This essay is written in response to a graduate seminar held in January 2003 in New College, Oxford. Graduates from Princeton and Oxford took part and made

НазваThis essay is written in response to a graduate seminar held in January 2003 in New College, Oxford. Graduates from Princeton and Oxford took part and made
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Purity and Pollution

This essay is written in response to a graduate seminar held in January 2003 in New College, Oxford. Graduates from Princeton and Oxford took part and made presentations on issues of purity in various societies of the ancient Mediterranean, covering Jewish, Greek, Roman, Celtic and Christian evidence. Debate was lively, and the discussion regularly brought up basic issues of definition, while evidence from different fields illuminated the assumptions held in others. This essay draws on those discussions and tries to explore further some of the points raised. The subject is vast, and this response is necessarily limited and personal, but I hope it will give an idea of the possibilities that such a colloquium of ideas presents for the study of purity and pollution in the various areas represented.

In order to provoke responses from other participants of the graduate seminar, I am releasing this paper in draft form on the internet. The collection of these responses, it is to be hoped, will help paint a representative picture of what was achieved at the seminar, and I would like to draw on any criticisms or suggestions as I write up the paper into a final version.


‘I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.’ In the 1964 film Dr Strangelove General Ripper thus justifies his decision to provoke an apocalyptic nuclear attack designed to eliminate the communist danger. His fear is that the fluoridation of the US water supply is a Soviet plot to attack the ‘the purity and essence of our natural fluids’. Ripper illustrates the points I wish to make in this essay, which looks at ideas of purity in some of the religious systems of the ancient Mediterranean.

Ideas of purity tend to systematise. By interpreting the fluoridation of water in terms of purity and pollution, Ripper realises the evil purposes involved and is thus able to fit it into his view of the world, which consists of a battle between the cosmic good of his own country and communist evil. Furthermore, the logical step made by Ripper, that impurity in water damages the pure ‘essences’ of the body, is only possible within a purity system, in the absence of scientific evidence to demonstrate what the process really is. Mary Douglas was the first to bring this insight to bear in the studies of ancient religion, and in particular ancient Judaism. In Purity and Danger, published two years after Dr Strangelove, she brings structuralism to bear on the study of purity, arguing that since purity and pollution is expressed through symbolic language it only has meaning within structural systems; she ambitiously identifies such systems with the cosmological world views of the societies she studies.1

Purity language also interprets. In Ripper’s case, fluoride is literal impurity, an extraneous addition to water; but he is saying much more than that. Impurity implies an inherent wrong or evil. The fluoridation of water is still a matter of vigorous debate in the US today, and purity language is used abundantly by the side opposing it.2 Their main argument is not that an addition of a chemical to water (that is, a literal ‘impurity’) is harmful per se, but that the addition of fluorides happens to be dangerous, as numerous tests demonstrate. However, purity language adds much emotive force to this argument. A purity system is rarely independent, and in this case, as is very common in the modern western society, it is linked to systems of scientific investigation and hygiene. It is not reducible to another system, however. The dietary prohibitions of Leviticus 11 are not random, for example, but it would be mistaken either to reduce them merely to an ancient hygiene system (with a superficial overlay of purity language), or to expect them to be fully explicable in terms of a purity system completely independent of other social systems in place around the composition of the book of Leviticus.

The concepts of purity and pollution are extremely hard to define. Because of their interpretative quality they cannot be encompassed by a strictly literal definition (pollution is the addition of mineral salts to pure water, H2O, for example). We can develop definitions based on structural relations, but it is hard to stand back from the structural system; thus, for example, purity can be defined as the absence of pollution, and pollution as the destroyer of purity, but to go further is an altogether harder step. Nonetheless, purity systems are generally easy to spot, because of the complex of ideas used to express them. General Ripper fears that the impurity of water is sapping the essences of the human body and thus threatening sexual potency; all this is engineered by an alien enemy, Russia, who must be wiped out by the fire of nuclear holocaust; in this way salvation will be brought to the United States, the true Christian nation. In this we see the prominence of water and fire, the integrity of the human body, the centrality of right sexual action, the threat of the outsider, and links to salvation and religious orthodoxy. None of these elements in itself necessarily implies a purity system, and none can help to provide a firm definition for purity and pollution. In combination, however, they do help us to recognise purity systems in varied societies, and the similarities between the purity systems of different groups are often surprising. However, ease of recognition should not lure us into the confidence of believing that we fully understand purity systems. More will be said on the definitions of purity and pollution below.


Judaism is widely renowned for its interest in issues of purity, an interest which stems from the Hebrew Bible. Students of the Hebrew Bible regularly make a distinction between ‘ritual’ purity (which is a primary concern of texts in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and purity linked to moral issues such as idolatry, sexual mores and intentional bloodshed; this latter class is often regarded as secondary (the term ‘metaphorical’ is regularly used) and it can be found throughout the Hebrew scriptures, being particularly prominent in the three books already mentioned and in many of the prophets.

