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Purification: An Overview


Concepts of pollution and purity are found in virtually all the religions of the world. While some religions recognize subtle distinctions of relative pollution, others place less emphasis upon the social and religious categories that determine pollution. The range extends from cultures like that of the Pygmies, who place almost no emphasis on concepts of pollution and purity, to hierarchical systems like Hinduism, with its highly developed mechanisms for transforming impurity from a dangerous category to a meaningful structuring principle of the Indian cultural system.

It is impossible to understand religious pollution and purification as separate phenomena; these two inseparable categories of religious experience are locked into a dynamic complementarity. Rules governing religious pollution imply a corollary code for ameliorating the condition. The purification of religious pollution is a major religious theme because it forges a path of expiation, healing, renewal, transcendence, and reintegration, establishing harmonious triangular links among the individual, the cosmos, and the social structure.

The range of activities or events considered to be polluting is vast, and there is an equally impressive range of purification rituals. In Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, pollution may be associated with trivial situations, such as crowds where polluted persons may lurk (this deters no one from being in a crowd); or it may lead to very serious conditions of impurity, as in the case of big game hunting, when pollution can cause famine or drought (Keyes and Daniel, 1983). While some pollution may be due to deliberate acts that violate social or religious norms, pollution may be accidental or unintended by the agent, as in the case of menstrual or death pollution. This distinction is important because the specific corrective rite of purification may differ depending on whether the state of pollution was attained deliberately or accidentally. Shintō, for instance, is permeated with purification rites that can be traced back to origin myths according to which the god Susano-o committed offenses against the divine order through ignorance and error. Consequently, in the Shintō religion general rites of purification must be performed periodically to resacralize the world. This contrasts with more specific occasions for purification rites, which are associated with the deliberate breaking of taboos by individuals.

Virtually all aspects of life may be surrounded by notions of pollution and purity. Not only must sins and devils be purged in annual purification ceremonies celebrated as rites of renewal; pollution rules are also applied to the ordinary products of human physiology, regulating human behavior in relation to contact with blood, vomit, excreta, cooked foods, hair clippings, and so on. The critical rites of passage associated with major transitions in life (birth, adolescence, marriage, and death) are usually governed by rules of pollution and purity, since these are times when humans are most vulnerable to attacks by evil spirits. There is no clear pattern of cross-cultural uniformity in these concepts of pollution and purity; in some societies menstruation or death may be considered especially dangerous and surrounded with elaborate rites of purification, while other cultures particularly fear pollution from eating certain foods or from contact with members of lower classes. Yet, despite this cultural diversity, there remain a number of consistent patterns that yield important insights about the nature of religious experience.

The literature on religion is replete with concern about the symbolism of purification. Nineteenth-century figures like James G. Frazer, Robertson Smith, Émile Durkheim, and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl attempted in various ways to explain principles of defilement and purification in primitive religions. Anthropologists of religion in the early twentieth century paid little attention to the subject. However, field work among African cultures and in South Asia during the 1960s challenged anthropologists to develop theoretical explanations for the increasingly complex data associated with concepts of pollution and purity in the cognitive structures of different religions. In 1966 Mary Douglas presented her extensive analysis of the topic in the classic volume Purity and Danger. That same year Louis Dumont published his controversial treatment of pollution and purity norms in Hinduism under the title Homo Hierarchicus. Since that time, symbolic anthropologists, structuralists, and religion specialists have elaborated on this theme in many different religions and cultures.

Purity and Danger is a landmark in the study of religious symbolism because it systematizes divergent information in an elegant analytical framework. For Mary Douglas, religious pollution is a property of the "betwixt and between" in human cultures; whatever falls between the social categories developed by human religious systems to comprehend and impute a sense of order and reality is considered to be impure (Parker, 1983). The concepts of pollution and purity in a particular religion make no sense without reference to a total structure of thought. Thus, along with other scholars, Douglas emphasizes the analysis of rituals and sacred texts in order to reveal semantic categories that determine mechanisms by which different peoples divide the world into domains of relative pollution or purity. Fortunately, this more systematic approach to purification has restored the concept as a major theme in the study of world religions.

Forms of Religious Pollution

The range of human activities related to religious pollution is immense. However, it is possible to isolate three general categories of pollution associated with (1) bodily functions, (2) social bonding, and (3) the maintenance of boundaries of the "holy" or "sacred." The categories of pollution presented here are artificial devices developed to facilitate analysis; they are not meant as descriptive categories to characterize the phenomenon. It should be remembered that these categories overlap and form a continuum, and that emphasis on different sorts of pollution varies greatly from one religio-cultural context to an-other.

