where is the bitumen? Also take the torch and incense”

“Call the women who may  rub you in a circle and make fumigations for you; besprinkle yourself with water drawn from three sources, adding salt and lentils.”

The sulfur should be “brought around” – a person, an object, a structure etc.

_ Herbs
black hellebore
“Some called melampodion the black hellebore ‘because Melampus cleansed and healed with it the daughters of Preto”
“They also use it to purify their homes and their flocks, while reciting a spell”
In addition, the wine produced from vines that grow near to the hellebore acts as a depurative and it is used to sprinkle the houses for the purpose of purification.

> sea squill, called ‘of Epimenides’: they used to beat the ‘scapegoat’ with it; there was the practice of removing the scales analogously to eliminate the evils; in conjunction with sulfur and bitumen, it is also used in the fumigations.

> laurel

“The laurel burns easily and has something familiar with the purifications, so it is not unappropriately that it is associated to the most pure and burning God (Apollo).” Cornut. Theol. Graec. Comp. 32
About the use of laurel in the ceremonies of purification, Pliny writes that according to some, the laurel would receive a place of honor in the celebration of the triumph as it was used in fumigation and to purify from the blood of enemies.

> olive
Or added to the water or the branches are used for sprinkling in purificatory cerimonies and during the preliminar acts of a sacrifice.

(mention of chants and incantations, especially related the hellebore and sea squill …)

_ Gold: it is not quite clear in what sense is to be understood its use- it may mean that vessels for some specific aspersions (in the sources it comes to the shedding of blood in a temple, “if inadvertently blood is spilled in a temple, invite them to purify with gold or sea water “) must be of this material, but, risking a parallel with other traditions, it could refer to the placing of a golden object in the water intended for the purification: gold is the ‘Gods’ metal’ par excellence, its mere presence ensures purification.

_ Bronze: “they made sound objects of bronze during the ecplipses and for the dead, because they believed that bronze had purifying properties and it turned away contamination; it is because of this that they used it for every purification and consacration, as also says Apollodorus in the work ‘On the Gods’.” Schol. Theocr. Id. II, 36a

_ Cakes/ buns: perform the purification by rubbing the cake on the body, to be offered then to the chthonic deities. ‘perimattein / apomattein’, rubbing. “Magmon: purification; they say to rub when they purify those who are suffering from evils.” with ‘magides’, cakes and breads “those with whom they cleanse and purify themselves. Even buns, that bring those going to Trophonius”

_ Eggs: the sources talk about it in relation to the Feast of Hecate, “lustral egg”-
From what the sources say, they have to be raw eggs- the method is, again, rubbing them on the body. Remember that all the instruments of purification must either be buried or left at the intersection of three streets, and you have to go back without turning. “I have to go back, after having thrown off the vessel, as one who had thrown away the objects of purification, without turning his eyes”

_ Skins and animals
> Diòs Koidion, ‘the fleece of Zeus’- it requires the sacrifice of the animal, so I will not describe it here (the details of this ritual can be found in the Calendar: Skira, Chloeia, etc.).

> Dogs: “They bring to Hecate dog puppies along with other means of purification and rub with puppies those who need purification and call this type of purification periskylakismos.”

“Having arrived the priestesses, he invites them to purify him with a squill or a dog.”

The whole broad spectrum that covers the purification through the blood of sacrificial victims- element present in many contexts- can not be treated here for obvious reasons …

_ Wool: Crown with freshly shorn locks the loops of vessels for libations- apart from the use I have already described about the red wool to mark all purified places.

PRELIMINARIES OF  A SACRIFICE, ablutions and sprinkling

The lustral water, with the requirements previously specified (chernips and hydria are the vessels to be used in these cases) and the sacrificial basket must be passed, moving to the right, among all participants in the ritual, in a circle around the altar .
After that, the celebrant washes his hands (iconography: the celebrant extends his hands and plunges them into the chernips); he plunges into the water a brand and sprinkles the participants, the offerings and the altar (here there is a reference to the double cathartic power of fire and water)

“Take the basket and the lustral water and walk immediately around the altar, on the right, … give me the brand that I immerse it in water … then wash your hands after it has been passed to me”

“I will sprinkle  your hair with lustral water…”:  the aspersions made by the celebrant must be performed with a sprig of laurel or myrtle-sometimes olive, but the most frequently employed is the laurel.

