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CATHARSIS . The Greek katharsis is an action noun corresponding to a verb that literally means "to prune, to clean, to remove dirt or a blemish [katharma ] for the purpose of rendering some thing, place, or animate being pure [katharos]." As denoting the general process of purification, catharsis could of course be applied to a very broad range of phenomena in the history of religions. In this article, however, the focus will be specifically on the Greek conception. Although the meaning of catharsis and the exact techniques or modalities of purification (katharmoi ) differ according to context, the sense of catharsis always remains negative: it refers to separating, evacuating, or releasing. Whether performed in a strictly ritual setting or understood as a spiritual concept, catharsis maintains this negative meaning of ridding either oneself or an object of something impure or unclean.

Catharsis originally appears as a ritualized process of quasi-material purification that makes use of a variety of substances as purifying agents. Chief among these are the elements water, fire, and sulfur, followed by oil, clay, and bran. Certain other vegetable substances, such as laurel, myrtle, and olive are also used, especially as prophylactics (coronets of leaves) or as supports of cleansing waters (aspersions). Since ceremonial purifications are usually conducted out in the open, the element of air also plays a role.

In the selection and use of such purifying agents, the symbolism of numbers sometimes comes into play, especially of the numbers three, seven, and nine. The gestures involved in aspersions, ablutions, fumigations, and the like, may be repeated a set number of times; a definite number of sacrificial victims may be required; and even the source of the water used in the rite may be determined on the basis of numbers (water coming from a river that arises from three springs was preferred).

When a sacrificial victim was required for purification, the pig was the most frequently sacrificed animal. However, once a year, the Athenians purified their city with the sacrifice of two human victims, pharmakoi, one bearing the guilt of all the Athenian men, the other bearing the guilt of all the Athenian women. As a general rule whatever served for the purification had to be completely destroyed. Human victims were burned.

The idea of defilement is closely linked to the perception of a disturbance of the natural order or a breach of the day-to-day routine. Contacts or experiences that call into question the physical integrity of the individual or of the general environment require a catharsis. Since health is understood to be normal, illness is seen as something abnormal, as a physical or mental stain requiring purification. Madness, too, and breaches of morality are seen as illnesses and therefore as defilements; thus an army in violation of the law or in revolt can be called back to order, cured of its illness, through purifications. Examples of this "psychosomatic" use of purification are numerous. The Proetides were purified of their madness by the magus Melampus. To cure the Lacedaemonian women struck with nymphomania required the intervention of a kathartēs Bakis, delegated by Apollo, the god of healing and purification. The women of Samos were liberated from their sexual exaltation thanks to the katharmos of Dexikreon.

The Bacchants were liberated from their maladies quite differently, howeverin the orgy, which temporarily identified them with Dionysos, the god of mania. The Dionysian orgy is cathartic to the extent that it releases the urges repressed by social and moral constraints. The ritual release of the Dionysian rite is a purification: "Blessed are the dancers and those who are purified, who dance on the hill in the holy dance of god" (Euripides, The Bacchae 75ff.). Intoxication from wine or from dance purges the individual of irrational impulses which, if repressed, would be noxious. Ritual madness can also cure internal madness. Music, too, can have a cathartic function (Quintilianus Aristides, Peri mousikēs 3.23). The Aristotelian theory of tragedyinitially Dionysiacdefined catharsis from this same perspective: The satiation of the passions by the spectacle of the theater is a therapeutic based, like the Bacchic ekstasis, on purgative and liberating homeopathy.

Contact with death requires purification, whether it is a death one has caused, the death of a family member, or any other contact with the dead. The murderer, whether the act was voluntary or involuntary, is defiled. Herakles had to be purified of the deaths of Iphitos, the Meropes, the sons of Proteus, and the centaurs; Achilles of the murder of Thersites (according to Arctinos of Miletus); Jason and Medea of the murder of Apsyrtos; and Theseus of the murder of the Pallantides. In certain cases, only the gods can cleanse the criminal of his wrongdoing. Ixion was apparently the first murderer purified by Zeus. Patricide constituted a particularly grave case, whether of Oedipus or Orestes; the latter was purified by Apollo himself. The stain of death may also be collective, as in the case of the Athenians after the deaths of Androgeus or the Cylonians. In this case a collective purification may be necessary. Even the quelling of malefic creatures such as the brigands killed by Theseus, the dragon killed by Cadmus, or the serpent Python killed by Apollo demands purification.

However, Homer presents us with a somewhat different picture. Odysseus, after having executed the suitors of Penelope, asks that sulfur and fire be brought "to disperse the bad air" (Odyssey, 22.481). This is meant to purify the house but not particularly those who have been killed or have done the killing. It is as if the cadaver that defiles a house takes precedence over the idea of moral responsibility for homicide.

