The Sacred and the Profane in Hellenismos


This article presents my initial conclusions on the topic of the Sacred and the Profane in Hellenismos, a topic which I’ve become quite interested in since assuming the role (albeit unofficially) as a priest or Hiereus of Athena. Scholars and Philosophers of religion have identified the concept of the Sacred or Holy as being central to religion and the religious experience. The Sacred or Holy are, in the words of Rudolph Otto, the “wholly other.i” Things that are Sacred or Holy provide a glimpse of a realm vastly different from our own, and are numinous, which is a sense of the uncanny, of power and mystery set apart from our regular day-to-day mundane existence. These items are also ritually clean or pure. The concept of the sacred has several axes of opposition.ii

The first of these is the opposition between the sacred and the profane (that which is not sacred). The second is the opposition between the clean and the impure or polluted. The third is the opposition between the numinous and the mundane.

The profane can be divided into the Unholy and the mundane. The common or mundane is usually seen as clean and non-numinous; while the Unholy or Polluted is unclean and numinous. The Unholy shares the quality of numinosity with the Holy.iii

Or to simplify:

The Holy: Sacred, Clean and Numinous

The Polluted/Unholy: Profane, Unclean and Numinous

The Common: Profane, Clean and Mundane.

In many cases, the biggest opposition is between the clean and unclean. Pollution and cleansing plays an important role in many religions, including Hellenismos. Other examples of religions with a strong emphasis on purity or cleanliness versus uncleanliness or pollution are Ancient Judaism, the Religio Romana, and Shinto. That which is clean is not in and of itself holy, but is worthy of coming near the holy, or becoming holy itself.iv

The situation is complicated because in English, the term Profane has several meanings, which are not entirely compatible with each other, or with the categories observed in religions and the Philosophy of Religion. The word “Profane” can mean mundane, “not concerned with religion or religious purposes: SECULAR.” But it also has a definition that indicates pollution: “serving to debase or defile what is holy.” There is also a definition that is mixed “not holy because unconsecrated, impure or defiled: UNSANCTIFIED.”v

The third type is between religious valuations of objects and non-religious value. The Unholy or the Holy are numinous things, which as said before are uncanny and mysterious and powerful. This power is a threat. Both can harm someone. The pollution is usually not sought out but is acquired anyway (usually through spilling of blood, sexual activity, menstruation, eating unclean foods, etc.). One must take ritual action to remove pollution and its threats, as well as the threat from the holy. The mundane is not dangerous.

The polluted and the holy are a threat to each other. The holy is a definite threat to the unholy, as many tales and myths worldwide express. On the other hand, the polluted is a threat to the holy, as the terms for defiling, and desecration show. Desecration of a temple may not harm the deity, but it will harm the community when the deity is no longer present to bless and protect the community.

All these categories and the effects thereof can be shown to exist in Hellenismos. In ancient Greek, the term hosia is a very old adjective, dating back to the time of This term has elements of holiness and purity to it. Originally it refers to an offering, it later becomes broadened.vii Hosios is “holy, sacred, pious, devout.”viii In many cases, it was defined in a negative sense early on. In the Odyssey it is stated that planning a murder is anosion or unholy. It is also anosion to feel joy in the presence of the corpses of the dead.ix Poseidon Hippios had horses at Onchestos which were hosia, and so sacred and unusable by mortals.x It is hosia for the Gods to accept sacrificial offerings.xi Apollon is especially referred to as hosios yet He cleanses himself after striking from afar.xii The assistants to the Oracle of Delphi were hosios, especially those who performed the animal sacrifices there who were most hosioi of men.xiii Plato, in the Euthyphron considers hosiotes (being hosia) to be synonymous with purity and eusebia, but even there, he works forward from a murder case.xiv

Hosia is also active; things must be happening, the rituals being performed, and the Gods and the Daimones must receive their offerings for hosia to be met.xv Neglect of hosia can bring down the wrath of the Gods. On the other hand, to be hosios one must simply live per the nomizomena of the polis one lives in.xvi Thus a rather mundane life is pure in Hellenismos. The term can be applied to places where normal life goes on, where stricter religious rules do no apply.

“Every State building that was no specifically dedicated as a ‘holy place,’ a hieron or sanctuary, formed part of the hosia. It is accordingly quite clear that the hosion occupies a middle position between the hieron and the wholly profane.”xvii

From this example, it would be logical to deduce that the agora of Athens is hosia while the sanctuaries in and around the agora are hieronxviii as they were demarcated by special boundary markers and the khernips (lustration) basins. A higher level of purity was needed to access those areas than the more mundane but clean agora.xix In the model I used in the beginning of this paper, the agora, and the hosion are clean and mundane…or common. Pure and to that extent holy, and capable of approaching the holy, but not as holy or sacred as that which is hieron, and belonging wholly to the Gods. However, violations of hosia will make one polluted. Those who committed murder and are in the presence of the murder victims are anosion and so unfit to call on the Gods.

