(Before we move into deeper discussion on this matter, please consider whether or not you’re the intended audience for this discussion. Keep in mind that this discussion is about Canaanite polytheistic practices in a Canaanite polytheistic mindset. It is not intended to be a post detailing what other polytheistic religions "should" do, and this post does not detail practices that are matters of foundational polytheism.)
Khats’a accumulates as a result, generally speaking, of any one or any combination of these things, but may not be limited to:
An action committed which is inappropriate culturally
An action committed which is inappropriate according to social mores and social norms
An action committed which is inappropriate in ritual settings.
For a person to commit an act which is inappropriate culturally, this would mean that, for example, he treats a fountain as a public latrine, or she curses out a nun, or they perform an act inappropriate to another culture when they are is immersed in that culture. An action which is inappropriate according to social mores and social norms would include something like incest or child abuse, and also include committing unlawful acts in accordance to the local laws. An action which is inappropriate in ritual settings would be desecrating a temple. Most of what we know about khats’a in the ancient world indicates that it was a matter of deeds in social interactions, in social context, and in regards to locality. Social interactions include, but are not limited to, interactions with other humans, with deities, with ancestors, with other Beings and beings. Social context includes but is not limited to the surrounding culture, matters of age, matters of profession, matters of seniority, matters of hierarchy and social events or situations like brunch, attending a public lecture, visiting a sick friend, family gatherings, going before a court, and so on. Locality includes but is not limited to settings of home, hospital, city, country, temple, street, market, library, school, office buildings, land, or sea. Thus what may constitute khats’a in one convergence of social interaction, social context, and place may not always constitute khats’a in another situation where there are different social interactions, social contexts, and places. It’s not “all relative” and it’s not a matter of “anything goes,” but it can be contextually specific. It can (but not always) change according to the context.
I would like to note that there are times where committing khats’a could be a means by which to diminish another, potentially greater, khats’a. This is not a thing which is done often and which should only be done through careful consideration and guidance. I mention it in passing to illustrate that being in a state of khats’a isn’t necessarily always “bad” thing, it’s simply a state with different attributes and different concerns. An example of this kind of act would be a matter of supporting polytheistic rights in a dominant culture which generally is dismissive (or worse). Or, it can constitute an act which is considered transgressive or abnormal in a culture in order to achieve a chance at greater clarity—some forms of satire might fit this description.
Performing khats’a and carrying around khats’a puts a person into an impure state. However, it must be noted that the matter of purity versus impurity is larger than just matters of khats’a—khats’a is not a synonym for impurity. Khats’a is only one thing which can bring about a state of impurity.
In order to be present for some rites and some settings (like being in a Temple) one must take steps to remediate khats’a. These steps can include, but are not limited to:
Washing hands (preferably with holy water)
Taking a bath or a shower (preferably with holy water)
Being cleansed through a handwashing administered by a sacred technician and/or priest
Being cleansed through a bath prepared by a sacred technician and/or a priest
Going through a specific anointing rite with a priest
Going on a sacred pilgrimage to particular holy sites
Making special offerings to a deity, to a Temple, to a priest, or all three
Going through a collective group mushru-rite led by a king, a king-priest, or a priest
Doing one or more of the above actions helps remove khats’a and bring a person into a purified state.
There are some deities who prefer a person accumulate less khats’a, or take steps to remediate that khats’a more often, and then there are deities who are less concerned about it; however one must be mindful because even the deities who are less concerned with the matter still pay attention to context. For example, a deity may not be too concerned about a person who carries around extra khats’a, generally speaking, but will certainly dislike it if you enter a Temple while carrying khats’a and being in an impure state. Also, there are some roles in the social context of the religion which require that one carry less khats’a, generally speaking, than for other roles.
If you have accumulated a great amount of khats’a, sometimes you may see the effects in your life through a reduced interaction with the deities, through a reduced contact with ancestors, through a reduction in good luck, or through an increase in a susceptibility to illness or misfortune. This is not a matter of blaming the victim of bad luck or illness or misfortune…any more than you would blame a person for catching a cold because a person was stuck in a train station during flu season. Nor is this a matter of reward versus punishment. These are just natural things which can happen.
