Life, Death and Contamination in Classical Athens (5th Century BC)

Covering Image: Anonymous “Painter of the Eumenides,”

Orestes is purified by Apollos with the blood of a pig. 4th Century. Museum of Louvre, Paris.

The picture is particularly interesting because shows the twofold significance of blood and sacrifice: blood is purifier only in a religious- sacrificial setting.  The Oresteia by Aeschylus is, in fact,  the trilogy of tragedies which embodies the concepts of miasma, hagos and violence in Athens at the best.





In Ancient Greek, two different words define “pollution, stain, contamination,” μίασμα (miasma) and ‘άγος (hagos). Although in English they bear the same significance, as is apparent from their writing, in Ancient Greek both verbs embody two different concepts and, sometimes, those two concepts happened to interact with each other in the daily life of fifth-century Athens.

Miasma means literally “dirt” and its associated verb is miaino (μίαινω) meaning “to dye, to stain.” On the other hand, hagos seems to contain the Indo-European stem hag*-/sak*- which is also contained in the Latin word sacer from which the English sacred is derived. It should be pointed out that, originally, the sacred meant, primarily, “separated, detatched, different.” In fact, gods in most cultures in ancient times came to be associated with this word because they were supposedly different from human. However, originally “sacred” did not have only a positive connotation. The word could also define what was so filthy and foul that it had to be kept away (“negatively” different).

Generally speaking, hagos defines a crime which entails a divine punishment because it was directed against a precept from the gods. Men committing sacrileges such as robbing a temple become bearers of one or more gods’ ire, which acts as some sort of contagious mark: people try to avoid contact and distance themselves from the sacrilegious man because, otherwise, they would incur the god’s ire too.

On the other hand, miasma seems to be semantically more linked to the concept of “dirt” rather than “sacred.”  To commit a crime against the law of the polis (Greek city-states) would mean that, instead of being marked by the gods, the perpetrator of the crime would become an enemy of society because he had damaged it, causing a crime to its integrity. Killing a man for no reason meant to create an unwarranted vacuum in the previous order of the community. However, committing a crime was not the only way a miasma could happen. In fact, natural death and birth caused a miasma because the society would have had to cope with a loss or the introduction  of an individual and consequently re-adjust its order.

However, as anticipated above, the distinction between hagos and miasma was not straightforward in Classical Athens, for if one of the heads of the society were stained with hagos, surely the community, although maybe not guilty of sacrilege, would have undergone a crisis for the loss of authority and impiety of the leader.


Evidence for Perception of Pollution in Athenian Classical Theatre

The importance of the concepts of hagos and miasma, according to many anthropologists and philologists is deeply reflected, in the Classical age of Athens, in tragedies and comedies. Theatre in 5th-century Athens was more than a merely artistic pursuit. Both tragedies and comedies were deeply rooted in their contemporaneity and pictured the inner struggles of society itself through drama or satire: the opposition between personal and societal ambition, the corruption of the old moral values, the subversion of the familial structure. It is no wonder that authorities sponsored citizens from various parts of the region to go and watch these performances, but, most of all, the context in which they took place is important.

The biggest events in which tragedies and comedies were performed and then judged by the public to elect the best, were the feasts in honour of Dionysos. These celebrations (which included the Dionysia and the Lenaia taking part at two different times in the year) had a marked political and religious character. The Dionysia took place at the presence of many people from outside Athens and was opened with the exposition of the tributes paid to the city by the other poleis unders its influence. Following that, over a couple or more days, religious rites were carried out including a procession carrying the statue of Dionysos and the sacrifice of a bull.  Finally, tragedies and comedies were performed. On the other hand, the Lenaia took place just before the election period, and it is no wonder that the major event of the feast consisted in the comedies’ competition. These plays, as testified in Aristophanes’ works, had a very satirical connotation, contained vulgar expressions and openly referred to contemporary political or cultural personalities. It is now worth turning at how some of the major classical works offer a picture of the relationship between Athens and hagos and miasma.