Ritual purity belongs to a system which is deceptively simple at first glance. Israelites become impure (tameh) as the result of various natural processes, with the result that they can no longer enter the Temple or have contact with activities or objects pertaining to the Temple; prescribed processes of purification leave the Israelite pure (tahor), at which point access to the Temple is allowed. This impurity is contagious, under prescribed conditions. More detailed analysis adds to this simple system considerable complexity. For example, it is not simply humans that become unclean. A house affected by mildew, or objects touched by unclean humans can become unclean, and in this case the question is not of access to the Temple but of the ability to transfer impurity to humans in turn.3 Clothing contaminated with mildew is still more interesting, since nothing is said about its contagious qualities.4 A more significant problem is raised by the question of purification. One effective process is washing and waiting (for example, a man touched by a man with a discharge must bathe and will remain unclean until evening).5 However, for many types of uncleanness this is insufficient and sacrifice must be brought. The regular combination is ‘burnt offering’ (‘olah) and ‘sin offering’ (ḥatta‘), the same combination as is used on Yom Kippur. According to Lev 4-5 the ḥatta‘ is used to make atonement (kpr) following unintentional sin, but when an unclean individual brings a such an offering, the priest will ‘make atonement for him and he will be clean’.6 The work of Jacob Milgrom has allowed us to understand the ḥatta‘ as a purification offering, a result obtained by examining the biblical texts internally and by using Near Eastern parallels.7 This certainly helps us to understand the place of the ḥatta‘ in purification rituals, but it greatly complicates our paradigm of pentateuchal purity. What is the difference between the purification made for a man who has not spoken up when it is incumbent to testify (Lev 5.1) and that of a woman following childbirth? From both a ḥatta‘ is required. We seem to be dealing with two separate systems of purity and pollution: transgressive ḥt‘ requires restitutive kpr, while transgressive tm‘ requires restitutive thr; the two systems overlap in our texts in such a way that they are now inextricable. Thus a man with an infectious skin disease is at first excluded from the camp, and must shave and bathe before entering again. He must wait a further seven days and bathe again, ‘and he will be clean’ (Lev 14.9). Only then will he bring a burnt offering, a guilt offering and a ḥatta‘; the priest will slaughter these victims for the man, to make atonement, ‘and he will be clean (thr)’ (14.20). The man is excluded from the camp and from the sanctuary by his pollution, but to overcome this he need only bathe, shave and wait (assuming that his illness recedes). However, this is not enough, and the offerings must be brought (and the fact that he can bring them to the priest at all shows that he has been cleansed, and least in one respect). One might suppose that the sacrifices refer to a completely different system of purification from that which requires washing, were it not for the fact that their prescription stems from one and the same cause (the skin condition), and that the language of the washing system (thr) is retained, even though this language is not used in the introductory passages on these offerings in chapters 1-6. A moral dimension is present in discourse surrounding ḥt‘ and kpr, seen most clearly in the description of the Day of Atonement. Hence Milgrom’s idea that it is the altar which needs to be purified (ḥt‘ in the piel) from the sins of the Israelites. If this does explain the origin of the system, a passage such as Lev 14.33-57, on the house infected with mildew, demonstrates that the original systems had lost their integrity and mixed with each other, since here the house itself, which has the power to make those within it impure (Lev 14.46-7), must be ‘cleansed’ (ḥt‘ in the piel) in the same way as the altar is consecrated by Moses at Lev 8.15.

The anomaly of the dietary prescriptions has long been evident. Here the terms tame‘ and tahor are applied to animals; the latter may be eaten, when correctly slaughtered, while the former may not. Leviticus 11 initiates the long passage in Leviticus concerning ritual pollution and purification, but despite using the same vocabulary it is striking that the pure and unclean animals of Lev 11 are divorced from the pure and unclean people and objects of the following four chapters. Unclean animals do not convey uncleanness to people who come into contact with them, and if they are consumed no purification ritual is prescribed; instead the Israelites are simply commanded not to eat them.8 It is clear that the ‘pure’ animals allowed for food include those quadrupeds which may be brought into the Temple for sacrifice, but this explanation is inadequate. Some pure animals are not brought for sacrifice, while prohibited sea and air creatures are not called unclean but ‘abominable’ (permitted birds and fishes are unclassified here). By contrast, Deuteronomy 14 calls prohibited birds and sea creatures ‘unclean’ and their permitted brethren ‘clean’. Commentators seem to regard Deuteronomy as mistaken in using purity categories outside the field of land animals, but whatever the prehistory of these texts (which may be irrecoverable), the texts as we have them show the existence of a purity system which has lost its integrity (thus the contradictions between Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and has blended with another purity system (thus the coincidence in vocabulary with issues of access to the Temple).

