Purity: Its Necessity and Its Abuses

In a conversation over on the House of Vines website, I made the comment “purity is overrated.” I was speaking in reference to some who are choosing not to attend a certain polytheist gathering in August because they object to some of the presenters and content. While I understand their reasoning and respect their choices, I’ve made a different choice. I believe I have an obligation to show up and present my view of things… and I intend to have a great time while doing it.

Earlier today, Galina Krasskova responded to the “purity is overrated” comment on her own blog. She made a short but solid case for why purity is necessary, and I have little argument with anything she wrote. This post isn’t a rebuttal – it’s more of an exposition of what I do and don’t mean when I say “purity is overrated.”

First, let’s look at why purity is necessary.

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sugar and salt – best to not mix them

Avoiding unwanted mixtures. When we speak of purity and cleansing in a religious context, a lot of Pagans and more than a few polytheists get uneasy. Many of us grew up in Christian environments where we were battered with concepts like original sin and total depravity. We were told we were dirty rotten sinners who needed to be “washed in the blood of Jesus.” We quickly latched on to Pagan concepts like original blessing and “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.”

But it is no denigration of ourselves to point out that there are some things that just don’t go together. If I’m making spaghetti and I’m cutting up garlic and onions, I’m going to wash my hands and all my cooking utensils before I start to make a chocolate cake. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with garlic and onions, but I don’t want them in my chocolate cake.

Likewise, there are some things that just don’t go well with our rituals to honor the Gods… things like your anger with the traffic getting there or what you’re planning to do after the ritual. More serious are things like dishonorable conduct, particularly in regards to your promises and obligations to the Gods. These impurities may require more than aspersing and censing to clear up.

Some traditions have specific lists of impurities that may not be brought into a ritual, and some of them strike our modern sensibilities as arbitrary and even wrong. If you’re practicing within a centuries-old tradition, respect its practices.

Some things just don’t go well together. When you’re working with such things, purity is necessary.

Avoiding the Strawberry Jam Effect. I don’t believe in the three-fold law and most people’s idea of karma has little to do with its origins in Hinduism. But I do believe in what John Michael Greer calls “the Strawberry Jam Effect” – you can’t work with it without getting it all over yourself. That’s one of the reasons I don’t do much cursing. I’m not afraid that the curse is going to “rebound” onto me, but I am sure that if I work with the kind of spirits and energies necessary to throw an effective curse, some of those spirits and energies are going to hang around in my life.

I’m currently working to help clean up a spiritual mess that was created many years ago. I had nothing to do with it, but I’m now part of a group that was involved, and because I’m affiliated with this group, I’m also being affected by the repercussions. None of this would have happened if the members of this group had taken greater caution to maintain proper purity.

Presenting our best. If you were going on a date, or a job interview, or to visit an important client, you’d take a shower, brush your teeth, put on nice clean clothes, and brush your hair. You’d do that if you were going to visit your kindly old grandmother. So why wouldn’t you do it if you were going to visit with the Gods and ancestors?

Cleansing ourselves before we approach the Gods says that we respect Them. It says that no matter how intimately we have communed with Them, we remember that They’re Gods. It says that we take what we’re doing seriously – it’s worth an extra five minutes wash your hands, put on a clean shirt, and light some incense. Or more, if that’s what your tradition calls for.

Most Pagans and many polytheists cast circles, do house cleansings, and put up wards. We understand the necessity for purity, even if we don’t always take it as far as we should.

But there are times when the concept of purity can be abused.

Purity can be misused to control others. There is no better example of this than the Evangelical Christian “purity culture” which seeks to berate young women into being ashamed of their bodies and giving up their sovereignty to satisfy the lusts of twisted, insecure men.

When you stop worrying about your own purity and start obsessing over the purity of others, you’re on dangerous ground.

Purity can turn into “holier than thou.” I once attended a seminar on environmental activism. It was all gloom and doom – it made me want to give up, go buy a Corvette, and live it up while I could. The worst was when one of the participants stood up and shouted (and I do mean SHOUTED) “if you’re not a vegan you don’t care about the Earth at all!” Now, while meat production does have a disproportionate impact on the environment, it’s far from the only cause of climate change and resource depletion.

Most calls for environmental purity have classist and ableist assumptions. They’re great if you can do them, but expecting everyone to adopt them is neither realistic nor wise.

Doing what you can is always better than despairing because you can’t do it all.

Purity can lead to isolation and avoiding difficult conversations. When I said “purity is overrated” on House of Vines, this is what I was talking about. Some people’s ideas about polytheism are very different from mine. Some of them are so different I don’t think we’re practicing from the same religious foundation.

But I want to talk with them. I want to get to know them as people and not just as words on a computer screen. I want to hear what they have to say – and I want them to hear what I have to say. It may be that our differences aren’t as large as I think. It may be that they’re even larger. But if so, I want to leave on good terms so we can work together where our secular interests coincide even if our religious interests necessarily remain separate.

There are limits. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia have no place in good societies or in good religion of any flavor. If an event gives a platform to someone who’s preaching hate, I don’t want to be there (see the “Strawberry Jam Effect”). But unless I see evidence of hatred, I don’t want to avoid difficult conversations – that’s one of the ways we learn and grow.

Purity is necessary in our devotional work. We need to keep our metaphorical garlic and onions out of our chocolate cake. We need to avoid getting entangled with things that may be harmful. And we need to present our best to our Gods and ancestors.

But like everything, purity can be abused. Let’s make sure we don’t turn it into a weapon to attack others or an excuse for avoiding difficult conversations.

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