Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas

Holy Orders: The Reason for Religion’s Obsession with Classifying and Dividing


I believe that ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created. The more we know about primitive religions the more clearly it appears that in their symbolic structures there is scope for meditation on the great mysteries of religion and philosophy. Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death.


Left Brain Purity and Right Brain Ambiguity

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How the Left Brain sees the world

Purity is an attempt to force experience into logical categories. Ambiguous things can seem very threatening. Taboo confronts the ambiguous: it is a spontaneous coding practice which sets up a vocabulary of spatial limits and physical and verbal signals to hedge around vulnerable relations. It threatens specific dangers if the code is not respected. In both cases, a challenge to the established classification is brought under control by some theory of attendant harm.


Having invented its useful fictional categories the Left Brain gets very annoyed when reality doesn’t conform to them

The theory of pollution can be illustrated by reference to the Mosaic dietary law. I studied the list of prohibited animals in Leviticus XI and found in those rules the same classification of three environments, land, water and air, as found in the Genesis creation story. It seems that the prohibitions could be explained as a form of taboo on anomalous creatures, using the biblical term ‘clean’ to mean proper to its class, suitable, fitting.

I took the cloven-hoofed ruminant as the model of the clean class of animal for the land habitat: that would be why the Israelites were allowed to eat the cows, sheep and goats of their flocks and herds. The anomaly theory of taboo would explain that the pig, the camel and the rock badger were unclean and tabooed because of their deviant feet.


The Taxonomy of Holiness

Sacred things and places are to be protected from defilement: holiness and impurity are at opposite poles. The Latin word sacer, for instance, has this meaning of restriction through pertaining to the gods [sacer means to ‘set apart’, the etymological root of ‘sacred’, just as the Greek word hágios, the root of our modern word ‘holy’, also means something ‘set apart’]. Similarly, the Hebrew root of k-d-sh, which is usually translated as ‘Holy’, is based on the idea of separation. Aware of the difficulty  translating k-d-sh straight into Holy, Ronald Knox’s version of the Old Testament uses “set apart”. Thus the grand lines “Be ye Holy, Because I am Holy” are rather thinly rendered:

I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt; I am set apart and you must be set apart like me.  (Levit. 11:46)

But there are more intractable cases. In Hinduism, for example, the idea that the unclean and the holy could both belong to a single broader linguistic is ludicrous. The idiom of pollution lends itself to a complex algebra which takes into account the variables in each context.

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Dirt as Disorder

We can recognise in our own notions of dirt that we are using a kind of omnibus compendium which includes all the rejected elements of ordered systems. Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing; similarly, bathroom equipment in the drawing room; clothing lying on chairs; outdoor things indoors; upstairs things downstairs; underclothing appearing where over-clothing should be, and so on.


If you don’t fit in you must be wrong

In short, our pollution behaviour is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications. If uncleanness is matter out of place, we must approach it through order. Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained.



The Abominations of Leviticus


“In short, our pollution behaviour is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications”

Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas. For the only way in which pollution ideas make sense is in reference to a total structure of thought whose keystone, boundaries, margins, and internal lines are held in relation by rituals of separation.

To illustrate this I take a hoary old puzzle from biblical scholarship, the abominations of Leviticus, and particularly the dietary rules. Why should the camel, the hare and the rock badger be unclean? Why should some locusts, but not all, be unclean? Why should the frog be clean and the mouse and the hippopotamus unclean? What have chameleons, moles and crocodiles got in common that they should be listed together?

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Holiness is the attribute of Godhead. As we’ve seen, its root means “set apart”. In the Old Testament we find blessing as the source of all good things, and the withdrawal of blessing as the source of all dangers: the initial ‘blessing’ of this binary classification system as something ‘good’ is set up in the opening lines of Genesis: “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”

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the binary classification system of the Left Brain starts to kick in

God’s work through the ‘blessing’ is essentially to create order, through which men’s affairs proper. Hybrids and other confusions are abominated.

And you shall not lie with any beast and defile yourself with it, neither shall any woman give herself to a beast to lie with it: it is perversion.

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Clearly committing the sin of wearing a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff

The word ‘perversion’ is a significant mistranslation of the Hebrew word tebhel, which has its meaning ‘mixing’ or ‘confusion’.  The same theme is taken up in Leviticus XIX,19.

You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.

All these injunctions are prefaced by the general command:

Be holy, for I am holy.

We can conclude that holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused.

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Helpful instructions on where to find what has been deliberately removed and “set apart”

Another set of precepts refines on this last point. Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order. Under this head all the rules of sexual morality exemplify the holy. Morality does not conflict with holiness, but the holiness is more a matter of separating that which should be separated than on protecting the rights of husbands and brothers.


The Great Unwashed: Stay In Your Class


“The underlying principle of cleanness in animals is that they shall conform fully to their class”

The underlying principle of cleanness in animals is that they shall conform fully to their class. Those species are unclean which are imperfect members of their class, or whose class itself confounds the general scheme of the world.

On the earth four-legged animals hop, jump or walk. Any class of creatures which is not equipped for the right kind of locomotion in its element is contrary to holiness. Contact with it disqualifies a person from approaching the Temple. Thus anything in the water which has not fins and scales is unclean. Nothing is said about predatory habits or scavenging. The only sure test for cleanness in a fish is its scales and its propulsion by means of fins.

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Definitely Unclean: “Four-footed creatures which fly”

Four-footed creatures which fly are unclean. Any creature which has two legs and two hands and which goes on all fours like a quadruped is unclean.


Swarming: the left-brain religious programme still underwrites modern attitudes to migrants, class, and gay marriage: its God is still alive and kicking

The last kind of unclean animal is that which creeps, crawls or swarms upon the earth. This form of movement is explicitly contrary to holiness (Levit. XI. 41-44).  Driver and White (in The Polychrome Bible) use ‘swarming’ to translate the Hebrew sherec, which is applied to both those which teem in the waters and those which swarm on the ground. Whether we call it teeming, trailing, creeping, crawling or swarming, it is an indeterminate form of movement.

Since the main animal categories are defined by their typical movement, ‘swarming’ which is not a mode of propulsion proper to any particular element, cuts across the basic classification. Swarming thing are neither fish, flesh nor fowl. There is no order in them.


The above article is an excerpt from Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, by anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas. To read the full book please click here.



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