Pollution associated with bodily functions

Ideas about dirt are linked into complex symbolic systems in virtually every society. One of the most widespread concepts of pollution is associated with emissions from the human body. Urine and feces are particularly impure, partly because of their odor, but also due to their more general association with putrefaction and death. In India, the left hand, used for cleansing after defecation, is forbidden to be used when touching other people or sacred objects. Other bodily secretions, such as saliva, vomit, menstrual blood, and afterbirth, are also considered to have polluting qualities. In some traditions, even sperm is polluting outside the sanctified context of marriage. All of these bodily excretions have social significance; they are usually surrounded with heavy ritualization to ensure that they will be contained within a specific religious, cultural, temporal, or spatial context. Since they are natural physiological functions, the resulting pollution is focused not on preventing their occurrence but rather on providing boundaries for control and purification.

Anything that enters the human body may be a source of pollution. Thus, air, liquid, and food are potentially polluting agents that must be carefully controlled. Contamination by polluted food is a widespread danger, involving elaborate rules of avoidance. In some religions, dietary laws are very strict. Orthodox Judaism, with its emphasis on kosher foods, carefully articulated in the Hebrew scriptures, sets the Jews apart as a holy people who are considered to be clean and consequently prepared to receive the blessings of God, along with the heavy responsibilities that accompany this covenant. Hindus are also known for their strict dietary laws. The ascendent principle operative in Hinduism is the concept of ahisā ("nonviolence"). Hindu dietary laws stress pure vegetarianism as an ideal. Pollution from food intake, particularly meat, has serious consequences. Thus, the highest castes strive to be strict vegetarians, while meat is allowable only to lower castes and untouchables.

In many parts of the world, food is carefully preserved to avoid putrefaction. Food must be protected from contact with impure persons who can transmit their contamination to it. Thus, in many societies menstruating women, sick people, and the lower classes are prohibited from involvement in the preparation of foods. Nobles, priests, and other persons of high status are particularly vulnerable to food pollution. Due to their magnified social visibility and influence, they must be especially vigilant to avoid pollution through careful control of food intake. While most food in rural Greece is prepared by women, men cook meals to be consumed on ceremonial occasions because they are not tainted by women's general pollution. India has an extensive system of strict rules of avoidance about interdining between different castes; the leftovers of higher castes may be consumed by lower castes, but the reverse results in contamination.

Bodily pollution, in its most extreme form, results in illness or even death. Before the emergence of the germ theory to account for biotic disorders, illnesses were universally explained as the invasion of evil spirits, the curse of the evil eye, or the result of broken taboos. Even in modern societies, illnesses may be attributed to spiritual causes. Elaborate rituals to ward off pollution from evil spirits that cause human sickness are found throughout the world. Among the Inuit (Eskimo), illness was attributed to pollution associated with breaking taboos. The shaman entered a trance, then took a spiritual journey to the abode of the goddess Sedna under the sea; there he would ask her to forgive the sins of his people. This ritual act involved confessions by community members, resulting in the possibility of a cure. The Indian goddess of smallpox, Sitala, could be angered easily and subsequently needed to be "cooled" through various rituals of purification. The innocent, the vulnerable, the aged, and those individuals who have transgressed religious and social norms are all potential victims of illness. It is widely believed that the human body can best be equipped to fight illnesses by avoiding pollution, such as the ingestion of unclean foods, contact with menstrual blood, the performance of prohibited sexual relations, neglect of proper rituals to placate deities, and lack of bodily cleanliness.

Pollution and social bonding

The intense socialization of natural bodily functions is another aspect of purification. Birth, adolescence, marriage, and death are linked to physiological stages that are highly controlled and ritualized to ensure protection from the dangers of pollution. These life crisis events demarcate major points of transition, critical both for individuals and the community. Failure to attain these transitions would threaten the survival of human culture.

The danger of childbirth is often accompanied by rigorous rituals designed to bring about a healthy outcome for both mother and child. Consequently, the whole process of birth, in some cases including pregnancy, requires special rites of purification. The pregnant woman may be expected to observe food taboos, take daily baths, and perform only a few restricted household chores. Impurities connected with childbirth are usually associated with the afterbirth; these impurities extend to the fragile bond between mother and child and to other family members. Pollution is attributed to the invasion of evil spirits that thrive on vulnerable individuals during crisis events. Often mother and child are placed in seclusion for a period of time, then ritually welcomed into the larger community after rituals of cleansing have taken place.

