A temple is a place that reveals a sacred reality, is accepted as such by a community, and consequently is a cultic center. Although the word usually refers to a building and evokes the image of the religious monuments of great civilizations, the Latin root word templum denotes primarily a staked-off piece of land belonging to the people or to a deity. Greek τέμενος (from τέμνω, "to cut off") has the same connotation. The ancient Germanic peoples not only had temple buildings but held cairns in the open and certain forests as sacred also.
The Dwelling Place of the Divinity. As a rule, a temple is regarded as the dwelling place of a particular deity. Accordingly, the services of the priests are modeled on the tasks of servants at a royal palace; the temple is in the first place a god's residence, not, or only secondarily, the gathering place of a congregation. The idea of a god's dwelling place is widespread (Heb. bēth’elohīm, "house of God"; Gr. ναός, "sanctuary," derived from
ναίω, to dwell, inhabit). In the temple as residence the deity is represented by an image or symbol in a special place that is architectonically secluded from the other areas either wholly or in part (exemplified respectively by Germanic and Hindu temples). In some (pastoral) cultures centers of cult are not fixed at any one site but are reestablished in various places in accordance with set precepts.
In the case of all types of sanctuary, even when due weight is given to the temple as the residence of a deity, the manifestation of the sacred in a particular place is the most universal and basic element in temple symbolism. As a rule, it is more important than the individual characteristics of a residing deity. Not one, but each, group of herdsmen in ancient Arcadia had its own holy place for Pan, and several authors (including Aristophanes and Plato) use the plural, Panes. Thus for his worshipers, the reality of Pan's sanctuary did not depend on the question of his singularity or plurality. A residing deity may change sex (as the Chinese divinity Kuan-yin, from female to male). Sacred places continue in spite of changes in characteristics that seem far-reaching to the observer. The preeminence of the sacred place is retained also in early buddhism, where the most important holy centers are the places that were crucial in the Buddha's career. Once a place has been accepted as sacred it tends to keep its sacredness, even if the religion changes. This conservation is borne out by archeology: all pre-classical and classical civilizations show examples of temples built on the site of destroyed predecessors.
The temple as residence of a deity and the temple as sacred place are not mutually exclusive; as a rule the two ideas complement and support each other. Special mention should be made of some sacred buildings and religions that differ partly or wholly from this general rule. The occurrence of shifting sanctuaries has already been mentioned. The Buddhist stūpa is primarily a place for sacred relics. In Christianity many Protestant churches and meeting houses show only remote resemblance to temple symbolism. synagogue and mosque are principally houses of assembly and are therefore distinct from temples.
Orientation in Space. For religious man space is not homogeneous (G. van der Leeuw). The nonhomogeneity of space is not only an archaic, but a fundamental, human experience. All time is not measured in the same manner in man's experience, and neither is all space. In a chaotic space, of which no part seems different from another, man nevertheless orients himself toward certain reliable points. He finds that specific places are distinct from others and sacred as they form the only real or really existing space (M. Eliade). The basis of man's orientation in space is a hierophany, i.e., a manifestation of the sacred, which provides an absolutely reliable point. The dwelling place of man and the construction of temples are intrinsically related, as both presuppose an orientation symbolism in accordance with a particular hierophany. This suggests that the basic symbolism of sanctuaries is much older than the oldest sacred monuments known from history. The most primitive nomadic clans (as in Australia) do not pitch a camp at random but in a certain order, around a sacred center, usually indicated by a pole. A sacred pole or pillar almost universally symbolizes the communication with the other, sacred, world. Thus a fixed center in space is established that guarantees man's world (cosmos) as distinct from the surrounding chaos. This centrality is clearly marked in the symbolism of many sacred places and in the symbolic terminology of texts concerning temples in the whole ancient world ("middle of the world," "navel of the earth."
Orientation in Time. The temple, like the city in the ancient world, is a place where heaven, earth, and netherworld meet. However, this symbolic relationship is to be understood not only spatially but also in terms of time. Directly or indirectly each temple is related to the beginning of the world. In Egypt the elevation of temples was mythically identified with the primordial hill on which the creator god performed the first acts. Each Hindu temple has its sthālapurāṇa, the sacred account of the origin of the temple, which is always conceived in some way as having taken place in a mythical time, a time before our "normal" time. According to tradition the foundations of the temple of Jerusalem (likewise the foundations of the city of Babylon) were fixed on the primordial waters of chaos. Thus the sacred building represents not only an absolutely reliable point in space, but at the same time, temporally, the victory over chaos.
Cosmic Symbolism. Spatial (orientation) symbolism and mythical event are fused in the temple. The
mythical event is expressed not only in the establishment of the temple itself but also in the cult that is enacted. As a sacred place par excellence, as a place of communication with the other world, and above all as a structure in which the reality and the process of the world blend, the temple is in itself a cosmic image, imago mundi. The Inca Sun temple (Coricancha) had at its center an altar representing the whole cosmos with its emblems (sun, moon, atmosphere, heaven, earth, the main constellations). The surrounding garden presented a complete imago mundi in which all species of animals and plants were symbolized. Refined and detailed as such symbolism is, its beginnings can be seen in man's most archaic imagery, which summed up the cosmos in holy places of great simplicity consisting of three characteristic elements: a rock or mountain, water, and a tree, together forming a "perfect landscape" (the paysage complet, of J. Przyluski). At all stages of temple symbolism there is a close relation between the things in the immediate environment of man and in the universe in its sacred totality: an ambivalence that can be easily understood from the self-supporting nature of the home of the peasant in any agricultural civilization in its early days. The ambivalence is preserved both in the Latin word mundus and in the Greek word κόσμος.
Accordingly, temple, city, and the geography of state and world are interrelated. The earth is thought of as a square—the result of the projection of the four horizons—and the temple is so designed. All great civilizations continued the fundamental symbolism of orientation and the total cosmic imagery in their temples. The image of a cosmic mountain also occurs almost everywhere: Mount Meru in India and similar symbolisms in Mesopotamia, Palestine, and elsewhere. The Mesopotamian ziggurat is the most famous example of a temple representing the cosmic mountain, its seven levels corresponding to the seven planetary skies. (see mesopotamia, ancient, 3.) Temples, then, are understood as replicas of this central cosmic mountain, which bears and preserves the universe. The Borobudur in Java is the most outstanding example in Buddhist art of a temple as such a cosmic mountain. The cosmic symbolism of the temple is in many cases crowned by the dome, which symbolizes the vault of heaven. The communication with the heavenly world is visible in the opening left in the dome. Thus the dome of the Roman Pantheon has in its center an oculus ("eye").
As a Center of Speculation and Meditation. The holiness of a sanctuary should not be thought of in condescending
fashion at any stage of man's history known to us. In spite of much superstition, the design and use of temples bear witness at all times to great subtlety of thought. High speculation on the temple as a replica of a transcendent model is not confined to the great classical civilizations. Among archaic root-crop cultivators, e.g., among the Kiwai of New Guinea, the temple is regarded as a reduplication of the realm of the dead, which is governed by the most important deity. Particularly in hindu ism, jainism, and buddhism, from the earliest times emphasis has been laid on the design of temples and their central objects of worship as instruments of meditation. The Buddha himself was at first not depicted at all. Instead, a symbol like the Bodhi tree at which he had reached his Enlightenment, or the Lord's feet, were represented as objects of worship.
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