A few days before Beltane I walked the long ridge to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. It snowed that day, winter clashing with spring around me. It was a liminal time in an ancient sacred space. As I walked along stone carved deep by glaciers with the sea roaring below, the land spoke to me of the past and a beginning. It was a lesson about the sacred and the profane that I will do my best to share with you.
When we talk of the “sacred” and “profane” we use them fundamentally as concepts of boundaries and limits. “Profane” means, literally, outside “pro” the “fanum” or temple. The “sacred” is tied into words for agreements and treaties, but also an ambiguous sense of being set aside or outside in the sense of being taboo or even cursed. Focusing on both taboo and treaty, it is clear that the term “sacred” is unavoidably tied to a negotiating of borders. With only these words as our guide we envision a world made of two types of spaces. There is the temple, the sacred precinct, like a small circle of light and there is the vast expanse of the profane that dominates the rest of existence. Surely most things are outside the temple.
The Great Wild
The Sacred is not the sane. The Sacred is not the safe. The Sacred is not the tame. Once the wild world was the Sacred, rising around humanity in overpowering movement and blossom. Beautiful and horrifying, deadly and seductive, the Sacred surrounded us and when we were animals amongst animals we too were Sacred. The first pre-cinct, the first circle-girded space, was the first profane in which humanity set itself off in a small space, perhaps of firelight, amidst the Sacred. All was the fanum, the Temple, save our small space of temporary safety. When the world was Sacred and we were of the world we were as “water in water”, to steal an image and phrase from Georges Bataille, but when we set ourselves off we were as nothing before the mighty Other.
There were millennium during which the stars spun and wheeled in the sky and we looked upon them amazed and bewildered – terrified and desperately hopeful. There were years that dwarf all we know of history during which we sat by the fire and faced into the darkness, what lust and anxiety must have filled our eyes. There were those who went into the dark, who crossed the boundaries of sacred living mountains and taboo rivers. Some of those came back but most were lost into the Great Wild. Many of us sat in our circle of the temporarily profane, before beast or cataclysm whipped it aside, while others went Out hunting the divine. There were even those who could bring the Sacred into the circle, establishing the winds of the wild within the home with its hearth.
But we did not come out of that early Great Wild into the light of the profane alone, our first fire was the fire of the gods – stolen, bartered, or given. It survived or died based on the delicate shifting laws of original sacramenta, or sacred oaths. This is largely what magic, and religion, are – negotiating the boundaries of the profane and sacred.
Such delicate pacts and gifts, friendships and hard fought alliances, formed those first flimsy boundaries that protected that space marked by the Sacred within – the Hearth – and the Sacred without – the Wild. From cave to camp to city the formation was the same, and always the boundaries were heavy wrought with shrines and temples, idols and markers, signs of the tentative agreements that allowed the profane to exist along with the sacred heart of the profane that alone kept the space alive.
But it was clear that not all denizens of the Great Wild, of the Other beyond our boundaries, were open to negotiation, to friendship, or to alliance. Amongst the populace of the Sacred some gods stole fire for us, and others wanted it back. And, of course, a friend to one or some was not necessarily a friend to others.
Negotiating the Profane
Standing at the foot of a mountain can make you feel small, but standing on top of one makes you feel exposed – exposed to the vast Others against whom we build walls and throw up screens. Aristotle claimed that anyone who could live without a polis, without a city or human community, was either an animal or a god. But, of course, the deeper point is that such an entity is neither – it occupies that liminal space that remains from before the wild and the divine were ever separated out. A vital part of the ambiguity of the Sacred is that what is cast-out is just as Sacred as what is worshipped, what is denied is just as holy as what is invoked – the Unseen is alike the exalted and excluded, the inhuman heart of the human community and what is beyond its boundaries. What this makes clear, and what Aristotle missed, is that the complicated, plural, and ambiguous Sacred is always already political. Even the gods debate.
Not essentially different from the fire-light’s circle, the space of the city and society as a whole was one opened within the midst of the Sacred. The structures of the society, the oaths that bound it and boundaries that sustained and protected it, were the site of compacts with the Sacred. The first politics was born out of negotiation with the divine. Even as there were gods friendly to humanity and antagonistic to it, so too did different gods give rise to different sacramenta and different politics, cities, and societies. And, of course, there were the forces of revolution, the divine allies of the slave, the poor, the rejected, the outcast who were already closer to the Sacred than those comforted within the circle of the profane. But even in the established orders of the imperial gods there was an ambiguity as dangerous as it was protective. Zeus himself was once a rebel, as indeed was the father he overthrew.
In Ancient Greece, at crossroads and boundaries, stood piles of stones and eventually pillars crowned with a divine head. These were the Herma that marked and guarded the borders and passageways and, in doing so, established them. From these pillars the god Hermes likely drew his name and his nature as a liminal god. The guide of travelers, especially those passing into and out of the underworld, became as well the god of both merchants and thieves – a force that established boundaries and transgressed them, establishing property and taking it away.
The March of the Profane
In Rome the dual headed god Janus played a similar role to that of Hermes as a god of passageways, travel, and trade. But being the keeper of gates meant something more than just this. The gates of the Temple of Janus were kept closed during times of peace and flung open during times of war and “inside, unholy Furor, squatting on cruel weapons, hands enchained behind him by a hundred links of bronze, will grind his teeth and show his bloodied mouth.” (Aeneid I 395-398, Fitzgerald trans.) The protector of boundaries, commerce, and travel was also the guardian of the forces of destruction that he could only temporarily keep at bay or willfully unleash upon the world.