Throughout antiquity the sentiment prevails that the contact with death, the presence of the dead under the family roof, demands purification. Iamblichus writes around 300 ce: "It is impious to touch human bodies from which the soul has departed," since "the nonliving mark the living with a stain." Thus the domicile of the deceased should be ritually disinfected. In the morning, vases of lustral water that had to be borrowed from another house were placed at the door of the deceased's home. These were then interred with the dead. The funeral and the subsequent rites had the ultimate purpose of purifying the family and consecrating the boundary that would henceforth separate the dead from the living; any dead person deprived of a tomb thus remained a katharma.

Certain sacred places prohibit the presence of tombs. Pisistratus, instructed by the oracles, purified the island of Delos by having the dead disinterred "anywhere in the region within visual range of the sanctuary" (Herodotus, 1.64). Later, in 426, all of the dead found on the island were disposed of (Thucydides, 1.8, 3.104, 5.1). The authorities of Eleusis had the body of a dead man found on the plain of Rharos removed and had the entire plain purified by a kathartēs. Contact with the world of the dead was not permissible without prior lustrations (Homer, Odyssey 11.25ff.; Lucian, Nekuomanteia 7). Conversely, one who was resuscitated had to be washed and nursed like a newborn (Plutarch, Quaestiones Romanae 5). Even encountering the dead in a dream requires purification (Aristophanes, Ranae 1340). Finally, contact with and, particularly, the eating of dead animals were impure in the eyes of the Orphics, the Pythagoreans, the initiates of the cult of Zagreus (Euripides, The Cretans 472), as well as for candidates for certain initiations (Porphyry, De abstinentia 4.16; Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.23.2). There was also a blood taboo, which legitimated excluding criminals from the Eleusinian mysteries, but the Lesser Mysteries of Agra prepared them for initiation into the Greater.

The blood taboo explains the relationship of menstruation, generation, and parturition to catharsis. Hippocrates gives the menstrual periods the name katharsis because they relieve women of their menstrual blood. The houses of women giving birth also require purification. Miscarriages require forty days of lustrations. When Delos was purified in 426 all lying-in on the island was forbidden. To approach a woman in labor was, for the superstitious character in Theophrastus (Characteres 16.9), as serious as walking on a grave or touching the dead (the two injunctions are often in tandem). The initiates of Ida whom Euripides places on stage in The Cretans avoid "assisting at birth or approaching a coffin." The newborn, too, must be purified. By means of several lustrations the Amphidromies of the Greeks and the rites of the dies lustricus of the Romans integrate the newborn into the community and preserve him from evil spirits attracted by the blood present at birth.

Sexual contacts demand catharsis just as those with death or the dead. Anyone wishing to approach the chapel of Men-Lunus had to be purified if he had eaten pork or garlic or touched a woman or corpses. Matrimonial rites derive from concerns connected with the taboos of blood, sex, or life. They consist of preliminary lustrations (baths, aspersions, circulating fumigations, the wearing of white vestments and of crowns), which were to safeguard the couple (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1111; Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 8.245f.).

More radically, life itself can appear impure, inasmuch as life comes from a mixture of body and soul, Dionysiac and Titanic elements which, according to Orphism, are implicit in the human makeup. Life is also impure when compared to that of the gods. Contact with the gods thus requires certain lustrations. Access to sacred enclosures (and especially to the aduton, the inner sanctum) is forbidden to those who have not undergone the ritual catharsis. Pools of water for this purpose are located at the entrances to sanctuaries, reminiscent of the holy water fonts of Christian churches. The sacrificial ceremony itself includes purifications of the officiates, of the participants, the victim, the liturgical vessel, the instruments of immolations, and the altar near which the animal is to be slaughtered.

The initiations, which permit man to establish a closer bond with the world of the gods, indeed, to be assimilated to the gods in certain cases, impose on the candidate a rigorous catharsis. Examples include the rituals of Andania and Agra, various types of abstinences, baths in the sea with a sacrificial pig for the candidates for the mysteries of Eleusis, and the continences, abstinences, and ablutions for the initiates of Isis, Mithra, and Dionysos. The Bacchic mysteries could even be regarded as being essentially cathartic. These rites suppose that man himself is too unclean to enter into relationship with the gods. Moreover, he cannot himself proceed with his own purification; he needs to have recourse to the techniques of a priest or of a kathartēs.