A further purity system identified as running through Hebrew Scripture (and subsequent Jewish literature) is ‘moral’ purity. While many have labelled this use of purity language (tame‘ and tahor) as metaphorical and thus dismissed it, Jonathan Klawans in particular has championed this discourse as presenting a purity system in its own right.9 Within this system impurity is incurred by the sins of the Israelites and contracted by themselves, the land of Israel and by the sanctuary; the sins involved are idolatry, sexual transgression and murder, and there is no purification prescribed; the effects are permanent and may result in the punishment or destruction of the nation.10 He argues vigorously against the idea that moral impurity is a metaphor, on the grounds that both ritual and moral impurity are ‘figurative’, so that ritual impurity cannot provide a ‘literal’ basis for metaphorical usage; and furthermore it is unclear in terms of the textual tradition which usage has chronological priority.11 However, he does admit that the ritual purity discourse is sometimes used metaphorically to express moral points. These are instances where this conclusion cannot be avoided, but Klawans fails to demonstrate how they are to be distinguished from his discrete category of moral purity. He cites Hosea 5.3 as a particularly early usage of moral purity language: ‘Behold, you have fornicated, O Ephraim; / Israel has defiled himself!’; but it seems forced to see the defilement as non-metaphorical when it is parallel to such an evidently (and conventionally) metaphorical use of fornication (znh) for the same serious transgression. It is surely significant, too, that while ritual purity is certainly sometimes used as a metaphor for moral behaviour, the language of moral purity is never used as a metaphor for ritual behaviour.

The problem with Klawans’ reading of the texts is that although he has demonstrated a structured symbolic system, it is not one that requires the interpretative framework of purity language to make sense – the purity language is merely used to express the system more forcefully. This can be easily seen in the texts themselves. Lev 18.24-28 is a key expression of Klawans’ system of moral purity; in it Yahweh explains how the previous inhabitants of the Land defiled themselves and the Land by the detestable practices just enumerated, with the result that the Land was punished and vomited out its inhabitants; the same is threatened to the Israelites.12 Lev 20.22-3 expresses essentially the same thing (though here the expulsion of the inhabitants is in the future), and ritual purity language is not used at all.13 The system identified by Klawans is that of God’s punishment for rebellion against his law, and purity language is sometimes used in particularly emotive passages to express the seriousness of certain offences. While in the ritual purity system the discourse interprets situations, explaining how a condition is contagious, and making allowance for purification, in the Bible’s moral discourse purity language has no such explanatory power. One might argue that its restriction to certain particularly serious transgressions interprets them as being set apart from other transgressions in a qualitative sense, but it is not at all clear that any Biblical texts are doing this. In fact, the Israelites can pollute themselves with mediums and spiritists (Lev 19.31), and although Klawans treats this as a type of idolatry, it is nothing of the sort, at least as far as its consistent treatment in the Bible is concerned, and it thus muddies Klawans’ neat categorisation.

Despite these misgivings, Klawans’ book is excellent in that it examines in detail the history of purity language employed in moral discourse, a subject usually ignored because this ‘metaphorical’ usage is not believed to be interesting. His survey of texts up to the talmudic period demonstrates that for many Jewish writers, writing about morality using purity language was of much more interest than discussing ritual purity. The distinction between moral and ritual purity was exploited in the texts, and we find prophets and psalms exposing the hypocrisy of those claiming pure ritual behaviour when their moral behaviour is ‘impure’. This is a theme which can be paralleled in Greek and Latin literature, both of which demonstrate that a perceived distinction between ritual and moral ideas of purity and pollution was of interest and could cause anxiety.14 Just as we can become confused between the two categories of moral and ritual pollution, so could the ancient Jewish groups which produced these texts of the Second Temple and Talmudic periods. Thus idols and gentiles become viewed, at least to some extent, as ritually impure by the time of the Mishnah, even though they are only labelled impure on moral grounds in the Bible. The Dead Sea Scrolls show a complete conflation among the sectarians of the polluting nature of moral misdeeds and of contact with ritually impure objects and people.

