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Sacred and the Profane, The


SACRED AND THE PROFANE, THE . When referring to the sacred and the profane and distinguishing between them, the languages of modern scholarship are indebted to Latin, even though they may have equivalent or synonymous terms for both that have been derived from their own linguistic traditions. To the Roman, sacrum meant what belonged to the gods or was in their power; yet when referring to sacrum one was not obliged to mention a god's name, for it was clear that one was thinking of cult ritual and its location, or was primarily concerned with the temple and the rites performed in and around it. Profanum was what was "in front of the temple precinct"; in its earlier usage, the term was always applied solely to places. Originally, profanare meant "to bring out" the offering "before the temple precinct (the fanum )," in which a sacrifice was performed. Sacer and profanus were therefore linked to specific and quite distinct locations; one of these, a spot referred to as sacer, was either walled off or otherwise set apartthat is to say, sanctum within the other, surrounding space available for profane use. This purely spatial connotation adheres to the two terms to this day, and implies that it represents a definition of them, or at least of their more important features. It makes sense wherever the church still stands next to the town hall, the cult site alongside the village council chamber, and wherever an assembly of Buddhists or Muslims is something other than an assembly of professional economists or athletes.

If one clings to the spatial aspect of these terms, however, and attempts to use it as a means of distinguishing not only between the two of them but also between religion and nonreligion, one is led astray. This occurs if one posits the sacred as a special category of religion in the way that the correct or the true has been made a category of cognition theory, the good a category of ethics, and the beautiful a category of aesthetics. The sacred is then what gives birth to religion, in that humanity "encounters" it; or it functions as the essence, the focus, the all-important element in religion. Of course it is possible to define the sacred in such a way if one determines that a single attribute is sufficient for an all-encompassing statement about religion. But when one is forced to find attributes that suggest religion's links to altogether different concepts, aside from those having to do with the quality of lying beyond a specific boundary, one discovers that the attribute of sacrality is no longer enough, even if one views its original spatial aspect as a transcendental or metaphysical one. And today, confronted with definitions advanced by critics of ideology, sociologists, psychoanalysts, and others, it indeed necessary to find such attributes. Any definitions, even simple descriptions of the sacred and the profane, are affected by these as well; they also depend, in turn, on the manifold factors one has to muster when identifying the concept of religion.

Yet it is not necessary to discard the ancient Roman distinction between sacer and profanus, for the idea that they exist side by side represents a fundamental paradigm for making distinctions in general. It therefore has a certain heuristic value, though admittedly only that and nothing more.

The relationship between the sacred and the profane can be understood either abstractly, as a mutual exclusion of spheres of reality, or cognitively, as a way of distinguishing between two aspects of that reality. The former approach necessarily presupposes that such exclusion is recognizable; the latter, that one is dealing with ontic factuality. Even if one assumes a transsubjective reality, the boundary between the two spheres may prove to be movable or even fictitious, and even if one confines oneself to the fact of subjectivity, one may at times conclude that transcendence conditions the individual psychologically. Thus, when asking whether the sacred and the profane "exist," and how humans "experience" them, one encounters even greater difficulties than when inquiring after being and its various modes. Even though this article contains primarily the most important information about the various ways in which the sacred has been perceived in the history of religions, these difficulties of meaning must be borne in mind. It is necessary to suppress one's own conclusions about how and in what dimensions the sacred might exist, and about what it "is," in favor of the numerous theories that have been advanced on the question; according to these, conclusions may only be drawn case by case, in the light of the data and the theoretical arguments presented, and may well come out differently in every instance. Only with such reservations in mind can one consider the nature of the sacred and the profane.

Means of Identification

In selecting evidence of the sacred and its relationship to the profane one must be limited to two approaches: Either it is tacitly perceived as something real, or it assumes some kind of symbolic form. In order to establish tacit perception, one requires proofs that silence is maintained for the sake of the sacred. These proofs suffice not only for the mystic, for example, who could speak but prefers to maintain silence, but also for persons who have spoken, but whose language is unknown: namely, the people of prehistory and early historical times.

Symbolic forms may be specifically linguistic or of a broader cultural nature. If they are linguistic, the historian of religions must distinguish between the language spoken by the people who are the objects of study ("object language") and the one spoken by the scholar, though naturally the two will have shadings and terms in common. One can best make this distinction by keeping one's own definition of what is sacred or profane separate from the definition that is given by the culture under scrutiny itself ("self-definition"). Each definition naturally identifies the sacred and profane in a different way. The self-definition is part of those languages in which religious and nonreligious documents have come down to us; in terms of methodology, these are the same as object languages. The definitions the historian develops must arise not only out of the categories of language, but also out of those of modern sociology, psychology, aesthetics, and possibly other disciplines as well, categories employed in an attempt to understand the sacred and profane without resorting to the concepts one customarily translates with sacred and profane ; in terms of methodology, this amounts to a metalanguage.

If the symbolic forms are not of a linguistic nature, there is no self-definition at all. The definitions given from outside to which one must restrict oneself, in this case to relate to language, are not metalinguistic in nature, for the object area is not expressed merely in language, but rather through social behavior, anthropological data, or works of art.

Whether considered a linguistic or a nonlinguistic expression, the definition given from outside can assume an affirmative character, and in so doing turn into the self-definition of the scholar who identifies himself with a given artifact, be it in a text, a specific event, a psychic configuration, or a work of art. The researcher compiling a definition can thus identify himself with both its sacredness and profaneness.

As a rule, one should give neither of these means of identification precedence over the other. It is for purely practical reasons that this article now turns its attention first to those methods relying on linguistic evidence.

Philological methods

It is an axiom in the logic of criticism that one can declare the use of a concept of sacredness in a source to be false. However, the conclusions of the modern scholar, no matter how subtly they might not only deny phenomena of sacredness within religions but also manage to demonstrate them outside of religions, are constantly in need of correction by object-language traditions.

Seen in terms of the history of scholarship, the first object-language tradition to contain the terms for sacred and profane (upon which the terminology of the medieval precursors of modern scholarly languages was based) was the Latin of the Roman classical writers and church fathers, including, among the texts of the latter, the Vulgate and the harmony of its gospel texts represented by Tatian's Diatessaron in the Codex Fuldensis. Equating words resulted in the double presentation of terms in the vernacular, as can still be seen from various contextual, interlinear, and marginal glosses, and in the translations of the Abrogans, an alphabetical dictionary of synonyms, and the Vocabularius Sancti Galli, in which the terms are arranged by subject. Bilingualism, resulting from the rechristianization of Spain, was also responsible for the earliest translation of the Qurʾān by Robertus Ketenensis and Hermannus Dalmata, for the unfinished Glossarium Latino-Arabicum, and for some important translations from Hebrew, which not only reflect the Jews' skill as translators throughout the Diaspora, but also represent active endeavors on the part of the medieval mission among the Jews. Terms for the sacred and its opposites could thus be translated into the vernaculars directly out of Hebrew, Latin, and Catalan, and out of the Arabic by way of Latin. They also became available from Greek, once the early humanists, the forerunners of the modern scholars, had rediscovered the Greek classics through the Latin ones, and the original text of the New Testament and the Septuagint by way of the Vulgate. At the Council of Vienne, in 13111312, it was decided to appoint two teachers each of Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Chaldean at each of five universities; thenceforth Latin emerged once and for all as a metalanguage with respect to the terminologies of these languages (including Latin itself, now considered as an object language), and in so doing came to stand fundamentally on the same footing as the European ver-naculars.

