Purification: What is it? How Does it Work?
Author: B. T. Newberg
Many Pagans use purification rites before entering rituals or sacred spaces. A magician may asperge herself with an herbal mixture before entering the magick circle. A shaman may dive into a cold spring before journeying to meet the spirits. A Wiccan may fast before initiation. What is the point of such purification? How does purification work? What are some obstacles to purity? What are the implications of holding views of objective purity? These are the questions I’ll engage in this essay.
What is the Point?
First, what is the point of purification? Purification aims to make ready: the magician is readied to enter the circle, the shaman to meet the spirits, and the Wiccan to undergo initiation. In a word, my concept of purity is readiness. The function of a purification rite is to make yourself or something ready for what is about to happen next. Since Pagan experience often includes some very intimate, mystical, or even divine communications, we want to do everything we can to make sure we’re ready if and when such things arise. Even run-of-the-mill ritual experiences are sacred, and we want to be paying attention. Purification rites help us become ready.
The state contrary to purity is un-readiness. You may be distracted, overly hopeful, in a fault-finding mood, or just plain bored. In all cases, you are unable or unwilling to fully embrace what is about to happen (whatever that may be). Once, when I was a teen, my parents took me on a hay-ride. All I could think was how lame it was to be stuck with my parents when I could be riding with my friends. That is a good example of non-purity. I was not ready to accept the simple pleasure of bouncing in a horse-drawn cart filled with hay. My preconceived notions were too strong. A ritual is like this hay-ride: you have to be open to how it goes, not stuck on how you’d rather have it. Another time, more recently, I was driving with a friend. My friend began telling me of a sensitive episode in his love life, but I interrupted him to point out a funny billboard. I was not ready to hear his delicate story. A ritual is similar: you have to lay aside the distractions in order to be fully absorbed in the intimacy of the moment.
Purity is being open to and ready for whatever happens. The drummer who listens to his band-mates and adds to their rhythms, without forcing the others to adjust to his beat, is pure. The Witch who uses a formula to call in the guardians of the East, but who allows the unique mood of the moment to fill up her otherwise rote words, is also pure. The shaman who asks her power animal what she can do for Mother Earth, and is neither disappointed by a fairly mundane task nor doubtful of a grandiose one, is pure as well.
All these examples imply a special readiness of mind and heart. Very few of us are able to consistently embody this readiness in our daily lives. Distraction, irritation, boredom, and other annoyances get the best of us. That is why we need something to help us let it all go when we approach ritual. Purification does this for us. It helps us get ready.
How does it Work?
How does a purification rite bring about readiness? There are two ways to think about how it works: as an objective but intangible phenomenon, or as a subjective, psychological phenomenon. If we take as our example a simple sage smudge preceding ritual, the former view sees the sage as doing all the work: no matter where your mind is during the smudge, in some mysterious way you still get clean. The latter view sees the sage as a mere reminder for you to open your mind and heart to the ritual. According to this view, the purification is in vain if you can’t let your mundane worries go.
My opinion is that the objective element plays a part, but the subjective is vital. I’ll return to the objective aspect in a bit, but first I want to focus on the subjective: tools such as sage or saltwater help to purify, but they alone do not purify. What it takes is a certain state of mind, or state of heart. It takes openness. Before entering the circle, the Witch must open herself to what is going to happen when she steps inside it, which may be quite other than what she expects. Without this subjective aspect of opening, the purification will not work.
There is a great diversity of methods used by Pagans for purification, ranging from the traditional (sage smudge, saltwater bath) to the innovative (immersing yourself in booming music, humming your favorite song). This diversity suggests that one’s internal focus is more crucial to the purification than the particular tool or method used. When a purification rite works, it may be because you used the right method, but it is most certainly also because you focused your consciousness to the task.
Focusing consciousness is not always easy. Purity helps a lot, and two great obstacles to purity, in its subjective aspect, are hang-ups and preconceived notions. Hang-ups are lingering irritations. Before a ritual, you may have worries about tomorrow’s interview, annoyances about what so-and-so said to you at work today, or compulsions to compose grocery lists in your head. If you don’t “purify” yourself of these, they may distract you and spoil the ritual. Preconceived notions may also spoil it, but they work in a different way. Preconceived notions are prejudices about what is supposed to happen during the ritual, or the way in which the ritual must be done. If the ritual departs from your expectations via mistake, innovation, or chance occurrence, you may be disappointed. Let’s say, for example, that the candle of the South blows out in the middle of a ritual. It may have been that the Goddess or the spirits intervened to teach a lesson or just to say hello, but you will not recognize any such marvel if you are too stuck in your preconceived notion that the candle must remain lit. To take another example, let’s say you attend a ritual lead by someone you’ve not worked with before. To your dismay, you find that this person reads liturgy with an awful, ceremonious, pseudo-British accent. You just can’t get over it, and the whole ritual is spoiled for you. Your preconceived notion of how liturgy should be read has kept you from enjoying the ritual. Who knows…perhaps higher powers lead you to this person in order to teach you to lighten up? Had you been ready for anything, would your experience have been different? Between hang-ups and preconceived notions, considerable obstacles to readiness exist. Fortunately, we have purification rites to address them.
The Objective Aspect: Cleanliness or Cooties?
Many Pagans insist that tools or methods have magickal energies of their own. Different herbs, for example, each have peculiarities which work better for this or that magickal purpose. Sage has long been recognized as an excellent purifier. These properties would seem to be objective, independent of the psychological state we take to them. Some things are inherently purifying. The flip-side of this view is that some things are inherently polluting. Kaldera and Schwartztein in The Urban Primitive, for example, insist that cities are more polluting than natural areas.
The problem with thinking in terms of inherently polluting things is that we end up looking like elementary school boys afraid of getting cooties from girls. If a thing can be objectively purifying or polluting, a whole Pandora’s Box of messy questions is opened. For example, where does the human body fit into the scheme of things? In many forms of Paganism, especially Witchcraft and Goddess religion, the body is very important. Can the body be inherently, objectively pure or impure? Throughout history many societies have built elaborate customs around cultivating bodily purity and avoiding impurity. In some cultures, a woman’s body is impure while menstruating. In old India, a caste system designated a whole segment of the population untouchable. Does the idea of objectively purifying or polluting things lead in this direction? Is this estimation of objective purity unfair? I don’t have the answer to this one. I only raise the question as a potential problem.
One thing I will say, however, is that impure things don’t have to be absolutely impure. For example, a shaman told me a story about an energy extraction ritual she observed in Tibet. A Tibetan shaman removed a handful of icky, black, impure energy from a patient, then immediately ran to the nearest crossroads and left it there. Why did he leave it at the crossroads? Because in the Tibetan view, crossroads are home to spirits for whom the energies which poison us are nourishing. The old adage applies: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
In sum, purification is the making ready of mind, body, and spirit for what is about to happen. There are obstacles to this readiness, including hang-ups, preconceived notions, and perhaps even inherently polluting things. Purification rites help us to wash away or let go of these obstacles. In this way, we get ready to enter a magick circle, meet the spirits, or just take on life with an open heart and mind. Some things may be inherently better purifiers than other things, but there are potential problems with this view.
As a final note, I wonder what would be the most powerful purifier of all? If purity is an open mind and heart, I would have to say that the most powerful purifier of all must be laughter. Not giggling or snickering, but good, hearty, full-bellied laughter. After a good laugh, what are you not open to? From hang-ups, preconceived notions, stress, distractions, or general cantankerousness, I can think of no better liberator than laughter.