The Superstitious

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There is a famous character of Greek literature, satirized by the poet Theophrastus, called 'the superstitious man':

The danger of pollution is never far from his thoughts. First thing in the morning he washes his hands (perhaps from three springs), and sprinkles his body with lustral water; for the rest of the day he protects himself by chewing laurel. He constantly has his home purified... he declines all contact with birth, death or tombs. He seeks out the Orphotelestai every month, and repeatedly undergoes ablutions in the sea. The mere sight of some poor wretch eating the meals of Hecate [suffering death, disease, destruction] requires an elaborate ritual washing; nor is this enough, but a priestess must be summoned to perform a blood purification.

And all this from a man, Theophrastus, who was himself a Pythagorean vegetarian who must have abhorred meat-eating (and animal clothing), at the very least.10

Greek literature is soaked in purity rules and purifications. Such intensity of information certainly makes it look very much as though a 'cloud of purity rules' descended on Greece in the fourth and fifth centuries, and subsequent investigations have suggested that new words, and new temple equipment, were indeed imported into Greek culture just prior to this time; but we know that the ancient cosmology of purification was already well established throughout Eurasia, and it is perhaps better to see not an intensification but a fragmentation of this tradition in Greece.11

This hypothetical superstitious man was certainly caught up in Orphism, a fifth-century Greek sect known for its onerous ascetic requirements. The followers of Orpheus formed what is known as a 'mantic' cult, deriving from the prophetic traditions of seers and shamans, and their wandering seers or healing priests (telestai) would sing beautiful hymns and incantations over the sufferer, prescribing herbs, charms, and a pure new way of life through chastity, vegetarianism, white garments, and the ecstatic worship of Dionysus-Bacchus. Theophrastus meant to imply that the purifications of the superstitious man were excessive, or at least extremely scrupulous by average standards—sufficient even for a sanctified priest. Presumably they lacked the intellectual rigour of Greek Pythagoreanism, which also had ascetic dietary regulations and dress codes but performed no miracle cures over unbelievers. Followers of Pythagoras (581-497 bce) were committed to living together in cosmic harmony, seeking out eternal cosmic truths, especially those contained in music and mathematics, and their personal purity was also a way of cleansing and fortifying the mind.

But these sects were a minority preoccupation. A glance at the Cyrene Cathartic Law, also from the sixth century bce, brings one up sharply. This stone fragment was once a large block inscribed with the 'purifications and abstinences' for the citizens of Cyrene from the priests of Cyrene, and is a quasi-legal document reciting the correct purificatory rituals, temple tithes, and other 'payments to the gods', in a way that would not be unfamiliar to a modern church warden;namely,

Wood growing in a sacred area. If you pay the god the price, you can use the wood for sacred, profane and unclean purposes ...If a grown man is subject to a tithe [a tax or rent] having purified himself with blood, he shall purify the shrine... Everyone who sacrifices shall bring a vessel . . . If property is subject to a tithe, he [the owner] shall assess the value of the property, purify the shrine and the property separately, and then sacrifice first as a penalty a fully grown [animal] victim, not from the tithe, and then sacrifice the tithe and carry it away to a pure spot____From the property, as long as it is subject to a tithe, no one shall make funerary offerings nor shall he bring libations until he pays a tithe to the gods...12

Tithes and taxes would be much more familiar territory for the Greek citizen, and returns to the idea of religion as a form of insurance, a social contract. The gods protected this citified, or civilized, way of life by demanding from each inhabitant a moral code based on strict religious discipline and personal honesty or piety (hosia)—carved above the threshold of the temple of Ascle-pius at Epidaurus: 'He who goes inside the sweet-smelling temple must be pure. Purity is to have an honest mind.'13 The ancient communal purificatory ceremonies in Greece, as elsewhere, were built into the solstices of the year, the lunar cycles of the month, the hours of the day and night, and, on a personal level, into the cycles of life. Town boundary purification rituals protected the citizens; and special purification ceremonies for exceptional cases of pollution or sacrilege, of a town or by a person, often required the whole community to pay the price. Of course purity not only defeated death, it also implicitly renewed life. On many if not most of these public ceremonial occasions, the ritual price to pay was not very arduous at all, and simply meant celebrating with the gods in a pleasurable and joyous fashion (aphrodisia), and treating them with parties, feasts, plays, music, games, and sports. Religious catharsis could come in many shapes and forms. The first Olympic Games was originally a military thanksgiving and purification ceremony dedicated to Zeus, and became a site of mass catharsis. In fact this festival was an event of such importance to the ruling elites of Hellas that formal political truces were declared throughout its duration. No person could go armed or unclean to the Games.

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