We had a small article, days back, which in brief compared the Christian Purgatory and the Hellenic Acheronta. In the article we made the postulation that both metaphysical, underworld places, have one in common function: the cleansing of the miasma with the use of fire. Indeed the cleansing rituals, τελετὲς καθαρμοῦ, - and especially, the role of fire in these rituals is extremely important – followed every single step of a person throughout antiquity – and today.


Therefore, from our birth to our last breath we are been involved in a continue cleansing ritual. The infant and the mother, the matrimonial rite and whoever touches the sacred must be absent of any miasma as Iphigenia in Tauris states (1226-9):

But to the natives of this land my voice
Proclaims, from this pollution far remove,
Art thou attendant at the shrine, who liftest
Pure to the gods thy hands, or nuptial rites
Dost thou prepare, or pregnant matron; hence,
Begone, that this defilement none may touch.

Euripides, also presents us how can someone be purged from the miasma, very clearly in his Helen (868-870):

Lead on, bearing before me blazing brands, and, as sacred rites ordain, purge with incense every cranny of the air, that I may breathe heaven's breath free from taint; meanwhile do thou, in case the tread of unclean feet have soiled the path, wave the cleansing flame above it, and brandish the torch in front, that I may pass upon my way.

Nowadays – at list a generation back – folk tradition all around Greece provide us with a practical examples of the above Theonoe’s instruction. The infant and the mother, therefore, must be protected against of any pollution (miasma). A folk example, which gives us the ritual’s pattern, is in Aetolia - Acarnania, where a visitor to a newly born child’s house must pass under a burning charcoal positioned at the threshold.

But at the same time the mother and the infant for a period of time are polluted. Once again in Iphigenia in Tauris (381-383):

Whoe'er of mortals is with slaughter stain'd,
Or hath at childbirth given assisting hands,
Or chanced to touch aught dead, she as impure
Drives from her altars; yet herself delights

Still today in the infant mother’s room, a candle is on night and day, for maintaining a continue purge. This can be seen and understood as, in fact, the non-extinguished fire, the σβέστου πυρὸς.

Those, who, wished to perform a religious ritual or entreaty or to visit a temenos had to be liturgically purged, in ancient Greek terms “αγνεύῃ”. How that was performed? In Aristophanes, Pease, Trygaeus, provide us with the detail (959):

I take this fire-brand first and plunge it into the water;

With this water the altar and the offering will be sprinkled. Nevertheless, that is not the end of it. As Trygaeus stated earlier in Pease (948):

Here is the basket of barley-seed mingled with salt, the chaplet and the sacred knife; and there is the fire; so we are only waiting for the sheep.

But was not just the very first action of the sacrifice – to extinguish a fire-brand into the water, which was used for purging – but also the oulochitai, οὐλοχύται, or prochetai, προχύται,– the barley used for scattering onto the altar and on the victim(s) – was first purged by the use of fire as Iphigenia mentions in Aulis (1470-1):

Begin the sacrifice with the baskets, let the fire blaze for the purifying meal of sprinkling

Note: This is the second (the first you can see it here) of a series of posts on the “cleansing fire” based on a speech in the University of Thessalonica, Philosophical School, in 1972. In memory of Kyriakou Chatzeioanou (1909-1997).