A related concept, which closely matches the idea of “clean”, is hagneia. That which is hagnos is “chaste” or “pure” and it is directly opposed to the pollutedxx. When one undergoes katharsis to remove miasma (pollution), one becomes hagnos.

The concepts of hosios and hagnos should be fit into the framework as The Common. It is mundane, and clean and profane (in the sense of unconsecrated and secular).

Let us now consider the numinous elements of the Holy or Sacred and the Profane. The Holy is numinous, and gives a view into the word of the other, the Divine. Otto referred to the Holy as something with Numen, a Latin term for “Divine Power, Uncanny, Divine.” In one sense, the Hieron, which belongs wholly to the Gods is definitely such a numinous thing.xxi In a more limited sense, it is the sanctuary or temenos cut off from the mundane landscape with its boundary markers or wall and the lustration basins at the entrance. Its very nature as something set apart would tend to make it numinous. One would, on approaching it, sense the otherness of the place and the Immortals who dwell there. To enter, one would have to purify oneself by lustration, which further enhances the sensation of entering into the presence of the other, of the divine.

This sense would be reinforced by the fact that many temenoi were “cut out” due to some uncanny event signifying the presence or activity of a God.xxii A good example would be the temenos of Zeus on Mount Lykaeon. It marked a spot where a thunderbolt had struck the earth. That is a direct and visible manifestation of the Numen or Power of Zeus Kataibates, Zeus the Descender. It was common in the world of the Ancient Greeks to set aside such sites as sacred to Zeus. On Mount Lykaeon, the uncanny nature of the place was reinforced by tales that said no shadows were cast within the sanctuary, and anyone staying overnight there would disappear. Many other sanctuaries were set up around a sacred spring, a sacred stone, or a sacred tree, or places of abnormal beauty, which stimulated feelings that the Numen of some God was active at the site.xxiii The uncanny can also be seen in the sanctuaries of Asklepios. Here incubation (sleeping) in the sanctuary (specifically the temple itself) leads to dream visitations by the God who shows the sick person how to heal themselves which is itself rather unusual (more so since the dreams seemed to have led to actual cures).

Examples of this are legion in the records from ancient Greece. The Erechtheum in Athens was built around both the sacred Olive Tree, which Athena caused to sprout, and the salt spring dug by Poseidon’s trident in their competition for patronage of Athens. The sacred springs and associated ecstatic gases at Delphi are another famous example, the sanctuary arising due to the uncanny power of prediction the gases from the springs caused. The cave of Eileithia was a sanctuary from early Minoan times to the very end of the Roman era; partially at least due to the uncanny stalactites and stalagmites within it which resemble a female human, and the relationship of the cave to the birth canal which is itself appropriate for the Birthing Nymph.xxiv

The most holy images of the Gods were not the great chryselephantine sculptures of Phidias and others, but the strange wooden xoanoi, (sing. xoanon).xxv The Peplos, which was woven and carried in the great procession to the Acropolis, was not for the great statue in the Parthenon, but the ancient olivewood xoanon of Athena housed in the Erechtheum, said to have fallen from the sky. Other xoanoi were said to wash up from the sea, or arose from the ground; while various Palladion had fallen from the sky to Troy, Argos and Rome. The unusual origin or discovery of these objects, and the fact that they had no known maker made these the holiest and most prized possessions of the cities that held them.xxvi Once again, the uncanny strikes again.

The uncanny nature of the place or object, the Numen, is, as in many religions, dangerous as well. They are dangerous even to the normal and pure (or even purified) persons. The holy bodies of the Gods (or the sheer power inherent in them) can in themselves smite a mortal. Zeus, in his unmasked form, burned Semele to cinders. The mere sight of Athena while bathing caused the seer Teiresias to go blind (in one version of the story); while the sight of Artemis bathing stimulated Her to turn Akteon into a stag to be hunted by his own hounds. The full force of a God’s Numen (or Hieron) is more than a mere mortal can bear. The Numen of Zeus at Lykaeon could make mortals disappear.

Anathemata (Dedicated offerings or votive offerings) were also hedged about with restrictions.xxvii They were removed from normal use (often being broken) and after a while were often buried in the sanctuary when too many had accumulated. Anathemata were only handled by the priest/ess of the sanctuary and his or her assistants. This was partially out of sacrifice, and partially out of concern for what would happen if they were used for profane purposes. Theft of anathemata was usually the cause of much sorrow and grief for the thief. The Gods do not take lightly the theft of Their property. In the Odyssey, when the men of Ithaca steal the sacred cattle of Helios, they doom themselves to destruction despite their desperation.

