Between the two halves of a dog

Mary Lefkowitz

  • Miasma by Robert Parker
    Oxford, 413 pp, £30.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 814835 6

The ancient Greeks, for all the changes that the industrial age has brought, would have been quick to understand what we now mean by pollution. The oil slick on the white sand beach, the exhaust fumes in the atmosphere, even the soot on the window-sill, are not simply forms of dirt that can by some means be cleansed away: in each case the offending substance indicates that there has been a displacement, that something which belongs to one sphere has entered or even invaded another. Practical measures must be taken to counter the immediate problems caused by the invasion, then legal or political action to prevent its recurrence. Moral issues are inevitably raised as well: to what extent should human comfort and convenience be allowed to injure the natural world? Pollution in ancient Greece could be brought to all imaginable environments by supernatural as well as man-made agents: and its consequences were at once tangible and ethical, political and religious.

Not surprisingly, references to pollution in the Greek world come from a wide variety of sources. Some deal explicitly with pollution, like the so-called Cyrene Cathartic Law, which prescribes what men and women must respectively do in order to enter the sanctuaries of Apollo and of Artemis in a state of purity. Sexual intercourse under certain circumstances pollutes, as in Leviticus. For a woman, the critical times appear to be the moments of transition, just before marriage and in the late stages of pregnancy. Sexual intercourse at these times, even with one’s fiancé or husband, pollutes, and to ensure purity, a special dormitory was provided for the women in the sanctuary of Artemis. Childbirth and all its complications pollute, not just the woman but her whole household. For a man, intercourse by day causes pollution but not by night; so does death and trespassing in a sacred sanctuary.

Both men and women can be cleansed, by sacrifice, according to certain specifications, and by lustration with blood and finally by financial contribution to the god or goddess. The relative ease with which purity can in every case be regained, at least if the directions are followed, suggests that in the ordinary crises of life ‘pollution’ connoted little more than a temporary setting apart, like donning mourning clothes. The English cognate of the Greek miasma, which we regularly translate as ‘pollution’, is mole, which connotes only a blemish.

In cases where an unnatural transition or invasion occurs, such as murder, pollution becomes proportionately more dangerous. But here the evidence, just when we would wish it to be specific, derives, not from legislation, but from ex parte speeches in drama or trials, which tend to describe the consequences of the pollution in exaggerated terms. These more serious pollutions appear to be contagious, like the plague that Apollo visits on animals and men at the beginning of the Iliad, or the one that attacks the people and land of Thebes in the opening of the Oedipus Tyrannus, both of which are immediately understood to have resulted from serious wrongdoing, so that both civil and religious sanctions must be imposed before relief is granted. In such cases pollution serves as a ‘bridge’ to the resolution of the problem, sometimes in ways that clearly separate the needs of state and religion, at other times in ways that conveniently combine them both, as in the use of exile to remove offensive persons, who might be either unwanted beggars, or prominent men like Oedipus, and perhaps even Socrates.

The ‘contagion’ brought by pollution, even when it comes in the form of disease, has little in common with the modern notion of infection, which derives the cause of disease from amoral physical entities. The Greeks of course had no knowledge of germs: even the most sophisticated medical practitioners supposed that disease was caused by an excess of some substance inherent in the body or an invasion of one part of the anatomy by another. Purgations (katharmoi) could restore health to the mind or body: but the term might also designate the effect on the participants of the orgiastic singing and dancing of Dionysiac ritual. Presumably Katharsis could denote any release from excessive anxiety or tension, such as that brought on by the performance of tragic drama in the festival of Dionysus, as if tensions could be removed from the Athenian citizens gathered in the theatre in much the same way as katharmata, ‘offscourings’, in certain purification rites could be thrown outside the sanctuary of the god.

Robert Parker is the first scholar to have considered all these different aspects of pollution, and to show how they relate to one another, and he does so without trying to impose on them a conceptual framework that would give priority either to the physical or to the religious aspects of Greek notions of pollution. Whenever possible, he compares what the Greeks did with practices in other cultures, but he never pushes analogies too far, and avoids applying foreign terms to describe Greek practices. As a result, his book is not as easy to read as the general anthropological studies that first present a theory and then discuss the evidence in terms of it. Parker often refers to such work, but he realises that ultimately the Greeks are best understood on their own terms. Anyone who seriously wishes to know about Greek ethics and culture will need to refer to this book, and anthropologists who study other cultures will find it a comprehensive and reliable resource.