In order to avoid short-circuiting self-confirmations within the terminology of sacredness, it is best to consider this complex as an independent one transmitted to modern scholarship not from the Middle Arabic of the Islamic traditionalists, nor from the Middle Hebrew of the Talmudists, but solely from the Middle Latin of the Christian scholars. It must be distinguished from a later complex that resulted from the use of the European vernaculars in missionary work and in colonization. These were able to reproduce certain word meanings from the native languages, but more often led to interpretations dependent on the terminology of sacredness from the former complex, rather than congenial translation. Moreover, true bilingualism was only present in the work of a few explorers and missionaries. More recently, of course, translation has been accomplished increasingly in accordance with methods taken from the study of the early oriental languages, of Indo-European, and of comparative philology, as well as from linguistic ethnology; only in the twentieth century did all of these achieve independence from interpretations provided by classical antiquity and by Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

Philologia classica sive sacra

The relationship between sacer and profanus can be called a contradictory opposition, if one understands sacer as the object-language expression of something true and profanus as its logical negation. In the rich cultic vocabulary of Latin sacer is of prime importance. Rites such as those of the ver sacrum the sacrifice of all animals born in the spring and the expulsion from the community and cult congregation of all grown people about to establish their own domestic state (for the purpose of securing the support of Mars, who worked outside communal boundaries)or the devotio the offering of an individual life as a stand-in for an enemy army, so that Mars will destroy it as wellserve as prime examples of the characteristic relationship between the sacrum 's liability and certain kinds of human behavior. It follows that all cult objects and sites included in ritual acts can also be sacra. This meaning gives rise to derivations such as sacrare, sacrificare, sancire, sacramentum, sacerdos. Of these, sancire ("to set aside as sacer "; later also "to designate as being sacer," or, even more generally, "to establish with ceremony") is the most fertile, for its participle sanctus would ultimately come to characterize everything appropriate to the sacrum. Sanctus could thus assume a multitude of meanings, including those of cult infallibility and moral purity. Accordingly, it was an ideal translation for the Greek hagios of the New Testament and the Septuagint, and, by way of the latter, for the Hebrew qadosh as well. When used in such a Judeo-Christian context, sacer was then restricted in meaning to "consecrated," and this tended to fix a change in meaning that had begun already in the Latin of the writers of the Silver Age, as sacrum ceased to have an almost innate quality and came to depend on the act of consecration to a deity. A new formation such as sacrosanctus ("rendered sanctum by way of a sacrum ") attests to this difference, as well as to the continuing similarity between the two meanings.

The basic meaning of profanus may also be discovered within the context of human actions, for the spatial connotation, which is always at its root, doubtless first derived from the use made of the area outside the sacrum. Originally, perhaps, this space may even have been used for rites, for the fact that even here one is dealing not with banal functions but with special ones is shown by legal arguments about how assets owned by a god or in the estate of a deceased citizen can be used "profanely."

Along with profanus, there is also another concept that is the opposite of sacer, namely that of fas. This designates, in a purely negative way, the sphere in which human affairs may take place. Fas est means that one may do something without any religious scruples, but not that one must do so. It first appears as a qualifier for a permitted act, then for a condition as well, and accordingly was used through all of the literature of the Roman republic only as a predicate concept. Livy, who also used the term sacrosanctus with some frequency, was the first to employ the concept as a subject as well. Specific times came to be distinguished by the activities appropriate to them. Dies fasti were days on which civil, political, commercial, or forensic activities were fas, or permitted by the religious institutions; dies nefasti were those on which such activities were nefas, that is, not permitted, or sacrilegious.

The meaning of fas does not accord with that of fanum, thennor are they related etymologically; fas is related to fatum as though fas is "what is appropriate to the fanum." Here it is rather the profane sphere that is the positive starting point. Fas is the utterance (from fari, "speak") of the responsible secular praetor who permits something; nefas is that which the priest responsible in the fanum finds unutterable, which constitutes sacrilege on those days over which his institution has control. When one recognizes that what is here accepted as natural and immutable passes over into what has been fixed by humans and is therefore subject to change, and which can be objectively false just as its opposite can, then one can speak of the opposition between fanum/sacer and fas as a contrary one.

Sacer thus has a contradictory opposite (profanus ) and a contrary one (fas ). In addition, finally, there is a dialectical opposition contained within the concept of sacer itself. This comes from the ambivalence produced when, as with fas, the extrasacral sphere is assumed as the positive starting point in one's appraisal. Sacer is thus what is venerated, to be sure, but also something sinister; or, to put it another way, it is both holy and accursed. Consecration to a god is perceived by humans as a blessing, whereas being possessed by a god is perceived as a misfortune. One must not make this dialectical contrast into an actual one by construing possession and misfortune as a fatal consecration to an underworld deity inimical to humans, for in so doing one destroys an ambiguity that is part of the basic structure of every religious experience. Positively, sacer esto simply means that a person is handed over to a deity; negatively, it implies that he is excluded from the community. The negative side of the dialectic may extend as far as demonization. If damnation or demonization is manifest on the historical level, then one is dealing with something other than profanation, and, outside the holy, still another sphere is revealed in addition to the profane. The dialectical relationship with this sphere comes about only through humanity's limited capacity for experience, and must not be enhanced by philologically setting up some finding related to sacer ; that is, it must not be turned into an essential contrary working inside the nature of a numen or a deity.

The types of contrasts between the terms designating the sacred and the profane are less fundamental in Greek than in Latin, even though elements of ambivalent background experience may also be recognized in hagios and hieros. For the most part, the expressions have the character of a primary positing dependent on premises other than those relating to the differences between inclusion in or exclusion from a given precinct, or between ritual and nonritual behavior. As a rule, the antithesis was only created belatedly, through the use of the alpha privative, as in anhieros, anosios, amuetos, or asebes ; the only term that appears to relate to an original negative concept, namely the opposite of hieros, is bebelos, which can be translated as "profane," while koinos can function as the opposite of practically all the concepts of sacredness. In a survey of the latter, then, the contrary concepts may be easily imagined, even though not specifically named.

From Mycenaean times on, the decisive concept is that designated as hieros. Behind it, most likely, is a sense of force altogether lacking in the early Roman term. Hieros functions almost exclusively as a predicate, both of things and of persons: offerings, sacrificial animals, temples, altars, votive gifts (even including money), the road leading to Eleusis, the wars engaged in by the Delphic amphictyony, and priests, initiates in the mysteries, and temple slaves. Only very rarely did anyone go so far as to call a god or a goddess hieros ; Greek-speaking Jews and Christians were forced to resort to the term hagios. Traces of some experiential ambivalence are apparent when a hieros logos, or cult legend, is regarded as arreton ("unspeakable") and a shrine as aduton or abaton ("unapproachable"). It is nonetheless striking that in Homer and the older Greek literature a whole range of things may be called hieros : cities, walls, hecatombs, altars, temples, palaces, valleys, rivers, the day and the night, the threshing floor, bread and the olive tree, barley and olives, chariots, guard and army units, individual personality traits, mountains, letters, bones, stones used in board games. Here it is rare to find hieros used with any connection to the gods, as when grain and the threshing floor, for example, are spoken of as the gifts of Demeter. On the whole it is tempting to speak of a certain profanation due to literary redundancy, though in fact a complete reversal of meaning is never produced.

Hagnos, which also encompasses what is pure in the cultic sense, is even more profound in its meaning than hieros ; it relates to hazesthai ("to avoid in awe, to fear, to venerate") in the same way that semnos ("solemn, sublime, holy"i. e., lacking the component of purity) relates to sebesthai ("to be afraid, to perceive as holy"). Hagnos is more frequently used than hieros when referring to the gods (Demeter, Kore, Persephone, Zeus, Apollo, Artemis), but in that they are elements that can purify, water and fire can also be hagnos, as can sky, light, and ether. Because of this connotation, hagnos can be used not only for things and persons in the same way as hieros, but may also designate rites and festivals or the conditions of sexual purity and of freedom from the contamination of blood and death, as, for example, when applied to bloodless offerings (hagna thumata ). Hagnos can even extend to the whole conduct of one's life outside the cult, though the connotation "sacred" never entirely disappears; it is only in Hellenistic Greek that it comes to mean "purity of character." Whether one is justified in calling this a profane use or not depends upon one's judgment of the nature of post-classical religiosity in general. In any case, the only clearly contradictory opposite of hagnos is miaros ("polluted, disgusting").

From the root hag-, from which hagnos derives, the adjective hagios was also created. This does not limit, but rather emphasizes (hence, too, its superlative hagiotatos ), and is used especially of temples, festivals, and rites, though only rarely of the reverent attitudes of men. In classical Greek and the pagan Greek of Hellenistic times it is used only relatively rarely. Precisely for this reason its clear religious connotation was preserved, and this is what recommended the term to Hellenistic Jewry as a virtually equivalent translation for the Hebrew qadosh, whereas from the hieros group of words one finds only hiereus as a possible rendering of the Hebrew kohen ("priest"), and hieron to designate a pagan shrine. The New Testament develops even further the sense given to hagios in the Septuagintthough unlike the Septuagint it can also use hieron when referring to the Temple in Jerusalemand thereby transmits this sense to the Greek of the church fathers and the Byzantine church. Secular modern Greek continues to use hagios as the standard term for "sacred" to this day.

The word hosios designates behavior that conforms to the demands of the gods. Accordingly, it can be applied to human justice just as properly as to a correctly performed cult ritual. Both are carried out on the profane level. Though one cannot translate hosios with "profane," one must think of it as a contrary opposite of hieros : If money belonging to the gods is hieron, that means one cannot touch it, but the rest, which is hosion, may be freely used. The Septuagint never uses hosios as a translation for qadosh but generally does for asid ("pious"). The Vulgate, however, renders hosios unaffectedly with sanctus, whether applied to humans or to God.