The transition to adulthood is considered the proper time for prophylactic rites of purification. These rites protect the initiate from pollution during his state of liminality. In some societies uncircumcised males are considered intrinsically polluted. Among the Ndembu people of northwestern Zambia, an uncircumcised boy lacks "whiteness" or "purity" and is permanently polluting; his presence can threaten the luck of hunters. An uncircumcised Ndembu man is polluted because of the dirt beneath his foreskin. He is considered "white" or "pure" only when the glans of his penis is exposed through circumcision (Turner, 1967).

Menstruation is one of the functions most widely seen as polluting, second only to death. Menstrual impurity may apply only during menses, or it may be more generalized as a kind of gender pollution, rendering women permanently impure due to their sexuality. Menstrual pollution is usually controlled by dietary restrictions, isolation in separate huts or parts of the household, and avoidance of either cooking or the performance of ordinary household tasks. Also, women are debarred from participation in religious ceremonies during menstruation. Gender pollution appears to be related, at least partially, to male dominance and the demarcation of clear male spheres of influence; thus, the very presence of women causes dangerous pollution (Douglas, 1975). In many tribal societies, women, under the threat of death, are kept away from men's houses where sacred masks are carved and the secrets of the ancestors are kept. Some Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures elaborate gender pollution to the point of associating women with all kinds of dark forces (such as the evil eye, the world of ghosts, and magical occult powers). Unattached women in these societies must be watched carefully because they are a great source of pollution: Women are believed to be shameful creatures who can upset the entire social order by threatening the lines of distinction between separate gender domains.

Marriage and human sexuality are surrounded by elaborate pollution/purity norms in many parts of the world. Sexual relations outside culturally prescribed rules are generally treated as potential sources of pollution. These rules vary greatly from one society to another. Premarital sexual relations, for instance, are not considered to be polluting in some societies. In other parts of the world, women, in particular, who engage in premarital sex are considered to be polluted by their loss of virginity. While pollution norms surrounding sex and marriage vary, many societies consider adultery a source of defilement. Incest is a more serious offense and is universally taboo. Incestuous activities are so thoroughly polluting as to pose serious threats to the community as a whole. Consequently, persons who have committed incest are either killed or permanently banished.

The most widespread source of pollution is death and the putrefaction of bodily decay. Death breaks fragile social bonds, and the bonds that remain must be rearranged so that death pollution can be prevented from becoming a generalized condition of social disorder or chaos. The corpse and the possessions of the deceased are highly dangerous. Even though death is the most polluting social event, not all religions treat it uniformly. In some religions, as in Christianity, dead human bodies are allowed into sacred shrines or even buried there. This contrasts dramatically with Hinduism, where corpses are never allowed near a sacred shrine; even an accidental death that occurs inside a Hindu temple requires the performance of elaborate purification rites.

Funeral rituals have three general purposes: (1) the transformation of dead spirits into ancestors; (2) the placement of the ancestors in the proper realm of the afterlife (heaven, hell, or a new life via reincarnation); and (3) a restoration of both social and cosmic order from the disorder caused by death pollution (Nielsen et al., 1983). Thus, funerals are designed to accomplish a number of important tasks necessitated by the wound of death. Not only do they provide a ritual context for disposing of the pollution linked with the dead body, they also activate, contain, and assist in the resolution of grief.

Since death represents a rending of the social fabric, its pollution has far-reaching effects. In India, death pollutes the whole family, requiring strict rites of purification during prescribed periods of mourning, the length of which is determined according to the degree of kinship to the deceased. In Japan, death is believed to result in harmful and contagious pollution that can be transmitted through social contact. The idea that death pollution is communicable can be found throughout the world. The Polynesians abandoned any house where death had occurred. After the death of a Samoan chief, his house could not be entered and fishing in the lagoon was prohibited (Steiner, 1956). However, not all ceremonies surrounding death are designed to prevent the contagion of pollution; some of these rites help mourners to participate in the condition of death itself. According to Robert Parker, in ancient Greek religion death pollution was a kind of temporary participation in the condition of the dead man, who was, through the decay of the corpse, "foul" (miaros ). "Pollution is a transposition of this sympathetic befoulment to the metaphysical plane. 'Being polluted' is a kind of metaphysical suit of mourning" (Parker, 1983, p. 64). In the Parsi religion, contact with dead bodies pollutes family, community, and even the natural elements of air, fire, water, and earth. Consequently, earth burial and cremation are forbidden among the Parsis. They resolve the problem of contaminating the natural elements by exposing the deceased on a dakhma ("tower of silence") to be devoured by vultures. In this extreme case, death pollution is so highly contagious that unless contained it extends to all nature.

