The concept of purification, or the ritual cleansing of persons and objects, is found across cultures and religions. It is present in urban and rural settings, in sectarian and secularized societies, and in tribal and multiethnic communities. It has been a sociological feature of human existence from antiquity to modernity, one with an array of behavioral guidelines and consequences.
Purification is associated with two other socioreligious notions: purity and pollution. Purity is linked to sanctity, devotion, and safety; pollution is associated with impurity, irreligion, and danger. Purification is regarded as a means of transitioning from a polluted to a pure state. Personal and group activities are carefully regulated by rules and rites designed to protect and purify individuals, communities, the deity or deities venerated by those groups, and even the world itself from the impurity supposedly caused by pollution. These notions arise from within the context of religious worldviews, and they often have transgressions and demonology as causative factors and penitence and exorcism as resolutionary mechanisms. Modern notions of hygiene, disease, waste products, and environmental contaminants that appear to be reflected in the codes and practices of purity, pollution, and purification bear only an inadvertent correspondence to purification. Purity and pollution are usually not based on physical cleanness and uncleanness, but on holiness and the loss of that state through inadvertent and deliberate violations of socioreligious tenets that renders a believer devotionally impure or polluted, thereby excluding him or her from partaking in the activities of a confessional community.
The ideal of purity, the fear of pollution, and the quest for purification arose from the systemic ordering of the religious world. The problem of pollution became a subcategory of evil because ritual impurity was equated with moral disorder caused by the forces of evil. Thus, the holy had to be protected from defilement. As a result, purity and impurity came to be regarded as opposites within religious settings. There was a rejection of spiritual and physiological conditions regarded as inappropriate. These conditions came to be prohibited completely, and they were to be resolved via purification whenever present. In some religions, such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam, prohibitions became codes whose breach, whether intentional or unintentional, causes pollution, which is to be corrected by purification and atonement. In other devotional systems, such as in Polynesian societies, items and actions that were holy became taboo, and any violation of the connection between what is tabu and the deities with which these items and actions are associated is believed to bring divine wrath upon the violator, and possibly upon his or her community. In each case, however, the shared notion is that of separation of the pure from the impure, based on a religious dichotomy between the holy and the profane (representing good and evil, respectively).
Also central to understanding purification is a widespread belief that pollution can cross physical and spiritual boundaries through transfer between individuals and objects, all of which would in turn become impure and capable of spreading the pollutant. The human body is one such domain where transition across a physical boundary creates pollution and requires acts of purification. Hair and nails, while attached to the body, are considered to be pure, as are blood, saliva, semen, and vaginal fluid when inside the body. But all these items are viewed as open to pollution by evil spiritual forces once separated from the body’s protection, and they are all capable of causing impurity in any persons and objects with which contact occurs. Ultimately, therefore, it is not just a single person or item that is involved in the system of purity, pollution, and purification, but rather the entire society and environment in which the believers live.
Methodological dilemmas exist in the interpretation of purification rituals. Among the issues involved are cultural relativity, the notion that beliefs and rituals are personal and social phenomena having values and meanings assigned by practitioners, the necessity for interpretations to be based on particular contexts, and attention to the historical contexts in which beliefs and practices developed. For instance, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, preserves an apparent distinction in belief, terminology, and praxes between ritual purity and moral purity. Israelites who were not tahor (pure) because of a deliberate or accidental transgression that had rendered them tameh (impure) could not enter the temple nor have contact with believers, activities, and items relating to the community’s religious life. Purification with water, followed by isolation or at least refraining from contact with other persons and items was one prescribed means by which purity could be reestablished. In other situations, such as the purification of men after skin diseases and women after childbirth, sacrifices of burnt offerings (‘olah ) and sin offerings (hatta‘ ) necessary for the atonement of sins were associated with the process of regaining purity. So a nexus took place between ritual and moral purity in Judaism. Another historically-based intertwining of concepts is seen in Roman praxis, where lustrare (lustration), which may have originated around the second century BCE as a propitiatory rite, came to involve sprinkling with pure water, and so was categorized by Greeks and then Romans as a purification ritual, or katharmon.
