Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Defilement, Disgust, and Disease: The Experiential Basis of Hittite and Akkadian Terms for Impurity

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Defilement, Disgust, and Disease: The Experiential Basis of Hittite and Akkadian Terms for Impurity

Article excerpt

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. …

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