Shinto and Hellenism – part 1

I want to start this series where I first noticed congruity between these two traditions – ritual pollution (miasma / kegare) and purification (katharsis / oharae). As throughout the series, I’m going to be looking at both ancient and modern Hellenismos and comparing them with modern Shinto – a somewhat limited perspective, I realize, but I don’t know enough about ancient Shinto to be able to include that in my scope. Besides, modern Shinto as it is lived and practiced today is what I’m really interested in when I look to it for possible inspiration.

There is some dispute over the degree of emphasis that the ancient Greeks placed on miasma, or “pollution”, as well as to the forms and occasions of it (a dispute likely due, at least in part, to the intensely regional nature of much of Greek religious practice). However, it is clear that they recognized it as a legitimate source of spiritual danger; this is attested in at least a handful of sources. Here are two, just as a sampling:

“Never omit to wash your hands before you pour to Zeus and to the other gods the morning offering of sparkling wine; they will not hear your prayers, but spit them back.” – Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 722-725

“Never pass through, on foot, a lovely brook of ever-flowing water, till you pray and look into the beauty of the stream, and in her clean, sweet water, wash your hands. For if you cross a river with your hands and crimes uncleansed, the gods will punish you, and bring you countless pain in future times.” – ibid., lines 740-46 [1]

“…and with hands unwashed I would take shame to pour the glittering wine to Zeus; there is no means for a man to pray to the dark-misted son of Kronos, with blood and muck all spattered upon him.” – Iliad, 6.266-8 [2]

Historians of Greek religion have also noted this phenomenon: Walter Burkert devotes pages 75-84 of his “Greek Religion” to a discussion of purification, [3] and Robert Parker wrote an entire book on the subject. [4]

(Side note: there is a fascinating article on the Web about the value, limits and pitfalls of Internet search engines, that uses this very question as its example – http://www.searchlores.org/sehisinf.htm. Well worth reading.)

All that being said, Parker also points out that while there is evidence of a certain preoccupation with miasma and related topics in the historians and tragedians, as well as in Hesiod and Homer, there is relatively little other evidence to indicate whether this reflects an actual widespread cultural preoccupation, or just a recurring literary motif (pp. 12-16).

It seems appropriate, then, that we find in modern Hellenismos as well a range of attitudes and approaches to the question of purification. Some of us are concerned not to “come before the gods with unwashed hands” – a good example of this school of thought is the very useful book Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored, by modern practitioner Sarah Winter, which emphasizes the importance of ritual purification (see especially pp. 56-57). Others don’t seem to put as much emphasis on it – for instance, Rob Andrews’ excellent how-to website Sponde! – Hands-on Hellenism mentions it not at all in the pages on prayer and libation.

Then, as now, “the most widespread means of purification is water” (Burkert, p. 76) – and this is also true in Shinto. Burkert speaks of vessels of khernips (lustral water that is either pure by virtue of its source, or made pure by various methods) being set up at the entrance to sanctuaries; and one of the most iconic images associated with Shinto shrines, second only to the famous torii gates, is the water basin or trough where visitors pause to purify themselves before approaching the sanctuary.

The observant reader may notice that I’ve been talking about purification exclusively in physical terms; this points up one of the deepest similarities between the two traditions, one that justifies all these words much more than a simple coincidence of ritual actions could do.

In both Shinto and Hellenic religion, impurity is mainly considered to be a temporary condition; one that can be resolved by symbolic physical cleansing when performed with the correct spiritual orientation and attitude. (Both traditions also recognize more serious forms of defilement, but those are outside the scope of this discussion.) This is in decided contrast to the pan-Abrahamic notion of “sin” as a spiritual state that can be temporarily alleviated but never cured, and even more to the specifically Christian idea that defilement is the natural state of the human race, and that it can only be remedied through divine intervention.

There are, of course, differences in the outlook of the two traditions, and in some cases these differences are significant. Traditional Hellenic religion held that life was basically hard, and – unless you were exceptionally good, or exceptionally evil – the most you had to look forward to in the afterlife was an eternity as a specter in gloomy, lifeless Hades. (There is a wide range of opinion on the afterlife question in modern Hellenism, from the traditionalist to the agnostic.) The basic outlook of Shinto is much more hopeful – this life is a blessing from the kami, and “Man is a child of kami. He is also inherently good.” [5] (Ono, p. 103) In this view, the natural state of the soul is that of purity; but pollution collects on it through the course of normal living as dust collects on a mirror, and it needs frequent washing to stay clean and bright, and thus truly reflect the image of the divine.

According to Yamakage Motohisa, Shinto priest and author (throughout this series I will give Japanese personal names in the traditional surname-first order unless otherwise noted):

“When the physical body is made clean by water, our heart and mind are purified at the same time. The act of washing our hands before worshiping at a shrine is about more than the magical cleansing power of water. We also make a distinction within ourselves between the secular and the sacred by that act, and thus we change our attitude and our mindset. In so doing, we wash away uncleanness. We purify our heart and mind so that we may connect with the spirit of Kami with a heart and mind that is clean, bright, right and straight. This is the most important goal of misogi {ritual purification with water – EP}.” [6]

I said in the introduction to this series that I was inspired to write it by my belief that we Western pagans can learn from the example and experience of Shinto; each topic that I will write about is one in which my own faith, belief or practice has been influenced, shaped or altered in some way by my study of Shinto. On this subject, I have been strongly influenced to make the effort to always purify myself before prayer; my view of the nature of miasma is also growing more toward a Shinto feeling.


[1] Wender, Dorothea (trans). Hesiod and Theognis. Penguin, 1976. ISBN 0140442830.

[2] Latimore, Richmond (trans). The Iliad of Homer. U of Chicago P, 1961. ISBN 0226469409.

[3] Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion (2nd ed). Harvard UP, 2006. ISBN 0674362810.

[4] Parker, Robert. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford UP, 1983. ISBN 0198148356.

[5] Ono, Sokyo. Shinto: the Kami Way. Tuttle, 1962. ISBN 0804819602.

[6] Yamakage, Motohisa. The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart. Kodansha, 2006. ISBN 4770030443.

Click here to go to Part 2.

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4 thoughts on “Shinto and Hellenism – part 1

  1. John Dougill

    That’s an interesting contrast between Christian sin and the idea of temporary impurity. I’d always thought purification was common to all religions. Isn’t that what dunking people in water for baptism is all about? Washing about sins and making a clean start….

  2. executivepagan Post author

    Hi John,
    I appreciate you taking up the invitation to stop by!

    Baptism *is* about purification, but the difference is that in the Christian view we are born inherently and ineradicably polluted due to the original sin of the first humans, and baptism is thus supposed to save us from our natural condition by providing an escape from this pollution in the form of divine forgiveness.

    My understanding of oharae and miasma, on the other hand, is that they *restore* us to our natural condition by removing the pollution that we have accumulated over time. I think the difference is significant.

  3. Calixto

    Hmm. Interesting. I was also precisely the similarities between the purification systems of the two that drew my notice first.

    The long planned, but never finished follow up to The Sacred and Profane in Hellenismos was to be an article drawing the correlations between Shinto and Hellenismos on this, as well as Hellenismos and OT Judaism.

  4. executivepagan Post author

    I’ve noted quite a few correspondences between both traditions and OT Judaism – not surprising, since the Jewish slide into monotheism was long and slow…

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