Perhaps most important to the study of purification is the variety of functions served. For example, purification and penance are viewed by Zoroastrians as necessary to counter evil, which is believed to function as a pollutant external to the holy. In Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist belief as well, purification can be used to negate impurity and defilement. But Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain penances, or tapas, do not negate impurity caused by contact with an external pollutant. Instead, they are undergone as a form of repentance. Self-flagellation, a practice among European Christians during the Middle Ages and still performed by Shia during the Muslim month of Muharram, involve acts of suffering intended to provide an expiation of sin and spiritual pollution. Despite the differences, however, all such acts of purification are connected by the intent of ensuring physical and, even more importantly, spiritual purity. Therefore, rites of passage or important transitory stages in the life cycle—such as birth, puberty, marriage, initiation into confessional communities and clerical organizations, and death—came to be associated with purificatory rites, as did individual physiological acts, whether voluntary or involuntary, such as urination, defection, sexual intercourse, childbirth, menstruation, and sickness.
In certain communities, such as among the ancient Israelites, medieval Jews, and ancient and medieval Zoroastrians, participation in purification was obligatory. Among other groups, such as the ancient and classical Greeks, participation in the system of purity and purification, or miasma, appears to have been at least technically a voluntary one. Yet whether obligatory or voluntary, such systems operated on consensus and coercion, and being regarded as impure often resulted in exclusion from communal life.
Often, but not always, purification involves an external cleansing of the person or object, an internal expiation of the person, a period of isolation, and atonement for having become impure. The sequence of events varies, as do the items utilized during the process. The Zoroastrian ritual of barashnum i no shab, or purification of the nine (days and) nights, which is now used only before induction as a magus, or priest, is emblematic of such cleansing. A variety of items have been utilized by different cultures as purificatory agents. Earth (dust), urine, and blood are some purificatory agents utilized by specific communities. Dust has often been employed among Zoroastrians and Muslims as a substitute for water. The blood of a sacrificial bull served to purify Roman men undergoing initiation into the mysteries of Mithras during late antiquity. Smoke via fumigation would be used to purify household items among Jews and Zoroastrians.
Water is the most widely used substance for purification. The Christian practice of dipping fingers into a water basin upon entering a church (now quite infrequent) is a remnant of the custom of purification before prayer. All Muslims, irrespective of gender and age, perform wudu’ (or vuzu’ ), a washing of the face, hands, and feet prior to entering a mosque. Zoroastrians perform a padyab, or rite of protection by water, by washing all uncovered parts of the body and face before praying at a fire temple. Water, because it symbolizes life and fertility, is also the purificatory agent used prior to initiation in many religious communities—the Christian baptism is the most widely known example, continuing a Jewish and Gnostic tradition that was followed later by Mandeans and Manicheans. The Zoroastrian sade nahn (simple bath) and the Hindu upanayana (washing) serve similar purposes.
Purification rites using water are performed by orthodox male and female Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists after sexual intercourse to purify themselves from contact with semen and vaginal fluid. Because water is associated with fertility, such purification may also occur prior to marriage to ensure that the new couple begins life together in ritual and moral purity. A Roman counterpart, the lustration, can also be mentioned in the context of purification before marriage. In Africa, washing a Yoruba bride’s feet before entering the bridegroom’s home is another such purification.
Menstruation and childbirth are two situations in which purification is widespread across cultures. The seclusion of menstruating women and the prohibition of sexual intercourse during menses and for a certain period of time thereafter (the time of menses plus one day for Zoroastrians, menses plus four days among Hindus, between three and ten days for Muslims, and seven days for Jews) has been practiced in order to ensure that the husband or male partner does not become polluted by the woman’s ritual impurity. After childbirth, a period of separation or isolation of the mother is prescribed by many confessional groups—it would last for forty days among Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists. After menses and childbirth, Jewish women are required to undergo a ritual immersion, or mikvah, to regain purity, Zoroastrian women have to perform a sade nahn, and a ritual bath, or ghusl, is undergone by Muslim women. Only orthodox or orthopractic women follow the stipulations completely now. Most other Jewish, Muslim, and Zoroastrian women now regard menses, childbirth, and the blood associated with these conditions as merely physiological processes that have no moral connection, and so they simply bathe or shower in water as they would to routinely clean themselves. The Christian practice of churching—or reintroducing a new mother to the community after childbirth, isolation, and purification—has fallen into disuse.
