by Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe




The SACRED is that which is the object of veneration and awe. The term comes from the Latin sacer meaning restricted or set off. A person may be designated as sacred, and so can an object or a place which is regarded as extraordinary or unique.

The term sacer is closely related to numen meaning mysterious power or god. Numinous is used to describe the sacred to indicate its power. Various traditions around the world have a term which correlates with sacer. In Hebrew the term is qadosh, in Greek hagios, in Arabic muqaddas, and in Polynesian tapu. Correlates of numen are found in the Sanskrit word Brahman, in the Sioux wakanda, the Melanesian mana, and the old German word haminja meaning luck.

In his book, The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) explains that the sacred always manifests itself as a reality different from normal realities. We become aware of the sacred when it shows itself as something different from the profane.

The presumption is that the divine or some supernatural or spiritual force is manifesting itself to the beholder, who feels privileged thereby. It may be suspected, however, that it is often the case that the beholder who, perceiving something mysterious (inexplicable), a strange vision or event outside the normal, 'explains' it in terms of the supernatural and invests with the sacred.

The perception of the divine is usually completely convincing to the beholder, who can become instantly a believer in whatever supernatural force of divinity is being made manifest thereby. It is a feature of manifestations of the sacred that they are invariably interpreted or identified within the context of the religious beliefs of the beholder (or, in the case of people who are otherwise non-religious previous to their experience, with respect to prevailing religious beliefs of their culture).


For example, the vision of the French Catholic peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous at the grotto of Lourdes was of the Virgin Mary and not of a deity of another religion or of an earlier Celtic or pagan goddess. In other words, the sacred manifests itself only in the context of beliefs of the beholder or his/her community (or, to put it another way, the beholder can perceive the sacred only in the beholder's terms). It may be concluded that it is the beholder who creates the sacred and invests it in the objects around him or her.

It may be argued that most of the world's religions -- from the most 'primitive' to the most highly developed -- were established through manifestations of the sacred. It is of vital importance to religion that the manifestation is perceived not as generated by the beholder but as the purposeful revelation of god (or some lesser deity or saint) to the mortal beholder. Fundamental to human psychology is the belief in the supernatural, of a world inhabited by spirits and gods and other powerful primeval forces beyond human comprehension. Eliade therefore chooses the term hierophany (something sacred shows itself to us) to describe and define the act of the manifestation of the sacred.

It has long been a tendency among human beings to perceive and believe the sacred to be present in anything, ranging from trees, or stones, to human beings. With respect to trees and stones, Eliade is at pains to point out that what is involved is not a veneration of the tree, or stone, itself. The sacred tree or sacred stone is not venerated as a stone or a tree but, because of hierophany, as something sacred. As a sacred tree, or a sacred stone, the tree is no longer a tree and the stone no longer a stone. The same applies when the sacred is invested in human beings; they are no longer human beings because of their sacredness. It is the central belief of Christianity, for example, that the sacred is manifest in the person of Jesus Christ and that Jesus Christ himself is in fact an incarnation of God.

Sacredness can be invested in human beings when they behave in significant ways or perform acts that indicate both the presence and/or manipulation of divine or supernatural forces (commonly called 'miracles'). Often, the experience or event in which the sacred human being is participating in or is present at takes place at a spot or location in the landscape which itself often thereby also acquires sacredness. Obvious examples include Mecca, the Basilica of St. Peter's and Bodh Gaya.


In other instances, the place itself may already have an ancient sacred identity, and an individual through contact with it and its sacredness may thereby himself or herself acquire sacredness. It may be suggested that Lourdes, a cave with a healing spring, was already sacred before Bernadette had her vision of the Virgin Mary. The encounter both identified and claimed the grotto and its water as sacred to Christians, and also made Bernadette a saint.

Similarly, it can be suggested that Mount Sinai was already a sacred mountain before Moses had his encounter there with God (who appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush). Again, this encounter confirmed the sacredness of both Moses and the mountain. The sacredness of Mount Sinai and the burning bush is made clear by God who told Moses when he approached: Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. [Exodus 3, 5].

At the same time, it is important to recognize that an individual's sacredness is often confirmed, or at least enhanced, through association with an established sacred place or object. The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya beneath which Siddhartha Gautama meditated and achieved enlightenment was already a sacred tree in India. It is significant, for example, that Jesus Christ was born in a grotto or cave, was baptized in the River Jordan (cf. Water and the Sacred), was tempted by the devil on a mountain and was crucified on a mountain, Mount Calvary (cf. Mountains and the Sacred), on a wooden tree-cross, and was buried in a rock-cut tomb, the entrance to which was blocked by a large stone. (See the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.)


Still other sacred places may be intrinsically sacred, occupying an area of the landscape which has forever been regarded as holy. Frequently these places will show evidence of nearly continuous occupation and reverence dating from the earliest times. Examples of such sites would be those currently occupied by Chartres Cathedral, and the Mosque of Córdoba. Numerous other sites were evidently sacred at one time but are now no longer regarded as such, and have fallen into ruin, such as Stonehenge, and Delphi.



A final but very important point is that many sacred sites, especially those in the ancient world, but also even those associated with the major contemporary religions, are or were to a greater or lesser extent intimately associated with divination. Divination, based on the belief that the gods or other powerful supernatural force can reveal to humans knowledge otherwise unknown about the present and, especially, about the future, was practiced almost universally throughout the ancient world and continues to be practiced today.


Several sacred sites, such as Delphi, where Apollo's famous oracle was located, or Dodona, where Zeus's oracular oak tree stood (see Trees and the Sacred), were first and foremost centers where people sought information about the present and the future.


To a large extent, the various religions past and present have catered in one way or another to allaying through divination or promises the prevailing human fear of the future and anxiety about the present. The Old Testament, for example, is filled with the utterances of prophets (a Greek term meaning 'foreteller') about the future, while the New Testament claims special knowledge about the correct path a person should take which, if pursued and fulfilled according to the dictates of the Church, will more or less guarantee a particular future afterlife.

There is good reason to believe that the popularity of sacred sites, many of them today visited by pilgrims of one kind or another, offer a special reassurance about life today and the future. Not surprisingly, as the oracular history of some of them would indicate, many ancient sacred places were evidently associated with a fundamental knowledge or wisdom, divine in origin, which a number of people today feel it is possible to recapture.