Defilement, disgust, and disease: the experiential basis of Hittite and Akkadian terms for impurity.

Author:Feder, Yitzhaq

After decades of intense research, the notion of impurity continues to attract scholarly attention, probably because it remains nearly as enigmatic as it ever was. (1) Initially, the potential to interpret purity and pollution symbolically--with ritual practice serving to represent abstract sociological and/or theological concepts--served as a productive catalyst for research in the social sciences and the humanities, including ancient Near Eastern and biblical studies. Ultimately, however, the results of this research program have been disappointing, since they have failed to provide a convincing account of why such considerations were such a driving force in motivating actual behavior. (2)

From the outset, the description of this concept in academic discourse has often been hedged by terms such as "religious" or "ritual" impurity. These markers are intended as clarifications, but their implication is to extract the concept of pollution from the realm of rational experience. The following words of social historian Virginia Smith are somewhat extreme, but nevertheless representative of this tendency:

Religious purity has a distinct role in the history of personal hygiene. It was not functional, not rational, and more often than not completely illusory; but it was a key cultural component that determined the lives and cleansing behaviour of very large numbers of people. (3) However, as Durkheim warned us years ago, we should be suspicious of any account of religious behavior which assumes that it is based on a delusion. (4) Such appeals to the irrational are inevitable results of the initial categorization of pollution as a religious phenomenon--supernatural and divorced from mundane reality.

A much more fruitful approach is offered by modern psychological research on disgust and its relation to "contagion." This universal cognitive mechanism is responsible for "contamination appraisals," namely the sense that "physical contact between the source and the target results in the transfer of some effect or quality (essence) from the source to the target." (5) This perception of the spread of an invisible force or essence is tied to a reaction of disgust and often fear which is elicited by contact (or potential contact) with various sources of contamination, both physiological (such as waste matter, insects, and disease-infected entities) and social, motivated by personal contempt, moral disdain, or racial biases. Interestingly, although the contagion responses evoked by these different causes are generically similar, they tend to differ in regard to the forms of "purification" which can remove the contamination. (6)

The universal capacity to detect contamination plays a crucial role in culture-specific pollution beliefs. These beliefs may be characterized as folk theories (e.g., theories of infection) which offer verbalized articulations of these intuitive contamination appraisals and their implications. (7) The medical anthropologist Edward Green suggests a similar approach in treating African notions of pollution as indigenous theories of infectious disease: "Pollution ... is not so mystical when examined closely. In the anthropological sense, pollution denotes a belief that people will become ill as a result of contact with, or contamination by, a substance or essence considered dangerous because it is unclean or impure." (8) From this perspective, which takes these pollution beliefs as culture-specific linguistic constructs derivative from the embodied experiences they describe, it is important to differentiate between linguistic terminology and the experiential schemes to which they refer.

In a previous study which applied this general approach to the notion of pollution (tum'ah) in the Hebrew Bible, I identified at least three primary types of experience designated by this term: Uncleanness, Infection, and the Stain of Transgression left by bloodshed and sexual misdeeds. (9) Small capital letters are employed to emphasize the point that these categories of pollution refer to recurrent schemas of non-verbal embodied experience, which can potentially be represented by a single umbrella term or by several differentiated terms. (10) Interestingly, despite the fact that these different schemas are described by a single linguistic term, these different types of tum'ah can be distinguished by several characteristics, especially their normative implications and modes of purification. For example, forms of pollution related to the experience of Uncleanness--such as normal genital discharges--required that the polluted person or object be distanced from contact with the divine sphere and the cult. (11) This type of pollution could be removed by the passage of time and washing. In comparison, forms of pollution related to INFECTION--such as abnormal genital discharges, corpse impurity, and leprosy--were perceived as inherently dangerous. These frequently required banishment from the community and expiatory sacrifices as part of the purificatory process. (12) A third type of pollution, called the Stain of Transgression, refers to the invisible stain caused by bloodshed and violation of sexual norms, such as incest, which was thought to provoke divine punishment. (13)

