In a roundabout way, I was asked about sexual abstinence of priests prior to ritual yesterday. As the end of my scholastic career has finally come, I feel inspirationally somewhat deflated, so at this point, I will accept any excuse to borrow someone else's writing subject. If you have any questions about ancient Hellas, Hellenic religion, or mythology--or anything else I cover on this blog--I'd be eternally grateful at this point. Back to the question at hand, though: abstinence. I have tried to find some information on it, but it is sparse. As with my post on the packages of ancient Hellenic statues, there will be lots of euphemisms in this post to prevent my blog from showing up on specific searches by Google.

Honestly, I don't think I have ever come across scholarly work demanding abstinence before ritual. Mikalson in 'Ancient Greek Religion' does mention that intercourse led to 'pollution' (miasma) and that a bath was required before entering a temple after intercourse as a form of katharmos. He, however, does not give a source, and I don't know one either. It is a reoccurring idea, though, mostly centered on the male's excretions during the activity. The Hellenic religious organization 'Labrys' echoes the sentiment, but also without sourcing. Miasma would be one of two reasons I can think of that would support abstinence in a religious setting; power and strength would be the other.

It was common knowledge in ancient Hellas that a male's seed was a source of power for them. In a true 'save it for the game' type of deal, ancient Hellenic athletes were encouraged to abstain before a contest: in this way, they had an extra reserve of (male) power. How this would help them in ritual, I do not know, so I think abstaining for power or strength in ritual would be somewhat counterproductive to the worship part of the rite. That said, 'power' can refer to mean mental strength; in the Symposium, Plato evaluates abstinence as a means to access truth and practice self-control.

Celibacy--a far more extreme form of abstinence--was rarely practiced; that we do know. Priests and priestesses of celibate Theoi would sometimes practice it for the duration of their term, and some even beyond that, but in general, it wasn't a religious requirement, and it wasn't looked upon kindly, even in mythology. As an example, Hippolytos famously forswore his sexuality for the sake of extreme religious devotion to Artemis. When Hippolytos’ step-mother, Phaedra, falls desperately in love with him, he rejects her. Phaedra kills herself in revenge, and accuses Hippolytos of rape in a suicide note. Theseus, the boy's father, reads the note and calls to the Theoi to bring death u;on his son, who is swiftly killed. The playwright Euripides famously brought this story to the stage in his tragedy Hippolytus, which explores this question of suppressing sexual desire in order to access a higher religious objective--namely that his extreme piety is arrogant, as sexual desire and love are gifts from other Theoi.

Total male abstinence is problematic since it paradoxically exemplifies self-control while opposing the Hellenic ideal of moderation. Although elements of sexual restraint are virtuous in certain contexts, permanent abstinence was considered both unnatural and dangerous. From everything I have read, it seems women were even less capable of abstaining, and it was considered especially dangerous to allow women to do so as their wild and primal nature would emerge. Interestingly enough, when women were required religiously to abstain, it was during festivals of Demeter and Persephone. I suspect that this was in large part due to a fertility element linked to the festivals, but I can not help link a certain sense of wildness to the practice as well, especially because these festivals were largely women-only.

Hippocratic writings on health from the fifth century BC address the virtues of self-control and the dangers of being oversexed or undersexed. Hippocrates speaks of 'undersexed women' in (I believe) 'Nature of the Child' or 'The Seed', meaning virgins and celibates, and describes that they display signs of lethargy, numbness, and madness, ascribed to 'a build up of fluid due to a lack of sexual intercourse'. Marriage and the sexual intercourse that surely follows is seen as the ideal cure for such symptoms. For men also, abstinence was seen as unhealthy.  At the other end of the spectrum, excessive sexual activity was considered unhealthy and dangerous. In 'The Seed' sperm is identified to be the most potent and vital part of the body, since 'the body is significantly weakened by its loss'.

It seems that  abstinence was tolerated as a temporary practice, notably during athletic competitions and festivals, but not encouraged as a permanent state of being. The philosophers, specifically Orphics and Pythagoreans, promoted abstinence of meat and sex, but their ideas were on the fringes of Hellenic society, and did not reflect more widely accepted ideas. It is important to note that even they only encouraged male abstinence.

So, do I feel abstaining is necessary for Hellenistic rites? No, unless there is documented evidence that the ancient Hellenes did it for that specific festival. If you do have sexual relations before a rite, take a bath or shower. Present yourself clean and free of miasma. The ancient Hellenes had a very healthy view of sex, and saw the desire for it as completely healthy and divinely inspired. I'm  big proponent of viewing sex in a likewise manner.