Crime: Sacred or Profane?

(Originally published in Druid's Progress 11)

In today's society we are accustomed to the separation of church and state. One of those functions which falls on the 'state' side of the formula is the handling of crime, or justice. This is so ingrained in our way of thinking that one person, when asked about ADF's response to crime, replied that if a crime isn't committed specifically to defame our organization, it should be of no concern to us.

ADF is a Neopagan organization, but one of our priorities is learning as much as we can about authentic Paleopaganism, and putting that knowledge into practice when useful, (and when it doesn't pose ethical problems for us). But, of course, for the ancients there was no separation of church and state. In Greece a serious crime would make the criminal polluted. It would call for ritual purification of the city and anyone with whom he'd come into contact. The crime itself was often an offense against at least one of the gods, and divine justice might call for pursuit of the criminal by the Furies, a trip to Tartarus, or payment exacted in future lives. Of course there were human institutions of justice to determine guilt and mete out punishment, but they were linked closely to religion. Some of the most famous trials in Athens were for 'impiety', and, from the religious side, when the gods were most wrathful and it took nothing less than a human life to appease them, it was likely to be a criminal or prisoner chosen for the triple death or other sacrifice.

So, if we were thinking more like our cultural ancestors about major crime, what are its religious implications, and what should our response be? On the one hand, in Greece at least, a criminal could seek sanctuary in a temple. Once granted that asylum the criminal would be in the hands of the god, and for others to violate that trust would be to bring a curse onto themselves and their own family. But how would the god treat his new charge? Unlike Christianity no god died to suffer for our sins, so the responsibility still rests solidly on the shoulders of the criminal, and presumably the god would give the criminal ways of paying for his crime.

In our literary sources the criminal is shown to suffer for his crimes, even when he is unaware he is committing them. It is not the intention which displeases the gods, but the violation of sacred law itself. So Iocasta is driven to hang herself and Oedipus pricks his own eyes out with the pins in her clothes and wanders the earth as a beggar. The interesting side to this is that in committing a crime someone crosses the line between profane and sacred, which is how they become polluted. But that also means they are touched by the sacred powers: only in his blindness can Oedipus truly see. When common people made curse tablets they threw them into graves of victims or criminals, or left them at the sight of a recent hanging or murder because those spirits were thought to be especially powerful, or to at least have the attention of greater powers, like the Furies, Persephone, Hecate or other chthonic deities.

Because of the divine madness aspects of the criminal, one person suggested that the problem is that someone is standing in the place of the daimons and that a purification is in order. At least in the Greek there is no historical precedence for this, since those who were touched by divine madness were seers like Cassandra, and we never see anyone trying to purify these people, or cure them of their madness, but instead use their gifts.

Paul Maurice suggested another model based on the concept of weregilds (wolf-money) of the Norse, wherein the criminal had to pay the family or the victim for their loss. Historically, if he didn't pay, then his actions brought about a blood feud. Conversely, if the family chooses not to accept the weregild they start the blood feud. If he could not convince his family of his innocence, the violation of the law without recompense left him without a community, or lawless, a wolf rather than a human, to be treated as such, (i.e., he becomes an outdweller). Applied to ADF, if we were not convinced by his appeals, he would be exiled from the organization.

The question we need to ask isn't whether the criminal has hurt our organization, but whether he has violated sacred law and is polluted. If so, our response needs to be twofold. First, we need to purify our community (if the criminal was a member) through ritual, and also purify those with whom the criminal has come into contact. A common ancient way the pollution was eliminated was through exile, so throwing the person at least out of contact with the membership would have historical precedent. Second, we should offer advice to the criminal as to how to pay for his crime. What was the nature of the crime? Which deities has he offended? What do they demand? Our 'spiritual support' would be less like a priest listening to confession and absolving the criminal of his sins and more like a constant reminder that what he has done is serious and he will get no rest in this lifetime, the afterlife, or the next lifetimes until he has paid for it.

Author Information

Deborah Kest (Diorima)

Articles by Deborah Kest (Diorima)

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