Culture & Art / Religion / Society

Contamination and Catharsis: Purification through Religious Rituals

Why is the quest for purity so essential to religions around the world and what does it mean in terms of human psychology and social organization?

by Kristina P.

man mo temple hong kong spiralling incense air cleansing

The heavy smoke wafting from incense coils in buddhist temples is thought to cleanse the surroundings’ air. Here in Man Mo Temple (Hong Kong). © Kristina P.

If doctrines constitute the spine of all religions, ritual is their beating heart. Rituals (or rites) are enactments of religious beliefs; it is through rituals that religious ideas manifest their power. While for a long time in history, literacy was reserved to a small group of elites, religious knowledge was transmitted through oral tradition as well as through ritual practices. Winzeler defines ritual as a “customary religious behavior, action, or activity, in contrast to belief, faith, or assumption.” [1]

One of the elements that transpire through many of the diverse rituals performed around the world is the notion of purification. Purifying, in the context of rituals, is a way to remove a contaminant from a body (whether individual or collective), and/or to make clean. Common to all religious beliefs is a strong sense that in life, some things, events or spiritual forces can be associated with purity, that is, a state in which nothing undesirable is present, and others with impurity or dirt. This dissociation between the pure and the impure obviously entails the definition of norms that can differentiate between what is seen as “natural”, acceptable to the gods or spirits, positive, and its opposite. It also implies that a group or community collectively agreed on these norms, or that the norms were imposed but then accepted as valid.

All of the above point out to a close link between the spiritual order and the community’s functioning, the religious and the social elements appearing to be interwoven. That is why exploring the topic of purification through a variety of rituals can help us highlighting the main aspects of religious purity but most importantly its relevance both in the metaphysical and the this-worldly realms. But first, we need to understand what is the ritual’s place in religious practices and why it is so central to human societies.

The social function of rituals

It appears that performing rituals, for a believer, is much more than just faith, it is more akin to a lifestyle. Rituals shape people’s daily life, in the same way that a conductor directs the performance of an orchestra. Confucius, a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 5th-6th centuries BC, for example, places rituals at the centre of social relationships. Ritual or ritual propriety (li) in Confucianism constitutes a paradigm of established practices. Acting according to li is what makes the ideal Confucian man: “Restraining oneself and returning to li is true goodness. The whole world would respond to the true goodness of one who could for one day restrain himself and return to li… Look at nothing, listen to nothing, speak of nothing, make no movement that is contrary to li.” [2] Thus, in Confucianism, life in a society is inseparable from performing the prescribed rituals.

Similarly, the life of a religious community is indivisible from the rituals that are part of religious traditions. This bond between society and rituals is all the more potent since people’s everyday lives become shaped by their religious practices, which in turn has consequences for the functioning of the whole group. Individuals who fail to conform to the prescribed norms of behavior can become outcasts. Hugo Hubert in “Adangme Purification and Pacification Rites” gives an account of the Adangme people of West Africa, where every girl who has reached the age of puberty has to go through special initiation rites prior to her first pregnancy. Failing to go through the initiation rites would entail pollution extending to her lover and her family, and, ultimately, the girl’s expulsion from the community. Incidentally, this is an example of a religious moral norm in which the punishment for breaching it applies only to the female and not to the male. It gives us an insight into the hierarchy and social values present in this social group, where female individuals are seen to be less valuable to the community than the males, and, therefore, face the stigma of their perceived impurity.

ancient deity performs purification rituals sculpture ancient iraq

An ancient deity performs purification rituals, sculpture found in Northern Iraq, 9th century BC. Source: LACMA

Beyond the social: rituals and the metaphysical

Interestingly, rituals exist and function within societies, yet they also reach out beyond society to the metaphysical world. Bronislaw Malinowski in “The Role of Magic and Religion” explains the reason behind this phenomenon:

