The Sacred and the Holy

"As we said earlier: a sacred stone is venerated because it is sacred, not because it is a stone; it is the sacrality manifested through the mode of being of the stone that reveals its true essense. This is why we cannot speak of naturism or of natural religion in the sense that the nineteenth century gave to those terms; for it is "supernature" that the religious man apprehends through the natural aspects of the world."

-Mircea Eliade, "The Sacred and Profane" p118

At the core of any religion is the relationship between Man and the Numinous. In this essay I will propose a dual concept to the Sacred and Holy, and the idea that these ideas were distinct, if related, concepts and helped define the cosmos for our ancestors. Adopting and refining these concepts will allow us to further adopt and refine our practices to be more in line with practices that which our Ancestors would recognize.

The Germanic Concept of the Wíhhálig

A linguistic examination of the concepts used to translate the word sacer from the Latin into the German languages shows two distinct word choices. In the Gothic Bible, Bishop Wufila glosses sacer, or sacred, as weihs. In Anglo-Saxon sources, the scribes tended to gloss the word using hálig. I think both words worked, but for different aspects of the concepts of the root word being translated.

In her chapter on the Abominations of Leviticus, Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger (1996) discusses the commandments of the God YWHY, specifically the commandment to be "Holy". The root word for Holy in Hebrew has both the concepts of separate, distinct; and the concepts of whole, complete.

In Anglo-Saxon, we see the word wíh, weoh, the cognate of the Gothic weihs, defined an idol. Other words that share the same root are wígbed and its compounds, refering to the Altar of a church, or other set apart, sacred space. For the purposes of this discussion, the important concept to grasp is that the wíh is that which is separate, set apart, and sacred.

The Old Norse cognate of Wíh is Vé, which also has connotations of being set apart, sacrosanct, a holy place.

The Latin word sacer, which the Germanic Christians glossed into weihs or haílig, means to be Sacred, consecrated, dedicated to the Holy, set aside for sacrifice, for destruction.

In Roman law, the term homo sacer refers not to a sacred, or holy man, but rather to one who is set aside, for whom it is legal for any man to kill, one who is cursed, an Outlaw in the Germanic sense. This is important to highlight, because the sacred as we understand it is not exactly how our Ancestors did, and above all we might understand in the sacred, it is imperative that we understand that to be sacred is to be set apart, removed from everyday existence.

Kathleen Hawthorne proposes in her paper "Unmasking the Sacred" a definition of sacred removed from the phenomenology of religion, and focused simply on the way that sacred sites and objects are removed from everyday life. While we are more concerned with religious phenomenology rather than a more accurate taxonomy for archaeological discussions, her insight is still rather applicable. For more on this, see "Creating the Sacred" below.

For while the the word for sacred means set apart, that is just a distinction. We set aside a space for the sacred so that which we understand sacred in a modern sense, which Rudolf Otto calls "the numinous" can manifest.

The root of the word hálig is hál, which Bosworth-Toller defines as "Whole, hale, well, in good health, sound, safe, without fraud, honest." Its important to note that hálig is the state of being hál.

To be hálig, to be in the state of being hál, one becomes capable of approaching the sacred. To truly understand this concept, we must understand how it interfaces with the concept of sacred space.

The Cosmos and Sacred Space

"But we shall see that if every inhabited territory is a cosmos, this is precisely because it was first consecrated, because, in one way or another, it is the work of the gods or in communication with the world of the gods."

-Mircea Eliade, "The Sacred and the Profane" p30

All sacred space is the recreation of the world, the cosmos. In the Indo-European tradition, particularly in the Germanic subset, we see at the center of the space the World Tree, the central pillar, the Axis Mundi. There, in the center of the space, is where the sacred dwells. There, in the sanctum, is where the Gods dwell. Around this central yard, you find another yard, a middle yard, where the actions of the Holy are done. Then, outside that yard, outside the middle yard, is everything else.

Think back on the model of our ancestor's home. A single rectangle, in the center of which is the center of the home, the hearth. The hearth, in a way, is the home. There, set aside, in a place defined for its very existence, is fire. A very real thing, but a thing without physical form, a thing of energy that consumes fuel and provides light, and heat, and transforms meat into food. Between the hearth and the walls is the space where a family dwells.

As the home is a the cosmos in micro, so it also shows the interplay between the sacred, and the holy. The hearth is sacred, it is set aside, necessary for survival, but to be too close, for too long, try and attempt to live within the hearth itself, and one will become burned. But stray too far from the hearth, and one has left the home and is literally out in the cold.