Ablutions and sprinklings precede any religious activity (and always before entering temples- see the perirrhanteria, the basins at the entrace of all the shrines, “the edict prohibits that whoever has not pure hands come in the area of the perirrhanteria”); for example, a vase showing Apollo and a young man in festive dress (barefoot, garland in his hair, embroidered chiton and mantle), with a stick in his left hand and with his right hand raised, about to make aspersions at a lustral basin in a sanctuary . The basin with holy water marks in a sense the boundaries of sacred spaces, which can not be accessed without purification, because “we establish limits for the Gods in the temples and sacred precincts so that no one exceeds them if not pure, and entering we sprinkle ourselves not to contaminate ourselves but, if previously we had an impurity, to purify ourselves from it.”


Permanent hagneiai does not seem to be attested, nor about the food- except in special circumstances and / or cults- nor other types of abstinence. Surely the fasting amounts to purification.
In the specific area of the Mysteries: prohibition to consume the mullet, full of negative qualities, domestic poultry, beans, pomegranates, smoked fish.
“The purity is obtained by purification rites and by abstaining from meat and edible animals died of natural causes and mullet and melanuri and eggs and oviparous animals and beans and whatever else is prescribed by those who perform the mystery rites. ”
If you happen to eat contaminated things, the Tradition provided this remedy: to sacrifice and carry around a male pig and purify by scattering seeds (panspermia) and sprinkling water from a vessel of gold.

Ablutions are required after any sexual activity; chastity is required to those who celebrate a sacrifice-and it is also a requirement of the priests in all festive occasions; also “those who will take a bath after a carnal contact with the spouse, entering the temple, will be pure in the same day, after a contact with another man or woman, on the second day. ”


Position: “Those who accomplish a purification, stand toward the East”
The word to pronounce in general purification: “Xερνίπτομαι! Be purified!”
The song that purifies par excellence is the Paean.

Every day: start the day with the washing of the hands and body, put a piece of a laurel leaf in your mouth, without chewing- only after you’ve done that, you can proceed with the rites of dawn, the same thing applies to sunset. During any ceremony and in all sacred matters you must comply with the rules of interior and exterior cleaning, wear clean clothes (white for the celebrants), do not wear metal objects (except gold and silver) and do not carry weapons- in many cases it is required to remain bare or not to wear leather shoes, and in any case white.

Never prepare food or eat in a state of impurity: preparing and consuming food is a sacrificial act in full-scale and requires all the necessary preparations. Always do the washing before eating, and wash your hands in purified water before and after eating, and the same applies to all objects used, they too must be purified (fumigation and washing are the oldest methods ). A bath is also required after performing bodily functions, and after each sexual union.

The house must be purified with fumigations of pure sulfur and incense (the method is always that of going around and of the circular motion); and, you must sprinkle with a twig of laurel, adorned with bands of wool, pure water mixed with salt, wash each thing with this water and remove all the filth. Even the censer with whom you make purifications should be discarded along with what is removed-usually the tools of purification are buried.
Cleaning / purification of the house: the filth must be positioned at the crossroads-but also: “They purify and hide in the ground part of the purification, the other into the sea, another they bring to the mountains, where no one can touch nor trample it.”

Monthly banquet and rituals at the end of the month: the New Moon night is also considered as a purification. Plutarch, in his Life of Solon, says that: “having noticed the irregularity of the month, and that the movement of the Moon does not always coincide with the rising and setting of the Sun, but often surpasses and exceeds the Sun on the same day, (Solon) ordered that day was to be called the Old and New (hene kai nea), assigning the part of it before the conjunction (of the Sun and the Moon) to the month that was ending, and the remaining part to the month that was starting. So he was the first to understand the verse of Homer which speaks of a day when ‘a month is going down, and the new is starting.’ Solon defined the next day as the first of the month. ” From Marinus, we know that Proclus always fasted during Hene kai nea; Hene kai nea has also been defined as a day to devote to personal introspection (tei heauton episkepsei), but also to take rest from normal activities, and more particularly to be devoted to the analysis of the works carried out during the month and the preparation of those to be completed in the next.

Another custom of the end of the month is well attested by  paroemiologists and scholia, and can be summarized with this saying: “the thirtieth we celebrate in Hades because of Hecate” (timatai he triakàs en Haidou dià ten Hekaten) – ie , the thirtieth day of the month (if present, otherwise the 29) is honored Hecate as it is the last day of the month and at the same time, we also honor the dead (in fact, in its calendar, Pletho dedicated the twenty-ninth day to Pluto). Diogenianus confirms the report: “The image of Hecate is erected and consecrated at the crossroads, and rites in honor of the dead have been made on the thirtieth day.” Even more clear is the explanation of the feast called Hekataia “sacrifices to Hecate, which are offered to the dead”, to be celebrated precisely at the turn of the last day of the month and Noumenia.