Family Crisis and Aristophanes


Image: An Early Modern Engraving for “The Clouds”

vania 4The Clouds by Aristophanes tells the story of Strepsiades, a farmer whose son has lost so much money on horse races that the household is now in financial difficulty. Moreover, Pheidippides (Strepsiades’s son) has also been recently called to court by his debtors. The farmer then tries to persuade his son to go to the school of Socrates and learn how to turn the worse argument into the winning one in order to win in court. However, Pheidippides is not interested at all. Strepsiades decides to get into the school himself, but Socrates (who is depicted as a man floating in a basket watching the weather) refuses to teach him anything after he catches the farmer masturbating during a meditation rite. Finally, Pheidippides is convinced to enroll into Socrates’s school by the personification of the “Inferior Argument,” claiming that students following the new sophist way (whose representative is Socrates) of an education based only on personal ambitions and getting out of trouble with words, brought to success many more youngsters than the old education based on the respect for the elderly and of the authority of common good. In a highly emotional moment, the personification of the “Superior Argument” standing for the old customs admits its defeat.

Unfortunately for Strepsiades, when Pheidippides re-emerges from Socrates’s school, he is able to trick people with words to get the situation in his favour, but he also rebels against his father and dares beating him for any small disagreement. Before Pheidippides could start beating his mother as well, Strepsiades takes action. The end of the play sees Strepsiades attacking Socrates and his school with a large group of slaves.

By combining the plot of this comedy and the “conservative” political instances of Aristophanes in other comedies, it is possible to extract the message of this play for its audience: be wary of the new sophists, they will ruin your children and undermine the stability of the institution of the family. In fact, according to Dodds, the 5th Century would represent, for Athens, a real crisis in terms of perceptions of social stability. Before the 6th century, the Greek society would have been based on aggregation of families, independently ruled but interdependently working for the common good. The head of the family was formally called ἄναξ οικοιο (anax oikoio), “master of the house” and every member, no exception, owed respect and obedience to him. However, in the 6th Century, Solon, the famous lawmaker who incited the development of democracy, introduced some new regulations which undermined the authority of the anax. For example, if a man felt his father the anax had not given him a good education, he could  decide not to support him in old age.  This situation, Dodds argues, would have degenerated with the rise of sophists (or philosophers considered as such by their peers,  like Socrates by Aristophanes) who would have imparted an education based on personal ambition and eloquence over content of speech. Fathers would have looked at rebelling children taught by sophists as bearers of confusion and crisis.


Sophocles and the spreading of violence


Image: Oedipus kills his father Laius. He had previously been warned by the oracle that he was probably going to kill his natural father and commit incest with his own natural mother. However, Oedipus does not know Laius’ identity when he perpetrates the murder.

vania 2

Anthropologist Girard offers an explanation on why Athenians (and, he implies, humanity in general at different degrees) feared change so much. The answer would lie in the violent character of the change. By definition, he argues, crisis brings struggle, drama and opposition. These are all associated with violence and, in the instances of primordial instincts, with aggression. Societies avoid this last dangerous phenomenon by means of rules and religious customs with which to perform rites of “controlled-violence,” namely judiciary systems and sacrifices. However, going against one of these two institutions for personal reasons means breaking that artificial control and making the case for violence to spread, allowing destruction and death within society.

This is pictured, according to Girard, in the trilogy by Sophocles on the story of Oedipus and his family: Oedipus’ father, Laius, casts out Oedipus from his family because the oracle told him that his son -if he had ever had one- was destined to kill him and commit incest with his mother Jocasta. Oedipus then kills Laius because he stands in his way on a road and is provoked by impious words to violence. All characters are driven by personal reasons and right of their own.


Evidence for fear of Pollution in Natural Death and Birth Rituals


Image: Anonymous “Gela Painter,” The women of the household prepare the body of the dead for the funeral procession. 6th century. MET.

vania 3An Ancient Greek inscription recites as follows: «πάτριόν ἐστιν ἐν μηδενὶ τῶν τεμενῶν μήτ’ ἐντίκτειν μὴτ’ ἐναποθνήσκειν» (“It is proper not to give birth nor to die within any sacred fence”). Another one from Epidauros says «τὸ δὲ ἱερὸν ἄλσος τοῦ Ἀσκληπιοῦ περιέχουσιν ὅροι πανταχόθεν: οὐδὲ ἀποθνήσκουσιν ἄνθρωποι οὐδὲ τίκτουσιν αἱ γυναῖκές σφισιν ἐντὸς τοῦ περιβόλου». (“Mountains surround the sacred woods of Asclepius in every direction: neither men die or women themselves give birth in the perimetered sacred area”). Both death and birth were considered to be polluting happenings and as such they had to be strictly regulated by laws, both by the polis and the gods.

