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Greek concept of pollution

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Societies create order by stigmatizing certain disorderly conditions and events and persons as ‘polluting’, that is, by treating them as metaphorically unclean and dangerous. The pollutions generally recognized by the Greeks were birth, death, to a limited degree sexual activity, homicide except in war, and sacrilege; certain diseases, esp. madness, were also sometimes viewed in this way, while mythology abounds in instances of extreme pollutions such as incest, parricide, and cannibalism.

Pollution has a complicated relation to the sacred. In one sense they are polar opposites: the main practical result of the pollutions of birth and death was that the persons affected were excluded from temples for some days, and priests and priestesses had to observe special rules of purity. But offenders against the gods became ‘consecrated’ to them in the sense of being made over to them for punishment; and such negative consecration (which could also be imposed by a human curse) was comparable to a pollution.

Since some pollutions are natural and inescapable, rules of purity are not simply rules of morality in disguise. But the very dangerous pollutions were those caused by avoidable (if sometimes unintentional) actions such as bloodshed and sacrilege. In theory, one man's crime could through such pollution bring disaster to a whole state. There is a common mythological schema (best seen at the start of Sophocles' OT), whereby pollution causes plague, crop‐failure, infertility of women and of animals. Such pollution is fertility reversed, which is why such powers as the Eumenides (Erinyes) are double‐sided, agents of pollution and also givers of fertility (see esp. Aeschylus, Eumenides). Orators often attempted to brand political opponents as polluting demons, the source of the city's misfortunes (see invective); and a question actually put to the oracle of Zeus at Dodona shows that this conception of the polluting individual was not a mere anachronism in the historical period: ‘is it because of a mortal's pollution that we are suffering the storm?’

But pollution is also often envisaged as working more selectively. Acc. to Antiphon's Tetralogies, murder pollution threatens the victim's kin until they seek vengeance or prosecute, the jurors until they convict. Thus the threat of pollution encourages action to put right the disorder.

See also purification, greek.

See also purification, greek.

Subjects: Classical studies

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