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Holy Places: Some Theorizations of Sacred Space

Radcliffe Edmonds III

Bryn Mawr College

“We prefer to appear before the gods in holy places, even though they are everywhere.” In his commentary on Plato’s Phaedo (I§499), the 5th century CE Neoplatonist Damascius makes this curious, even paradoxical statement when explaining a detail in the myth Socrates tells of the judgement of souls.  The souls gather in a particular place to be judged, but, as Damascius notes, they could be judged anywhere.  The gods are everywhere, and yet certain places are somehow holy, sacred, superior for contact with the gods.  In the long tradition of Greek hymnic poetry, from Homer to Proclus, the invocation of the god always starts with an enumeration of his special and holy places. But why are these places special? What makes a place holy?  What makes a space sacred?

            Damascius does not answer this question, and indeed ancient sources rarely provide direct answers to such questions.  Modern scholars are thus left largely to our own devices, grappling with modern theories of sacred space to try to understand what made certain places more holy than others for the ancient Greeks.  While some modern theories stress the social aspect – a space is sacred simply because the community decides that it is, others emphasize the importance of particular factors in the decision – a particular perception of divine power or presence or the fact that the place falls betwixt and between, either spatially or conceptually.  Such modern theories suffer from the same problems that all modern, etic theorizations must – they are separated in space and time from the people whose ideas they are attempting to describe and they can only offer a way for us to understand the culture from the outside.

            The few ancient texts that do offer abstract and systematic explanations of why some spaces are sacred thus provide the opportunity for scholars to test our modern theoretical understanding of sacred space directly against the ancient evidence, and Neoplatonic texts like Iamblichus’ de Mysteriis supply some of the most elaborate and intricately worked theories available in the evidence.  However, such ancient theorizations of sacred space present the modern scholar with something of a dilemma.  On the one hand, the ancient authors present us with first-hand ideas, internal to the culture, of what sacred space meant and how it was defined.  Because they come direct from inside the culture, they are free from the accumulated biases of the centuries, the new models of religion, the holy, and the sacred that have arisen from millennia of Christian theological speculations.  However, such theories are, like any other text, grounded in the particular historical situation in which they were generated; the author has an aim in mind in writing the text and a point to make in defining sacred space in the way he does.  Moreover, we should not overlook the fact that choosing to theorize, to present a systematic account is in itself a polemical move, aimed at relegating alternate ideas to an inferior status.  This polemic is clear in texts such as Iamblichus’ de Mysteriis, but even a geographer like Strabo has a point to make by theorizing.  Modern scholars thus need to be cautious when an ancient theory of sacred space seems to align too neatly with a modern one.  Modern theories can illuminate the scanty remains of ancient theorizations, but the variety of theories in the ancient evidence shows us that the ancient Greeks thought about sacred space in many different ways.

            Through a comparison of theories of sacred space in Plato, the Hippocratic corpus, Strabo, Iamblichus, and Damascius with modern theories by Eliade, Durkheim, and Douglas, I show the ways the modern theories can illuminate the ancient ideas. Such an examination of these ancient theorizations can help us assess the strengths and limitations of our modern models in understanding ancient ideas of sacred space – and thus to get a better understanding of Damascius’ paradox.

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Gods and the Divine in Neoplatonism

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