Sebesthai ("to shrink back from a thing, to be awestruck") has no parallel in the Semitic languages, and hence the word is important solely in the classical Greek tradition. The related adjective semnos implies exaltedness or sublimity when used of gods; when applied to speeches, actions, or objects (a royal throne, for example) it suggests that they command respect. It appears only infrequently in the Greek Bible for various terms, just as does the important classical concept eusebēs, which is chosen in a few instances to render tsaddiq ("the just one"), which in turn may also be translated with dikaios. The Vulgate has difficulty with both adjectives, and makes do with approximations or circumlocutions.

In the Hebrew Bible the all-important concept is qadosh. If its root is in fact qd ("to set apart"), its fundamental meaning is not unlike the Roman sacer. But it is also possible that its root is qdsh, as in the Akkadian qadashu ("to become pure"), which would point to a cultic connection. Nothing is qadosh by nature, however; things only become qadosh by being declared so for, or by, Yahveh Elohim. All of creation is potentially eligible: persons, especially priests; places, especially the city of Jerusalem; festivals, especially the Sabbath; buildings, especially the Temple; adornments, especially the priest's crown and robe; bodies of water; plants; and animals, especially sacrificial ones. The prophetsassisted by a trend that emerged from the reading of God's law at the Israelite feast of covenantal renewal and culminated in the establishment of the Holiness Code (Lv. 1726)managed to transfer the attribute "holy" almost exclusively to Yahveh Elohim. As a result, only a very few of the above-mentioned categories of objects and activities continued to be accorded the attribute of holiness in the actual target language of Hebrew. In large part, reference to holy places, times, actions, and objects is metalanguage interpretation. It is not factually wrong, for even a holiness accorded by God on the basis of his own holiness is deserving of the name. Nevertheless, one must be aware of the special quality of having been created by him that is typical of such holiness; this is in distinct contrast, for example, to the Greek concept of nature. And it affects the designation of what is profane in Israel. An important thesis of secularization theory asserts that the desacralization of the world, especially of nature and its wonders as it was accomplished in the Israelite theology of holiness, and later transmitted by Christianity, was one of the fundamental preconditions for the worldliness of the modern era. If one does not regard this basic precondition as a conditio sine qua non, it is doubtless correctly identified. It would be possible to view the realm of created things in the Israelite concept of the world as profane, just as one might view secularity as a legitimizing criterion for what constitutes the modern era, but that profaneness would be altogether different in kind from that of Rome or Greece. Given this situation, it is understandable that in the Old Testament languages (Hebrew and Septuagint/Vulgate translations) the "profanity" of the world is expressed in quite dissimilar fashion and only fragmentarily, depending upon whether it is mentioned in the cult context of pure and impure or in prophetic preaching about obedience and sin. As a clear contradiction to qadosh is thus found, in only a few instances, the adjective ol, which is rendered by the Septuagint with bebēlos and by the Vulgate with profanus (ameʾ, "impure," becomes akathartos and pollutus, respectively; aher, "pure," becomes katharos and mundus ). ol designates only something that is accessible and usable without ritual, while the verb alal suggests a genuine desecration by means of an abomination.

The grateful use of created things, which God makes holy, by people who are likewise holy because God is, is not the same thing as the Greeks' and Romans' removal of things from profane use. The closest parallel to the latter in Israel is the practice of bans. Translated etymologically, erem ("the banned object") means what has been set apart. The difference not only between this practice and profane use of a holy object but also between it and the sacrifice of an object lies in the fact that the purpose for the setting apart is the object's destruction. The Septuagint quite correctly expresses the term's identity with the idea of damnation by using ana(te)thema (tismenos ), while the Vulgate makes do with consecratum or votum.

In Arabic, at least since the appearance of the Qurʾān, words with the root rm take on the central importance that qdsh and its derivatives have in Hebrew. At the same time, the Arabic qds and its offshoots (muqaddas, "holy") continue to survive with more general meaning. This switch in the relative values of the two may have occurred simply because all of the concepts of sacredness having to do with rites and sacrifices were concentrated on a specific precinct. It is as though the Israelite concept of holiness, bound as it was to the ideas of sacrifice and consecration, were multiplied by the Roman concept, with its original link to a well-defined location. The city of Mecca is a arīm, a circumscribed, inviolable spot. The strip of land that surrounds and protects it is known as al-arām. In the city's center lies al-masjid al-arām, the "forbidden mosque," so named because it may not be entered by those who have not performed an irām, or consecrated themselves. In the center of its inner courtyard, al- arām al-sharīf (the "noble precinct"), lies the aedes sacra, the Kaʿbah, al-bayt al-arām (the "forbidden house"). Everything outside this complex is known as ill, where, just as in the profanum, except during a period of three months, everything is alāl ("permitted") that is prohibited in the sacred sites. The Arabic alāl is thus close in meaning to the Hebrew ol, but quite different from alāl.

Linguistica externa

Regarding the problem of "the holy," a number of groups of terminologies have to be located between the Latin/Greek/Hebrew/Arabic ensemble and the modern scholarly languages influenced by them, terminologies that can suggest things similar to those existing in the gap between those object languages and these metalanguages. Semantic antinomies that can remain unrecognized in the latter should certainly not influence this terminology. There are three ways of attempting to establish meanings here: through etymological "translation," through synonyms, and through analysis of the context and its cultural background. The first of these, especially favored in the case of the Indo-European and Semitic languages, is altogether worthless. Reliable checks are only provided by context analysis. In this way one can discover "synonyms"though not always synonyms in the strict sensewhich more or less approximate what the meta-languages define as sacred/holy and profane.

The Sanskrit term iira has the same root as the Greek hieros, but contextually it means "strong, robust, impetuous." Sanskrit does not even have a separate word for "holy," though there are numerous adjectives applied to objects and persons in the religious sphere, such as puya for a geographical location, tīrthaka for a ford, or the crossing or passageway to a pilgrimage shrine, or substantives such as muni for a seer or an ascetic. Related etymologically to the Greek hazesthai/hagios are the Sanskrit yaj and Avestan yaz. These two also mean "to hold in awe," but their usage is limited to the sense of "bestow, present," as when one brings a gift to a deity (Skt. ijyā, Av. yasna, "the offering"), and there is no connotation, as in the Greek hagios, of an otherworldly essence from which the earthly is thought to have derived. For this latter sense Avestan has the word spenta, to which are related the Slavic svętu and Lithuanian šventas. These latter two are used in Christian contexts for sacer, but their root meaning originally lay somewhere between "supernaturally powerful" and "especially favorable, extremely useful." Pahlavi translations render spenta with abzōnig ("overflowing, bursting with power"). The cultural background is the world of plants and animals, which in its abundant energy has the miraculous ability to bring forth new life and set it to work in its own cause.

The Germans have translated spenta with heilwirkend ("producing well-being" or "prosperity") employing a root that means "whole, sound, intact," and that gave rise to the German heilig ("holy"). Gothic hails meant "healthy"; Old Icelandic and Old High German heil is "a good omen" or "good fortune." Runic hailag means roughly "gifted with good fortune [by a god]," but also, conversely, "consecrated [to a god]." This becomes equal to the Gothic adjective weihs and its related active verb weihan, medial verb weihnan, and abstract noun weihitha, which appear in the Gothic translation of the Bible in place of the Greek hagios, hagiazein, hagiazesthai, and hagiasmos, respectively. All in all, the German heil- words connote a physical integrity with distinct religious significance. Possession of such integrity is a boon that can be given. The god who bestows it thereby becomes one to whom one gives veneration (Ger., weiht ). Accordingly, even in Gothic the two concepts weihs and hails (which can also develop to hailigs ) are interchangeable, and the situation in other Germanic languages is similar.

In general the synonyms in the Indo-European languages for what the metalanguages imply with their contrast between profane and sacred boil down to a qualitative exaggeration, intensification, or concentration of aspects of nature.

