The title of the rather edifying blog No Unsacred Place keeps bugging me. The phrase brings to my mind the little discussion that sometimes occurs inside Neopagan ritualism in which the idea of casting the circle or creating sacred space is questioned. The argument is that in a ‘nature religion’ all of existence must be the manifestation of the divine, and therefore human efforts to designate any particular space as sacred are at best redundant and at worst irreverent and presumptuous.
To me this notion contains misunderstandings both theological and linguistic. Let’s do the linguistic first.
“Sacred” is derived from Latinate roots that mean ‘to separate’ or ‘to cut off’. It refers especially to places or things that are made separate from common life and work, in order to be especially dedicated to the work of religion or magic or spirituality (as you like). The thing is, the essential point of ‘sacredness’ is its separation from the common. To use ‘sacred’ as a reference to unity is rather a contradiction in terms. To say that there is ‘No Unsacred Place’ – that everything is equally dedicated to the special work of religion, is essentially to say that nothing is, in fact, special. If nothing is unsacred, then nothing is sacred.
The complement to this is found in the word ‘holy’. Holy is from the same Germanic roots that give us our English ‘whole’, ‘heal’ ‘health’ etc. It is perfectly reasonable to say that the entire cosmos is holy – wholly whole, and wholly holy, as somebody famous once said. “No unholy place’ makes plenty of sense, if you like.
On another level, sacredness isn’t an intrinsic quality, it is an imparted one. In order for a thing or place to be sacred it has to be declared so, either by a spirit or by a human. My ritual robe is sacred not because of its cloth or its color, but because I have set it aside for the special work of spirituality Sometimes a god makes a mountain or river sacred, sometimes it is done by humans. In every case sacredness happens because some specific intelligence makes it so.
To me this isn’t really a theological matter so much as a technical one. Religious methods are intended to induce spiritual experience in the participants. The technique of designating a specific space as the sacred space – the space where we can expect the gods and spirits to manifest – is basic and undeniable. As always, I assume that spirituality works by most of the same rules as material nature. If you diffuse your work thinly over a vast area you’re unlikely to get a useful result. Concentrating effort in a specific zone is the way to have real impact. So when I want a god to be present I make an image of the god and bring the god to be present specifically in the image. Note I don’t try to ‘have the divine be present’. The divine is always present, but unless it is concentrated in some specific form and place it is mainly irrelevant.
Sacredness is about separateness, and without separateness there can be no sacredness.
Ian Corrigan is a Neopagan of the Druidic sort, interested in Celtic polytheism as it might manifest for modern people in North America. He is also an occultist, broadly interested in arcane and magical systems and ideas, from medieval grimoires through Hindu Tantra and Asian shamanism to Thelema and Chaos Magic. He’s a fan of the folk music of the British Isles and its modern inheritors as well as of fantasy and horror lit, especially the work and legacy of HP Lovecraft.
This article originally appeared on his blog Into The Mound.