Greek purification

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

The concept of ‘purification’, like that of pollution, was applied in very diverse ways in Greek ritual. Many purifications were performed not in response to specific pollutions, but as preparation for particular events or actions or as required by the calendar. The Athenian assembly (see ekklesia) was purified at the start of meetings (by carrying the body of a sacrificed piglet around it), and temples could be treated similarly; individuals purified themselves by washing before approaching the gods. Most drastically, some whole cities of ancient Ionia, not excluding Athens, were purified annually by the expulsion of human scapegoats (see pharmakos) at the Thargelia.

There were many different techniques of purification: by washing or sprinkling, by fumigation (esp. with sulphur), by ‘rubbing off’ with mud or bran; all admitted various degrees of symbolic elaboration (the use of sea‐water, or water from a special spring). Sacrifice too, or modified forms of it, often functioned as a purification: the dead victim might be carried around the place to be purified (see above), while the blood supposedly sticking to a killer was ‘washed off with blood’ by pouring that of the animal victim over his hands. Where actual pollutions are concerned, however, these issues of technique and symbolism are less important than the question of the circumstances in which purification was permitted and deemed effective. Even minor and inescapable pollutions such as contact with a death could not be removed immediately: the major pollution of blood‐guilt required a period of exile before the killer could (if at all) be readmitted to the community after purification. Thus the most powerful of all purifying agents was in a sense time.

Purification was given heightened significance by the other‐worldly movements in Greek thought, Orphism and Pythagoreanism (see pythagoras ). For them, purification signified an escape not just from particular pollutions but from man's fallen condition, his imprisonment in the body. This was a new metaphorical extension of the traditional idea; but adherents of these movements also underwent purifications and observed abstinences of a more conventional type (see fasting), so that the new ‘purification’ had a considerable psychological continuity with the old.

The god who presided over purification from blood‐guilt was Zeus Katharsios, ‘Of purification’; this role derived from his general concern for the reintegration into society of displaced persons (cp. Zeus ‘Of suppliants’ and ‘Of strangers’). Apollo too could be seen as a ‘purifier of men's houses’ because his oracle at Delphi (see delphic oracle) regularly gave advice on such matters.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.