Myth and Miasma

Myth and Miasma

Photograph by Marcus Schaefer / Trunk Archive


words by willow defebaugh

In mythology, miasma describes a corrupt atmosphere emanating from crimes against nature—and the parallels to the climate crisis are clear.

“I could feel it. That unwholesome air had thickened, coating everything with an oily heaviness. Miasma, it was called. Pollution. It rose from unpurified crimes, from deeds done against the gods, from the unsanctified spilling of blood.”

Madeline Miller

The word miasma refers to a noxious cloud or an atmosphere of corruption. Its roots can be traced back to Hellenistic mythology, in which a miasma is an insidious kind of contamination that goes beyond physical pollution. It comes from unabsolved wrongdoings, corrupting all who are touched by it and compounding to a deadly effect. One example of this is the story of king Atreus who tricked his brother Thyetes into devouring his own sons and thus created a miasma that would consume their entire family, spawning one trauma after the next. When the past remains unresolved, when it is not properly processed, it plagues us.


Some scholars say miasma follows whenever one goes against Themis, the divine embodiment of Natural Law; in other words, it is a consequence of crimes against nature. In this regard, I believe that cultural mythologies have a lot to teach us about the climate crisis. When I first read about miasma, I couldn’t help but see the parallels with the pollutants of our day: fossil fuels, which come from decomposing plants and animals in the Earth’s crust. Our abuse of these substances is not only endangering life, but perverting death.


By now you have likely read about the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), yet another alarm bell that time is running out. In order to avoid the worst consequences of climate catastrophe, the report makes clear that we need to convert to a low-carbon society, and we must do it now. So what will it take for our leaders to cut ties with the past and finally forsake fossil fuels? They know the damage they are inflicting, and they know the solutions, yet they continue to perpetuate the cycle of violence—of miasma.


There were some promising signs of progress in the report, too. As Yessenia Funes pointed out in The Frontline this week, it marked the first time in 30 years that the IPCC named colonialism as a driver of the climate crisis, and one that is continuing to threaten those most vulnerable to it. And remember: the world’s top scientists and 195 officials from different governments had a hand in this. For leaders to acknowledge the deeper sources of the contamination that plagues the Earth marks not only a win for the climate justice movement, but a step toward healing as well.


It is hard not to feel like we are living through a Greek tragedy. We know what will happen should we continue down this road—the prophecies are clear—and yet those in charge are still attempting to outwit the fates. Why? Because men who would be heroes seem incapable of avoiding the allure of that same Achilles’ heel, the main motive behind so many myths and acts of malevolence: power. They have mistaken oil for ichor, and the pockets of big oil run deep—in this world of gods and monsters, any actions against them seem to require a herculean strength.


Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is how obvious the solutions to fossil fuels are, how easily we could avoid this ill-gotten fate. Did you know that, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface in just an hour and a half is enough to meet the entire world’s energy needs for a year? And arguments about the high cost of clean energy are no longer an excuse; the IPCC report found that prices of solar and wind energy are notably lower than they once were, even going so far as to say that it may be more expensive to keep going with the high polluting energy systems we rely on now.


I often wonder if fossil fuel executives and the politicians who profit from them really are only swayed by power, or if it might come down to another weakness of gods and mortals alike: pride. Perhaps it is an unwillingness to examine their own culpability in this catastrophe. Aristotle once stated that the true purpose of tragedy is to bring about katharsis, Greek for purification. It is said that this is the only cure for miasma: one must process the past in order to find absolution and break the cycle. Only then will the natural balance of justice be restored.

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