“The rich send a meal, in the evening, at the triodoi and sacrifice to Hecate. The poor, driven by hunger, eat them and say it is Hecate who prepared them.”
The elements of the banquet:
breads and cakes;
cakes (could be the psamita);
fish (mullet, a kind of sardine, or the small fried fishes);
magides (“pieces of bread with which you clean your hands at the end of the meal”)

(Schol. Soph. Oid. K 477; Theoph. Char. 16; FGrH 356, 1; Eur. Iph. T. 1193; LSCG 151B 23; Clem Strom. 7, 4, 26; Schol. Eur. Or. 40; Plut. Arist. 20,4; Lex. Hom. s.v. ‘kathairo’; Eur. Hel. 865; Soph. PCG I fr 4; Men. Phasm. 54; LSS 65,6; Diosc. mat. med. 4, 162; Kall. fr. 194, 37; Verg. Aen. 6, 229; Theoph. h. plant. 9, 10,4; Luk. nec. 7; Eur. Ion. 434; Iambl. v.P. 28, 153; Parker, Miasma; Clem. strom 7. 4,26; Luk. d. mort. 1,1; Paus. Att. delta 18; Soph. Oid. K. 473; Eur. Iph. A. 1470; Arist. Av. 958; Eur. Herc. 928; Athen. 9, 409b; LIMC V Iph. 54; Hom. Il. 1, 447; Eur. Iph. T. 58, 622; 1222; Arist. Pax 956; Hom. Il. 1, 314; 24, 302; Hes Erg. 737; Schol Eur. Phoen. 224; LSCG 95; FGrH 326 F 2; Diog. Laert. 8,33; LSCG 156 A 14; 154 A 29; LSAM 12, 1-9; LSS 91; Hdt. 2,64; Esch. Choeph. 97; Hipp. de morbo 1, 42; Theocr. 24, 96; Schol. Aischyl. Choeph. 98a; SGO I 396; Ar. Vesp. 1216; Plat. Symp. 175 A; Philox. ap. Ath. 409e; Dig. 34, 2, 19, 12; Saglio, Dict. 1.1101; Soph. TrGF fr. 734; Arist. PCG fr. 209; Antiph. PCG fr. 68; Char. PCG1; Luk. Cat. 7; TGF2 492; Plut. Sol. 25, 3; Odyssey 14. 162- 19, 307; MPG, 19, 1208AB, 1209C; Lexica s.v. hene kai nea; Diogenes Laertius, 1, 58; Proclus, In Timaeum, 1, 81.13; Hesiod Op, 408 ,765; Moschopulus, ibid., 261.1 ff.; Eustathius, Commentarii ad Homeri Odysseam, 2, 203.42;  scholia Aristoph. Nub. 1131, 1134, 1179-98; scholium Plato, Leggi, 8, 849B; Theodore De mensibus, MPG, 19, 1201D. Deipnosophistae, 7, 325A; Scholiast Aristophanes, Plutus, 594; Paroemiographi Graeci, 1, 312.5; Anecdota Graeca, ed. Bekker, 1, 247.27-29; Marinus, Vita Procli, 19; J. Lydus, De mensibus, 3, 11; Plin. Nat. Hist. XV, 135…etc….)


7 thoughts on “On purifications- some details…

  1. Marcus says:

    thank you

  2. Reblogged this on Beloved in Light and commented:
    Something worthwhile to read and pertinent to the worship of the gods, particularly in the case of Apollon who often acts in capacity of purification and is himself a pure god in nature.

  3. […] concept of miasma is complex enough to write a separate article about (see for example this and this). Its meaning ranges from physical impurity (many Hellenic practitioners believe that it […]

  4. Definitely, what a magnificent blog and informative posts, I surely will bookmark your website.Best Regards! cheap archeage gold http://www.cheap-archeage-gold.com/

  5. Pascal Burgunder says:

    Could you quote the provenance of the wonderful piece of art at the beginning of your paper? Thank you.

    • hellenismo says:

      Yes! It is a bronze mirror with a bathing scene: in the foreground, two women stand beside a wash basin (louterion); the woman on the left reaches down to pick up a water jar (kalpis) by its strap while the woman on the right pours perfumed oil from a vessel into the basin. Behind them stands a pillar with a small statue of Aphrodite.
      2nd century CE . Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s