Parker’s findings confirm that over the centuries there was very little change in beliefs about pollution. Odysseus’s last ship was destroyed and his men drowned because despite clear warnings from the gods they ate the cattle of the Sun: at the end of the fifth century the orator Antiphon argued that his client could not have been guilty of murder because the ship that he was travelling in did not sink, and no problems were encountered in any of the sacrifices he attended. It is tempting as well as comforting to believe that Greek religion became increasingly sophisticated until it could readily be absorbed within Christianity, that Antiphon did not expect his audience seriously to believe what he was saying. But that audience may well have included Athenian citizens who were convinced that the city was endangered because the Eleusinian mysteries had been profaned by a drunken mob, and the herms (the ithyphallic pillars that guarded the entry to houses) had been mutilated.

For some time most scholars accepted E.R. Dodds’s hypothesis that the more primitive ‘shame’ culture of the Homeric heroes was replaced in the fifth century by a ‘guilt’ culture which laid the moral responsibility directly on man rather than on the gods or other supernatural agents. Parker reminds us that the notions of internal and external responsibility co-existed all along, but were expressed differently in epic and in tragedy because of the nature of those genres. The Greeks, certainly as Parker describes them, rarely offered a single explanation for any moral dilemma: just as god and man could be responsible at the same time for any action, physical and legal measures were both necessary to get rid of pollution. Nor did they shrink from confronting directly the ethical problems raised by the conflicting demands of established custom.

In the Antigone, Creon is acting in accordance with standard practice when he insists that the body of the enemy general Polynices be left unburied, but at the same time he incurs the wrath of the gods because Polynices is also his nephew, and ties of blood come first; nor does he escape guilt when he argues that the city will escape pollution if Antigone, because she is his niece, is left to starve instead of being stoned to death. Carrion birds drop pieces of Polynices’s rotting corpse on the altars, and Creon’s whole family is destroyed because he does not consider the complexity of the moral issues the war has raised. Similarly, Althaea, the mother of the hero Meleager, is ranked with the exemplary worst women, like Clytemnestra, because she brings about her son’s death in order to avenge her brothers, whom Meleager killed in battle: Althaea should have taken into account that killing in war does not incur pollution.

Had Greek priests ever co-operated to collect sacred documents and compile religious legislation into a common bible with a book such as Leviticus, they would have left a more coherent, though probably less rigid accoum of the distinctions between the sacred, profane and unclean. The Greeks appear to consider women to be no more liable to cause pollution than men: menstruation, for example, is not a specially marked condition. Parker finds its omission from the ‘danger list’ surprising, since lochial bleeding does seem to be included.

Perhaps the difference in attitude is to be accounted for by the strange belief, expressed by Aristotle and by medical writers in the fourth century and after, that menstrual blood was identical with what is now known as amniotic fluid, which was regarded by them as the female equivalent of male semen, and thus a sustaining substance as well as a form of Katharsis, always present in the body and therefore not so remarkable as the sudden presence of ordinary blood. On the other hand, they used human beings and not goats to remove pollution from the city, and in some cases used blood rather than water to cleanse off blood pollution – a practice which at least one famous Greek philosopher regarded as self-contradictory.

Even in the fourth century Macedonian armies were purified by marching between the two halves of a dog, whose severed body was thought to have created an absorptive zone. The Greeks preserved a strict sense of the sanctity of place, holding murder trials in the open air so that the victim’s relatives and the murderer would not be under the same roof; and an exiled murderer being tried for a subsequent crime was required to plead his case from a boat while the judges sat on the shore. Only certain sects, such as the Pythagoreans, observed any permanent restrictions on their diet. Red mullet, now regarded as a delicacy (barbounia), was proscribed by the Orphics, perhaps because it was blood-coloured.

A long appendix on ‘The Exile and Purification of the Killer in Greek Myth’ provides a grim reminder of how little of Greek literature can properly be understood without a knowledge of pollution and the rituals involved with it. Orestes in Aeschylus’s Eumenides must be purified by being washed with pig’s blood, as well as with the blood of other sacrificial animals and with water, before he can even stand trial and be cleansed legally as well as emotionally from the pollution of his mother’s murder. His mother’s curses are represented by the Furies, who appear to be embodiments of many of the transitional creatures and states that incur pollution: they are ‘dogs’ with snakes entwined in their hair; their breath is foul, their eyes ooze; they are ‘old grey girls’; standing on both thresholds of female development. At first it is only Orestes who sees them, but later they become visible to other characters in the drama and to the audience; in Euripides’s Orestes, a play performed half a century later, Orestes sees the Furies only in fits of madness, and they are invisible to everyone else. But the internalisation does not signify an ‘advance’ in Greek rationalism – it is simply another way of saying the same thing. Far more significant is the notion, first expressed in the Orestes and in Euripides’s Heracles but also in Sophocles’s last drama Oedipus at Colonus, that pollution can be overcome by friendship. At least in these cases of involuntary murder, the gods – remote and indiscriminate though they may sometimes seem – appear to care for the men whom they have involved in the most dreadful of pollutions, the shedding of the blood of their own parents and children.