Pollution and Purification.—The subject of pollution and purification has been much and properly insisted upon as affording a striking parallel between the Israelites and the Indians. The Indians made special huts for the women, at certain periods, when they were considered so unclean that nothing which they touched could be used. A Muskoki woman, after delivery of a child, was separated from her husband for three moons (eighty-four days). This may be compared with the Levitical law by which the mother of a female child was to be separated eighty days and of a male forty days. Dr. Boudinot says that in some Indian tribes there was similar distinction between male and female children.
Among the southern Indians wounded persons having running sores were confined beyond the village, and kept strictly separate, as by the Levitical law. An Israelite dying in any house or tent polluted all who were in it and all the furniture in it, and this pollution continued for seven days. All who touched a corpse or a grave were impure for the same time. Similarly, many of the Indians burned down the house where there had been a death.
Many writers have asserted, as one of the excellences of the Israelite customs, that the "purification" imposed upon those who had been engaged in a burial was a sanitary regulation, a measure rendered expedient in a hot country. As no great proportion of the Israelites generally inhabited a country hot to the degree indicated, and as none of them had any conception of disease or the cause of death, this explanation is hardly sufficient. Much later the compilers might have gained some sanitary knowledge by which the old superstition was utilized. Its true explanation is from supernatural, not from natural, concepts. It is probably connected with a point mentioned before—i.e., the avoidance of corpses from the fear of the spirit of the dead and of the bad spirit which had caused the death, and the purificatory ceremony was for the daimon, not for the disease. The neglect of sanitation is well illustrated among the Navajo, who are little affected by civilization. Upon the death of one of their members they block up the shelter containing the corpse, and, from fear of the spook or of the agent of death, or of both, not from fear of the corpse itself, they never again visit it. Other tribes simply piled stones on the corpse, which prevented its disturbance by beasts, but did not absorb the effluvium. Still others exposed the dead on scaffolds. To leave corpses to putrefy freely is certainly not a sanitary measure, yet it was a practice existing together with the mortuary rites before mentioned, though many of the tribes practiced earth-burial, and a few used cremation.
On a broad examination of the topic of "pollution," so styled by most writers, it seems to be best explained by our recent understanding of tabu.