In Virgil’s Aeneid we get a particularly striking sense of the ambiguity here, because the manner in which the gates of Janus when closed contain and limit the force of destructive war and fury is mirrored in similar images of the gods locking away “contending winds and moaning gales” beneath mountains and the natural wildness of humanity being temporarily repressed. The poet compares storms to human riots and allies the aged statesman’s power to calm the crowd to Jove’s power to silence the storm. Virgil dreams of the utter conquest of humanity over the wild and glories in Rome’s breaking the backs of rivers by building bridges over them. Here we see clearly that Empire is always the advance of the profane upon the wild Sacred. But it is also clear that, despite himself, Virgil does not believe that a final conquest is possible – the doorways remain just that, fickle in their tendency to open as well as close, and the last scene of the unfinished epic is that of the hero “blazing up terribly in his anger” and shamefully sinking his blade in fury into the chest of a defeated enemy begging for mercy. The relationship between the Great Wild Sacred, in both its beneficent and dangerous forms, and the profane is always an ongoing and unstable one.
Despite this, Rome did its best to break the backs of as many rivers as possible and push the boundary of the profane as far as it could. This image of the river as a dangerous force to be defeated is one with which Virgil would have been familiar from the much earlier Iliad of Homer where it plays a strikingly ambiguous role. In the Iliad the river Scamander, outside of the city of Troy, rises up several times to take part in battle and defend the city from the Greek invaders. In fact the river alone is able to face the full fury of Achilles and only with the help of other gods can Achilles escape its assault. This wild sacred river, however, is at the same time the original name of the heir to the throne of Troy – the river in this way is also marked as a sacred source of the city and civilization of Troy. In the pursuit of breaking rivers and taming the world Virgil must also have seen Rome’s refusal to accept society’s source in the wild Sacred. Such a project, Virgil suggests, is always doomed to fail.
The Creator-God and the Artifact Universe
The pagan world is always a negotiation between the sacred at the heart of society, the Wild Sacred outside it, and the small everyday space of the profane with its fragile existence between. The content of these negotiations are themselves political and contain human society and its foundations within themselves. How did things come to seem different?
The rise of monotheism brought with it a dramatic change in the way people saw the universe, for it presented the idea of an absolute Artificer God who crafts reality as a total work. Where pagan cultures have had creator gods these have been, by and large, shapers of already existing realities – for example those who build a world from the bits and pieces of a fallen giant, or snake, and so on. Reality is, and is diverse and resistant to totalizing control and craft. More than this, the forming and shaping of the cosmos is partial and ongoing. We see early shifts away from this idea in the proposal of a demiurge in Plato, but even then the demiurge creates against the background of a greater reality and uses pre-existing material that resists its dominance. But with full monotheism a shift occurs, the Creator-God has absolute and total control and its creation is One. Reality is an artifact, an object or tool in the possession of an absolute tyrant, be that tyrant more or less benevolent. The totalizing and reductivism is complete.
The Artifact-Universe, obedient to its Creator, gives rise to a fundamental shift in the view of the Sacred. “Sacred” comes to only mean something like “sanctified”. In other words, all is profane until made otherwise. All is profane until the temple is chosen and blessed by the One. The sacred becomes that which is set off within the general profane, and the Wild itself becomes little more than material-for-use if not a demonic threat where echoes of the old Sacred remain. At the same time, the focus of our relation to the sacred shifts away from this world towards a transcendent with the full denigration of this world that this implies.
These are themes I have certainly dwelt on in much of my work, but I would like to simply stress that the shifting of our relationship to the sacred to a transcendental abstract One served largely to sever society from its foundations. For pagan societies, and indeed all of prehistoric humanity, politics began with negotiating our relationships with the wild and the diverse inconsistent divinities encountered through and within it – and these were as often contentious negotiations as otherwise. These negotiations with the wider wilder world found continuity in our negotiations with each other and with the gods who came to occupy, or at least visit, our societies as well. In the Artifact-Universe politics either became the mad obedience to a transcendental master, as in the case of rabid theocracy, or a distraction from the real heart and meaning of existence. But what comes to seem clear is that politics is “just” about this world, about the sad gears grinding away on the divine artifact. Politics becomes merely and purely profane.
When the time came to dethrone the One tyrant, this sense of the profanity of politics nonetheless often remained in the odd idea that what I love most, what I commit myself to, what makes for a meaningful life, is somehow divorced from the real work of making a way in a living world that is a community of multiple forces, meanings, purposes, and creatures. Along side this odd idea also arose the rejection, in capitalism in particular, of any re-emergence of the sacred through an insistence that all is profane and everything has its price. In the Artifact-Universe without an Artificer, all things are objects for use and sale.
The question of the Sacred, of its nature and our relationship to it, is the question of how we are to live in the world and live with each other – in other words it is a political question. Such a question cannot be asked without a shuddering, shamed, and honest gaze upon the damage we have wrought to the world and to each other. It requires a new gaze upon the darkness at the edge of our firelight, a new experience of the limits of the profane and the border of the Original Sacred.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .