Impurity and Sin

Impurity and Sin

This is the first post I have written in response to an ongoing Polytheist controversy. Depending on how it is received, it may be the last. For several weeks, now, the Polytheist blogosphere has been roiled by the question of the question of whether early Polytheisms had concepts of impurity, spiritual contagion, and sin, and, if so, what they entailed.

The controversy was started by a warning that attendance at this year’s Many Gods West conference might carry the risk of spiritual pollution. I am going to start my writing on the topic by declaring my absolute neutrality on this part of the issue. I have friends who boycotted the conference, and other friends who attended. I myself could not afford to go, and generally can afford to attend few conferences at all, so I cannot pretend to have firsthand knowledge of that part of the issue. That being the case, it seems wise to keep my mouth shut and my ears open on that particular question.

In any case, the conversation rapidly broadened into a discussion of the Hellenic idea of miasma, and on whether the idea of sin was a part of several ancient Polytheisms. On the idea of miasma, I again declare my neutrality. My Hellenic and Thracian friends assure me it exists, and I have no reason to doubt them. But I also have no expertise on the topic and am not remotely qualified to write about it. I am satisfied to leave miasma to the experts, shall we say.

For me, the controversy has awakened an interest in the topic from a Gaulish perspective. What were the Gaulish ideas on the subject, if any? It turns out that Gaulish, and proto-Celtic more broadly, had several words that may be relevant to the issue, though they are less precise than those in other Polytheist religions, because less is known for certain about them:

Salâ: Dirt, filth, impurity. This is the mundane word for dirt, in the sense of being unclean, not of “soil”. It also appears to have referred to spiritual impurity.1 It is less value laden than most similar words in other religions, being quite uncomplicated in meaning. There is little surviving lore on what brings salâ, except that, as in other traditions, it appears to have been associated with mundane dirtiness. It is possible that war either created salâ, or else moved participants into a liminal state from which they needed to be reintegrated with society.2 In addition, it is my UPG that excrement created salâ.

Salâcos: The adjectival form of salâ, meaning dirty, filthy, impure.3 There is not a lot to say about this one that hasn’t already been said about the noun.

Troxos: Leprous.4 From the connotations of some of the descendent words, we might take this as referring also to being in a state of spiritual contagion, but it is far from clear. If so, the nominal form is troxiâ.

Glânos: Clean, clear, pure.5 The opposite of salâcos. This state is obtained by:

Glânosagon: Purification. I have already discussed one method in my ritual outlines. Other methods include: “fire, juniper, whiskey, silver, milk, prayer, water….”6

Culos: Sin, violation.7 The sense here is of a violation of the law, a crime, an unlawful act. It has none of the connotation of “disobedience to God”, “original sin”, or “being in a state of sin” conveyed by the Christian version of “sin”. The term for law in proto-Celtic and Gaulish is rextus, also meaning “right”8, and so culos can be seen as a wrong act, as well. In most Celtic traditions, it is corrected by restitution to the victims, though the Gauls did have the death penalty for murder and other especially heinous offences.

Meblâ: Shame.9 This is the term for the state into one falls after an evil, unvirtuous act. It is, essentially, a loss of eniequos or clutos as a result of one’s own actions. It can only be corrected by living such that one’s reputation is restored.

This about sums up the Gaulish vocabulary of impurity and sin. It is fairly simple, all in all. Salâ is nearly unavoidable, in the course of a day’s sweat and dirt, but of no moral consequence. If you just wash up, put on clean(ish) clothes, and perform glânosagon before ritual, you will be fine. Culos and Meblâ are far more serious matters, but, again, do not equate well to sin. They can be corrected by living according to uiriâ and uiridios, as well as making up for one’s offenses against others.

  1. Matasovic, p. 319
  2. Conchobar ui Niall, “Bringing Our Warriors Home”, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus “The Hidden Imbolc”,, discussion on C. Lee Vermeers’ Facebook wall, comments by John M. E. Machate, August 10 at 2:51 p.m., and by Marocatha Bodua Brigiani, August 12 at 1:15 a.m. All these blogs and discussions specifically referenced Irish tradition.
  3. Matasovic, p. 319
  4. Delmarre, p. 302
  5. Matasovic, p. 160
  6. Discussion on C. Lee Vermeers’ Facebook wall, comment by Marocatha Bodua Brigiani, August 12 at 1:15 a.m.
  7. Matasovic, pp. 228-229
  8. Matasovic, pp. 310-311, Delmarrre, p. 254
  9. Matasovic, p. 261
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  1. Is the Gaulish word “clutos” related to the Irish-American word “clout” referring to informal personal power, “He had a lot of clout.”?

  2. I’ve always had a strong personal sense of distinguishing religions based on the need for personal ‘salvation’ and those who venerate the gods because of who they are, regardless of personal benefits to the individual. I put myself in the latter camp and my polytheism is based on that sense. This doesn’t preclude notions of shame, honour, regret or of the desirabilty of right actions, but ‘sin’ has no place in this view.

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