It seems like one of the absolute hardest things about Hellenismos to truly understand for new (and experienced) practitioners is miasma. As I have said many times before: 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 ancient Hellenes washed their hands as a precaution before ritual and then attended rites every single day.

After a lot of research into the workings of miasma, I have come to the conclusion that true, practice stopping, 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.

Many people seem to read and consider this valid but find the translation into their own lives and hard to make. So I am going to give you a rule of thumb that you can go by in whatever situation you find yourself concerned about practicing because of miasma. The rule of thumb is as follows:

“If you were practicing in a large group of people, would either they or you be distracted by your perceived source of miasma to the point where practicing with full concentration becomes impossible?”

If the answer is ‘no’, you’re most likely not miasmic. If they answer is ‘yes’, you might be. And by ‘distracted’ I don’t mean a glance and move on, I mean the full on high school awkward hushed whispers, secret glances, moving away from you, paying more attention to you than the rite treatment. I mean distraction to the point where you would be very uncomfortable attending. If whatever you think is miasmic would cause that feeling, then don’t do ritual.

Some ancient examples that you will see hold true to this day. Picture the scene: a large temple square, a lit sacred fire, oxen moo in the distance, ready to be slaughtered and then a person comes into the square who has/has committed this:

- murder: naturally everyone who knows becomes uncomfortable—you wouldn’t feel safe, you would want to get away. This fear is miasma.
- given birth very recently: the first few days after giving birth, every mom looks run over by a donkey cart. It’s a reminder that the baby might still die (newborns often did in ancient Hellas). On the other hand, everyone would want to congratulate the new mom and see/touch the baby. This fear as well as the joy is miasma. Both distract from the ritual at hand.
- a close relation that has passed: everyone is aware they are grieving. They probably haven’t seen them yet and want to console them. This sympathy is miasma.
- just had sex: unless they were really loud in the next alleyway or are wearing stained and crumpled clothing, no one would know and as such, sex is not miasmic. But the lovers would know. And they might be more interested in enjoying the afterglow together than attending the ritual. This personal distraction means they are miasmic and they might cause distraction (miasma) for others by giggling, touching and generally being in their own private world.
- a (mental) illness that is currently actively present: being sick is not miasmic. Coughing all over the place, ranting about being Zeus or having recently tried to (publicly) commit suicide are. Now, a broken leg that everyone knows about is not miasmic, a chronic illness that everyone knows about is not miasmic, even a mental illness that everyone knows about is not miasmic—unless they manifest in a way that causes the high school reaction described above. Someone in a deep depression or a psychosis might find it hard to impossible to experience the rites, for example. I mean absolutely no disrespect to anyone struggling with a chronic illness or who is struggling psychologically when I write this. This is why I say miasma is human, it holds no judgement and it is part of daily life: it happens. It could happen to anyone.
- their period: cis ladies only, of course, but because of the men. Men in ancient Hellas were scared of women. They considered them wild and unpredictable and the whole ‘should-not-leave-the-house’-thing was a direct attempt to ‘tame’ women and make sure they did not run off with their kids. Nothing screams ‘wild’ and ‘dangerous’ more than someone who once a month loses the inner linings of their uterus during a bloody, messy, smelly week long (on average) affair that causes her great discomfort. Men in ancient Hellas (and, admit it, modern culture) were scared absolutely shitless by a woman’s menstrual cycle. So if anyone knew a woman was on her period and she attended ritual, there was no way they would be able to keep their attention on the rite. None. Today, it’s easy to make sure no one knows a woman is on her period and the act as such is not miasmic anymore, but the discomfort of the whole affair might be a distraction to the women themselves and as such, they can be miasmic for themselves and a distraction to others.

I could go on and on and on with examples, but I think the gist of it should be clear now: does whatever it is put the attention on you instead of the Gods? Miasmic. Does it distract you to the point where you can’t fully participate? Miasmic. Doesn’t it do either? Not miasmic. Wash your hands, maybe wash your face, get in the spirit of things and enjoy.

In the cases where a person was/is miasmic to the point where they should not be participating in the rite, there were two things that could be done and it depended greatly upon the circumstances. For anything but committing murder (or any other type of crime, I suspect), time is the healer. Sit this rite out, wait a week, re-evaluate.

A new mother was considered miasmic for ten days, by that time the baby would probably live and her wounds would have recovered to the point of being able to function again. Everyone will have seen the baby. Life has returned to normal. The miasma on grief over a close family member like a mother, son, or grandparent was considered to lift in a month. A woman’s period passes. Illnesses can be treated or will go in remission/become manageable. People will get used to chronic illnesses. Just give it time. And when the person whose waiting period was up got ready to practice again, a thorough cleansing by means of a bath and a small ceremony was held privately prior to it, I suspect mostly for the person themselves, to get in the right mindset again.

Murder and crime, by the way, had specialized midnight rites which cleansed the person of their act. Truthfully, I think it was more helpful to the public when the person’d had their day in court and I suspect the cleansing rite took place after the trial and punishment were over, just like with all other instances of miasma. It closed a chapter and put everyone at ease.

Miasma is not a bad thing, it is a human thing. We live, things happen, we move on. Miasma is not something that should stop you from practicing. What is does is ask of you to be mindful of when you should and should not be practicing. Practice when you are your best, when you can practice arête: the act of living up to one's full potential. Practice when you can give full attention to the rites despite of your distractions. What matters is that you practice, because the Theoi want you to. Stop only when you feel what you can give is not up to par to the Gods. Only then. Those instances are very, very rare and you will know it when they happen.