Term derived from the Latin sacer, meaning “untouchable” in the dual sense of both holy and unclean. A sacer person or thing was designated for a divine purpose; it was taboo, dedicated to the other world. It was shunned by the ordinary people because of its spiritual nature. Some say the person or thing is charged with spiritual mana.
An incident in point is the biblical story of Uzzah who touched the ark of the covenant to prevent it from falling off of the oxcart which carried it. Although Uzzah’s intentions were purely honorable, God struck him dead for touching the sacred object (2 Samuel 6:7). Only priests, by saying prayers, could touch the Holy of Holies. Thus, a distinct separation was made between the ordinary and the sacred.
The term “unclean” was biblically applied to humans, especially women, as well as animals. After giving birth and loosing menstrual blood a woman was considered unclean, following the seven days in which she was considered unclean. If she bore a male child she was considered unclean for thirty-three days, the time of her purification. If the child was female, the woman’s purification lasted three score and six days following the two weeks that she was considered unclean and should not touch any hallowed thing. (Leviticus 12:4-5) It can be seen by Hebraic law gave the woman some reprieve for bearing a male child. It can also be seen that the Hebraic law clearly drew a line between what was held to be sacred and nature. Birth of children is natural, but it was clearly punished.
In like manner, sacrificial animals were set aside for God or the gods. For her atonement after giving birth to either a male or female child the woman must bring forth a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering; and a young pigeon, or a turtledove as a sin offering. (Leviticus 12:6-7)
Gods of other cultures required blood sacrifices of “unclean” animals except when eaten on ceremonial occasions, such as the sacred bulls of Egypt and the pigs of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Lucian wrote that the pigs kept in the temple at Hierapolis were taboo in the typical dualistic sense of being both “unclean” and sacred. Presently many people still feel in awe of whatever they view as sacred: a common emotion which Coleridge called “holy dread.”
As seen within the Roman Catholic Church the degree of sacredness of a thing can change. For years the sanctuary around the main altar of a church was treated as a very sacred area. No one except priests and others with permission were permitted within this area. The ordinary parishioners, or persons, would not think of going into this sacred area of a church. For them to do so was considered a grave sin. Thus, no one ventured beyond the communion rail which usually separated the sanctuary from the main portion of the church. Presently, in many churches, Catholics enter the sanctuary to receive communion at the altar.
Within the Catholic Church, the receiving of communion has changed too. For years, the priest was thought to be the only person allowed to touch the consecrated, sacred communion wafer. For any other person to do so was considered a grievous sin. Only the clergy could give communion to the people by placing it on their tongues. Currently, communicants can take the host in their hands. These are examples of how the sacredness of things can be changed. These and other changes by sacred persons regulate people’s lives. A.G.H.