PURIFICATION, in the study of comparative religion, may be defined as the expulsion or elimination by ritual actions and ceremonies from an individual or a community, a place or a dwelling, of the contagion of a taboo (q.v.) or ritual pollution, which is often conceived of as due to the presence of or haunting by an unclean spirit, and having for its effect disease, pain and death. In the higher religions the idea of purification has slowly developed into that of ethical liberation from sin and guilt. This development involves a distinction between the outward act and the inner act or motive, which we do not find even in the relatively advanced codes of the ancient Jews or of the Athenians of the 5th century B.C., for in both of these the taboo or guilt of homicide was the same whether accidentally or wilfully committed. It is part of this development that contrition, remorse and repentance come to be recognized, together with merely ritual acts, such as baptism and sacramental meals, as a condition of regaining the lost purity or status. The ethical ideal of atonement and purity of heart is at last attained when, as in the Society of Friends, all ritual acts are abandoned as indifferent to moral progress. The dross of the primitive taboo still encumbers the conscience in churches which insist on outward ritual performances as an element in holiness or moral perfection and purity. The tendency of civilization is more and more to antiquate them as obstacles rather than aids to the formation of character.
In most primitive societies the chief sources of ritual pollution are birth, death, bloodshed, blood, especially menstruous blood. Numberless other things are or have been taboo among different peoples, such as trees, colours, foods and drinks, persons, places, seasons. Persons and things brought even involuntarily into contact or association with these are tabooed, and only recover their normal condition by some rite of purification or catharsis. Such rites operate by the transference elsewhere of the stain or impurity contracted. Very generally the impurity is due to the haunting by an unclean spirit or ghost, who must be driven off by exorcists invoking the name of a more powerful and clean spirit, which usually enters the thing or person possessed in place of the unclean. On this side rites of purification may become rites of consecration. In lower civilizations disease and madness are held to be caused by evil spirits which are similarly expelled; and on this side purificatory rites develop into the medical art. It must be borne in mind that a drug was originally not a substance succeeding by dint of its chemical properties and physical reactions on pur bodies, but a talisman or charm taken internally and succeeding by reason of its magical properties.
Among the methods of purification used widely among different races and in various religions, the following may be enumerated, though the list might be indefinitely extended.
1. Piacular sacrifices, often recurring annually, intended to renew the life of the god in the worshippers. " Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins " (Heb. ix. 22).
2. Vicarious sacrifice, whereby the guilt of an individual or of a clan is transferred into an animal, like the Jewish scapegoat, which is forthwith destroyed or sent over the frontier.
3. Washing or sprinkling with water, as a rule previously blessed or exorcised ; or with the water of separation (i.e. water mixed with ashes of a red heifer).
4. Washing with gomez, or urine of the sacred cow.
5. Anointing with holy oil.
6. Smearing with the blood, e.g. of the passover lamb or of a pig ; or by actual baptism with the blood of an ox as in the Taurobolium (see MITHRAS).
7. Fumigation with smoke of incense used at sacrifices, the incense itself being the gum of a holy tree and gathered with magical precautions.
8. Rubbing with sulphur or other lyes. Use of hellebore, hyssop, etc.
9. Burning with fire objects in which the impurity has been confined.
10. Sprinkling with water in which the cross has been washed (used for flocks and fields in Armenia).
11. Evil spirits are expelled by invocation of the name of a being more powerful than they, and by the introduction of a clean spirit.
12. By fasting.
13. In the old Parsee religion the drugs or demons which infect a corpse can be driven off by the look of certain kinds of dogs.
14. An impure contagion may be removable together with hair, nails or bits of clothing. Hence the use of the tonsure and the custom of shaving the head in vows.
15. Houses may be purged of evil spirits by sweeping them out with a broom, or by many of the cathartic media above enumerated for purification of the person.
16. By use of salt.
17. By celibacy, virginity and abstention from sexual intercourse.
18. By confession or expulsion of the evil in speech.
iq. By spitting and blowing the nose in order to evacuate devils harbouring in the head and throat.
20. By spittle, as in the baptismal rite of the Latins.
21. By passing between fires or jumping through fire.
22. By sitting or standing on or wearing the fleece of a holy animal.
23. By beating and stinging with ants, by branding, tattooing, knocking out of teeth.
24. By circumcision and other more serious mutilations.
In many of these rites the old man contaminated in some way is put off and the mystic is reborn. This idea of rebirth is especially prominent in the blood-bath of the Taurobolium (No. 6) and in Christian baptism (?..); also in the initiatory rites of various es who even make a pretence of -killing their boys and bringing them back to life again. (F. C. C.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)