“Knowledge gives man the possibility of planning ahead, of embracing vast spaces of time and distance; it allows a wide range to his hopes and desires. But however much knowledge and science help man in allowing him to obtain what he wants, they are unable completely to control change, to eliminate accidents, to foresee the unexpected turn of natural events, or to make human handiwork reliable and adequate to all practical requirements.” [3]

Thus, human beings use rituals to seek the help of transcendental forces who have access to the realm that is inaccessible to humans. The need to make contact with the transcendental derives from human beings’ daily anxieties and fears of the unknown, and rituals constitute one powerful and reassuring way both to establish a form of control over the vagaries of nature and to have an explanation for the course of events. And being able to rationalize what is happening is reassuring because it follows a pattern that provides a sense of safety typical of stability; it further allows for feelings such as grief and anger, over the death of a relative for example, to be channeled into a calming fatalism: “It’s all in God’s hands” say many Christian and Muslim believers alike, meaning ‘the choice is not mine, so I do not need to worry’.

Purification rituals and the rationalization of the world

In fact, rituals could be divided into separate types. Some rituals are means to attain a desired outcome: for example, hunting rituals performed to bring good luck in hunting, or rain dances performed to call for the rain in times of drought. Other rituals are used to ward off the malevolent forces that the flow of life can bring forth, or, if the unfortunate has already happened, to stop it from progressing: for example, the different festivals aiming at eliminating the demons of the epidemic, among which the Festival of Marshal Wen celebrated in South China in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But maybe more importantly, rituals are a way to regain life – or strength – for an individual, a community, or an environment as a whole, and the purification rites, also known as cathartic rituals, have a major role to play in this. As Paul Katz explains, the character of cathartic rituals “conformed to the original sense of the Greek katharsis, meaning to remove dirt or a blemish (katharma), for the purpose of making oneself, an object, or one’s environment pure (katharos).”[4] During the performance of these rites, one or a few cathartic substances would be employed. These would include, most importantly, water and fire, as well as incense, sacrifices, or ritual scapegoats onto which the unwelcome forces would be redirected.

In any case, the goal of purification rites would always be to drive away the forces that bring about pollution – be it physical, moral or spiritual pollution. Generally, societies around the world agree on major sources of pollution, which are death, illness, menstrual bleeding, violation of taboos etc. In Judaism, for example, the human corpse is regarded as the greatest pollutant, which “has the power of contamination in a vertical line both above and below it to an unlimited extent.”[5] That is to say, a corpse could sort of pierce the area with its contaminating power.

puja purification rite indian pushkar lake

Daily purification rite in the Pushkar Lake (western India). © Nick Kenrick / Flickr

Water and fire, emblems of the primal potency of nature, are thus used as a purifying response to the awkwardness of the human being, their mind ill at ease with the impulses of the flesh that they cannot fully control. Mary Douglas explains the psychology behind purification rituals in her article titled “Dirt: Purity and Danger”. Longing for purity is a matter of power, as the mere fact that the pollutant is considered dangerous is the affirmation of its forcefulness. Hence purification through the use of cathartic substances attempts to destroy the identity of the pollutant, which would lose its power if it lost its original form. Furthermore, the desire for purity is a way for the human mind to rationalize natural phenomena. As Douglas puts it: “…the search for purity…is an attempt to force experience into logical categories of non-contradiction.”[6] In other words, the human mind needs to separate everything into categories in order to bring reassurance and to soothe fears when faced with the uncontrollable. Through purification rites, everything that does not fall into any of the established categories ceases to exist.

The suffering born from the duality between human nature and rationality of the mind seems to have been what fueled the concepts of sin and subsequent guilt that Judeo-Christian churches have built their whole religious and social order on. In fact, the first humans depicted in the Bible already commit the sin of wanting to elevate themselves to God’s level and therefore turn away from God’s imperatives and listen instead to the Serpent. The story of humans is firmly rooted in temptation, sin, and the guilt that follows. The story serves as a reminder of the humility that humans should preserve, but it is mainly a very strong image explaining why humanity shall be forever guilt-ridden, and in Catholic faith, how forever grateful to Jesus of Nazareth for sacrificing his earthly life to expiate the “sin of the world”. So if humanity is necessarily impure and guilty, it follows that believers need to relentlessly seek purity and forgiveness. In other non-institutionalized religions, the notion of sin may be less strongly emphasized, but the drive for ritual purity remains strong as the cycle of life regularly brings about the threat of impurity. We could say to summarize that purity and impurity serve as landmarks to define a religious and social order, a hierarchy (the pure always being higher than the impure), and demand the adoption of moral behaviors.

A lot of ancient societies and cultures throughout their history have been performing purification rituals, such as those in Greece, Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, etc. Every one of these cultures, therefore, has been prone to experiencing a sense of sinfulness. In order to talk about how different cultures were differently affected by the idea of sinfulness, Jan Assmann suggests dividing cultures into shame cultures and guilt-cultures. The difference between shame and guilt is that guilt accumulates, while shame does not. Guilt-cultures would be further divided into purification cultures and real or emphatic guilt-cultures. For example, he says, Ancient Egypt is an instance of purification culture, while Judaism and Christianity are instances of emphatic guilt cultures.[7] In the former, the sense of guilt in religious individuals would be played down, while in the latter the sense of guilt in religious individuals would be emphasized. Assmann concludes: “Every guilt-culture is, therefore, confronted with the problem of how to dispose of accumulated guilt and to develop techniques of guilt-disposal such as purification, confession, repentance, penitence etc.”[8]

the fall michelangelo garden of eden original sin

An anthropomorphic snake tempts Adam and Even into committing the original sin that condemned humanity to fall from Grace. Painting: The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1509 – 1510.

Cathartic rituals: a cultural thing?

Indeed, “culture” and “purification rituals” are very closely related, as in the natural world we do not observe any similar phenomena. Fritz Stolz explains: “Cleansing the body is, among other customs of body care, a common human technique to mark the transformation from the natural to the cultural state.” [9] It is an intriguing contradiction that through culture – a human construct – human beings attempt to go back to the state of “natural” purity and free themselves from the contamination which being human entails, such as desires, body secretions, pregnancy, death etc.

Consequently, purification rites give us a fascinating insight into human life and human activity. From the anthropological study of rituals we learn about the different functions that different rituals perform in various societies, such as social, psychological, ideological etc. Often a ritual is not confined to having just one function and oftentimes one ritual can fall under a few categories at the same time. For example, the rite of passage could be seen primarily as a socio-political ritual, seeking to reinvent individuals by changing their perception of themselves as well as the way they are perceived by their community, and thereby giving them new social responsibilities. At the same time, rites of passage are often times cathartic in nature, as to undergo a ritual transition an individual would have to be “cleaned” from his or her past. And, in many cases, this purification extends onto community and the environment, as the three layers of human, society and the world are believed to form an indivisible whole by many cultures.

Colin M. Turnbull in his book “The Human Cycle” describes the peoples living around the Ituri forest of northeastern Zaire. They regularly stage the rite of passage known as nkumbi at intervals of around three years for the local boys between the ages of nine and eleven. Prior to the rite of passage ritual dances are performed for a month to purify the local village. In addition, the local community goes through a period of abiding by specific moral norms and abstention[10]. This serves as a reminder to all the community of the moral codes that have prevailed, and can equally allow for collective adaptations to this moral code.

Three levels of purification: the individual, the communal, the environmental

We could therefore divide the effects expected of purification rites into three different levels – the individual level, the communal level and the environmental level.

Individual level purification means that the rites are performed in order to affect an individual or multiple individuals at the same time in order to achieve physical purification and get rid of an individual’s feeling of impurity or guilt. In fact, pollution is usually associated with physicality, and while the ritual can be affecting the body of the individual directly, its ultimate aim is to affect an individual’s mental state. Among the Adangme we find purification rituals intended to alter individual’s mental processes after taking part in spilling blood, such as those performed after the war, when the warriors who safely returned home would be cleansed from the stain of bloodshed, or the ritual cleansing of hunters who manage to kill a big-game animal, like an elephant, a bushcow etc. Both of the rituals involve the contact of the body of an individual with sacred water given by a local priest in order to get rid of the dangerous forces which killing awakens.

ashura self flagellation pakistan

A believer performs self-flagellation during the Ashura festival in Muzaffargarh (Pakistan). © Saad Sarfraz Sheikh / Flickr

In addition to the psychological reassurance mentioned previously, purification rites may bring a sense of spiritual reinvigoration. In Christian and Judaic traditions, for example, the redemption of the sinners is believed to bring the guilty individuals closer to God. As Greenberg points out: “The Hebrew prophets call on sinners – individuals and collectives – to repent (“turn to God”) as the condition for obtaining God’s pardon and for reconciliation with him.”[11] And some believers repent through the “purifying” power of self-inflicted flagellation.

The insistence on purity – and metaphysical elevation – as being detached from one’s human nature bears consequences that appear strikingly in some extremist religious behaviors. For example, the Hindu practice of sati requires that a woman whose husband just died prove her purity, in this case equated to her faithfulness to her husband’s soul and the assurance that she will not be able to take a new lover, by sacrificing her body in the fire of her husband’s burning pyre. The catholic theologian Saint Jerome led a school of young women whom he encouraged to live a “virginal life” by severely limiting their intake of food – driving a certain number to anorexia and death – as well as practicing abstinence, in order to free their bodies from their earthly burdens and “avoid the consequences of the Fall”[12]. In effect, anorexia led to the interruption of menstruation, and to creating child-like bodies that were considered more worthy of God. This is also reminiscent of the portrayal of angels as sexless creatures, and of the development of Mary’s mythology as a virgin, before and after giving birth[13].

Secondly, purification on the communal level means that a group of individuals within a community can be freed from physical (and, consequently, spiritual) pollution. Purification on the communal level becomes necessary as we find instances of the idea of collective innate pollution, such as in Zoroastrianism, where “every person is polluted because of the fact that he eats the menstruation when he is in the mother’s womb.”[14] Similarly, in Christianity, we come across the idea of the original sin established by St Augustine who lived in the 4th-5th centuries, and who claimed that all humans inherited the sinful nature from Adam, the first human created by God, who also came to be known as the first sinner in Christian theology.

Lastly, purification can be needed at the environmental level. During the prophylactic or apotropaic festivals, rituals would be performed to cleanse the environment of a community. Paul Katz describes the celebration of the Festival of Marshal Wen in “Festival of Marshal Wen in Wenchow and Hangchow” in late-imperial China. It was a festival organized to evoke the deity of Marshal Wen, who was believed to be powerful enough to expel demons of the epidemic from the area. Interestingly, the rites were originally intended for the purposes of healing individual believers before it turned into a wider-ranging festival.

albrecht durer st jerome in the wilderness ascetic penance

Saint Jerome is shown in ascetic penance, having left aside the earthly honors symbolized by the cardinal clothes on the ground. Painting: Albrecht Dürer, c. 1496

Purity, when achieved, does not necessarily lead humans onto the right path. Oftentimes, maintaining purity comes at a high cost, and the line between purity and impurity, sacred and profane, is usually a very fine one: “Whenever a strict pattern of purity is imposed on our lives it is either highly uncomfortable or it leads into contradiction if closely followed, or it leads to hypocrisy. That which is negated is not thereby removed.”[15]

With time, religions have recognized this problem and have found a way to incorporate pollutants into their systems. Christian tradition, for instance, accepted the pollution of sex on the condition that it should take place within the framework of a monogamous relationship and with the result of procreating. Likewise, some Christian churches (mostly Protestant ones) have removed the necessity of chastity and celibacy for members of the clergy, which to an extent brought mental repose to its believers. The sense of purity can be a reassuring concept for the human mind; yet it is also a tricky path to follow. And oftentimes, lessening the strict regulations that govern religious purity is precisely what offers a source of relief for the human mind.

