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New Worlds: Sanctification

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It’s almost axiomatic that religious things are different from secular ones. Over and over again, we see the dichotomy of the sacred and the profane cropping up in human societies.

But what needs to be sanctified? And how is this state achieved?

Religious sites are one of the most common foci of sanctification. This can be true for both fixed, permanent sites and temporary ones; in fact, while a permanent site often has architectural characteristics that set it apart from secular buildings, for temporary locations, the sanctification process is the defining step that fleetingly transforms an ordinary space into a sacred one. The extent to which this process matters, though, and whether the balance tilts toward the brief or the lasting, depends on the religion in question. My off-the-cuff instinct is that organized, communal religions are more likely to establish permanent sites, while marginalized faiths or those which focus on individual practice more often have temporary ones — but I lack hard evidence to back up that instinct, and also we’d be able to name exception in any case.

Along with the places where religious activity is performed, it may be necessary to consecrate the paraphernalia of ritual. This can be literally anything: garments, holy texts, altars, food and drink, objects carried by participants in the ceremony, whatever your ritual calls for. Once again, the sanctification may be permanent or temporary, depending on the item in question. Consumables naturally tend to be consumed soon afterward, while holy texts are probably kept around for a long time (cf. the role of Torah scroll in Judaism — as opposed to other copies of the text, which may be sacred in their content but not consecrated in their physical form).

Living things may be consecrated, too. There’s an admittedly fuzzy distinction between sanctification and purification; the latter will get its own essay eventually, when I discuss sources of impurity, but here I’m looking more at the long-term consecration of a person, rather than short-term cleansing that is assumed to wear off after a while. We mostly see people being consecrated for particular roles: quite often as clergy, but where sovereignty is seen as linked with religion, a king or queen may also be consecrated as part of their ascension to the the throne. This isn’t just limited to humans, though! The animal sacrifices we’ll be talking about later this month often undergo preparatory rites that dedicate them to the god who will be receiving the sacrifice.

How do you go about sanctifying something? Obviously the specific actions are going to vary widely between religions, but there are a few broad patterns worth looking at. Sometimes it requires starting at the very beginning, in what you might think of as a “supply chain” approach. The sacrificial cow must be born with certain characteristics (e.g. all white or all black) and reared in a certain way; the Torah scroll must be produced by an authorized scribe, using specific materials and techniques. Diverging from these requirements along the way generally invalidates the whole thing. Sometimes you can discern practical reasons for the requirements — maybe the materials in question are more durable or, conversely, ephemeral in appropriate ways — but there will probably always be a religious tradition mandating that approach, not to mention social value in going to special effort, thereby connecting yourself to the many people who have gone to such effort before.

Other things need not be created in a specific way, but can be consecrated later on, often after being purified first. This is generally true of human beings, of course: while some societies require their clergy to be born of certain priestly lineages or remain virginal throughout life (no sexual experience allowed, even before taking up the role), the requirements are rarely as detailed as they might be for sacrificial animals. The same is frequently true of religious sites. In these cases, sanctification is a ritual or series of rituals, often conducted when the training of the person or the work on the structure is finished — but not necessarily! The basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona has been under construction since 1882, with its hoped-for completion date of 2026 delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but Pope Benedict XVI consecrated it 2010, after the covering of the central nave allowed the building to be used for services.

Any space or object sanctified for temporary use will take this approach of later consecration, by dint of the fact that you’re repurposing existing material for a special purpose. With spaces, it is incredibly common to demarcate the site in some fashion, whether that be with a ritual circle, stakes or candles at the points of a square, or some other arrangement — anything that lets you see the boundary between the sacred and the profane, and take it down again once the religious use is complete.

Because that’s the flip side to this coin: what is sanctified can also be de-sanctified.

If you read much history, it isn’t hard to find instances of this being done as deliberate enemy action. If the attackers’ religion differs from that of the defenders’, then part of how the former assert their dominance over the latter is by destroying their holy things. You can raze the buildings, sure — but in many cases, it’s more psychologically damaging to ruin them in subtler ways. Extinguishing sacred fires, defacing divine statues, raping priests or nuns, anything that violates the sanctity of the target; Hellenic priests contaminated the first Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing pigs there. Buildings, if left intact enough, may later be re-consecrated (to the original religion or a new one), but not everything can recover its former status so easily.

Not all de-sanctification is malicious, though. After all, sometimes things reach the end of their useful life . . . but you can’t just throw them out like ordinary trash. The omamori amulets sold at Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan should ideally be returned there for ceremonial burning, out of respect for the divine power behind them. Torah scrolls are buried in cemeteries; giving sacred objects treatment akin to what a person would receive is a very common way of showing respect. Church buildings are not uncommonly de-consecrated before being sold to new owners, and there’s evidence that the pre-colonial Maya likewise ritually decommissioned their temples — which were seen as points of contact between the mortal and spiritual worlds — before abandoning them. And of course, any time you temporarily sanctify a thing, especially a location, there are good odds that the end of the ritual covers formally returning everything to its profane state — placing boundaries around its holiness in time as well as space.

If you ask me, it’s that end of things which is particularly fruitful for narrative thought. I have a story concept, not yet written, about a long-lost temple that wasn’t appropriately shut down when the people who used it went away . . . all kinds of trouble could result!

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Sanctification”

  1. This is really inspiring me to take a good gander at my current storyworld and how it treats sacred spaces. It’s already got a bit of an oddball (for our world) religion, and most of the people are at least somewhat displaced from “ancestral homeland” and wherever key religious locations would be. I love that this post got me thinking about it so hard!

    1. That displacement thing is a great opportunity for worldbuilding. When I was working on the Memoirs of Lady Trent, where the majority ~European religion is based on Judaism (divided between the Temple and rabbinical forms), I had to decide how Temple-style Judaism would handle spreading well past its original homeland, to places where believers couldn’t easily travel to that central location. I ended up using the term “tabernacle” for holy sites (drawing from scripture for a suitable word), and making one of the key elements of their sanctification the presence of a fire that had been kindled at the central Temple and carried to the new location.

  2. Romans would perform a rite of evocatio to lure the tutelary gods of their foes to Rome, promising a better rite. Then they could sack the sacred places without fear.

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