Comparison between purity systems in different ancient societies has the potential to help our understanding greatly. The comparative endeavour requires even greater care over definitions of purity and pollution than the examination of a single society, so it is worth dwelling on the subject. Purity language is by its very nature metaphorical and secondary; it represents mental conceptions, and as such it is impossible to achieve a strict materialist definition of purity. Various approaches can be employed. Most influential, perhaps, is that of Mary Douglas, particularly in Purity and Danger (1966); this book, written by an anthropologist applying a wide-ranging comparative methodology, has since its publication been the starting point for studies of the subject in ancient society. Her cognitive approach is much influenced by Durkheim, for she understands a purity system as encapsulating the categories espoused by a society. Transgression of these categories is identified with pollution, which must be rectified. In 1966 she saw purity rules as a means of social control, although in recent years she has lessened the importance of the role of control, especially with regard to the Pentateuch. The power of a purity system to impose its categories on agents is thus to be doubted. Robert Parker makes use of Douglas’ approach to have a fresh look at archaic and classical Greek systems of ritual purity in Miasma, but he also demonstrates that Greek purity systems were varied and flexible, and above all that participation in them was often voluntary.15 The other difficulty is that it is extremely hard to examine ancient religion from a cognitive point of view; the ancients are no longer around to be questioned by inquisitive anthropologists. Either we are left guessing as to the universal categories which lie behind otherwise diverse and unexplained purity rules, or we are dealing with an ancient text in which an attempt is made to discover the system lying behind such rules, an attempt which may be just as arbitrary, if not more so, than our guesses. Such a text is Leviticus, and Douglas’ classic analysis of the dietary regulations in Purity and Danger must arbitrarily chose the account of Leviticus over that of Deuteronomy; both accounts may be individual interpretations, possibly limited to the individual authors rather than to a Durkheimian social consciousness, and this is something that Douglas has recognised in Leviticus as Literature.16 The approach of Purity and Danger only works if one confidently assumes that any given society has essentially a single purity system which reflects that society’s unified world view. The possible variety of purity systems, as I have sought to demonstrate exists in the case of the Hebrew Bible, must undermine any such confidence.

My approach in this essay has been to seek purity in the form of symbolic systems, following Douglas. I have also held that the purity language used to express them must have explanatory value; this is how I differentiate between true purity systems and the secondary use of purity language for expressive (but not explanatory) purposes. It has been clear that such systems do not in practice maintain their integrity from each other, nor from the expressive use of purity language, which is regularly employed in what we like to regard as ‘moral’ discourse. And this lack of integrity can prove a positive stimulus for change and development in purity systems, as new pollutants emerge, perhaps previously a phenomenon morally condemned with purity language, such as idols. But none of this helps us to define purity and pollution. Mary Douglas uses ‘the old definition of dirt as matter out of place’, and she uses this concept of dirt as the basis for constructing ideas of purity and pollution, both religious and secular.17 It serves well her project of demonstrating that purity systems are about maintaining category boundaries. This definition is difficult to apply to the ancient world because it assumes a knowledge of thought patterns which we cannot attain. It is only by assuming that this idea lies behind Leviticus 11 that she can interpret the chapter in light of it, but this must remain an assumption; in Leviticus 11 the statement that clean animals were only those who had cloven feet and were ruminant (Lev 11.3) hints that the purity classification is linked to the maintenance of categories (at least in the eyes of the author), but such a generalising statement is all but unique in the ancient sources.

A further approach is to examine purity vocabulary itself. As modern students this is in fact our first introduction to ancient purity, since we know how to recognise it because its vocabulary has been identified for us by our own native purity vocabulary. Milgrom’s transformation of the ḥatta‘ from the traditional English translation of ‘sin offering’ to ‘purification offering’ demonstrates the dangers of assumptions based on translations which we all must use to begin with. Generally purity language has a scope wider than the discrete purity system in which it is used. Thus ‘purify’ in English has, as its basic meaning, the removal of extraneous additions. The range of thr in Biblical Hebrew is generally limited to symbolic (ritual or moral) purity, but it is also applied to gold, incense and water, presumably with the same sense as ‘pure’ in English.18 In Latin and Greek, purus and katharos can have the same range of meaning. In the same way, the ritual of purification produces areas of overlap between different societies. So washing in water is widespread, as is the use of fire and of blood. In practice, it is these similarities which lead us to identify parallel purity systems in different societies. While there are central areas held in common, other aspects of ritual and vocabulary are divergent. Biblical Hebrew, more than Latin, Greek or English, has a technical vocabulary for purity which is used rarely beyond the context of symbolic purity (or, at least, this is true in the texts we have). If we accept that ht‘ is concerned with purity in its ritual usage, as I am inclined to do, it has no lexical overlap with words associated with purity in English. Furthermore, it belongs, along with kpr, to a purity system distinct from that of tm‘ and thr, despite ritual overlap, and thus any translations which fail to maintain that distinction cannot accurately reflect the original text. This is a problem which ancient translations, the Septuagint and the Vulgate, also failed to overcome.

In Miasma, Parker discusses the lexical problem and its relation to the definition of purity and pollution with regard to Greek religion.19 While miaino and its cognates can easily correspond to ideas of symbolic purity in English and other languages, agos and enagēs, while overlapping in some respects with miasma, are basically linked to the divine vengeance or curse contingent on transgressing divine sanctions. Parker speculates that agos and miasma ‘are perhaps in origin two theoretically distinct forms of communicable religious danger’.20 He then points out the difficulty in deciding whether to include agos within one’s definition of purity. The process of angering a deity through transgression and then performing a prescribed ritual operation to appease that anger is seen, at least in English lexical usage, as wholly distinct from the process of pollution followed by purification. In formal terms the two are similar, however. Parker mentions the apparent theoretical dichotomy between sacrifice and purification, the former designed for appeasement. Purification, however, is often accompanied by sacrifice, in both Greek and Biblical contexts, and it is not clear that sacrifice was ever, in some ideal religious system, merely the preserve of appeasement. Ritual slaughter, after all, need not necessarily entail the gift for a deity; it could be merely a means of procuring blood for purification.

