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The Sacred and the Profane

The Sacred and the Profane

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson introduces and juxtaposes the concepts of the sacred and the profane, where "profane" is understood broadly as that which is necessarily "profanus," i.e. "outside the temple" and thus not within the realm of the sacred.

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Video Transcription

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Hello, welcome. Today we're going to discuss the concepts of the sacred and the profane. We'll look at what that meant historically for some religious societies as well as some of the contemporary uses.

Right off the bat, these two terms, sacred and profane, they seem to be contrasted somehow. There seems to be something separating them like other terms, spiritual and worldly, for example. Well, our English word profane comes from two Latin words, pro and fanus or fanum, meaning outside the temple. A fanum was a sacred space, a plot of land, usually where a temple would be constructed.

In classical Roman times, anything that was outside the temple, outside the sacred space where one would commune and worship the gods, this was considered profanus, anything outside of that, profane. Which is to say, it had to do with the more mundane and everyday aspects of life. The temple space was the first reference point for understanding the sacred, the realm of the sacred itself. And so, it was a reference point, also, for the world, the worldly and every day.

So the profanum might be technically outside the temple-- pro is the prefix meaning before, outside-- so the profanum might technically be outside, but they were always in close proximity. Scholars of religion and philologists, historians, sociologists, and theologians have all studied the idea of the sacred and the idea of the profane. They are concepts that live in the heart of almost every religious society.

During much of the 20th century, Mircea Eliade, the Romanian philosopher and historian, religious historian, began to identify the broad universality of these concepts in primitive, archaic societies. He was able to identify a universal drive toward the sacred, and in fact, such a natural, essential, engagement with it that the profane world, the mundane aspects of everyday life like hunting, cooking, courtship, for example, all of these things were infused with the sacred and considered to be manifestations of the sacred itself.

So the usual polarity of the terms that we might understand today-- go to church and pray, sacred; work all week 9:00 to 6:00, profane-- well, this separation is really a characteristic of our modern times and our modern thinking. You can see the separation, also, in how we use the term profane today. We might use the word profanity for example to mean cursing or to refer to something vulgar or gross or impolite. These are associations that refer completely to everyday mundane things.

In former times, however, profanity retained its strong association with the sacred. How? Well, cursing, for example, was always understood with reference to its opposite, blessing. A curse, as you probably know, meant a request to God or gods for some kind of ill will or harm to be settled upon someone or something.

So now, let's review. We talked about the sacred and the profane, and we identified that the two terms may have been much more closely related in former times. We used the example of classical Rome and how the temple was often the reference point for the world, and the sacred space of the temple was actually the reference point for the mundane and worldly. Anything that was outside the temple was profane, was profane and so fanum, profanum, and fanum was actually the word that was often used for sacred space where a temple might be built.

We talked about Mircea Eliade, the Romanian philosopher and historian of religions who identified sacred and profane as being central elements in almost every religious society, and that indeed the sacred and the profane were very connected, and the profane, mundane, everyday world of activities was infused with a certain kind of sacred force and spirit.

Terms to Know

Anything that is "pro fanus" (outside the temple), not spiritual, worldly.


That which is set apart from the ordinary, the worldly, and the mundane.