Sannion at Witches & Pagans presents an excellent overview of the concept of miasma and ritual purity.
Our modern culture has lost its innate sense of the sacred and the rituals by which this territory is navigated. Without them people have a much harder time finding their way back. Consider how many women suffer from postpartum depression or all the military personnel whose lives are destroyed by PTSD or the folks who years later are still grieving the loss of a loved one. It’s because these individuals experienced a violent rupture with the ordinary and yet were thrust right back into the currents of life without anything marking their internal transformation, no means of ritually demarcating this passage from one state to another. They are expected to behave as if everything has gone back to normal even though their experiences have left them feeling as if nothing is the way it was before and never will be again. I do not mean to suggest that miasma and the rituals associated with it are purely psychological, therapy through theater. There’s a whole lot more going on there, particularly on an esoteric spiritual level – but it isn’t necessary to understand all of that to see the tangible benefits that come with performing these ceremonies.
There also seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the role of the gods in all of this. Some people are profoundly bothered by the notion that miasma interrupts our relationship with them. They argue that when we are in such a state we are often most in need of the comforting presence of our divinities, so the idea that they would distance themselves from us is doubly cruel. This often brings up a lot of unresolved mental baggage people have held on to from their Christian upbringing, notions of divine judgment and wrath and never being good enough, pure enough, pious enough to warrant love and acceptance.
I have heard some objections to concepts of ritual purity, and some of them dovetail into similar opposition to banishing rituals. It goes along the mindset of “well, those are natural forces, and we work with natural forces, so removing the forces you work with is pointless.” I have yet to meet anyone making such an argument that is comfortable watching a movie in a theater with people talking loudly or trying to listen to a phone call in a crowded and noisy room – you need to be able to isolate what you heard to make effective use of it. Likewise, I have yet to meet someone who loves nature so much they don’t clean up the cat puke from the floor.
As to whether miasma is an actual, tangible thing, I can’t say. But what I can say is that actions and activities that generate miasma are distracting ones. If you are traumatized by death or in the afterglow of good sex, you are likely distracted and unable to devote your full attention to what you are doing in a ritual context. As Sannion points out, prayer is accepted and divine contact engaged in when people involved are ritually unclean. But those interventions seem to relate to the actions that create miasma: when dealing with death or birth, you are focused on death and birth. But if you are handling more subtle ritual actions or energies, a preoccupation with death, birth, or sex may hinder your ability to sense and focus on more subtle energies. And so a cleansing ritual is performed, to remove the misasma and allow your mindset to return to one that is better able to let go of the traumatic or imposing events and grasp more subtle ones.
And the point Sannion makes about holdovers from Christianity is true as well. Saying someone is unclean or impure can have negative connotations from someone who had a less than favorable experience with Christianity and its redemption model. I also believe that there is a significant misunderstanding of how the profane functions in Christianity — that the concept is more akin to forbidding casual or untrained access to powerful sacred forces rather than those forces being evil — and that this misconception builds further resistance to seeing anything as unclean or “dirty.”
But the idea that the sacred is subtle, and that significant or traumatic or life-changing events overpower the sense, can help illustrate how something like misasma can function without moral judgement, and help justify the practice of ritual cleansing.