If it is so hard, then, to pin down correspondences in the meaning of words which can identify universal ideas of purity across ancient societies, perhaps a formal approach, analysing ritual behaviour, would be more useful. Again, central correspondences immediately present themselves, as already mentioned, in the use of water for washing and of fire. Greek and Biblical rituals both prescribe blood sacrifice for purification, and in both societies we find the idea of the scapegoat, the individual expelled from the community bearing the community’s impurity, whether ritual or moral, or both.

To see the problems inherent in this approach we turn to Roman society. Lustration is commonly interpreted (and even translated) as a ceremony of purification. A sacrifice and prayers were involved at a lustration, and the victims were led around the object of the lustration before being slaughtered. This occurred most famously, of course, at the (theoretically) quinennial lustrum, when the Censors were supposed to lead the suovetaurilia, the standard lustration victims of sow, sheep and bull, around the assembled Roman citizenry. Other things could be lustrated: fields; the city; the army on campaign; and (according to Appian) the fleet. The ritual here employed has remarkable similarity to Greek rituals when a victim was taken around an area to be purified; this was performed in Athens for the ecclesia and theatre, and the victim was a pig according to one source.21 Greek authors duly recognised lustration as a purification ritual. Dionysius of Halicarnassus is the only Greek author before John Lydus to mention the Lustrum by name, and he explains the sacrifice in detail, using kathar- words three times; he identifies the ceremony as a katharmon, the technical Greek word for a purification ritual.22 However, it seems to me that we must put the Greek identification of lustration as a purity ritual down to its formal similarity to Greek ceremonies of purification; Roman sources give no reason to see the lustrum as a purification, and we should no longer perpetuate the Greek mistake.

The first clue is that the lustration was clearly a ritual of propitiation. One of the earliest accounts of lustration comes from Cato in the second century BC. He describes the proper fashion for a farmer to perform a lustration of his land, using the suovetaurilia, and it is striking that purity language is entirely absent. A long prayer is employed, addressed to Mars (as was also the case at the censorial lustrum), asking for the god’s favour.23 The favour is to be granted in return for the sacrifices; no sense of change in status for the farmland is suggested. There is no mention of water or fire; the servant (named Manius) is merely to lead the victims around the land, thus designating the area to be favoured.

Livy also describes many censorial lustra, and his texts give no hint that purification is involved. Exceptional lustra were decreed in response to particularly evil and numerous omens on various occasions in Rome’s history.24 In some ways it is easy to see these lustra as purificatory, since it is the nature of a Roman prodigy to be a transgressor of categories, usually very physical matter out of place. For Rome more than elsewhere we have to impose this cognitive definition of pollution, however, for there is not a hint in our Latin texts that the omens and the consequent lustrations were viewed in the light of a purity system. The cognitive framework that in fact is displayed is one of propitiation of the gods, in the attempt to avoid the catastrophes which the omens portend. It is not surprising that the Etruscan haruspices should designate ‘nature out of joint’ as the sign of evil portent, and we can certainly see in some texts expressions of disgust in response. But to insist on a definition of purity and pollution which includes such phenomena seems perverse given the abundant Roman evidence, which does demonstrate some awareness of purity and pollution and yet never makes the link with omens and lustra.

This is not to say that lustrum and its cognates are never linked to purification in Latin texts. The verb lustrare means to go around, and such action can be used in rituals of purification. Thus following the funeral of Misenus in the Aeneid, Corynaeus sprinkles his companions with pure water, a ceremony which is indubitably a purification:

‘Idem ter socios pura circumtulit unda,
spargens rore levi et ramo felicis olivae,
lustravitque viros, dixitque novissima verba.’25

Here the primary meaning of lustravit is that Corynaeus circumambulated. Likewise the Lupercalia was a ceremony of purification according to Varro.26 At this festival the Luperci famously ran round some prescribed limit and whipped people with goatskin lashes, and Ovid uses the word ‘lustrant’ to describe their action; it need not carry any implications of purification in itself. Indeed, Ovid’s discussion at this point is on the subject of the februa, instruments of purification according to Varro, and variously ‘purgamina’ and ‘piamina’ according to Ovid, who thus mixes categories of purification and expiation; the running and whipping of the Luperci is specifically a ‘piamen’.27 It is noteworthy that when he comes in due course to describe the Lupercalia more fully later in Fasti 2, he makes no mention of the role of purification (or expiation) in the ceremony, instead indulging in an inconclusive discussion on the reasons for the nudity of the Luperci.