Among the ancient peoples of Asia Minor, to whose ideas the mythology of the Hittites in part attests, there appears to have been no special word for mysteries, such as the amazing magnetic force of stones or the destruction of creation by the creator himself. Yet a Hittite adjective, parkui, refers to the state of purity required in preparation for contact with the gods, and another, shuppi, designates such contact itself. Among the Sumerians, for reasons whose elaboration would go beyond the scope of this article, one must assume from earliest times a well-defined pantheon that predated all ritual. The basic polytheistic structure is of a more general character than anything that has been defined to demonstrate a consistent background world beyond the differentiations into socially and functionally limited deities. Yet even the world of the gods is permeated by a single, unifying element that one can only call "the divine." This is the me, which is met with in compounds like melam ("divine radiance, divine majesty"). Mythical people and kings can also exhibit it, in which case they are god-men. The gods pronounce me and exclude it from the framework of fate, which they in fact subordinate to the me. Humanity is required to bring itself into conformity with this me so as to be able to realize it in the world. There are numerous adjectival terms corresponding to this concept, the most important being kug, mah, and zid. In Babylonian, kug is translated with ellu ("[ritually] pure, bright, free"), mah with siru ("first-rank, exalted"), and zid with imnu ("right-hand") or kanu ("to be firm"). Alternatives to ellu in Babylonian spells are the terms namru ("clear, radiant") and quddushu ("purified, [made] perfect"), the latter having the same root as the Hebrew qdsh. Moreover, the Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish attests to a primordial cosmogony in a preexistent world. For the relationship between what the metalanguages call the sacred and the profane one finds analogies in the relationship between human and animal forms of deities, as well as between their constructive activity (including Marduk's creation of the world) and the social organization of gods and human beings.

In Egypt, whose language became accessible by way of Greek (through the Rosetta Stone), temples and necropolises especially were set apart from the everyday world, and, in connection with them, so were gods and specific objects. This sense of being separate did not have to be concentrated in a specific term, but from the first to twentieth dynasties this was frequently done with the word dsr. Dsr means, first of all, a kind of vibrating motion, but it can also designate a defense against a rush of attackers or, more generally, a clearing resulting from the settling of a whirlwind. These have in common a sense of thrusting away that amounts to the establishment of distance. The word came to be used, in an increasingly abstract sense, for such distance when an appropriate attribute was required to describe the location of a cult statue in a necropolis, a shrine, the eternal body of the god Re, the space in which bulls were sacrificed, the realm of the gods, and the underworld paths reserved for the dead once they had become Osiris. It is simplest to conceive of the relationship of such places and objects to the everyday world as the subsequent removal of the distance at which they have been placed. Something of this sort happens when texts used in the context of religious institutions become the models for secular literature; the most important ancient Egyptian narrative, the Story of Sinuhe, for example, poses as a copy of an autobiographical tomb inscription.

Western knowledge of the Chinese and Japanese languages is due in general to the presence of Jesuit missionaries in China and Japan in the sixteenth century. Deeper understanding of the vocabulary of East Asian religions comes most of all from Chinese translations of Buddhist texts originally written in Indian dialects, and already known through other channels; and, later, from the study of Japanese renderings of the better-known Chinese. The first bilingual (i. e., Chinese- or Japanese-European) dictionaries finally appeared in the nineteenth century. Whether or not there are precise equivalents for sacred and profane is largely a matter of each individual lexicographer's interpretation. The Chinese shen-sheng, which some gloss as meaning "holy," is held by others to mean, roughly, "extremely right," "highly exalted," or "doubtless as it must be." Of course, it is possible to interpret an ecstatic act such as submersion into the totality of the Tao as the attainment of holiness; however, the foundation in physical nature that is discovered to be a basic principle of the mystical experience is so much more magical here than in other religions that a difference in quality results. The relationship between the sacred and the profane would thus be roughly the same as that between alchemy and hygiene, both of which are practiced within Taoism as a means of attaining "not-dying."

The Shintō concept of nature is doubtless both more spiritual and more mythological. The kami, or nature and ancestral deities, are profane or sacred to the precise degree in which they do or do not belong organically to the everyday world of the living. The monks (shidosō ) and wandering hijiri who carried the rites and concepts of the popular and even more magical esoteric Buddhism out into the provinces, and thereby contributed greatly to its fusion with Shintō, can rightly be called "holy men"whatever that may imply about the charismatic leaders of new religions in the present day, who take them as their models.

The metalanguage expressions sacred and profane and their equivalents are only synonyms for all of the views derived from the various terminologies discussed here. If one proceeds from the roots of their subject matter and not from an all-inclusive hermeneutics, they are not complete synonyms but only partial ones, of a conceptual rather than a stylistic nature.

Metalanguage meanings

The modern scholarly languages for the most part presuppose the changes of meaning that the classical vocabulary ultimately experienced as a result of being put to Christian use, in part after certain non-Christian usages that prepared the way. These changes of meaning are characterized by the fact that a clear distinction exists between the quality of God in the beyond and the quality of creation in the here and now; and the terms are distributed accordingly. This distinction must not be thought of as static, however, for it can be suspended in either direction, that is to say, both by God's communication with humans and by humans' consecration of things to God.

In the first sense, the Latin term sanctus had ultimately come to mean a primarily divine quality; and consequently there is now the French saint and the Italian and Spanish santo. The Germanic languages, on the other hand, perpetuate the root that in the language's earliest stages had meant "intact, healthy, whole," represented by the English holy (related to whole ; synonyms: godly, divine ), by the German and Dutch heilig, and by the Swedish helig. And the Slavic languages preserve a root that had meant "efficacious" in the early stage of the language: the Russian sviatoi, for example, or Polish święty.

In the second sense, that is, for the quality attained by dedication to God, Latin had preserved the term sacer, which was linked to places, objects, and situations. Later, though relatively early, sacer existed alongside sanctus, which, confusingly enough, could also be used to refer to this mode of transformation. Sacer could be exchanged for the clearer form sacratus, and it is from this that the French (con )sacré, the Italian sacro (synonym: benedetto ), and the Spanish (con )sagrado derive. For this meaning English employs the Romance word sacred, while German and Dutch make use of the ancient root *ueik- (possibly a homonym; "to set apart" or "to oppose oneself to someone") with the forms geweiht and gewijd. In addition, German also substitutes for this a form from the former word group, using geheiligt in the sense of geweiht, a situation that gives rise to constant misunderstanding. This misunderstanding had been prepared for by the double direction of Gothic weihs/hailigs, and it was strengthened by imitating the biblical wording. For the sake of clarity, some careful speakers therefore prefer the form dargeheiligt to mean "consecrated." This substitution also occurs in Swedish, which uses only vigd and helgad. In the scholarly Slavic language ambiguity is avoided through incorporation of the simple form into a composite, as in the case of the Russian sviaschchennyi and the Polish świątobliwy.

In Latin, profanus had continued to be the opposite of both sanctus and sacer, the latter in its broader, classical Roman sense as well as its more limited Judeo-Christian meaning. Accordingly, the Romance languages and Romance-influenced English still use the term, while the strictly Germanic languages have it only as a loan word. In all of them there are synonyms with the meaning "secular," or something similar. Synonyms of this type have completely replaced the Latin form in the Slavic languages; Russian has svetskii or zemnoi, Polish świecki or światowy.

It is most important to notice the metalanguage nature of these terms as they are used to translate expressions from the linguistic complex Latin/Greek/Hebrew/Arabic, as well as from other languages. Scholars have frequently failed to do so, and this has led to a great number of semantic antinomies that were not recognized as such and therefore became, often enough, the cause of premature or totally false identifications.

Sociological methods

For the examination of symbolic forms of a nonlinguistic nature, the methods of sociology are the most effective. Of such nonlinguistic forms, the most important are, of course, rites. Much would suggest that rites were in fact the very earliest forms of religious expression. This article shall here assume stereotypings to be next in importance, forms that are even more hypothetical and that serve, among other things, as the rationale for institutionalizations. The two scholars who have analyzed these forms most profoundly are Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, and this article shall draw on their findings. In so doing their identifications are accepted, by and large, though not their theories regarding the ultimate origin of religion(s).

Neither Durkheim's nor Weber's method is correct in itself, but together they may well be so. Durkheim's idea that, in contrast to individual reality, society is of the nature of a thing, and Weber's idea that social reality is made up of continuous human action, inclusive of theorizing, are complementary. It is true of both, as for most of the other sociological approaches, that they strive to work with pure designations, but that these are also more or less stamped by metalanguage usage and by concepts from classical and church tradition. This often tends to compromise the accuracy of translation from native languages; but, on the other hand, this is what permits at least an approximate understanding of unfamiliar terms.