Violent death is the most polluting of all, for both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime. The pollution generated by violent death is exceedingly dangerous because it may activate a revenge cycle. Among headhunters in New Guinea and other parts of the world, the ghost of an individual who has been murdered is considered extremely dangerous unless it is appeased by taking another head. In some societies both the murderer and the victim of violent death are refused ordinary funeral rites; in some cases these corpses are denied burial in community cemeteries.

Pollution and purity norms are related to social rank, particularly in complex societies with strong social boundaries established by ascription. People who break conventional rules of behavior in hierarchically oriented societies by crossing lines of class or caste are considered polluted by their transgression. In Polynesia the person of the chief was highly charged with mana, a kind of sacred energy that could be lost through touching people of lower rank. The Hindu social system, with its strict endogamous tradition for establishing social status, is even more rigid about the link between rank and pollution; Hindu castes involve strict rules requiring marriage within subcastes, prohibiting caste interdining, and restricting physical contact between members of lower and upper castes. While these rules are less rigid than in the past, they continue to thrive in contemporary India. The degree of intrinsic pollution of each caste depends on its rank in the overall system. The lowest castes are more polluted than higher ones because of their traditional occupations; the highest brahman castes are least polluted, due to their priestly duties, and the lowest castes are most contaminated because of their contact with polluting items in the environment. Untouchables, who are outside the caste system, are most polluted because they come in contact with such highly polluting substances as leather and dead bodies. Physical contact with untouchables by caste Hindus requires strong purification rites. In the past untouchables, due to their intrinsic pollution, were prevented from entering temples; this custom was banned legally by the Indian constitution (November 26, 1949).

Pollution and the maintenance of sacred boundaries

The definition of religious pollution cannot be limited to social, psychological, or physiological domains alone. The definition of the "sacred" also involves issues of spiritual pollution. This is clear to individuals who have dedicated themselves to the religious life. Rules governing pollution are more stringent for the religious because they come in contact with the supernatural more directly than the laity. Anyone who approaches the divinity, either as an intermediary or in a state of deep reverence, is required to perform extensive rites of purification.

As the religious are more vulnerable to pollution, they also may be singled out to suffer its consequences more than others. The idea of being set apart for a holy purpose is exemplified by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Particularly in Judaism, the idea of a sanctified, priestly people becomes highly elaborated, to the point that Yahveh's chosen may become impure by worshiping other gods, consulting fortune-tellers, or coming in contact with foreigners. The same notion is expressed throughout the world in varying degrees, as people attempt to define a relationship to divinity.

The polar tension between pollution and purity is activated in pilgrimage: pilgrims enter a dialectic where pollution is dissolved by the journey to a sacred place. Thus, in the great pilgrimage traditions of Islam, Hinduism, Shintō, or Christianity, one not only attains merit, community status, and indulgences for the afterlife; one also undergoes a "spiritual bathing" that opens the eyes, transforms consciousness, and centers human focus on the sacred. Pilgrimage is often prescribed to resolve conditions of spiritual pollution. In the classical pilgrimages, the devotee's journey returned him to a place of great sacrality and prepared him to cross boundaries and to enter more deeply into the realm of the sacred.

The definition of any sacred place is contingent on its opposite, namely, the removal of polluting elements that contaminate the "holy." In Hinduism, whenever a particular place is selected for worshiping a deity, it is sanctified through elaborate purification rites so that demons, evil spirits, and the dark forces of ignorance are excluded and conditions for invoking the presence of divinity are most favorable. Thus, the locus of the holy of holies in any religion embodies that religion's ideal of purity. This is not to imply that pollution has no place in sacred centers; on the contrary, it is through the very process of purifying the impure that human life is transformed and integrated into the religious sphere.

Rites of Purification

Religious pollution always calls for specific rites of purification, which can range from the ingestion of sacraments to painful acts of purgation. There are five types of rites, involving the use of (1) fire, (2) water, (3) detergents, (4) purgation, and (5) scapegoats. Usually several purificatory mechanisms are employed together, as parts of a sacred technology, to eliminate pollution and restore wholeness to both individual and community.


Both fire and smoke are considered sources of purification. In some parts of the world, stepping over a fire is a rite demarcating a transition from defilement. The Hindu god Agni is the personification of fire, and purified butter is poured into fire as an offering to the god. At certain times of the year, sacrifices to Agni are performed to purify the whole world. Hindus attain sacramental benefit by passing their hands over fire. The eternal fire that burns day and night in Parsi fire temples is a source of purity for worshipers, who offer bread and milk while portions of the sacred text, the Avesta, are read before it.