In due course, lustrare does adopt meanings linked to purification. It is notable that this seems to happen among the Augustan poets, in particular under the influence of Greek influence. Greek influence on Roman religion goes back much earlier, to the prehistory of Roman ritual development, but it is only in the late first century BC that we can discern this particular influence, and it is to be noticed in poetry, not in ritual behaviour. Thus, for example, we have the first mention of aqua lustralis, which Ovid says was sprinkled on the heads of Orestes and Pylades as they were led to sacrifice.28 The connection was no doubt made as docti poetae such as Vergil and Ovid described purification rituals in a Greek context and made use of lustrare, at first merely to describe certain ritual actions, but at last identifying lustrare with purification. This is the converse of the writing of their contemporary, Dionysius. It is perhaps no coincidence that the verb purgare begins at this time to be used in a ritual sense, meaning to cleanse, at first among the poets and passing after the early first century AD to prose writers such as Pliny the Elder. Henceforth lustrare is invested with an ambiguity. At Aeneid 3.279 Aeneas and his companions, upon reaching land, ‘lustramurque Iovi votisque incendimus aras’; the first half of this line is presumably a purification ritual. The commentary of Servius, which reflects antiquarian scholarly endeavour of the fourth century, is not sure whether ‘lustramur’ refers to a ritual of purification, or expiation for a previous transgression (but at least the commentary feels it is important to make a distinction between the two).29

One may begin to suspect that ideas of purity are initially altogether alien in Rome, and only begin to develop during the principate. However, there is some evidence to show that Roman ritual was never so exceptional; even Cato prescribes the washing of hands before raising a cup of wine to Jupiter, to ensure the flourishing of the oxen, an action which we can happily accept as an act of ritual purity since it fits at the centre of purification acts as we find them across different societies.30 Varro is aware of the use of certain objects, called februa, to effect purification in Roman ritual (and he is also aware that they have a Sabine origin).31 Purification was central to the great Parilia festival, celebrated on 21 April. In the Fasti Ovid describes the purificatory suffimen used in the city, made up of bean stalks, the ashes of a horse and the ashes of a calf.32 How the suffimen was administered is not clear, but it was also accompanied by fire-leaping and sprinkling with laurel. Most strikingly, the ashes in the suffimen come from the ‘October Horse’ (slaughtered on 15 October) and the unborn calf killed with its mother at the Fordicidia (15 April); the formal similarities with the Biblical ceremony of the red heifer, whose ashes were used in water for the purification of corpse impurity, are evident.33 It is interesting that Ovid goes on to describe the rural Parilia ceremony, in which the shepherd makes sacrifice to Pales for his flocks. It is very reminiscent of Cato’s lustration of the farm: the ‘pastor’ is told to ‘lustra’ his sheep, and he must make pleasing burnt sacrifice to the goddess of her favourite food; then a long prayer asks for her blessing, at the same time seeking expiation of past transgression: ‘his dea placanda est’ (l. 777). However, purification ritual is involved too: the flock is to be sprinkled with water, the ground is to be swept, each sheep is to be touched with smoking sulphur. It is not clear whether ‘lustra’ refers to carrying the offerings round the sheep, or walking round them to sprinkle them as at Aeneid 6.231, though proximity in the text favours the latter. It is notoriously difficult to interpret Ovid’s accounts of ritual, particularly in a private or rural context. Are these purity rituals added in Ovid’s hellenized imagination, or had they started to become more important in Roman ritual behaviour? Or perhaps Cato ignored them for reasons of his own.

A passage of Suetonius shows Roman awareness of purification rituals connected with sexual intercourse. After Atia’s dream of sexual encounter with a divine snake, which presaged the birth of her son the future Augustus, she purified herself as if from intercourse with her husband.34 Are we to view this as a religious act? Up until now the examples cited from Roman sources have had a straightforward ritual context, but this passage raises the whole issue of whether symbolic purification systems are inevitably religious in nature or not. In the story Atia has her experience in a temple of Apollo, and she purifies herself from an encounter with the god himself, all of which runs against the usual paradigm of ritual purification being used to prepare a mortal for approaching the divine.

The discussion of lustrare raises a further question. In studying ancient ideas of purity, is it more useful to employ diachronic or synchronic analysis? Many studies seem to assume that purity ideas and ritual are changeless through time and base their conclusions on this assumption, but it will be apparent that I conceive purity ideas to be very variable. Lustrare may be linked etymologically to luere or lavare, hinting that the action had some sort of link to purification in the past; it may also be linked rather to lucere, meaning to shine. This must be held irrelevant to the ritual as we find it in our sources, where there is a conspicuous absence of purity language (even though we can identify such language in other area of Roman ritual discourse – the possibility was there). Even when we can see lustrare beginning to be linked to purification, it is striking that the ceremony of the censorial lustrum is untouched by this development. On the other hand, the lustration in the rural Parilia does seem to have gained a purification aspect, if Ovid is to be believed. The lesson is twofold. First, the limits of systems of purity in ancient ritual were blurred, and this is not simply a phenomenon created by modern academic classification – it was a concern of members of ancient societies too, whether conscious or unconscious. We must be aware of these limits, and while we can enjoy a consensus over what constituted pollution and purification at its centre, we must be careful to explore the ambiguity of borderline cases. To a Greek, a lustration was a purification, but we must not blindly follow his lead. Secondly, we should expect purity systems to be changing constantly, gradually, under the influence of various external factors.