The nature of the sacred and profane in the objectivity of social reality

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York, 1915), Émile Durkheim points out that all religious beliefs share one characteristic in common. They presuppose, he notes,

a classification of all things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred (profane, sacré ). By sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits; a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred. A rite can have this character; in fact, the rite does not exist which does not have it to a certain degree. The circle of sacred objects cannot be determined, then, once for all. Its extent varies infinitely, according to the different religions. We must now show by what general characteristics they are to be distinguished from profane things. One might be tempted, first of all, to define them by the place they are generally assigned in the hierarchy of things. They are naturally considered superior in dignity and power to profane things. It is not enough that one thing be subordinated to another for the second to be sacred in regard to the first. On the other hand, it must not be lost to view that there are sacred things of every degree. But if a purely hierarchic distinction is a criterium at once too general and too imprecise, there is nothing left with which to characterize the sacred in its relation to the profane except their heterogeneity. However, this heterogeneity is sufficient to characterize this classification of things and to distinguish it from all others, because it is very particular: it is absolute. In all the history of human thought there exists no other example of two categories of things so profoundly differentiated or so radically opposed to one another. The traditional opposition of good and bad is nothing beside this. In different religions, this opposition has been conceived in different ways. Here, to separate these two sorts of things, it has seemed sufficient to localize them in different parts of the physical universe; there, the first have been put into an ideal and transcendental world, while the material world is left in possession of the others. But howsoever much the forms of the contrast may vary, the fact of contrast is universal. (pp. 5254)

These words express the most strictly sociological theory of all those that have been advanced regarding the concept of the sacred and the profane. Durkheim argues that it is society that continuously creates sacred things. The things in which it chooses to discover its principal aspirations, by which it is moved, and the means employed to satisfy such aspirationsthese it sets apart and deifies, be they men, objects, or ideas. If an idea is unanimously shared by a people, it cannot be negated or disputed. This very prohibition proves that one stands in the presence of something sacred. With prohibitions of this kind, cast in the form of negative rites, humanity rids itself of certain things that thereby become profane, and approaches the sacred. By means of ritual deprivations such as fasts, wakes, seclusion, and silence, one attains the same results as those brought about through anointings, propitiatory sacrifice, and consecrations. The moment the sacred detaches itself from the profane in this way, religion is born. The most primitive system of sacred things is totemism. But the totem is not the only thing that is sacred; all things that are classified in the clan have the same quality, inasmuch as they belong to the same type. The classifications that link them to other things in the universe allot them their place in the religious system. The idea of class is construed by men themselves as an instrument of thought; for again it was society that furnished the basic pattern logical thought has employed. Nonetheless, totemism is not merely some crude, mistaken pre-religious science, as James G. Frazer supposed; for the basic distinction that is of supreme importance is that between sacred and profane, and it is accomplished with the aid of the totem, which is a collective symbol of a religious nature, as well as a sacred thing in itself. Nor does a thing become sacred by virtue of its links through classification to the universe; a world of profane things is still profane even though it is spatially and temporally infinite. A thing becomes sacred when humans remove it from ordinary use; the negative cult in which this happens leads to taboo. A person becomes sacred through initiation. Certain foodstuffs can be forbidden to the person who is still profane because they are sacred, and others can be forbidden to the holy person because they are profane. Violation of such taboos amounts to desecration, or profanation, of the foodstuffs in the one case, of the person in the other, and profanation of this kind can result in sickness and death. In the holy onesthat is to say, both the creatures of the totem species and the members of the clana society venerates itself.

The meaning of sacred and profane in the context of subjective religious action

Max Weber states in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Tübingen, 1922) that the focus for sociology is the "meaning context" of an act. In order to interpret an act with understanding, the sociologist

has to view [social] structures as simply the consequences and connections of specific action on the part of individual persons, since for us these are the only representatives of meaningful action we can comprehend. Interpretation of any action has to take notice of the fundamentally important fact that [the] collective structures belonging to everyday thought are conceptions of something in part existing, in part desired to be true in the minds of actual persons conceptions on which they base their actions; and that as such they have a most powerful, often virtually dominating causal significance for the manner in which actual persons conduct themselves. (pp. 67)

The same also applies to religiously (or magically) motivated communal action, which can only be comprehended from the point of view of the subjective experiences, conceptions, and goals of the individual, that is, from the point of view of its meaning. According to Weber, such action is at bottom oriented to the here and now. It gradually attains a wealth of meanings, ultimately even symbolic ones. Trial and adherence to what has been tried are of particular importance, since deviation can render an action ineffective. For this reason, religions are more tolerant of opposing dogmatic concepts than they are of innovations in their symbolism, which could endanger the magical effect of their actions or rouse the anger of the ancestral soul or the god. Hence there is encountered in all cultures religious stereotyping, in rites, in art, in gestures, dance, music, and writing, in exorcism and medicine. The sacred thus becomes specifically what is unchangeable. By virtue of it, religious concepts also tend to force stereotypes upon behavior and economics. Any actions intended to introduce change have to be correspondingly binding. The ones most likely to fulfill this requirement are specific contracts. The Roman civil marriage in the form of coemtio was, for example, a profanation of the sacramental confarreatio.

Anthropological methods

At times humans reveal themselves in situations that appear to be of a different quality than ordinary ones. The latter form the basis for comparison either as the sum of their normal behavior or as a social cross section. For the moment, comparisons demonstrating the specific differences between a possibly sacred condition and a profane one, or showing social appraisal of a specific human type as sacred in contrast to the profane average person, are best relegated to categories of a historical anthropology, for as yet no historical psychology exists that might penetrate still further. A culture may choose to identify any number of unusual individual conditions or situations as sacred or profane. The most important of these warrant closer examination.

Ecstasy and trance

Even in terms of ethology, one could probably establish a similarity between humans and animals in the way they concentrate on an opponent, holding their breath in silence and maintaining a tense calm from which they can instantly switch into motion. Presumably this has its roots in the moment when the first hunter found himself confronting his prey. As far as humans are concerned, the perpetuation and further development of this primeval behavior is a history of self-interpretations that presuppose continuously changing social contexts. This was probably first apparent in shamanism, and continues to be so wherever it persists. Contributing to the Greek concept of ekstasis was the idea that man is capable of "standing outside himself." Specifically, from the fifth century bce on, it was believed that one could physically step out of one's normal state; and from the first century bce, that one's essential being, the soul, the self or perceiving organ, could take leave of the body. The notion of ecstasy is found throughout the history of the human psyche and human culture. It may seize a person for no apparent reason or be induced through meditation, autohypnosis, fasting, drugs, fixing the eyes on specific objects, or extended ritual repetition of certain words or motions. Ecstasy is not necessarily sacred; it can also be profane, though quite often specific manifestations, such as intoxication, glossolalia, receptivity to visions and voices, hyperesthesia, anesthesia, or paresthesia, are identical. In technologically poor cultures, profane ecstasies may accompany initiations, rites of passage, and preparation for war, or may be reactions to specific defeats or social setbacks. Examples of profane ecstasies in literary cultures are those of the Corybantes and Maenads of Greece, of the dancers and flagellants who appeared in the wake of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, of Shakers and Quakers, of individual psychopaths, and of social outcasts. Ecstasy is only sacred in the context of historical religion and is never the primal germ of any religion. Nevertheless, ecstasy can be experienced within a religion as the basic source of its particular variety of mysticism.

It then passes over into trance, of which possession has already been recognized as the hyperkinetic primal form. When the being by which one is possessed, orto put it more mildlyinspired, is held to be a god who has replaced the extinguished consciousness, classical Greek already spoke of enthousiasmos. By definition, such possession is sacred. Profane trances, on the other hand, are those accompanied by visions of distant events, or past or future ones.

Sexuality and asceticism

Sex, especially female sexuality, is considered sacred. It stands as the positive condition contrary to both infertility and asexuality. If a woman was infertile, it probably meant above all that she was malnourished, and starvation is always profane when not undertaken in deliberate fasts as a means of conquering the physical self. (The sacredness of the mother must certainly have been enhanced when, in the Neolithic period, agriculture was first developeda new science made possible by Mother Earth.)

Sexuality, especially active sex, is also held to be the contrary of asexuality, the profane sign either of the normal condition of both sexes as the result of danger, cold, or constant labor, or of the lesser capacity for frequent orgasm on the part of the male.

The importance in archaic societies of dominant goddesses, especially mother goddesses, is solely dependent on the sacredness of their sexuality and is not a result of their given character as either the otherworldly representatives of matriarchal societies or the polar referents in patriarchal ones. From the role of a great goddess alone it is impossible to draw any conclusions about a given social order. Such goddesses are frequently of a dual nature, both helpful and cruel, both givers and destroyers of life, and this ambiguity is altogether a part of their sacredness.

Asceticism is not the profanation of sexuality but rather a transcendence over the normal human condition into a perfection that lies in the opposite direction. The ascetic practices self-denial with regard to all aspects of life, including eating and drinking. In suppressing his sexuality, he is to a certain extent both acknowledging its sacred dimension and claiming that sacredness for himself.

