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Purification: Spring Cleaning

Like everyone's mother, Mother Nature clears and cleans come spring. She throws open the windows of our winter-stifled surroundings to allow a breeze to waft through. Then she sends in the wind, a bracing blast of fresh air, to blow the lid off the closed rooms, the dust, must, and rust of winter. She dispatches the rains, the drenching spring showers. Seeds begin to stir. We too make a clean sweep of our surroundings - internal and external, body and soul.

Everywhere rituals are employed to mark the major junctions of life - birth, the transformation of our bodies at adolescence, the transition from singledom to couplehood, death. Each of these ceremonies traditionally includes a purification element. Ablutions are the most primal and prevalent rite of passage. In washing, we symbolically shed the old, discard the past, toss it out with the dirty water.

"...I guess I feel about a hot bath the way those
religious people feel about holy water... The longer
I lay there in the clear hot water the purer I felt,
and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself
in one of those big, soft, white, hotel bath towels
I felt pure and sweet, as a new baby." [PLATH]

We come to this world awash in saline womb waters and are greeted upon the moment of our first breath with a washing. When we die we are bathed again. We wash before we eat, before we sleep, before we pray. Most cultures, in fact, require washing before worship. Here, the ablution marks the transition from the profane sector of life to the sacred.

Confucianism holds that a state of purity must be established in order to open the conduit of communication between mortal souls and the spiritual realm. Before making sacrificial offerings to the ancestors, for instance, one must observe a period of purification, which includes fasting, washing one's head and body, and dressing in clean raiment.

Hindus bathe early each morning at the border of dark and light, night and day, and then recite special prayers to re-consecrate their daily service to the god/desses. Hindu deities demand that a devotee be bathed, scented, and dressed in the purest of garments when approaching a shrine. Purification is necessary, too, before the practice of yoga. Water is considered to be the most effective purifying agent by Hindus, not because it's inherently pure, but because when it runs, it absorbs and carries away pollution.

For this reason, rivers and other moving waters are considered to be especially cleansing. The Ganges, although filthy, is the most holy of all. It is the intention of every devout pilgrim to wash in its cleansing water, and it is the destination of choice for one's death. Bhubaneswar, another site which has been revered since prehistoric times, is said to contain water from every sacred river, tank, and stream in all of India. It is believed that bathing in this shrine-surrounded "Ocean Pearl" can wash away one's sins.

"Dewdrop, let me cleanse
In your brief, sweet waters . . .
These dark hands of life." [BASHO]

The priestesses and priests of Babylonia cleansed themselves with water from the Tigris or Euphrates river before performing their religious functions. In ancient Egypt, as well, the pharaoh would purify his body for prayer by sprinkling himself with the "water of life and good fortune".

In the Exodus chapter of the Old Testament, the rabbis of Israel are warned to wash their hands and feet "in the laver of brass... that they die not" before entering the holy temple, and in Leviticus they are instructed to wash their entire bodies with water before eating of the holy offerings. Orthodox Jews still pour water from a pitcher over their hands before every prayer and meal. This spiritual ablution is beyond any soap-and-water idea of hygiene.

"He had a mania for washing and disinfecting
himself.... For him the only danger came from
the microbes which attack the body. He had
not studied the microbe of conscience which
eats into the soul." [NIN]

The Mikva , or ceremonial bath, is used for various purification ceremonies, including conversions. Filled with running rather than still water, it is referred to in the Bible as "mayim chayim" which means water of life. Before entering, participants must be scrupulously physically clean, with all the dead edges of the body - (finger and toe nails, loose hair) removed.

Proselytes to Judaism were bathed as an initiation rite which sanctified the start of their new lives, reborn as true believers, members of the chosen people of The God of Israel, Yahweh. It was essential for the candidate to be completely immersed so that s/he might be truly cleansed of heathenism - or goddess worship, if you will.

Ceremonial ablutions in the sea were used to initiate participants in a process of spiritual rebirth during the Eleusinian Mysteries, the oldest of the Greco-Roman Goddess mystery cults.

The Baptism rites of Protestant and Catholic alike cleanse the way for a worshipper to move from the polluted world to the holy church, from the earthly plane to grace, from sin to salvation. Ultimately it is an initiation into the kingdom of God. The Christian concept of heaven, like the paradise envisioned by Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews and Moslems, is a place of absolute purity and brilliant cleanliness, while hell is seen as a foul pit. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

"In all the glory of continuing love, the
Mikva is a taste of Heaven...If Heaven is
the home of eternal life, in all the caring
of continuing love, the Mikva is a room in
Heaven. This is what Heaven is like, she
thought." [UKELES]

Islam requires the worshipper to wash before each of the five daily prayers performed facing toward Mecca. The Qur'än prescribes: "O believers, when ye come to fulfill the prayer, wash your faces, and your hands as far as the elbows; and rub your heads, and your feet unto the ankles, and if ye be polluted then purify yourselves." Moslems cleanse their mouths so that their prayers will be sanctified, and their ears so that they might better hear the will of Allah.

The sweat lodge ceremony, the Inipi, as it is known to the peoples of the Great Plains, was prevalent throughout Native North America. It was, and still is undertaken as a preparatory ritual of purification. One engages in the Inipi before a major spiritual endeavor, such as the vision quest, the sun dance or the spirit-calling ceremonies.

Though once celebrated almost solely as a preliminary, the Inipi has developed into an important ritual in its own right, especially for urban Indians whose access to other tribal ceremonies may be limited. An interesting contemporary application of this sanctioned purification practice is the Lakota sweat lodge ceremony held regularly for the Native American inmates at correctional facilities throughout the state of Minnesota. Traditional lessons in clean living are intended to set the prisoners on the right track.