To return once more to Second Temple Judaism, take the case of the gentile. A gentile is classed as ritually impure in various rabbinic texts, and uncertainty reigns amid discussions over the degree of impurity involved. The impurity of the gentile is not Biblical, and the Talmuds are aware of this; talmudic texts attribute the development to the Eighteen Decrees, rules expounded at the outbreak of the first revolt against Rome, apparently designed to promote separation between Jew and Gentile. It is well known that the traditions about the Eighteen Decrees are confused and late; many would argue that there is no basis for their historical truth. However, Adolph Büchler affirmed the historicity of this account almost eighty years ago, combining faith in talmudic accounts with the apparent appropriateness of the decrees to their supposed moment in history (though it was no doubt this appropriateness which led to the talmudic tradition).35 In the absence of other obvious candidates for the moment when gentiles became ritually impure, rabbinic scholars have agreed with Büchler’s line up to the present.36 Part of the problem with this view is the development within later Biblical and Second Temple Jewish literature of an increased usage of purity language to criticise gentiles with very practical results, such as the divorce of non-Jewish wives in Ezra and Nehemiah. Klawans does a good job of demonstrating that much of this usage is not to be classified as ritual but moral. However, even before AD 66, the Dead Sea Sectarians can view the gentiles as by nature ritually impure, and perhaps the biggest problem is the exclusion of gentiles from the inner part of the Temple complex, as attested by Josephus, who has been confirmed by the discovery of parts of the inscriptions which threatened death to gentiles who crossed the barrier. Must the barrier and inscriptions be viewed in terms of ritual purity? Not necessarily – there is nothing in the surviving Greek inscription to show that gentiles were viewed as impure, nor is there any hint as to the reason for the prohibition. Josephus is explicit in identifying the concern as a purity issue, and we have to accuse him of wilful anachronism if in fact it was not.37 Alon argued against Büchler that the impurity of gentiles was an ancient halakha, dating at least to early second temple times, and that it was merely renewed at the Eighteen Decrees.38 Both lines assume that the impurity of gentiles must have its origin in a halakhic ruling, but perhaps another approach is more appropriate, which explains the halakha as based on general trends in religious feeling about the gentiles. In the Second Temple Period the gentiles were a borderline case when it came to purity, and various factors were involved in increasing the extent to which they were viewed as impure. Their ritual impurity grew out of a sense of their moral impurity (which was linked to their propensity for idolatry and is present in the Pentateuch). It was natural, given rabbinic method, for rabbinic texts to seek to pin down the moment when gentiles became impure to a single decree. If the model I suggest is correct, however, we can see the gentiles as a case on the fringes of the purity systems of the Jews under Roman rule, and we should not be unhappy about the ambiguity of our sources concerning their status. That ambiguity reflects reality. Nor should we, like the rabbis, seek a single moment or cause for the change. As in purification ritual, time is the agent of change in the development of ancient religious ideas. We must be happy to accept a model of gradual development.


Purity in religion is already a hard topic to pin down in any single religious system of ancient times; the comparisons between different systems evoked in this essay have shown that the task is even harder than we thought. Similarities are striking, and the approach I have been led to develop is to allow these similarities to guide comparison and identification, while accepting a broad and ambiguous area on the limits of all the purity systems examined. The problems this presents to the modern scholar are the same as the problems faced by the ancient practitioners and theorists of these cults, and we must distinguish carefully between the purity systems themselves and ancient attempts in the texts to make sense of them. (This is not to say that the latter did not have an effect on the former; the issue is similar to the wider case, often treated, of the relationship between myth and ritual, although the willingness to accept the account of myth or theory over practice in the study of purity has been too durable.) Little has been achieved in terms of new results concerning ancient purity systems (unless I have successfully demonstrated that lustrare is not connected to purification) but the comparisons have provided numerous insights into the methodology of our study of the subject and they help us to realise how much we take for granted in this most slippery of themes.

1 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966); Routledge Classics edition, with a new preface (2002). See especially chapters 7-10.

2 As is demonstrated by the first word on the homepage of the New York State Coalition Opposed to Fluoridation (NYSCOF): ‘Impure, untested and unrequired fluoride chemicals are legislated into most U.S. water supplies, not to kill nasty microbes, but to medicate tap water drinkers who are assured water fluoridation is a safe and effective way to prevent tooth decay.’ on 1st June 2003.

3 House: Lev 14.46-7; objects: Lev 15.9-12

4 Lev 13.47-59

5 Lev 15.7

6 This phrase, or similar, at Lev 12.8, 14.20, 14.53, 15.30

7 Jacob Milgrom, ‘Israel’s Sanctuary: The Priestly ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’’ (Revue Biblique 83 (1976) pp.390-399); also Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1992)

8 Their corpses convey impurity by contact, but this is true for all men and for all animals too, except for those animals permitted for food when they have been slaughtered (see Lev 11.24-5, 39-40).