The philosophers, however, shifted emphasis in the understanding of catharsis, viewing it more in terms of spiritual purification. An inscription at Epidaurus recommends that one approach the gods with a pure spirit (Porphyry, De abstinentia 2.19; cf. Cicero, De legibus 2.24: "The law bids one approach the gods purely, with a spirit that is in which all things are"). The speculations of the Orphics were particularly important to this change of emphasis. Orphic mythology places a hereditary taint on humanity that has been compared to a sort of original sin. It is said that Zeus, hurling a bolt of lightning, reduced the race of Titans to cinders for having eaten Dionysos Zagreus. The human race is then born from these cinders. Consequently, human beings must be delivered from this Titanic contamination in order to recover their true Bacchic essence. Toward this end, Orphic catharsis serves to actually reinstate the divine life through the practice of continual asceticism. Similarly, Plato (Phaedo, 67c) refers to an "ancient tradition" for the purification par excellence: the separation of the soul from the body. The kathartēs whom Plato ridicules in The Republic (364e) and the Orpheotelestes of Theophrastus (Characteres 16.11) offer ritual recipes. The "Orphic life" implies a spiritual discipline, a kind of personal sacrifice. Similarly, the Platonists and, later, the Neoplatonists, were to preach the liberation of the spirit. This catharsis is reserved, however, for the elite sages, and with the last of the Neoplatonists the techniques of theurgy tended to overshadow intellectual purification.

After physical death (which the philosopher can anticipate while still in the body), the soul must be stripped of the garments that it has donned in its descent through the planetary spheres (Cumont, 1949, pp. 358, 364; Festugière, 1953, pp. 128ff.). Posthumous catharsis, as understood by the Orphics and Neoplatonists, consists in separating the soul from all heterogeneous elements. Vergil's hell (Aeneid, 6.740ff.), which tries the souls by wind, water, and fire, reminds us of the katharmoi of Empedocles (frag. 115). Seneca (Ad Marciam de consolatione 25.1), by contrast, gives a moral explanation for posthumous purification. The funeral pyre is thought by some to purify the soul from the body. Lightning is also thought to confer apotheosis (Cumont, 1949, p. 330). For others, the universe as a whole is subject to periodic purifications, which in Stoic cosmology consist of deluges and conflagrations (Origen, Against Celsus 4.12, 4.21, 4.64, 4.69).

From birth to death, through marriage and initiations, catharsis thus sanctioned the major steps of life. From its therapeutic, magic, or prophylactic functions, catharsis tended to shift in time to a moral and mystical exercise, especially in stipulating the conditions for salvation or apotheosis through radical ablation or liberation.

See Also

Blood; Fire; Purification; Water.


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Robert Turcan (1987 and 2005)

Translated from French by Marilyn Gaddis Rose and William H. Snyder


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The release of repressed psychic energy.

The term catharsis originated from the Greek word katharsis, meaning to purge, or purgation. In psychology, the term was first employed by Sigmund Freud's colleague Josef Breuer (1842-1925), who developed a "cathartic" treatment for persons suffering from hysterical symptoms through the use of hypnosis . While under hypnosis, Breuer's patients were able to recall traumatic experiences, and through the process of expressing the original emotions that had been repressed and forgotten, they were relieved of their symptoms. Catharsis was also central to Freud's concept of psychoanalysis , but he replaced hypnosis with free association .

In other schools of psychotherapy , catharsis refers to the therapeutic release of emotions and tensions, although not necessarily unconscious ones such as Freud emphasized. Certain types of therapy in particular, such as psychodrama and primal scream therapy, have stressed the healing potential of cathartic experiences.

See also Repression

Further Reading

Jenson, Jean C. Reclaiming Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Regression Therapy to Overcome the Effects of Childhood Abuse. New York: Dutton, 1995.


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ca·thar·tic / kəˈ[unvoicedth]ärtik/ • adj. 1. providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions; causing catharsis: crying is a cathartic release.2. Med. (chiefly of a drug) purgative.• n. Med. a purgative drug.DERIVATIVES: ca·thar·ti·cal·ly adv.


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ca·thar·sis / kəˈ[unvoicedth]ärsis/ • n. 1. the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.2. rare Med. purgation.


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catharsis Literally ‘cleansing’ or ‘purging’, psychodynamically the term refers to a release of emotions that reduces underlying tensions and anxieties. Sigmund Freud initially suggested that catharsis could be accomplished through the simple re-enactment of the distressing early experiences that occasioned subsequent pathology. Later he argued that active processes of repression inhibited cathartic re-enactments. See also PSYCHOANALYSIS.


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catharsis the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. The notion of ‘release’ through drama derives from Aristotle's Poetics.

The word comes from Greek katharsis, from kathairein ‘cleanse’, from katharos ‘pure’.


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cathartic cleansing, purgative. XVII. — late L. catharticus — Gr. kathartikós, f. kathaírein cleanse, f. katharós clean.
So catharsis purgation. XIX. — modL. — Gr. kátharsis.


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catharsis (kă-thar-sis) n. purging or cleansing out of the bowels by giving the patient a laxative (cathartic) to stimulate intestinal activity.


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cathartic (kă-thar-tik) n. see laxative.


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cathartic See laxative.