The lodge, constructed of timbers and covered with hides or canvas, is conceived to be the womb of Mother Earth. A fire is built in the center and allowed to burn down to coals. Stones are placed on the glowing embers. Dippers of water are emptied onto the heated rocks, creating dense, intensely hot steam. The Inipi mixes the waters of life; the steam from the fire in the belly of Mother Earth, and the sweat from the bodies of her children. Participation elevates one to the higher state of consciousness and purpose essential to enduring the pursuit of wisdom and power. The sweat washes away impurities and instills stamina, strength and courage.

"Endurance, cleanliness, strength, purity
Will keep our lives straight
Our actions only for a good purpose.
Our words will be truth.
Only honesty shall come from our interaction
With all things.
I shall give up some of my waters.
I shall endure this ceremony to send my prayers." [LAKOTA]

Purification by water is by far the most widespread cleansing method. But there are innumerable other scouring agents. Fire is frequently used, combined with water as in the Inipi, or alone. During the annual Hindu Festival of Agni, worshippers pass their hands over flames to obtain a state of purity. Incense, smudge, tobacco, and other highly scented herbs are often burnt to produce fragrant smoke.

Ashes, charcoal, mud, dirt, clay, sand, sap, sandalwood paste, pigment, paint, peppers, sagebrush, oil and dung are among the cleansers commonly applied to the skin; employed as a dry bath. The Nubians of Africa rub themselves with sacred ash from the burnt leaves of an acacia tree before every rite of passage in their lives. Catholics are anointed on Ash Wednesday with ash obtained from burning the palm fronds which had decorated the Church on the previous Palm Sunday. This ritual begins Lent, the 40-day cleansing period preceding the annual vernal passion of death and resurrection.

Typically, the rule of purity applies not only to the worshipper, but to the images and objects of the sacred as well. As humans wash before communication with the divine, the God/desses, too, must be cleansed before contact with their earthly court. In ancient Egyptian temples, all representations of the gods were bathed every morning. The Jains of India, descendants of the old Zoroastrian faith, also perform daily ablutions on their holy idols and relics.

A new life, a new day, a new season, a new year - each is begun by bathing. All sculptured images of the Buddha are washed during the festival of Songkran in Thailand every spring at the start of the lunar new year. The blessing water is poured from buckets on the statues and passersby as well - a refreshing splash during the oppressive heat of the season. "The Grandmother", the Odas, spirit-being, ceremonial doll which protected Her Native American owner's health, was spruced up in a new silver-ornamented dress each spring, as the Belle of New Beginnings.

In addition to cleansing ourselves and our deities before we pray, special care has always been taken to clean and maintain the temples, churches, synagogues, cemeteries, groves and shrines, in which our prayers are said. By obvious extension, this includes our homes, where the most intimate and ordinary prayers of daily life are uttered. If a man's home is his castle, surely it is a woman's shrine.

Santería, which combines elements of the West African Yoruban religion with those of the Catholic Church and the traditions of the indigenous tribes of the Caribbean, has many methods of spiritual house cleaning. Ordinarily one cleans one's own home, altar and aura with a wide variety of special washes, herbs and candles. In serious cases of impurity, a padrina/padrino will make a house call to perform a purification ceremony. S/he most often will spit rum in a fine spray around the room, or roll a burning coconut along the floor while praying, to rid the place of bad energy.

Cleaning house to make ready for a new year is universal. Out with the old and in with the new. Death to dirt! The expression "to make a clean sweep" comes from the English custom of cleaning the chimneys at New Year. Some peoples, like the Incas, like the Creeks, discarded everything, everything used in the past year. Italians, even today, throw half-used bars of soap, worn socks, sofas out of their windows as the clock strikes midnight. Debts, in many cultures, are paid off or forgiven; fires extinguished and ceremonially re-lit.

"If the doors of perception were cleansed
everything would appear as it is, infinite." [BLAKE]

The Clean Chum Festival, celebrated at the spring equinox, is the most important of four seasonal celebrations of the Nganasan tribe of the Ust-Avam region of Siberia. The shaman builds a special chum, the teepee-like dwelling of the people, which s/he purifies while pleading with the spirits to provide the reindeer with protection from the wolf and good hunting for the people in the season ahead.

People have always used clean water, fire, fresh air, pure soil, to cleanse ourselves for our reverent engagement with the divine. But the very elements that can purify have, themselves, been poisoned. A water sample was recently taken from a lake in the center of an uninhabited island in the Arctic Ocean, not far from the land of the Siberian Nganasan. There were 52 polluting chemicals present in the water.

You know, we really ought to be thinking about cleaning up our act. In fact, let's start this spring.

Citations

  • [PLATH] Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2000. First published 1971. 20th century American.
  • [BASHO] Basho, Matsuo. In Japanese Haiku, Peter Beilenson, translator. Mt. Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1955. 17th century Japanese.
  • [NIN] Nin, Anaïs. Winter of Artifice, 1939. 20th Century French.
  • [UKELES] Ukeles, Mierle Laderman. "Mikva Dreams -- A Performance." Heresies: The Great Goddess, Spring 1978. 20th century American.
  • [LAKOTA] From the Lakota Sioux Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Available as of 4/29/2006 at <http://www.think-aboutit.com/native/ceremony.htm>
  • [BLAKE] Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 'A Memorable Fancy,' plate 14. 1790. 18th Century English.

Graphics Credits

  • Mayan woman in tribal costume,. courtesy of Hannah Gleghorn.
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