I was requested to write a sort of 'khernips masterpost', so here we are. Because the concept of khernips is so linked to ritual purification--because khernips is the method through which we become ritually clean--we will also discuss the practice of katharmos and the notion of ritual pollution: miasma.

Within Hellenic practice, miasma describes the lingering aura of uncleanliness in regards to a person or space through which contact is made with the Gods. Miasma occurs whenever the space or person comes into contact with death, sickness, birth, sex, excessive negative emotions and bodily fluids. It also comes from a lack of contact with the Hellenic Gods. Not the actual acts of dying, sex and birth cause miasma but the opening up of the way to the Underworld (with births and deaths) as well as contact with sweat, blood, semen, menstrual blood and urine pollutes us. Miasma is an incredibly complicated and involved practice and it's often misunderstood. The most important things to remember about miasma is that it holds no judgment from the Gods, and that everyone attracts miasma. It's a mortal, human, thing.

The practice of purification is called katharmos (Καθαρμός). The process of katharmos is elaborate because the process not only involves the physical but also the emotional, mental and spiritual. In modern practice, it usually starts with a shower, but this is not a historic necessity. Step two is the preparation and use of khernips. Beyond the practical, there is a large mental component to katharmos. It means leaving behind negativity, worry, pain and trouble before getting in contact with the Gods.

The greatest barrier in understanding miasma and katharmos, to me, is our modern frame of mind. On the one hand, we know too much about personal hygiene, about the human body and about science as a whole, on the other hand religion has become something separate from life in general. As a result, we colour ancient Hellas with our 'hygiene brush'. Secondly, not everyone has faith, our society does no longer revolve around it, and as a result, we--as modern religious people--struggle for a mindset of simple, all-encompassing, unquestionable worship. There might be a few remnants of 'Original Sin Thinking' lodged in there as well.

After a lot of research into the workings of miasma, I have come to the conclusion that miasma is linked to distraction. Anything that takes your mind off of the Gods during ritual can be considered miasmic. For example, the ancient Hellenes agreed that murder causes miasma (when not committed as part of a war, soldiers were not tainted with miasma for killing their enemies), but only once other people became aware of the fact that you had committed an act of murder. As such, if you were exiled and you travelled to another town where no one knew what you had done, in essence, you were not miamic to the rites and people around you.

We all incur miasma, every single day of our lives. It has nothing to do with sin, shame or guilt. Miasma is a consequence of living. We breath, make decisions, come in contact with others, and along the way, we become too human--for lack of a better term--to petition the Gods. The divide between the purity and cleanliness of the Theoi and our human mortality and imperfection keeps us away from Them. Miasma is not about being physically dirty, although that is a part of it, and katharmos is not about becoming physically clean, although that is a part of it as well. Katharmos is devotional. It not only helps you get in a ritualistic mood, it prepares the room and your body for it. Even if you do not understand the use, it's a vital part of Hellenistic worship.

Khernips are the traditional way to cleanse yourself from miasma. As far as basic information goes,
khernips is created by dropping smoldering incense or herb leaves into water. When throwing in the lit item, one can utter ‘xerniptosai’ (pronounced 'zer-nip-TOS-aye-ee') which translates as ‘be purified’. Both hands are washed with khernips and you can wash the face as well. The vessel holding the khernips is called a khernibeionas (Χερνῐβεῖον).

Artwork has taught us that khernips was often applied just outside the temenos, with hands being washed in a bowl or water poured out of a jug while the supplicant washed their hands. The water was collected from a moving source of water, which could be a natural spring, a river, or even the sea. Moving water was considered sacred, and often viewed as an extension of the body of a stream/river/sea God(dess). For my video tutorial on how to prepare and apply khernips, go here.

As with anything concerning miasma, most books on ancient Hellas and/or Hellenic religion don't mention khernips at all, or under a synonym. As with miasma, I am going to assume this is because the evidence of its existance is so flimsy besides a resounding 'it was used and important'. My rather vast collection of scholarly material is silent on any details beyond the basic information already provided. As such, I am forced to speculate based upon what I know.

Personally, I tend to mix tap water with sea water into a large vessel from which I take a measure every evening to use throughout the day. I drop the smoldering firebrand (a match when traveling, a bit of burning wood or herbs when home) into the measure poured our, not the vessel itself. So, in short, I prepare the base in advance but the actual mixture on the spot. I only use one measure one day, after that, I dip it out onto the earth and replace it with a fresh batch before my evening rituals.

Khernips is important, and it's important they are properly prepared, but in the large scheme of things, I feel it's more important you actually perform the ritualistic motions without a specific part of it than skipping it altogether. So, no, you can't make khernips without dropping something smouldering in, but that doesn't mean you can't wash before ritual and improvise a little. Drop herbs into the water and wash with that, drop essential oils in it, if you don't have herbs. Find something to make the water special, and then use it to cleanse yourself. Just go through the motions and focus on the rites ahead. That is its function and it should be used as such.