These dangers led to ritual restrictions such as those found in other societies and religions. These restrictions serve to fortify and protect those who enter the strange places of the Holy. Common rituals involve divination (to ensure the Divine Beings are in favor of a rite). Other restrictions involve ritual purification (such as the baths in the Castalian Spring of the Pythia; or the simple Khernips ritual of the average person), to restrictions on who could enter the sanctuary, what clothes they wore, and so forth. Those in intimate connection with the Holy, such as priests and attendants had to make doubly sure they were pure and clean of pollution. Death, sexual intercourse, and certain other polluting activities were prohibited with in the bounds of the temenos.xxviii This was partially to protect the temenos from desecration, as these polluting events would certainly desecrate the sanctuary and require purification rites. But it was also to prevent harm to the poor souls who angered the Gods by their desecration. In the myth of Medusa, Poseidon seduced the priestess of Aphrodite in Aphrodite’s temple. As a result Medusa was cursed to become a Gorgon. Jason’s father was murdered in Hera’s temple by Jason’s uncle, who for this desecration doomed himself at Jason’s hands, and those of the outraged Goddess.

Thus we can clearly see the numinous, and clean nature of the sacred, or holy in Hellenismos. Once again, this clearly fits the model presented above. We also can see the dangers that the Holy can bear for both the mundane, and the profane; as well as the dangers that the profane have on the holy.

The profane, or unholy, or polluted is relatively simple to trace in Hellenismos. The term for pollution is miasma. Miasma can range from simple dirtiness, as in the Iliad, when Hera washes the miasma of dirt from Herself in preparation to seduce Zeus; to the case where the Argive troops bathe in the sea to wash their miasma away in preparation for a sacrifice to Apollon. Other sources of pollution include sexual activity, childbirth and bloodshed.xxix As in many cultures, miasma spreads by contagion. Someone who is clean who contacts someone who had sex, shed blood, or bore a child becomes polluted. As a result, persons polluted by bloodshed were often excluded from the city, as was the case of Oedipus and Priests could not enter the homes of women who had borne children, as they would become polluted and unable to fulfill their duties until cleansed. Rituals of purification were carried out to cleanse people of pollution, the most elaborate being reserved for those who shed blood, and those being initiated into Mysteries (which consecrated them, and thus required elaborate purification, at Eleusis this involved being purified by sea water, fire and air).xxxi

Pollution or miasma in itself was dangerous. Illnesses, deformities and calamities befell the polluted. The cities in which they resided were in danger. Oedipus, having killed his father brought a plague on the city of Thebes due to his pollution. The threat of pollution from bloodshed was so severe that in Athens, the King Archon (Archon Basileus) presided over cases of murder to detect and cleanse the pollution from the city; and elaborate scapegoat rituals took place in many places to remove pollution periodically.

Thus we can clearly see that the polluted or profane was present in Hellenismos as well, and fits the model developed above.

Works Cited:

  • Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece, Leslie Adkins & Roy Adkins, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford 1997
  • Teach Yourself Ancient Greek: A Complete Course, Gavin Betts & Alan Henry, Teach Yourself Books, London, Chicago 1989
  • Greek Religion, Walter Burkert, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1985
  • Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete, Rodney Castleden, Routledge, New York & London 1990
  • “The New Friesian Theory of Religious Value” Dr. David Kelley, Ph.D.
  • The Religion of the Greeks and Romans, Carl Kerenyi, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York 1962
  • Sources for the Study of Greek Religion, David G. Rice & John E. Stambaugh, Scholars Press, 1979
  • i Kelley 1999
  • ii Ibid.
  • iii Ibid.
  • iv Ibid.
  • v Ibid.
  • vi Kerenyi 1962 p. 108
  • vii Ibid. p. 109
  • viii Betts & Henry 1989, p. 324
  • ix Kerenyi 1962. p. 108
  • x Ibid.
  • xi Ibid.
  • xii Ibid. p. 109
  • xiii Ibid.
  • xiv Ibid. cf. Plato, Euthyphro
  • xv Ibid.
  • xvi Ibid.
  • xvii Ibid. p. 110
  • xviii Adkins & Adkins 1997 p. 337 Note, Hieron while usually applied to a sanctuary, literally means full of divine power, and is thus rather equivalent in a descriptive form to Numen or Numinous.
  • xix Ibid. p. 338
  • xx Bretts & Henry 1989, p. 295
  • xxi See footnote xviii.
  • xxii Burkert 1985 p. 86, note Temenos means “cut out.” It is not always set in a place where the uncanny occurred or occurs, but that is very common. Cf. Also p. 85 “If ever a breath of divinity betrays some spot as the sphere of higher beings, then this is evoked by the institutionalized cult.” Cf also, Rice & Stambaugh 1979 p. 123
  • xxiii Ibid. p. 85
  • xxiv Castleden 1990, p. 61 discusses Minoan sanctuaries and their characteristics in detail in the chapter on Religious Life pp.123-157. Pages 59-62 discusses cave sanctuaries such as Eleuthia’s (Eileithia’s) at Amnisos.
  • xxv Ibid. p. 90
  • xxvi Ibid. p. 91
  • xxvii Ibid. p. 92-95, the whole section deals with anathemata in some detail.
  • xxviii Ibid. p. 78
  • xxix Ibid.
  • xxx Ibid. p. 81
  • xxxi Ibid. p. 80



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