Innocence and wisdom

Since Vergil's fourth Eclogue, perhaps since the prophecies of Isaiah, or even earlier, the innocence of the messianic child has been seen as sacred. Mere babbling childishness, on the other hand, is profane. Yet one can hardly conclude from the innocence of the messianic child how sinful or jaded the society that hopes for him actually considers itself.

Wisdom can be the sacredness of old age, as in the case of the Hindu guru, the mystagogue of late antiquity, or the tsaddiq in Jewish Hasidism, who only after long experience is able, through their own example, to help their fellow people find communion with God. Feebleness on the part of the elderly is widely considered to be profane, and when it poses a burden on the young they tend to segregate themselves from it socially. In extreme cases the old are sent off into the wilderness, as in some cultures of ancient India, or are left behind in an abandoned campsite, a practice of some nomadic peoples. The aged exile only avoids being profane by seeking his own salvation, and that of the others, through a curse, rather than through wisdom.

Charismatic and magical gifts

The relationship between these is complex, especially since subsequent explanation of a magical or miraculous act frequently shifts the accent or undertakes to reevaluate it, and since modern interpretation is bound to suspect an element of trickery in the majority of miracles.

A miracle worker was often thought of as a sacred person, as were Origen's pupil Gregory Theodoros of Sykeon and others who were given the epithet Thaumaturgus. But not all of the figures canonized as saints by the Catholic Church, for example, were miracle workersunless, of course, one considers it miraculous that anyone could have fulfilled absolutely the commandment to love God, his neighbor, and his enemy. Conversely, it is also possible for a miracle worker not to be recognized as a saint or be held to have been so according to religious scholarshipas were Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney and Giovanni Melchior Boscoand still not count as a charlatan like Cagliostro or Rasputin (who were, in fact, probably neither totally profane nor demonic). Here profaneness is easier to define: That person is profane who is simply incapable of controlling sicknesses, natural forces, or his or her own feelings of animosity. One also hears of "false prophets," as, for example, in ancient Israel or in Lucian's satire on the pseudoprophet Alexanderthough it cannot be discerned whether these were simply instances of certain holy people winning out over others. In late antiquity it was possible for charismatic persons to rise to "sainthood," for better or for worse, by taking over the control of cities or towns in which the elected administration or leading landholders had been rendered powerless by social or religious upheavals (see Brown, 1982). Similarly, magic can be either sacred or profane, as can seen if it is examined from the perspective of history.

Sacred and Profane History

Related to the anthropological approach is the historical. In terms of history, qualities of objects, modes of conduct, events, relationships, and persons in part define themselves as sacred or profane, and insofar as they do one may either accept them or criticize them. In part, however, it is up to the scholar to establish and define them. In either case it is quite possible that the sacred is truly metaphysical, eternal, and transhistorical and manifests itself only fragmentarily and partially in a continuing succession of historical objects. It is equally possible in either case that the sacred is constantly forming itself anew out of certain symbol-making forces inherent in the historical processes, by transcending even the objectifications of such forces.

In the history of religions there are numerous examples of belated creation of the sacred out of the profane. The sacred may initially have been only a catchall concept for specific desires and may have later become genuine; or it may have come into being by means of true consecration, or sanctification, in both senses of the term, as have been identified above. One thinks, for example, of the sanctification of actions that were originally only ethical, of the evolution of the gift (Marcel Mauss's term) into the offering, of the emergence of gods from humans by way of the intermediate stage of the hero, and so forth.

Related to this is the problem of whether the sacred and profane should be viewed as having come into being simultaneously, or one before the other. All three possible theories have been advanced. Unfortunately, however, the findings of religious phenomenology and the history of religions permit no sure pronouncements about the very earliest religious manifestations. Even the basic assumption that religion came into being along with the appearance of man, though most likely correct, provides no solution to the problem of priority. For even if one makes such an assumption, one still cannot know whether religion once encompassed the whole of life, or whether there was not from the very beginning a profane worldview alongside the religious one, with its knowledge of the sacred.


The sacred may be an integral part of religion, but when studying its history it is necessary to treat it as quite independent. According to one possible view, the sacred and the profane came into being simultaneously. Another theory has it that the sacred was a later elevation of the profane. Still a third presupposes a kind of primal pansacrality, claiming that the sacred was once a totality that encompassed or unified the entire world. Even the magical was not yet detached from it. And the profane, whether magical or not, only gradually developed through a kind of primal secularization.

The primal polarity and homogeneity of the sacred and profane

For this thesis one can point to caves and grottoes from the middle Paleolithic (the Drachenloch and the Wildenmannlisloch in the Swiss canton of Saint Gall; Petershöhle in Middle Franconia, in Germany), others from the late Paleolithic (Altamira, Lascaux, Trois Frères, Rouffignac), and numerous Neolithic ones. Their special nature fulfills only the two criteria for holiness: (a ) spatial detachment from the settings of everyday life and (b ) unusualness; but these are sufficient to justify calling them sanctuaries. These caves are difficult to reach, they are located either at a great height or far below the surface, access to them is either narrow or hard to find, and they are too low or too dark for everyday activities. They contain artworks sequestered away from day-to-day viewing as well as deposits of bones and skulls that cannot be merely the remains of meals. These facts indicate that here, in addition to the profane area (namely, the sitting, sleeping, and eating space near the cave entrance), there was also a sacred room. The question of whether the deposits were offerings or not, and whether they were meant for a single god or several, remains unanswered. But it is virtually certain that the caves were used for sacred activities, in many cases for initiation rites. Entering them, one proceeded out of the profanum into the sacrum. It is not known what other relationships may have been maintained between these two, but it is clear that they did exist side by side. It is then altogether probable that each had come into being as distinct from the other, and that at no earlier date did the two occupy a single space that was predominantly only one or the other.

The priority and homogeneity of the profane and subsequent appearance and heterogeneity of the sacred

This thesis accords with the one that supposes that there was once a time when humankind was as yet without religion. It is based primarily on ethnological theories, and in part also on psychoanalytical ones. It claims, with James G. Frazer, that magic as a prescientific science proved wanting, and humans therefore had to seek refuge in religion.

In the formula of dogmatic Marxism, the primeval human's social existence was so primitive that his or her consciousness was wholly absorbed with practical matters and was incapable of giving birth to religious abstractions. Only when magic became necessary to assist in the attainment of food through hunting and agriculture did religion evolve along with it, and its function was then further bolstered by the appearance of hierarchical social structures.

According to Wilhelm Wundt and others, the sacred had its origins in notions of impurity. Taboo, the instilling of a reluctance to touch, was common to both (and still continues to be so), whereas the everyday sphere is profane and pure. At some point this reluctance entered the religious sphere and split into awe in the presence of the sacred and loathing for the demonic; everything that was displeasing to the sacred deity was now held to be impure, that is, profane, and the sacred was pure. Gradually, the impure has come to function as the opposite of the sacred, and between the two lie the pure and the ordinarynow seen as profane, that is, as the realm of what is permissible.

In Freud's view, the central taboo is the one against incest; it derives from the will of the primal father. After he has been killed, one's relationship to him becomes ambivalent and finds its synthesis in the idea of sacredness. The reason behind his murder is the primal father's castration of his sons, which is replaced symbolically by circumcision. It is the circumcision performed on the male progeny of Israel, for example, that represents the actual sanctification of that people.

René Girard argues that the sacred arose out of sacrifice, which, as the ultimate form of killing and bloodletting, brings to an end the chain of force and counterforce that constitutes the profane history of humankind. Since the ultimate use of force that cancels out everything can no longer be arbitrary, it comes to be circumscribed and restrained through rituals. Once the resultant sacred act is correctly identified as such and distinguished from profane action, the roles of the sacred and profane in society are truly segregated. If the sacred and the profane come to be indistinguishable, a sacrificial crisis ensues; this is at the same time a confusion of roles and brings on a social crisis. The force required to restore stability is applied both by individuals and by the collective: by individuals in the form of asceticism, self-discipline, and other actions against the self, through which they attain sacredness; and by the collective, through deflection onto a scapegoat, which protects society from the threat that groups within it will destroy each other. (See Girard, [1972] 1977.)

Some of these theses can point to changes that have actually occurred in the relationship between the sacred and profane through the course of history, and even Freud's theory, though otherwise impossible, contains an element of truth in the fact that the exercise of religion can actually become a compulsive act. Girard's thesis is doubtless the most realistic in its incorporation of the nature of man, and the nature of his socialization, within the primary constitution of sacrifice (to the extent to which the latter exists at all). But none of this is of any use toward a valid reconstruction of prehistory.