Incense and fumigation are employed widely in the world's religions for purificatory purposes. Typically, both sacred objects and the assembled worshipers are purified with incense during the recitation of prayers. According to Parker, the ancient Greeks saw fire as an important source of purity: "Torches were an indispensable part of many ceremonies, and swung vigorously, they could purify a room or a person. Normally, however, sharp-smelling substances were added to the fire when purification was needed" (Parker, 1983, p. 227). The Greeks exposed polluted objects to the pungent odor of sulphur; by contrast, sweet-smelling burnt offerings were selected to please the gods.


Water, the universal cleanser, is the most widely employed means of ritual purification. Often water is used with other elements, such as fire, salt, or herbs. It is a particularly potent source of purification when obtained from holy springs, wells, or other sacred bodies of water. The many holy wells of Ireland are special places of purification. A bath in the sacred Ganges river is accompanied by such a high level of purification that it is an object of pilgrimage for millions of devotees from all over India.

A widespread requirement before worship is the custom of ritual bathing, either of the whole body or parts of the body most exposed to pollution, especially the feet. In most religions the deity must not be approached unless the devotee is ritually clean. The Hindu is expected to bathe early in the morning, recite special prayers, and consecrate his day to the service of God. Water has purificatory qualities in Hinduism, not because of its intrinsic purity, but because it absorbs pollution and carries it away (Babb, 1975). Thus, the flow of water determines its purificatory efficacy.

Water also makes the sacred more accessible to devotees. Muslims clean their mouths and ears with water to sanctify their prayers and open their hearing to the will of God. Most life crisis events, such as childbirth, marriage, or death, involve the use of water to create a state of purification in which the transaction between humans and divinity is encouraged and the danger of pollution is minimized. The best-known instance of ritual purification with water is Christian baptism, which washes away sin and prepares the devotee to lead a religious life. In this case, water both washes away the pollution of sin and acts as a sign that the individual belongs to an initiated group who share a common state of purified grace. The statues of deities are ritually cleansed with water in preparation for religious ceremonies. The water that supports life is a sacred source of renewal. It is the "mother of being" in opposition to the accumulation of filth, evil, defilement, and decay associated with death.


Aside from fire and water, a variety of agents are utilized in ritual purification. These various detergents include salt water, liquid concoctions made from propitious herbs and spices, and various other sacramental substances applied to the polluted individual or space. In Africa and the Middle East, sand or dry dirt is used as a detergent when water is not available. Charcoal, mud, and clay from special sacred places are also employed to remove religious pollution. These clinging substances are daubed on a person's body to absorb defilement, then washed away. In India, ash from cow dung is widely employed as a cleansing agent. Among the Nuba of Sudan, the ash from burnt branches of the acacia tree has purificatory qualities. In this society, sacred ash is linked to success in wrestling contests, fertility of the earth, rites of initiation, death, and the afterlife. Young Nuba men, at various critical points in their lives, cover their bodies with sacred ash as a symbol of purification.

Throughout the world, cow dung is used as fuel and as mortar to build shelters. Thus, it represents an important resource for human communities. It is not surprising, therefore, that in some cultures cow dung is used as a detergent with purificatory qualities. Since cows are sacred in India, cow dung and other bovine products are considered to be extremely pure. In the case of Indian death pollution, for example, when an individual has died in a house or temple, or whenever there is a need for special acts of purification, five products of the cow (dung, milk, ghee, curds, and urine) are mixed together and applied as a detergent to clean walls or apply to human beings. In Hinduism the sacredness of the cow, mother of life, makes this mixture almost sacramental in its efficacy.


This category subsumes a large variety of purificatory rites. The common thread is either a physical or psychological purging to eliminate pollution, often involving self-sacrifice, pain, and suffering by the devotee. Purificatory purgation, found in one form or another throughout the world, always involves a metaphysics of cleansing transformation, as natural bodily or psychic pollution is purified through rituals that alter the human condition.

One means of cleansing the human body from defilement is to shave the head, eyebrows, and other body hair. In Hinduism, the hair and beard must not be cut until the end of the mourning period. At that time the head is shaved to demarcate the end of death pollution. Novices in some monastic traditions are shaved to signify the termination of their worldly life and their dedication to holy orders. Even the rite of circumcision, with its removal of the foreskin, is an act of purification as well as a rite of passage designed to integrate the individual into a new level of community.