Notes:

[1] Winzeler, Robert L, Anthropology and religion: What We Know, Think, and Question, Lanham: Altamira Press, 2008, p. 147

[2] Analects, 12.1 quoted in Ebrey, Patricia, Confucianism and family Rituals in Imperial China, Princeton ,1991, p. 17

[3] Malinowski, Bronislaw, “The Role of Magic and Religion” in William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, eds., Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, NY: Harper & Row, 1979 (4th ed.), p. 39

[4] Katz, Paul, “The Festival of Marshal Wen in Wenchow and Hangchow”, in Demon Hordes and Burning Boats: the Cult of Marshal Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang, SUNY Press, 1995, p.167

[5] Maccoby, Hyam, Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and its Place in Judaism, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.3

[6] Douglas, Mary, “Dirt: Purity and Danger”, in Readings in Ritual Studies, Ronald L. Grimes, ed., Prentice Hall, 1996, p. 161

[7] Assmann, Jan, “Confession in Ancient Egypt”, in Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, Jan Assmann and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds., Brill, 1999, p. 242

[8] Ibid, p. 241

[9] Stolz, Fritz, “Dimensions and Transformations of Purification Ideas”, in Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, Jan Assmann and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds., Brill, 1999, p.228

[10] Turnbull, M. Colin, The Human Cycle, Simon and Schuster/New York, 1983, p. 89

[11] Greenberg, Moshe, “Salvation of the Impenitent ad majorem dei gloriam: Ezek 36:16-32”, in Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, Jan Assmann and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds., Brill, 1999, 263

[12] Warner, Marina, All Alone of her sex, Pocket Books, 1978, p. 73

[13] Marina Warner explains in great detail how, over the centuries, theologians and churchmen debated and expanded on Mary’s necessary virginity to prove the Christ’ non-pollution from human nature and to allow for her divinity-like status. Warner, Marina, Ibid

[14] de Jong, Albert, “Purification in absentia: On the Development of Zoroastrian Ritual Practice” in Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, Jan Assmann and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds., Brill, 1999, 315

[15] Douglas, Mary, “Dirt: Purity and Danger”, in Readings in Ritual Studies, Ronald L. Grimes, ed., Prentice Hall, 1996, p. 162

Sources:

– Assmann, Jan, “Confession in Ancient Egypt”, in Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, Jan Assmann and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds., Brill, 1999

– de Jong, Albert, “Purification in absentia: On the Development of Zoroastrian Ritual Practice” in Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, Jan Assmann and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds., Brill, 1999

– Douglas, Mary, “Dirt: Purity and Danger”, in Readings in Ritual Studies, Ronald L. Grimes, ed., Prentice Hall, 1996

– Ebrey, Patricia, Confucianism and family Rituals in Imperial China, Princeton ,1991

– Greenberg, Moshe, “Salvation of the Impenitent ad majorem dei gloriam: Ezek 36:16-32”, in Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, Jan Assmann and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds., Brill, 1999

– Katz, Paul, “The Festival of Marshal Wen in Wenchow and Hangchow”, in Demon Hordes and Burning Boats: the Cult of Marshal Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang, SUNY Press, 1995

– Maccoby, Hyam, Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and its Place in Judaism, Cambridge University Press, 1999

– Malinowski, Bronislaw, “The Role of Magic and Religion” in William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, eds., Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, NY: Harper & Row, 1979 (4th ed.)

Father, Son and Holy War, India, 1995, Dir: Anand Patwardhan

– Stolz, Fritz, “Dimensions and Transformations of Purification Ideas”, in Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, Jan Assmann and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds., Brill, 1999

– Turnbull, M. Colin, The Human Cycle, Simon and Schuster/New York, 1983

– Warner, Marina, All alone of her sex, Pocket Books, 1978

– Winzeler, Robert L, Anthropology and religion: What We Know, Think, and Question, Lanham: Altamira Press, 2008

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