Fears that sex, procreation, and menstruation were linked to evil and sin reinforced the concepts of impurity associated with them, generated gender-specific misogyny in beliefs and practices directed at women, and contributed to patriarchy in many ancient and medieval societies. Traditionalist communities in both Western and Eastern countries continue some of those dichotomies. One result, among orthodox Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, is the exclusion of women from the priesthoods.
Class and caste hierarchies were shaped in part by issues of purity, pollution, and purification as well. One example among Hindus, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians pertains to families that wash and transport corpses, and thus are often shunned as ritually impure due to their occupation. For Hindus, in particular, the varnashrama dharma, or system of endogamous classes, excludes persons who deal with corpses, bodily fluids, and bodily excrements in their work. Those individuals—called dalit (downtrodden), and more paternalistically harijans (children of the god Hari Vishnu)—have traditionally been social outcastes living apart from the other classes and unable to worship at temples. Any member of the three upper socioreligious classes—the Brahmins (priests and scholars), the Kshatriyas (warriors and politicians), and the Vaishyas (merchants, artisans, and landowners), all of whom are regarded as “twice born” and therefore permitted to study scripture—who has direct or indirect contact with an untouchable person, through touch, food, water, objects, or even the outcaste’s shadow, becomes polluted. He or she is technically required to undergo a ritual bath for religious purity to be regained. Only in modern India (after 1949–1950) and Pakistan (after 1953) have secular national constitutions deemed the still fairly widespread practice of untouchability illegal.
Vitiation of the efficacy of purification is thought to occur if the prescribed rites are not performed exactingly or if contact occurs again with impure persons and objects. Consequently, during antiquity and medieval times, the proper performance of purification rituals, specialization of individuals as purifiers, and an extensive literature on purification developed, as evidenced by the biblical Leviticus and the Iranian Videvdad. The violation of divine commandments and contact with evil spirits were said to be the ultimate sources of pollution. As a part of religion, purification was an important, widespread, socioreligious factor linked to good, evil, demonology, and even differential gender and class relations. Its sway began to attenuate slowly in Europe with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age. From the eighteenth century onward, colonialism spread Western science, especially in connection with medicine, to other societies via secular education. As result, practices of purification have attenuated in the daily lives of many secularized women and men.
SEE ALSO Buddhism; Caste; Christianity; Cultural Relativism; Hinduism; Humiliation; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Judaism; Magic; Purgatory; Religion; Rites of Passage; Rituals; Sanitation; Shame; Sin; Stigma; Vodou
Choksy, Jamsheed K. 1989. Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil. Austin: University of Texas Press.
De Silva, David A. 2000. Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press.
Douglas, Mary. 1969. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. 2nd ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Dumont, Louis. 1980. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Rev. English ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Gennep, Arnold van. 1960. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Katz, Marion Holmes. 2002. Body of Text: The Emergence of the Sunni Law of Ritual Purity. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Maccoby, Hyam. 1999. Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and Its Place in Judaism. Cambridge, U.K.: University of Cambridge Press.
Parker, Robert. 1983. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jamsheed K. Choksy
Purification, and its attendant issues of purity and pollution, find expression in virtually all religions of the world. Purification rituals move a member from one pole of the continuum between purity and pollution to the other. Just as purity and pollution exist as a continuum, so religions vary along a line between those that express tantamount concern with purity issues and those that disregard the issue almost in its entirety. Nonetheless, more emphasis proves the rule, with purification serving as a major theme in religion. This theme touches on main issues of spirituality such as expiation, healing, renewal, and transcendence, as well as providing for the reintegration of the individual, society, and the cosmos. Despite cultural diversity, the playing out of these themes within religion reveals consistent patterns of ritual and belief.