Khats’a does have a relationship to matters of purity and impurity, however matters of purity and impurity are larger concerns than just khats’a. A person can be in a state of ritual impurity, but without khats’a: for instance if a person is actively bleeding from a cut (depending on the context and the situation—a sacrifice performed in a sacred courtyard in a Temple complex, for instance, would not be a matter of impurity). A person who is actively bleeding from a cut is not is not state of khats’a from the bleeding cut (because that’s not how khats’a works) but the person can well be in a state of ritual impurity which will need to be seen to before entering into a Temple. A person returning from war, after having killed to defend her people, has committed no khats’a, but she is still in a state of impurity which will need attending. (By contrast a person who was called to war but who did not go to defend and aid his people has likely, depending on the surrounding context and circumstances, committed khats'a.) A person can also end up with forms of impurity from being around things, acts, or contexts which are impure, so these things can carry a little like contagion. However it should also be noted that purity can be carried around like a “contagion” of a different sort—it is rare that a person could carry purity that strongly but it can happen.
It should be noted that the term “purify” in Ugaritic encompasses an idea not just of purification, but also freedom from further cultic obligation on the matter, and also implies a movement into a non-cultic state. Purification also signifies a movement from sacred ritual shared with the gods in sacred contexts, and back into everyday mundane space. So, purification was done not just to purify, but also to signal and ease a transition between states. It is important to be aware that when we look at an idea of purity, many times we’re looking through a lens colored by our own dominant cultural background; we must be conscious that the ideas and emotional baggage we may have unconsciously associated with ideas of purity and impurity do not fit with concepts in Canaanite polytheistic religion either past or present.
So, let’s take a moment and discuss briefly why ritual impurity is something important. A person doesn’t just go out and get hot and sweaty and covered in dirt from working in a garden then walk right into a Temple. This is disrespectful. There is nothing wrong with being hot and sweaty and covered in dirt in a garden: this is the right place and the right context for it. However, a Temple setting is not the right context for that, and if you don’t stop to change your clothes and take a shower before going in a Temple, you will offend the deities and you will violate the Temple space. There are times, places, and contexts which are appropriate for different things: you don’t go around yelling in a library, you don’t go turning cartwheels in a tightly packed antique store, you don’t go show up in soaking gym sweats to a formal dance. These are matters of context and take into account social interaction, social context, and locality (just like we talked about earlier).
Quick Comparison of Khats’a and Miasma
Miasma is a Greek concept, rooted in ancient Greek social culture, Greek social context, and the locality Greece and the contexts shaped and influenced by ancient and modern Greek polytheistic religion. Miasma generally refers to a state of impurity. Miasma is sometimes thought of as a stain.
Khats’a is not “miasma.” Khats’a is misdeed, and misdeed can put a person into a state of impurity. There is no concept of “miasma” per se in Canaanite polytheistic religion because “miasma” is a Greek concept embedded in Greek polytheistic religion, however matters of purity and impurity are of importance in Canaanite polytheistic religion, and there is an idea that impurity can adversely affect whole social groups over time. In ancient Ugarit there was a large city-wide rite in which the king on behalf of the city would publically perform a mushru-rite. (Mushru means “rectitude” and this was a sacrifice intended to aid in the clearing of the city of khats’a.) Khats’a is often thought of as something which can mar one’s beauty (and when I say "beauty" here, I am not referring to an idea of "beauty" which is hinged on superficial lookism or on changing fads in standards of physical beauty).
Impurity and misdeed are not the same thing. Although you can accrue impurity from misdeed, there are types of impurity which can come about without sin.
Scroll back upwards and see where I used the word “cultic”, as in "cultic obligation"? I have a hunch that you assumed I wasn’t referring to some kind of Satanic Panic Brainwashing Baby-Eating Cult. I’ll wager you were assuming this has nothing to do with Jim Jones or Heaven’s Gate, either. The words “cult” and “cultic” in this context refer to a set of religious practices: that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing loaded, nothing “creepy,” and nothing coercive or abusive. Just a set of religious practices. So I urge you, dear reader, to consider the context when I say the word “sin.”
Khats'a is sin. Sin here refers to a misdeed, a transgression. Nothing more, nothing less. The word khats’a translates as “sin” and denotes “acting improperly.” The Ugaritic word is for sin is the same as the Hebrew word: the word from this polytheistic culture, is the same as the word found in early Judaism. This idea of sin is over 3200 years old and is far, far older than the Christian concept you might be more familiar with. So when I use the word “sin” I am not referring to a Christian concept, or even a Jewish concept. I am not injecting a Christian idea into an ancient Canaanite polytheistic context.
If you are worried about the matter of free will in all of this, please see my post Free Will, Restrictions, Ethics, and Misdeed.
Image Credits: Photograph of poster "Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work," Manhattan, New York City. Photo by Sterilgutassistantin. Used under Creative Commons license.