When a man died of natural death the responsibility for the funeral fell on the family or the entire neighbourhood depending on where he or she had actually died. If it happened in the house, then it was the duty of the family to take up the rituals by placing a bowl of water (but not from within the house, which was contaminated by this point) outside in order for people outside the family to wash themselves when exiting and limiting contact with others to a minimum. The whole household, including its members, were to remain polluted until the burial of the body, which would have had to happen just before dawn in the following days. Women of the household prepared the body by washing it thoroughly and weaving a crown with plants on it to testify its purity. Then, the procession carried the body through the empty streets of the city, avoiding contact with anyone, towards the necropolis (literally, “city of the dead,” graveyard) outside the citadel. The order of the procession was determined by the degree of bloodline proximity with the dead: the closer one’s relation to the dead person, the closer he was to the body. Every family member had to take part in it, except from those paying religious service to a god or goddess, in order to maintain his or her purity. At the end of it, when the body was buried, the participants would take a bath and then gather for a banquet in order to reassure themselves and society, by this cheerful social gathering, that the crisis was over. More rituals were to be performed to purify the home by making offers to the hearth gods and by being incapacitated in some daily life activities by the polluting mark which was to fade completely after twenty or forty days.

The most striking exception to the rule of burying the dead outside the citadel is the one of some heroes found buried at Cyrenes and Sicyon, in the middle of the town. Scholars hypothesize that these individuals were not yet considered dead, as their fame and memory would be everlasting. Not even pollution seems to have been associated with their burials.

For what regards rites of giving birth, they could be roughly defined in three major phases occurring from the moment in which the woman found out about the pregnancy to forty days after the birth of the child. Apparently, for forty days after the discovery, the woman could not enter any temple or sacred area for two reasons: first of all, she had to symbolically “pay penalty” to Artemis, the virgin goddess, for having had a sexual encounter and, secondly, she had to avoid any chance of spilling blood through natural spillages or miscarriage (which might be more common during that period) in a sacred environment. Blood is the symbol of violence, especially if fresh, but violence can also be associated with another disrupting instinct, which is sexuality. That is why menstruation was (and sometimes still is) regarded with so much fear.

Going back to the ritual phases, after forty days the woman was free to go to temples again as sources suggest that she was no longer polluted (probably because the community had accepted the rite of passage of pregnancy) and, rather, was in danger of pollution from others. The birth would have then reached the peak of the miasma again. The whole family would have had to perform rituals of ablution to wash off contamination but, most importantly, the mother and the newborn were supposed to take a bath and avoid social contact for eleven days (the period within which post-partum blood spillage regularizes). No one, however, was out of danger until the fortieth day from the the birth. By that time, the newborn was formally accepted into the community through the rite of the ἀμφιδρόμια (amphidromia, it consisted of taking the baby around the house to all members of the family and friends invited while feasting). This took place around the seventh day from the birth and the baby would have been named after that.


Final Notes


This article has offered a brief insight on the topic of pollution in Classical Athens and an attempt to link history and anthropology at least with regard to the analysis of the role of the theatre in explaining perceptions of pollution. Sources for concepts of miasma and hagos in this article are limited due to the length of this work and so are the range of topics taken into consideration. In a more complete analysis, concepts of blood, sacrifice and purification should be studied.



Written by Vania Buso





Primary Sources


Aristofane.  Le Nuvole: a Cura di Alessandro Grilli. Milano: Bur Rizzoli,  2001.

*Several English translations of this comedy exist. The English title of this work is The Clouds and the author’s name should be researched by its transliteration from Greek “Aristophanes.”


Sofocle. Antigone. Edipo Re. Edipo a Colono: Introduzione, Traduzione, Premessa al Testo e Note di Franco Ferrari. Bur Rizzoli: Milano, 2010.

*Several English translations of Sophocles’s tragedies exist. The respective titles of the tragedies of the abovementioned Italian edition are Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. (accessed June 2015) (accessed June 2015)

This websites include “Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers” and “Pausanias, Description of Greece


Secondary Sources


Canfora, Luciano. Storia della Letteratura Greca. Milano: Laterza, 2013.

*Unfortunately, no English editions of this book seem to exist.


Dodds, Eric. I Greci e l’Irrazionale. Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1959.

*Several English editions exist for this book by the title: The Greeks and the Irrational


Girard, René.  La violenza e il sacro. Milano: Adelphi Edizioni, 1980.

*Several English editions exist for this book by the title: The Violence and the Sacred
Parker, Robert. Miasma. Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.