The space around the sacred is where the holy is. If that space is not kept holy, not kept hale, healthy and whole, then the fire will not exist. Too many holes, and the wind will keep the fire from burning, bring in the cold and freeze the family in their beds. Too much trash and debris, and the fire will escape the hearth and burn the home down.

Creating the Sacred and the Holy

One thing to note here is that Man does not create the Sacred, no more than he creates the seeds with which he grows his crops. What our ancestors engage in, what we seek to engage in, is to create a sacred space. This is not to say that we have the power to imbue a space with the numinous power of the sacred, but rather, to set apart a place where the numinous can manifest.

The very first sacred spaces of our ancestors were always wild places. Tacitus says of our ancestors:

"Apart from this they deem it incompatible with the majesty of the heavenly host to confine the gods within walls, or to mould them into any likeness of the human face: they consecrate groves and copices, and they give them divine names to that mysterious something which is visible only to the eyes of faith."

Tacitus, Germania 10, translated by M. Hutton, found in Loeb Classical Library Tacitus Vol I.

I interpret this to mean that the wild places that already contained a hint of the numinous, and, being kept sacred, our ancestors entered into the gift cycle relationship which so defines and supports our faith.

But without discovering the sacred, we must instead look to how our ancestors sacralized their world. The best source we have of this is the Landnámabók, where there are accounts of settlers walking their lands with fire in order to lay claim to it. It is for this reason that each time we dedicate a space to sacred use, my people will walk it with fire, singing the appropriate songs.

But again, such an act does not, in and of itself, confer sacrality to the space. It merely sequesters the space, and separates it from the profane existence, allowing the Numinous, the divine, to enter it and inhabit there, even if for only a brief time.

While we cannot create the Sacred in the sense, pour numinous power into the space we set aside, we can, an should, seek to make ourselves holy. To understand why it is important to seek out and maintain holiness, we must first understand the true nature of the Numinous Sacred.

Mysterium Tremedum et Fascinas

In the work, "Das Heilige" translated into English as "The Idea of the Holy," Rudolf Otto speaks of the tremendous humiliating aspects of being in the presence of the divine. This humiliation isn't an active, vicious quality, as in the humiliation one receives in the face of a bully, but rather a natural consequence of being in the presence of something that transcends the boundaries of the natural existence and touches us deep in the very bedrock of our psyche, shaking us and leaving us on our knees in supplication.

Otto calls this the Tremendous Mystery and Fascination, (mysterium tremendum et fascinas). This emotive, non-rational phenomenon is, he writes, the source of every single religion, and though he himself was a devout Christian, it is because of this universality of experience between Man and the Divine that we, as Heathens, can learn a lot from his thoughts on the matter.

If we, in our perceptions of the divine, find ourselves shaken and humiliated, on our knees and tears flowing freely in aweful supplication to the presence of the Divine, how, I wonder, often, must the Divine perceive us. One can, perhaps in some small and inadequate yet still illuminating way, find the analogy of desperate poverty or the idea of pollution, dirt, and taboo, as a sort of guide.

Have you ever been in a situation where the environment made your skin crawl? Picture an image of abject squalor, where the air reeks of human refuse, where dirt and filth permeate the environment and cause you extreme discomfort. The images out of India, or from pictures of the squalor of a Hoarder can approach this kind of discomfort in our minds. I believe that the natural state of man has that same effect on the Divine, and why almost universally, there is a human need to separate, to create a space for the sacred to exist, because without those spaces, the Sacred would never manifest.

To attain a state of holiness, to attain a state of purity, is to be able to interface with the sacred. This ability means that we can continue to develop the relationship, and by that relationship achieve meaning and reality in our lives. The proper attention to the definition of holiness, to the avoidance of taboo, creates the circumstances where the numinous will continue to be present in the sacred spaces. To defile a sacred space is not to do harm to the sacred - as if something human created could do such a thing - but can and does offend. And in giving offense, we drive the sacred away.

Rather than driving the numinous sacred away, religious man seeks instead to invite it in, to remain with it as much as he can. But the numinous sacred is a fire, a thing that consumes and changes, so that a man cannot live inside the sacred for too long, lest he get burned up. He must, instead, tend to the sacred, keep it happy and healthy, and live in its presence, in a state of holiness, capable of interfacing it but not being harmed by it. This concept, this dual dichotomy of the Sacred and Holy is one understood by our ancestors; though probably not using the terminology that we have adopted here. But understood it they did, all the same, as it is encoded in their architecture, in their symbols, and in the very language they used to communicate.

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