1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ablution

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Ablution (Lat. ablutio, from abluere, "to wash off"), a washing, in its religious use, destined to secure that ceremonial or ritualistic purity which must not be confused with the physical or hygienic cleanliness of persons and things obtained by the use of soap and water.[1] Indeed the two states may contradict each other, as in the case of the 4th-century Christian pilgrim to Jerusalem who boasted that she had not washed her face for eighteen years for fear of removing therefrom the holy chrism of baptism. The purport, then, of ablutions is to remove, not dust and dirt, but the—to us imaginary—stains contracted by contact with the dead, with childbirth, with menstruous women, with murder whether wilful or involuntary, with almost any form of bloodshed, with persons of inferior caste, with dead animal refuse, e.g. leather or excrement, with leprosy, madness and any form of disease. Among all races in a certain grade of development such associations are vaguely felt to be dangerous and to impair vitality. In a later stage the taint is regarded as alive, as a demon or evil spirit alighting on and passing into the things and persons exposed to contamination. In general, water, cows' urine and blood of swine are the materials used in ablutions. Of these water is the commonest, and its efficacy is enhanced if it be running, and still more if a magical or sacramental virtue has been imparted to it by ritual blessing or consecration. Some concrete examples will best illustrate the nature of such ablutions. In the Atharva-Veda, vii. 116, we have this allopathic remedy for fever. The patient's skin burns, that of a frog is cold to the touch; therefore tie to the foot of the bed a frog, bound with red and black thread, and wash down the sick man so that the water of ablution falls on the frog. Let the medicine man or magician pray that the fever may pass into the frog, and the frog be forthwith released, and the cure will be effected. In the old Athenian Anthesteria the blood of victims was poured over the unclean. A bath of bulls' blood was much in vogue as a baptism in the mysteries of Attis. The water must in ritual washings run off in order to carry away the miasma or unseen demon of disease; and accordingly in baptism the early Christians used living or running water. Nor was it enough that the person baptized should himself enter the water; the baptizer must pour it over his head, so that it run down his person. Similarly the Brahman takes care, after ablution of a person, to wipe the cathartic water off from head to feet downwards, that the malign influence may pass out through the feet. The same care is shown in ritual ablutions in the Bukovina and elsewhere.

Water and fire, spices and sulphur, are used in ritual cleansings, says Iamblichus in his book on mysteries (v. 23), as being specially full of the divine nature. Nevertheless in all religions, and especially in the Brahmanic and Christian, the cathartic virtue of water is enhanced by the introduction into it by means of suitable prayers and incantations of a divine or magical power. Ablutions both of persons and things are usually cathartic, that is, intended to purge away evil influences (καθαίρειν, to make καθαρóѕ, pure). But, as Robertson Smith observes, "holiness is contagious, just as uncleanness is"; and common things and persons may become taboo, that is, so holy as to be dangerous and useless for daily life through the mere infection of holiness. Thus in Syria one who touched a dove became taboo for one whole day, and if a drop of blood of the Hebrew sin-offering fell on a garment it had to be ritually washed off. It was as necessary in the Hebrew religion for the priest to wash his hands after handling the sacred volume as before. Christians might not enter a church to say their prayers without first washing their hands. So Chrysostom says: "Although our hands may be already pure, yet unless we have washed them thoroughly, we do not spread them upwards in prayer." Tertullian (c. 200) had long before condemned this as a heathen custom; none the less, it was insisted on in later ages, and is a survival of the pagan lustrations or πєριρραντήρια. Sozomen (vi. 6) tells how a priest sprinkled Julian and Valentinian with water according to the heathen custom as they entered his temple. The same custom prevails among Mahommedans. Porphyry (de Abst. ii. 44) relates that one who touched a sacrifice meant to avert divine anger must bathe and wash his clothes in running water before returning to his city and home, and similar scruples in regard to holy objects and persons have been observed among the natives of Polynesia, New Zealand and ancient Egypt. The rites, met within all lands, of pouring out water or bathing in order to produce rain from heaven, differ in their significance from ablutions with water and belong to the realm of sympathetic magic.

There are certain forms of purification which one does not know whether to describe as ablutions or anointings. Thus Demosthenes in his speech "On the crown" accused Aeschines of having "purified the initiated and wiped them clean with (not from) mud and pitch." Smearing with gypsum (τίτανοѕ, titanos) had a similar purifying effect, and it has been suggested[2] that the Titans were no more than old-world votaries who had so disguised themselves. Perhaps the use of ashes in mourning had the same origin. In the rite of death-bed penance given in the old Mozarabic Christian ritual of Spain, ashes were poured over the sick man.

Authorities.—W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites; Jul. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums (=Skizzen und Vorarbeiten, iii. 2nd ed., Berlin, 1897); John Spencer, De legibus Hebraeorum ritualibus (Tubingae, 1732); Art. "Clean and Unclean" in Hastings' Bible Dictionary and in Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. iv.; J. G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris (London, 1906); Joseph Bingham, Antiquities of the Christian Church, bk. viii.; Hermann Oldenberg, Die Religion des Veda's, Berlin, 1894.

(F. C. C.)


  1. In its technical ecclesiastical sense the ablution is the ritual washing of the chalice and of the priest's fingers after the celebration of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church. The wine and water used for this purpose are themselves sometimes called "the ablution."
  2. By J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to Greek Religion, p. 493.