The priority and homogeneity of the sacred and heterogeneity of the profane

All of the things now distinguished as religion, magic, and science; as religious worship, sorcery, and medicine; as prophecy, law-giving, and ethics; and as priests, kings, and shamans, were once united in a sacral unity. Such is the widespread, fundamental view derived from the thesis of a primal monotheism, as propounded by thinkers from Andrew Lang to Wilhelm Schmidt; derived, too, from the theologoumena of a primal revelation advanced by Johann Tobias Beck and Adolf Schlatter, the elements of E. B. Tylor's animism theory, the mana-orenda identification from the period between R. H. Codrington and Gerardus van der Leeuw, and the preanimism or dynamism theory promulgated from R. R. Marett to Konrad T. Preuss. One can say that the profane becoming independent is the result of a process of differentiation out of primal sacrality only if one ignores the synonymity between the very definition of the sacred and the naming of the phenomena on which these theories are based.

Temporal existence

Since it is impossible to verify any theory of origins or development, it is advisable to do without one altogether, and to adopt the approach of Mircea Eliade, who for historical consideration sees the sacred as an element in the structure of consciousness, rather than as a stage in the history of its development. Regardless of the similarity of religious phenomena throughout cultures, it is the cultural-historical context that at the same time lends an immeasurable novelty to their various manifestations. As for the phenomena of the sacred and the profane, the following temporal aspects are of fundamental importance.


The sacred is absolutely unchangeable only if one has extrahistorical reasons for treating it as a metaphysical, eternal, or transhistorical reality. As understood by Max Weber, it is not unchangeable. On the historical plane, unchangeableness and constancy are evident to the degree that in everything that the religious phenomenologies identify as sacredpersons, communities, actions, writings, manifestations of nature, manufactured objects, periods, places, numbers, and formulasnot only are situations, motive, and conditions expressed, but an ancient type remains operative, or makes a reappearance. Once delineated, such types can reappear at any moment, and they persist through great periods of time. Notwithstanding, genuine changes also take place.


These appear as either transcendence over the profane or secularizationnow no longer considered primary, as it was aboveof the sacred. The former occurs in initiations, sacraments, and baptisms, in the use of stones for shrines or of animals as offerings, in the blessing of an object, an act, or a person. The latter is evident on a large scale in world-historical processes. On a small scale it is present whenever a sacred function is simulated, when a myth is transformed from the fact that it is into a reporting of facts, when a sacred text is read for entertainment, or whenever someone's behavior swerves from his vows to God, without his actually sinning. The ultimate form of secularization is the destruction of the sacred while the profane continues to exist; the greatest possible transcendence is the restitution of the sacred together with a fundamental skepticism regarding the profane.


The destruction of religion is not the same thing as the destruction of the sacred. The destruction of a religion occurs most clearly when it is confined to institutions, as these can simply be abolished. It is less apparent when a religion ceases to have its original function, but this too can finally be ascertained. The sacred, on the other hand, increasingly tends, in industrial society, to be transformed from the active element it once was into a kind of unexpressed potentiality. It then decays in social intercourse and such intercourse becomes wholly profane. Nevertheless, its archetype persists in the human spirit, and is always capable of restoring the religious feeling to consciousness, if conditions are favorable.

Just what sort of conditions these have to be, no one can say. It may be that they are altogether unfavorable when a civil religion is established of the type envisioned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the end of his Social Contract ; it may also be that they are indeed favorable when no organized religion continues to play any role.


It is possible to try to secure once more the place for the sacred in society that it lost thanks to the disappearance of the distinction between it and the profane that once existed. This is what motivates the scholarship of the Collège de Sociologie. Every community that is intact and wishes to remain so requires a notion of the sacred as a priori. Archaic societies that provided sufficient room for the sacred kept it socially viable in secret fraternities or through magicians or shamans. Modern societies can achieve the same by means of public events such as festivals, which generate social strength, or by the establishment of monastic, elitist orders, or the creation of new centers of authority.

Determining the Relationships

The relationships between the sacred and the profane occur both on the level of their expression in language and on a (or the ) level of existence that is characterized by various different ontological qualities. The relationships between these two levels themselves are of a more fundamental nature. Since only the homo religiosus is capable of bearing witness to the manner of such existence, and not the scholar, one can speak of it only in formal categories that reveal both the conditions of one's possible perception of the sacred and the transcendental prerequisites of its mode of being.

The epistemological approach

Non-Kantian religious thinkers and scholars have always restricted themselves to their inner experience. What they have found there could easily be rediscovered in history. The experiential method, which tends toward psychology, was therefore always superbly compatible with the historical-genetic method. On the other hand, it is also possible to apply a logical, analytical, transcendental method, and in fact this can be used in investigating the possibilities of both inner experience and historical perception. Heretofore, discussion of these alternatives has been most productive toward determining the position of the philosophy of religion, and therefore religion itself, within the overall scheme of culture and scholarship. At the same time, it has tended to curtail any elucidation of the religious phenomenon in general and the phenomenon of the sacred and its relation to the profane in particular. Perhaps one could take it further.

A priori and a posteriori

In his book Kantisch-Fries'sche Religionsphilosophie und ihre Anwendung auf die Theologie (Tübingen, 1909), Rudolf Otto took a rational approach to the a priori concept and applied it to the idea of God. God is not an object alongside or superior to other objects, and he cannot be placed in one of the various standard relationships. He is able to transcend space and time as well as every particular relationship. Accordingly, it must be possible to imagine the sacred as standing in a transcendental primal relationship to things. One way or the other, the a priori concept is rational.

Rationality and irrationality

When writing Das Heilige (1917), Otto abandoned his transcendental philosophical position. He did not give up the a priori concept, however, but rather reinterpreted it with a psychological slant. In this way, the transcendentality of the rational applied to the a priori concept becomes the capacity of thought to be rational. This capacity can then be opposed to the irrational. The rational concepts of absoluteness, necessity, and essential quality, as well as the idea of the good, which expresses an objective and binding value, have to be traced back to whatever lies in pure reason, independent of experience, whereas the irrational element of the sacred must be traced back to the pure ideas of the divine or the numinous. Here, from the point of view of irrationality, "pure" becomes the attribute of something psychically given, and the a priori becomes emotional.

On the other hand, as Anders Nygren argues, just as one questions the validity of perception, using the a priori of cognition theory, it becomes necessary to question the validity of religion, using the religious a priori concept. Further, Nygren and Friedrich Karl Feigel suggest, it becomes necessary to comprehend the sacred as a complex category a priori, not so as to be able to experience it in itself, but rather so as to identify the sacred in experience and cognition, even in the course of history.

The ontological approach

Links exist not only between the sacred and the profane, each of which has its own complexity, but also between the sacred and the demonic, the profane and the evil, the profane and the demonic, and the sacred and the evil. The first and second links have ontological implications, the third and fourth have ethical ones, and the fifth has both. One obscures the demonic aspect when one asks the question whether one can have an ethic that can deal with the awesome potential powers at modern humanity's disposal without restoring the category of the sacred, which was thoroughly destroyed by the Enlightenment. In Hans Jonas's view, these powers continue to accumulate in secret and impel humankind to use them, and only respectful awe in the face of the sacred can transcend calculations of earthly terror. But it is not the task of this article to enter into a discussion of ethical implications; the reader must be content to consider the ontological ones.


Otto described the positive aspect of the sacred by using the numinous factor fascinans and various subordinate factors of the numinous factor tremendum. He characterized its negative aspect by way of a subordinate factor of the latter that he called "the awesome." In so doing he provided countless studies with the suggestion of an ambivalence that truly exists and is not to be confused with the dialectic of the hierophanies. However, Otto was referring primarily to the essence of the sacred in itself. Such an approach is logically possible only if one begins consistently and exclusively from "above." Since Otto declares both aspects to be factors of the same numinousness, his methodological starting point becomes, de facto, if not intentionally, Judeo-Christian theocentricity. This is certainly extremely productive, but it also exhibits one of the limits of scholarly study of religion: namely its continual orientation, only seeming to overcome the theological a priori, at the starting point of historical scholarship, namely recognition of the ambivalence in the ancient Roman notion of the sacrum.


Eliade has concentrated the links between the complexes of the sacred and the profane on the plane of appearances, introducing the inspired concept of hierophany. A hierophany exposes the sacred in the profane. Since there are numerous hierophanies (though the same ones do not always appear everywhere), he sets up a dialectic of hierophanies to explain why an object or an occurrence may be sacred at one moment but not at another. Such an approach makes it possible to examine every historical datum and identify it as sacred or profaneand in so doing to write a new history of religions within profane history. In addition, one can draw conclusions about the objectivity of the sacred, which is satiated with being and therefore has the power, functioning through the hierophanies (including even their profane element), to become apparent. Eliade does both. The former demonstrates a historical phenomenology, and points toward an as yet unrealized historical psychology of religion. The latter is subject to the same criticism as the ontological proof of God.