Throughout the world special clothing is used in the context of sacred ceremonies; the hair may be covered, shoes removed, or new clothes required. In the case of death pollution, old clothes of the deceased may be burned. This change of clothing signifies a termination of uncleanliness. Deities in Hinduism must be approached by devotees wearing the purest possible garments. According to Lawrence A. Babb,

as a general rule the principal actor or actors in ritual must be in a purified condition before approaching or making offerings to the deity. This usually means that the worshippers will be freshly bathed and will be wearing garments appropriate to a condition of purity: a minimum of cotton, which is quite vulnerable to pollution; silk, if possible, which is more resistant to accidental pollution. (Babb, 1975, p. 47)

Throughout the world, fasting is an act of purgation, a sacrifice to honor the divinity, and a mechanism for cleansing the body. In Islam, the whole month of Ramadan is a time for fasting. Until recently, Roman Catholics fasted on Fridays to recall the passion of Christ. The season of Lent is a more protracted period of fasting commemorating the passion. Intense fasting as a form of purgation is widely associated with states of visionary ecstasy. Typically, the religious specialist prepares himself to receive visions by abstaining from food and drink for long periods of time; he may become emaciated, undergo symbolic death, then experience intense spiritual illumination.

Both Judaism and Islam forbid the eating of pork. No religion has a more strict set of dietary laws than Orthodox Judaism, where eating is a sacramental act. The Jewish dietary laws were a sign of the holiness of God's people; they served to preserve monotheism and to set the Jews apart from surrounding pagan societies. Dietary laws are found in the books of Deuteronomy, Genesis, and Exodus, but they are most widely articulated in Leviticus. Animals that have true hoofs and chew their cud, including oxen, sheep, harts, and gazelles, may be eaten. Only a few birds are considered clean: chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. Fish must have fins and scales to be considered clean; thus, all shellfish are excluded. Also classified as unclean are those animals that creep, crawl, or swarm upon the earth. Animals permitted in the Mosaic dietary laws may be eaten only under certain conditions: they must be slaughtered by a man trained in Jewish law, using a sharp knife and severing the animal's throat with one continuous stroke. Even then, the meat is not kosher unless it has been properly drained of blood, prepared with salt, then washed clean (Trepp, 1982, pp. 281284). According to Mary Douglas, Jewish dietary laws act as signs to inspire meditation on the "oneness, purity and completeness of God" (Douglas, 1966, p. 57). Observance of these laws helps the Jewish people to express their holiness at every meal and to prepare for the sacrifice in the temple.

The body may be purged of pollution by various emetics that induce vomiting or diarrhea. The peyote ritual found among Indians of Mexico and the American Southwest involves a phase of vomiting, considered to have both physical and spiritual purifying effects (Malefijt, 1968). Purgatives such as castor oil are used as purifying agents in African religions. Emetics of various kinds are prescribed by shamans to flush out evil spirits and purify the human body. Among North American Indians, the sweat bath is widely employed to cure illnesses and remove impurities.

Psychological forms of purgation are connected to the condition of the human body. Various forms of physical torture have been employed in the world's religions to bring about a psychological state of penance and humility in the presence of the supernatural. Mortification of the flesh includes various forms of flagellation, walking on nails, lacerations, suspension on hooks driven through the skin, the wearing of hair shirts, and sleeping on rough surfaces. These painful acts of self-sacrifice are not reserved only for religious specialists; in many religions with strong pilgrimage traditions, self-denial is an act of purification for laypeople. At the great pilgrimage shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and at numerous Marian devotions in Europe, pilgrims may be seen crawling on their bleeding knees toward the sanctuaries. Pilgrimages to Mecca, the medieval shrines of Europe, and the great pilgrim centers of Hinduism are associated with danger, hardship, and self-denial, which are believed to be purificatory. The ultimate form of purgation occurs when the pilgrim dies along the journey; in Hinduism it is considered highly auspicious to die on pilgrimage, an act equivalent to dying near the sacred Ganges River.

Another form of physical and psychological purification is sexual abstinence or celibacy. In some religions, the highest spiritual experiences can occur only for individuals who have given up all worldly pleasures. Sexual abstinence is believed to place the individual in a state of grace where he can concentrate on the supernatural. In some respects, strong marriage vows prohibiting extramarital sexual activity are designed to ensure the purity of sex within the marriage contract. The transgression of sexual boundaries is an act of pollution that may require intense rites of purification.