9 Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (2000)

10 Ibid. pp.26-30

11 Ibid. pp.32-36

12 Lev 18:24-28 (RSV): “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves; and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled); lest the land vomit you out, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.”

13 Lev 20:22-23 (RSV): “You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and do them; that the land where I am bringing you to dwell may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.”

14 For example, Euripides, Ion 1312-19; Ovid Fasti 2.35-46

15 Robert Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (1983)

16 Leviticus as Literature (1999)

17 Douglas 2002 p. 44

18 Incense: Ex 30.35, 37.29; water: Ez 36.35; gold: Ex chapters 25 and 37, passim.

19 Parker 1983 pp.3-12

20 Ibid. p.8

21 See Istros, FGrH 334 Frr.30, 32

22 Dion Hal 4.22: ‘τοῦτον τὸν καθαρμὸν ἕως τῶν κατ’ ἐμὲ χρόνων ῾Ρωμαῖοι καθαίρονται μετὰ τὴν συντέλειαν τῶν τιμήσεων ὑπὸ τῶν ἐχόντων τὴν ἱερωτάτην ἀρχὴν Λοῦστρον ὀνομάζοντες.’

23 Cato, De Agri Cultura 141: ‘Mars pater te precor quaesoque uti sies volens propitius mihi domo familiaeque nostrae…’

24 For example, Pliny Historia Naturalis 10.35-6, on the owl: ‘Capitolii cellam ipsam intravit Sexto Palpellio Histro L. Pedanio cos., propter quod nonis Martis urbs lustrata est eo anno. Inauspicata est et incendiaria avis, quam propter saepenumero lustratam urbem in annalibus invenimus, sicut L. Cassio C. Mario cos., quo anno et bubone viso lustratam esse. ’ Also, Livy 3.29.9: ‘lupos uisos in Capitolio ferunt a canibus fugatos; ob id prodigium lustratum Capitolium esse.’ However, when the Capitol is recovered from the Gauls, some of whom have defiled the temple with their blood (‘multi exsulum caede sua foedauere templum’), a purification is necessary in addition: ‘Capitolium purgatum atque lustratum.’ (Livy 3.18.10); I take this phrase not to be a tautology (and ‘purgatum’ could here be a physical cleansing, with no symbolic or ritual overtones).

25 Vergil, Aeneid 6.229-231.

26 De Lingua Latina 6.13: ‘Lupercalia dicta, quod in Lupercali luperci sacra faciunt. Rex cum ferias menstruas Nonis Februariis edicit, hunc diem Februatum appellat. Februum Sabini purgamentum, et id in sacris nostris verbum; nam et Lupercalia februatio.’

27 Fasti 2.31-2:

mensis ab his [sc. februis] dictus, secta quia pelle Luperci
     omne solum lustrant, idque piamen habent;

28 Ovid, Ep a Ponto 3.2.71-4:

       euincti geminas ad sua terga manus.
Spargit aqua captos lustrali Graia sacerdos,
       ambiat ut fuluas infula longa comas,

29 Servius ad loc: ‘lustramurque iovi: aut 'lustramur', id est purgamur, ut Iovi sacra faciamus; aut certe 'lustramur Iovi', id est expiamur.’ The latter option is evidently favoured.

30 De Agri Cultura 132: ‘Manus interluito postea vinum sumito: "Iuppiter dapalis, macte istace dape pollucenda esto, macte vino inferio esto."’

31 See footnote 9 supra.

32 Fasti 2.733-4:

sanguis equi suffimen erit vitulique favilla,
     tertia res durae culmen inane fabae.

33 Numbers 19

34 Augustus 94.4: ‘illam expergefactam quasi a concubitu mariti purificasse se’ Although told by a Roman citizen about a Roman noblewoman, Suetonius cites as his source a Greek writer from Egypt.

35 ‘The Levitical Impurity of the Gentile in Palestine Before the Year 70’ (Jewish Quarterly Review 17 (1926-7) pp.1-81)

36 For example, Klawans op. cit. p.134; Hyam Maccoby Ritual and Morality (1999) p.10

37 De Bello Iudaico 5.194: ‘ἐν αὐτῷ δὲ εἱστήκεσαν ἐξ ἴσου διαστήματος στῆλαι τὸν τῆς ἁγνείας προσημαίνουσαι νόμον αἱ μὲν ῾Ελληνικοῖς αἱ δὲ ῾Ρωμαϊκοῖς γράμμασιν μηδένα ἀλλόφυλον ἐντὸς τοῦ ἁγίου παριέναι·’

38 ‘The Levitical Uncleanness of Gentiles’ in Jews, Judaism, and the Classical World pp.190-234

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