Ideogrammatics and Hermeneutics

The sacred remains closely bound to the modalities of its names. One cannot do without the testimony revealed in language, but one must not restrict the sacred to the terms language provides. In addition to such testimony, one has to discover the sacred in experience. The sum of linguistic testimony and descriptions of such experience can serve both as a check on each other and as mutual confirmation.

Deciphering the sacred

Using this approach, one can only speak of the sacred ideogrammatically. Classical phenomenology of religion is content to present the sacred as revealed in so-called phenomena that corroborate each other within a larger context. However, this kind of evidence obscures the ambivalence that permits one to experience a sacred phenomenon simultaneously with a profane one. Therefore, one can only understand the phenomenon of the sacred, whether evidenced with the aid of language or writing or not, as something like the Greek idea, and accordingly regard the forms of the sacred accessible to description and investigation as its ideograms. However, these can also be understood as "tautograms," that is, as designations that withhold immanence, but at the same time one cannot call them profane merely because they lack the connotation of transcendence into the sacred. Otto's book on the holy was already in large part an ideogrammatics of the sacred.

Understanding the sacred

At the heart of the findings from the study of synonyms that have provided reasons for speaking of both the sacred and the profane in the singular are certain basic attributes, such as separateness, power, intensity, remoteness, and otherness. Cognition theory has less difficulty identifying the sacred when it examines larger systems, within which such fundamental attributes are mutually complementary. In doing so, one cannot only recognize the ideograms of the sacred in texts but also treat the sacred as though it were explained. Eliade's work represents just such a hermeneutics of the sacred as distinguished from the profane.

See Also

Hierophany; Holy, Idea of the; Purification; Sacred Space; Sacred Time; Secularization.


The most influential modern book on the subject is Rudolf Otto's Das Heilige (Breslau, 1917; often reprinted), translated by John W. Harvey as The Idea of the Holy (Oxford, 1923). The most important earlier contributions (Wilhelm Windelband, Wilhelm Wundt, Nathan Söderblom), subsequent ones (Joseph Geyser, Friedrich Karl Feigel, Walter Baetke, et al.), and various specific philological studies are collected in Die Diskussion um das Heilige, edited by Carsten Colpe (Darmstadt, 1977). A new epoch began with the work of Mircea Eliade, and one could cite a great number of monographs by him. As the most relevant, one might single out his Traité d'histoire des religions (Paris, 1949), translated by Rosemary Sheed as Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), and Das Heilige und das Profane (Hamburg, 1957), translated by Willard R. Trask as The Sacred and the Profane (New York, 1959).

Hans Joachim Greschat has provided a study of the classical late nineteenth-century theme in his Mana und Tapu (Berlin, 1980). Examples from an African people are provided by Peter Fuchs in Kult und Autorität: Die Religion der Hadjerai (Berlin, 1970) and by Jeanne-Françoise Vincent in Le pouvoir et le sacré chez les Hadjeray du Tchad (Paris, 1975). Exemplary philological investigation of linguistic usage and concepts among the Greeks, Romans, Jews, and early Christians is found in the article "Heilig" by Albrecht Dihle in the Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, vol. 13 (Stuttgart, 1987); similar study of late antiquity appears in Peter Brown's Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (London, 1982). The same subject matter, expanded to include the ancient Orient and India, is found in the important work edited by Julien Ries et al., L'expression du sacré dans les grandes religions, 3 vols., (Louvain, 19781986), for which there is a separate introduction by Julien Ries, Le sacré comme approche de Dieu et comme ressource de l'homme (Louvain, 1983). Supplementing this with respect to Egypt is James Karl Hoffmeier's "Sacred" in the Vocabulary of Ancient Egypt: The Term DSR, with Special Reference to Dynasties IXX (Freiburg, 1985).

Theoretical implications are investigated by Ansgar Paus in Religiöser Erkenntnisgrund: Herkunft und Wesen der Apriori-Theorie Rudolf Ottos (Leiden, 1966) and by Georg Schmid in Interessant und Heilig: Auf dem Wege zur integralen Religions-wissenschaft (Zurich, 1971). Important sociological investigation of ritual is found in Jean Cazeneuve's Sociologie du rite (Paris, 1971) and of the history of force, counterforce, and sacrifice in René Girard's La violence et le sacré (Paris, 1972), translated by Patrick Gregory as Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, 1977). Additional ethical implications are considered by Bernhard Häring in Das Heilige und das Gute, Religion und Sittlichkeit in ihrem gegenseitigen Bezug (Krailling vor München, 1950). On the disappearance of the sacred through secularization and its reappearance in times of crisis, see Enrico Castelli's Il tempo inqualificabile: Contributi all'ermeneutica della secolarizzazione (Padua, 1975) and Franco Ferrarotti and others' Forme del sacro in un'epoca di crisi (Naples, 1978). Summaries from various points of view include Roger Caillois's L'homme et le sacré (1939; 3d ed., Paris, 1963), translated by Meyer Barash as Man and the Sacred (Glencoe, Ill., 1959); Jacques Grand'Maison's Le monde et le sacré, 2 vols. (Paris, 19661968); and Enrico Castelli and others' Il sacro (Padua, 1974).

New Sources

Anttonen, Veikko. "Sacred." In Guide to the Study of Religions edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, pp. 271282. London and New York, 2000. An attempt to connect the cognitive and the cultural.

Borgeaud, Philippe. "Le couple sacré/prophane. Genèse et fortune d'un concept 'opératoire' en histoire des religions." Revue de l'histoire des religions 211, no. 4 (1994): 387418. Important novel assessment by an historian of religions.

Cazelles, Henri. "Sacré et sainteté dans l'Ancien Testament." In Dictionnaire de la Bible. Supplément 10, pp. 13931432. Paris, 1985.

Colpe, Carsten. Über das Heilige. Frankfurt am Main, 1990. The idea of holy in philosophy and in today's world.

Colpe, Carsten. "Heilig (sprachlich)" and "Das Heiliege." In Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbefriffe, vol. 3, edited by H. Cancik, B. Gladigow and K.-H. Kohl. Stuttgart, 1993. The definitive synthetic appraisal by the foremost scholar of the sacred.

Courtas R., and F. A. Isambert. "La notion de 'sacré'. Bibliographie thématique." Archives de sciences sociales des religions 22 (1977): 119138.

Idinopulos, Thomas A., and Eward A. Yonan. The Sacred and its Scholars: Comparative Methodologies for the Study of Primary Religious Data. Leiden, 1996. Historiographical, methodological and idiographic studies in a cross-disciplinary perspective. Select bibliography.

Mol, Hans J. Identity and the Sacred. Oxford, 1976. The sacred in social scientific perspective.

Morani, Moreno. "Lat. sacer e il rapporto uomo-dio nel lessico religioso latino." Aevum 55 (1981): 3046.

Morani, Moreno. "Le parole del 'sacro in Grecia." In Atti del secondo incontro internazionale di linguistica greca, edited by Emanuele Banfi, pp. 175193. Trento, Italy, 1997.

Morani, Moreno. "La terminologia del 'sacro' in lingue indoeuropee antiche: riflessioni e problemi." In Pensiero e istituzioni del mondo classico nelle culture del Vicino Oriente, edited by R. Bianca Finazzi and A. Valvo, pp. 165196. Alessandria, Italy, 2001. A novel assessment of this issue in historical-linguistic perspective.

Ries, Julien. "Sacré." In Dictionnaire des religions, 3d ed., Paris, 1993. A remarkable synthesis with an account of the historiographical debate.

Santi, Claudia. Alle radici del sacro. Lessico e formule di Roma antica. Rome, 2004. A refreshingly novel approach to the issue of the relationship sacer / sanctus in its ancient Roman background. Extensive bibliography.

Schilling, Robert. "Sacrum et profanum. Essay d' interprétation." Latomus 30 (1971): 953969. A classical study by a distinguished scholar of Roman religion.

Segal, Robert A., et al. "Symposium on the Sacred." Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 3 (1991): 146. Methodological.

Webb, Eugene. The Dark Dove: The Sacred and Secular in Modern Literature. Seattle, 1975. The author is an expert in both comparative literature and comparative religion.

York, Michael. "Toward a Proto-Indo-European Vocabulary of the Sacred." Word 44 (1993): 235254.

Carsten Colpe (1987)

Translated from German by Russell M. Stockman
Revised Bibliography

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