Confession of misdeeds appears in one form or another in most religions. The public or private recitation of transgressions purges the individual of guilt and acts as an antidote to both the personal and the collective pollution resulting from the breaking of taboos. The Inuit custom of group confession, particularly practiced during times when seal hunting is unsuccessful, is an example of corporate purgation through confession. It is believed that when the hair of the great goddess Sedna, who lives under the sea, has become dirty because of human sins (like secret miscarriages and various breaches of taboos) she angrily holds back the sea animals. During a trance, the shaman appeases Sedna, then calls for a group confession so that hunting may be plentiful (Eliade, 1964). Confession often results in a flood of tears, self-mortification, or other acts intended to express sorrow for transgressions. Thus, confession removes the stain of sin through a psychological act of expiation and purification.

Contact with holy items, such as relics of saints, sacraments, and statues of deities, is an important source of purification. The utterance of prayers also has cleansing value. In Hinduism, mantras may be used either as agents to combat evil or as foci for concentration leading to spiritual awakening. Rituals of purification in Buddhism are metaphors for inner transformations and mystical enlightenment. Prayer and meditation, particularly by ascetics, purify the soul, rendering it a fitting receptacle for God-consciousness and the spiritual life. Here purgation is followed by the contemplation of sublime spiritual visions.

Substitution and catharsis

The use of substitutions to remove pollution is a widespread purificatory custom. The sick human body may be rubbed with sticks, stones, or other objects to which the pollution is transferred. A means of curing mental disorders in Nigeria is to remove the person's clothes and rub his body with a sacrificed dove, which absorbs the evil spirits. In the American Indian peyote cult, individuals are purified by being rubbed with sagebrush. The institution of kingship is widely accompanied by the purificatory anointing of the king's body. The annual Qingming ceremony in China involves a tradition of sweeping clean the graves of the ancestors. This rite of purification renews the whole community. Shintō priests transfer their pollution to a special wand, which is then thrown away so that they may perform sacred ceremonies in a state of ritual purity.

There are numerous instances of transferring pollution to either human or animal scapegoats. Specially selected individuals may be whipped, beaten, and then expelled from a community to rid it of pollution. In Fiji, the polluted person is washed in a stream; he or she then wipes their hand on a pig or turtle to remove pollution. At one time among the Maori of New Zealand, when an epidemic disease raged in the community, a man was selected as a temporary scapegoat; a fern stalk was attached to his body, he was submerged in a river, and the fern stalk was allowed to float downstream. The epidemic was transferred to the scapegoat (the fern stalk), then washed away by the river. Sometimes scapegoats are institutionalized corporately, so that a whole social class takes on the burden of pollution. Thus, Indian untouchables have been singled out to bear the suffering associated with pollution; consequently the other social castes may be at least relatively free of pollution.

Community catharsis, through substitution and the use of scapegoats, is most widely practiced in the form of ritual sacrifice, where the animal's head is exchanged for that of a human who is spiritually polluted (Preston, 1980). Sacrifice is a widespread custom in the world's religions; although it is performed for many different purposes, one major reason is to purify both the individual and community of defilement. Consequently, the dramatic shedding of blood is typically surrounded with a milieu of powerful ritual catharsis. Among the cattle-keeping Nuer tribe of the Sudan, sacrifices are performed as atonements for breaking taboos. The ancient Greeks employed blood sacrifices as rites of absorptive purification, transferring defilement to despised animals (Parker, 1983). Cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and pigs are the animals most widely employed as scapegoats in ritual sacrifices. While human sacrifice occurred widely in the past, this form of expiation has mostly disappeared. However, in its symbolic form cathartic human sacrifice has been retained in the passion of Christ, where Jesus of Nazareth takes on the "sins of the world," becoming the "perfect offering" to cleanse the world of its collective pollution.

Secular forms

The symbolism of purification is not confined to the religious sphere. Modern secular societies continue to utilize powerful symbols of pollution and purity. Even though the religious content has been removed from much of this symbolism in technological societies, some of it lingers. The wide array of soaps and other chemicals used for cleansing the bodies and living habitats of modern peoples cannot be understood merely as extensions of scientific insights about health stemming from germ theory. Much of the preoccupation of American hospitals with white walls, antiseptics, and unstained clothing is suspiciously reminiscent of Puritan notions of religious cleanliness.

