A theory of purity from the perspective of comparative religion

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




James W. Watts


Pollution, Purity, Comparative religion, Egypt, Greece, Israel

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Religion


Though systems regulating purity and pollution are found in almost every culture and across historical time periods, and though the similarities among the purity systems of different cultures have been noticed, the field of comparative religion has failed to develop sophisticated theories about the concepts of purity and pollution. Currently, social-functionalist theories are dominant in the study of purity and pollution. While the social-functionalist theories have focused almost exclusively on the social dimensions of purity, my work has highlighted the necessity of also taking seriously the religious dimensions of purity. This dissertation represents my attempt to offer a much-needed theory of purity and pollution from the perspective of comparative religion. A comparative study of three ancient Mediterranean cultures---ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and ancient Israel---shows the usefulness of my framework for understanding purity in general, as well as the purity ideas of individual cultures, more specifically. According to my theory, purity refers to, first, the requisite conditions or necessary qualities of each realm within a cosmological worldview, and second, the rules that regulate the interrelationship among the various realms that constitute the total cosmological worldview. Impurity is understood as the failure of a realm to satisfy its requisite condition and pollution is the negative effects of one realm on another in cases when their rules cannot tolerate each other. In the cosmologies of these three cultures, realms were based on two basic distinctions---divine vs. non-divine, and life vs. death. These two distinctions generated four major realms: the divine realm of life; the divine realm of death; the non-divine realm of life; and the non-divine realm of death. While the specific way that the distinctions play out in a culture is variable, my theory of purity and pollution still holds, which will be affirmed through applying my theory to the Japanese case in the last chapter.


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