The relationship between pollution and disease (Infection) deserves particular emphasis, because it has not been adequately appreciated until now. In their concern to avoid anachronism, scholars have been wary of attributing to the ancients an awareness of infectious disease. However, the textual evidence from Mari demonstrates incontrovertibly what common sense would dictate, that the contagiousness of many diseases was duly recognized. (14) It is equally correct, however, to recognize that the mechanics of infectious disease, namely the transmission of bacteria, were only properly identified in the mid-nineteenth century GE. (15) The result of this gap between experiential awareness and scientific knowledge is that premodern cultures were required to explain disease according to the conceptual resources that they had available. (16) In the present article, I seek to examine the use of terms related to pollution and purification in Mesopotamian and Hittite literature as they relate to these concrete domains of human experience, especially disease. This inquiry aims not only to understand the nuanced meanings of these linguistic expressions, but also to shed light on core conceptions and underlying rationales motivating purity practices in these cultures.


The Hittite term papratar is rendered by the Chicago Hittite Dictionary as "impurity, defilement, impropriety." (17) This abstract noun is derived from the stem papr-, whose derivatives serve as antonyms to those of parkui- "pure, clean" in ordeals, rituals, and cultic texts. (18) Interestingly, the usage of papr- takes on a distinct nuance in relation to each of these, conforming roughly to the Stain of Transgression, Infection, and Uncleanness schemes, respectively. (19) In relation to ordeals, the terminology of "pure" and "impure" corresponds to the innocence or guilt of the person undergoing the ordeal. For example, the Instructions for Temple Officials (CTH 264) require a drinking ordeal to ensure that the offerant has fulfilled the sacrificial obligation properly: "Then you shall drink from the rhyton of the will of god. If you are pure (parkwaes), it is your protective (lama) deity. But if you are defiled (paprantes), you shall perish together with your wives and children." (20)

In contrast, when employed in cultic contexts in reference to sacrificial offerings, "pollution" designates the uncleanness that desecrates the gods' food. This distinct usage appears in the very same text: "If a pig or a dog ever touches the wood or clay utensils that you have, but the 'pot-bearer' does not throw it away, and he gives to the gods to eat from the defiled (paprandaza) vessels, the gods will give that one to eat and drink excrement and urine." (21) This notion of Uncleanness reflects a visceral sense of disgust which is attributed anthropomorphically to the gods (I 21-22): "Is the will of man and the will of the gods at all different? Certainly not! Is their will not the same?" (22)

The association of pollution and disease appears primarily in ritual texts, where papr- designates a metaphysical threat which causes illness and other types of misfortune. It usually appears together with other suspected causes, including sorcery (alwanzatar), evil speech (lala-), curse (hurtai-), bloodguilt (eshar), and the like. Unfortunately, it is difficult to offer a more specific characterization of papratar, specifically whether it was associated with a particular source.

The Ritual of Tunnawi (CTH 409.1) is specifically designated as a "ritual of pollution" (paprannas SISKUR) and is explicitly linked to disease:

If a person, either a man or a woman, comes upon any papratar, or if anyone else has named him/her for papratar, or if in a woman children keep dying, or if her fetuses keep mis carrying, or if for a man or woman in consequence of a matter of papratar the body parts are disabled. If such a person is experiencing papratar, then such a person, whether man or woman, performs the ritual of papratar. (I 1-8) (23) In this particular case, the papratar is understood as the cause of miscarriage or a reproductive dysfunction in the man or woman. At the same time, the text raises the possibility of someone naming him/her for pollution, apparently referring to some form of sorcery. Indeed, papratar appears most frequently together with alwanzatar (sorcery). (24) Further evidence of the thin line between pollution and sorcery can be found in Hittite Law [section]44b (cited below), where the malicious transfer of contagion (not explicitly designated papratar) to another person is called alwanzatar. (25)

An additional term for an impure state is derived from the term for "excrement"...

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