Emphasis on the type or source of pollution varies greatly among different religiocultural contexts. Nonetheless, certain threads reveal a consistent categorization of purity issues. Concerns with bodily functions, social bonding, and boundary maintenance between the profane and the sacred comprise the three major focuses of religious attention to purity and pollution.
Issues surrounding bodily functions emphasize the provision of boundaries for purposes of control and purification. Of all bodily functions, menstruation and death universally receive attention as the most polluting. Feminist scholars consider issues of purity surrounding menstruation and pregnancy as means of control over and subjugation of women within society. Jewish laws of family purity, or the taharat hamishpakha, deal with issues of menstruation, reproduction, and sexual contact between husband and wife. Strict observers of taharat ha-mishpakha do not touch one another during forbidden days. Throughout a woman's period, and for an additional seven days after her cycle, she is tahmay, or impure. The mikveh, or ritual bath, takes place after this period of time. Upon completing the mikveh a woman may resume sexual congress with her husband. Since only married women can lawfully engage in sexual relations, only they go through the purification ritual of mikveh. This practice remains common only among Orthodox Jews.
Issues concerned with social bonding focus on rites of passage such as birth, adolescence, marriage, and death. Within many traditions, individuals undergoing status change prove most vulnerable to pollution. Rites of passage serve as means of protection and purification.
The final category, concerned with the maintenance of boundaries separating the profane from the divine, finds expression in often elaborate rites of purification enabling humans to approach divinity and serve to set individuals apart from the rest of society for the holy purpose of communing with the divine. In addition, setting apart, or consecrating, space and even time also serves this purpose. Thus rituals surrounding the consecration of buildings and natural areas, clergy, and laity all comprise part of this boundary maintenance.
Rites of purification likewise range greatly in scope and difficulty, from the Catholic ritual of crossing oneself with holy water prior to prayer and the ingestion of a sacrament to painful, prolonged, and dangerous acts of purgation. Five main tools of purification exist: fire, water, detergents, purgation, and scapegoats.
Fire rituals range from fire walking to the use of incense and fumigation. New Age fire walking workshops transport this ancient practice to the contemporary United States. Neopagans often make use of incense in purification preludes to ceremony. Rituals making use of water remain the most widespread. Christian baptism serves as the primary and best-known example of water purification; the Jewish mikveh remains less widespread and less well known. Detergents include the use of salt water, sand, herbal concoctions, ash, and other mixtures designed to cleanse the person on a variety of levels. Santería and Vodou use elaborate detergents in magical and initiation rites. The preparation and use of the detergents often prove quite arduous. All three forms of purification tools mentioned above involve the application of outside materials on the one seeking purification.
Purgation may either utilize physical or psychological means or even mix the two. These practices focus on interior cleansing. Fasting remains the most common means of purgation. Dietary laws serve as a means of maintaining purity. Among religions with dietary laws, Orthodox Judaism upholds the strictest codes, and for devout adherents eating serves an almost sacramental function. Emetics, such as the Native American sweat lodge, or inipi, ceremony also find widespread usage within religions. The sweat lodge ceremony, like the peace pipe ceremony, often serves as a prelude to other ceremonies. Among the Sioux, whose inipi ritual remains the best known of sweat lodge rituals, the sweat lodge is constructed of sixteen poles, bent to form an inverted bowl, which is then covered with hides, blankets, or tarps, and when in use the sweat lodge is closed off from outer air. A pit is dug in the center to hold heated rocks. Water poured over the hot rocks produces steam. A pipe ceremony usually precedes and follows the sweat lodge ceremony. Four separate sweats, representing the four directions, comprise the main ritual.
Psychological means of purification include penance, mortification, confession, sanctification, and the often more taxing and time-consuming practice of pilgrimage. Penance, mortification, confession, and pilgrimage remain primarily in the province of Catholic tradition. Protestant Christianity does include purification rituals above and beyond baptism. Doctrines of sanctification among holiness traditions reveal a rich psychological means of achieving ritual purity beyond that provided by baptism. According to Wesleyan theology surrounding the experience of sanctification, water baptism cleanses believers from sin, and the purely spiritual experience of sanctification then enables them to conduct a blameless life. Means of purification utilizing both physical and psychological elements revolve around human sexuality. Celibacy and strict rules surrounding marriage vows serve to maintain purity.