Fire, water, detergents, purgation, and substitutions remain important sources of both religious and secular purification rites in the modern world. However, the most noteworthy addition would be an array of chemicals added to this set of purificatory devices for removing pollution. Also significant is the tendency to perceive both pollution and purity in materialistic terms. Even though religious pollution is not an extinct concept in modern societies, it has often been isolated and compartmentalized away from the material world. Thus, today diseases such as smallpox are not usually thought to be related to sin or the breaking of taboos; nor are the cures of these diseases sought by performing religious purification rites. Still, some illnesses and critical life crisis events that have escaped the control of the rational scientific method remain, in many quarters, mysterious enough to require both religious and secular rites of purification. This is particularly true for some types of cancer, which remain mysterious and defy ingenious medical technologies born of the modernist world view.

Religious Meaning

Rites of purification are rarely isolated or discrete events. Usually they are linked together as sequences of rites within the larger semantic network of purity symbolism in a particular religious or cultural context. Among the Ndembu of northwestern Zambia the unifying symbol is the color white. This compound image of purity permeates every aspect of Ndembu religion. Water is regarded as white because it cleanses the body of dirt. After a funeral the widower is anointed with oil, shaved, washed, given new white cloth, and adorned with white beads. According to Victor Turner, "Behind the symbolism of whiteness, then, lie the notions of harmony, continuity, purity, the manifest, the public, the appropriate, and the legitimate" (1967, p. 77). Rites and symbols of purification have no meaning unless they are interpreted as part of a larger religious language.

This article has not exhausted the range of purificatory rites available in the world religions; other mechanisms of purification that could be added to this list include the application of sandalwood paste to the skin, bleeding the little finger, chewing hot chiles, touching sacred relics, eating or drinking sacraments, and making loud noises (as in the Chinese custom of setting off firecrackers). The important question is what all this means in terms of human religion. What is the relationship of the social categories of pollution and purity to the religious impulse itself?

Pollution/purity norms serve clear sociological and psychological purposes, reinforcing the boundaries of the community, ensuring the survival of the group, reinforcing principles of health, and assisting individuals to cope ritually with life crises. Still, the relationship of people to the supernatural remains the focal point of purification rites throughout the world. In Confucianism, a state of purity is necessary to establish a channel of communication between living persons and the spiritual world. The Hindu performs yoga only after purification; higher levels of consciousness may be blocked by painful impurities unless the devotee manages to overcome them. The loving God of Christianity helps his people to transcend impurities by sending his son and offering salvation through the Eucharist. In all these cases, channels of communication with the divinity are made possible through the establishment of boundaries between domains of pollution and purity, the identification of a situation of defilement, the performance of appropriate purificatory rites, and the experience of a new encounter with the ultimate supreme being.

Mary Douglas and other structuralists have noted correctly that pollution/purity norms impose order on the untidiness of life experiences: "Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death" (Douglas, 1966, p. 5). Yet categories of pollution and purity represent more than ideological or social systems. Defilement represents human failure to attain perfection, to realize a godlike nature, while purification is the human expression of divine aspirations.

See Also

Ablutions; Celibacy; Confession of Sins; Fasting; Fire; Hair; Incense; Kashrut; Mortification; Rites of Passage; Scapegoat; Water.


Babb, Lawrence A. The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India. New York, 1975.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. New York, 1966. This landmark volume has had a profound effect on the understanding of religion. Pollution and purity are analyzed in different religious systems to reveal underlying structural similarities. The author stresses the need to understand concepts of pollution and purity in the context of a total structure of thought.

Douglas, Mary. "Deciphering a Meal." Daedalus 101 (Winter 1972): 6181. An elegant structural analysis of the meaning of the sacred meal with particular reference to Jewish laws regarding purification and diet.

Douglas, Mary. Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology. Boston, 1975. A collection of excellent essays, some of which expand on the author's earlier structural analysis of purity norms.

Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus. Translated by Mark Sainsbury. Rev. ed. Chicago, 1980. A classic study of Hinduism, with particular emphasis on structural oppositions, including notions of pollution and purity as manifested in the caste system.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Rev. & enl. ed. New York, 1964.

Lichter, David, and Lawrence Epstein. "Irony in Tibetan Notions of the Good Life." In Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry, edited by Charles F. Keyes and E. Valentine Daniel. Berkeley, Calif., 1983.

Malefijt, Annemarie De Waal. Religion and Culture. New York, 1968.

Nielsen, Niels C., et al. Religions of the World. New York, 1982.

Parker, Robert. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford, 1983. An excellent, thorough analysis of pervasive purity norms in ancient Greek religion.

Preston, James J. Cult of the Goddess: Social and Religious Change in a Hindu Temple. New Delhi, 1980.

Steiner, Franz. Taboo. New York, 1956.

Trepp, Leo. Judaism: Development and Life. Belmont, Calif., 1982.

Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N. Y., 1967.

James J. Preston (1987)

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