Finally, the use of substitutions, or scapegoats, as a means of satisfying severe purification rites remains widespread. On a symbolic level, the Christian view of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth serves as a prime example of scapegoating. On a more physical level, the use of animal sacrifices in Santerıa and Vodou also serves at times as a purification tool.
Brown, John Epes, ed. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. 1953.
Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestessin Brooklyn. 1991.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Natureof Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask. 1957; repr., 1987.
Teluskin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy. 1991.
In primitive culture there is widespread belief in a mysterious supernatural energy, a sort of occult, more or less immaterial dynamic power, that attaches to persons and things and produces effects beyond the normal course of nature. In itself, this power is neutral; whether it is to be good or evil depends on how it comes into contact with man. It can be approached by especially qualified persons, but it must be avoided by others. It is taboo, that is, forbidden as being fraught with mystic danger. Being transmissible, it clings to an individual who has come into contact with it, and it can spread from him to others like an infectious disease. When a state of taboo has not been avoided or cannot be avoided, a man of primitive culture seeks an antidote or disinfectant for it by means of purification.
Methods. Since the pollution is conceived of as being material in character, the methods employed in removing it are of the same nature as those used in the cleansing and decontamination of material objects: ablution, or use of such detergents as clay, mud, charcoal, ashes, dung, eggs, wool, fleece of animals; burning; fumigation; shaving of the hair; change of clothes; use of emetics; etc. Often an abstergent is obtained from a particular source that is thought to possess especially powerful purificatory qualities, e.g., sea water or water drawn from a certain river, pool, or spring. Besides these means of purification there are many others. Noise, produced by various implements, is used to drive out the evil thing that has caused the pollution (exorcism). Persons in a state of uncleanness are required to confess their particular kind of taboo-breaking. Sometimes the accumulated pollution of a community is transferred to an animal or a human scapegoat, which is then expelled from the settlement or, less commonly, killed. Survivals of this simple primitive conception of purification were "the emissary goat" of Leviticus (16.7–10, 26), which, after having been declared laden with all the transgressions of Israel, was driven into the desert, and the pharmakoí of ancient Greece, who, by carrying away pollution, brought "remedy" to the city.
Ceremonies. Ceremonies of purification accompany primitive man from the cradle to the grave. The need for them is felt especially at the critical points of human life—birth, adolescence, marriage, and death—when man is thought to be more exposed than at other times to the attacks of dangerous forces. These crucial moments in human life are therefore surrounded by a series of purificatory rites. Thus a house in which a death occurs becomes defiled and, after the corpse has been carried out for burial, must be cleansed with fire or smoke or by a ritualistic sweeping. Likewise, all persons who have come into contact with the corpse must purify themselves by washing in water or a potent medicine prepared for this purpose. These proceedings may be repeated several times over a certain period.
Originally, then, purifications are intended to ward off evil forces. In the religions of the higher civilizations, this initially merely negative-apotropaic aim becomes in a further, quite natural development of the same idea transformed into a positive one. To be free from the disturbing influences of such pernicious powers also means to be in a state of purity, which seems to be necessary for persons who want to enter into communion with the divine. As a result, the old-fashioned, time-honored purificatory practices are elevated to a command of the gods who above all require purity from their worshippers.
Ritual Purity. In this way, there arises the idea of "ritual purity." Anything ritually impure antagonizes the deity, especially anything connected with foreign or suppressed cults and rival demonic powers. Uncleanness, it is true, is here still conceived of as something material, as an infection that can be remedied by the external removal of the evil thing. But, by putting the notions of the pure and the holy side by side and by shaping the more elevated ideas of the divine and the demonic, of the sacred and the accursed, religion plants the seeds out of which grows the moral concept of purity. In this refining and spiritualizing process the cathartic rites, though retaining their traditional outward forms, assume more and more a purely symbolic meaning.
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Purification (of the Virgin Mary)
- Circe purified Jason and Medea after their murder of Apsyrtus. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 201]