Sacred versus Profane

Through the course of human history it has been the role of culture to make the differentiation between the sacred and the profane. This notion has first popularized by sociologist Emile Durkheim in his work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. He asserts that in order for something to be regarded as sacred it must be, “ superior in dignity and power…it is absolute” (41). Durkheim found it imperative to add the last distinguishing feature to aid against the tyranny of oversimplified qualifications limited by hierarchal order. In this way a stone, which in its own right may not be superior to man, may still be sacred because of the inherent value ascribed to it by a particular culture. Conversely, everything else is profane. As a result these two categories are fundamentally opposed, never to be reconciled as they are two worlds with nothing in common.


Although what is set apart as sacred and the “everything else” that constitutes the composite of the profane varies cross-culturally is should be the work of the anthropologist to explore what meanings, values, and processes give way to the transference from profane to sacred.  In a recent assigned reading surveying the economies of the Mesopotamian lowlands this distinction is exemplified in the excavated properties of Susa. Although this region is primarily characterized by egalitarianism this social structure still had marks of inequality. One of the primary indicators was a series of buildings that were recovered in the heart of the site. They was built upon a 10-meter platform and adorned with mosaic decorations that left it undoubtedly distinguished from the surrounding mundane architecture. Another important feature of these buildings were that they were uncharacteristically massive in size. Coupled with the platform from which it was built upon anthropologists have inferred that this structure was meant to be seen far and wide by its creators.


From the physical remains of Susa anthropologists have been able to piece together the alleged cultural fabric that composed to the everyday lives of the inhabitants. Due to the symbolic significance of the central location to these buildings suggests that religious life was of central importance to the people. Moreover the ostentatious adornment of these buildings shows the elevated status ascribed to these structures in comparison to the rest of the site. Thus it evinces the notion first introduced in this blog that there is an enduring distinction between the sacred and the profane.

1 thought on “Sacred versus Profane

  1. Abbi Lynch

    “Sacredness” versus “profanity” is an interesting concept within the field of anthropology as a whole. While you stress here that the two are mutually exclusive and any one thing is either “sacred” or “profane,” in my anthropological studies I have found that often, there are things that fit into neither category.

    My focus in anthropology is in medical anthropology, and for medical anthropologists, one of the classification systems that can be applied to food is the “sacred versus profane” dichotomy. For instance, in religious Jewish groups, matzoh bread would be a sacred food–it represents a larger idea and tradition of the Jewish religion and is somewhat ritualistic; on the other hand, pig products would be considered profane–the consumption of pork, ham, bacon, etc. is prohibited (for a very interesting theory of how the pig became considered as a profane and “dirty” animal, I recommend Marvin Harris’s “Pig Lovers and Pig Haters”). However, this system of classification does not extend (at least in the Jewish religion), for instance, to apples. An apple would not be considered sacred, which, as you quoted from Durkheim above, implies that it is “superior in dignity and power”: an apple is an apple–it does not have an elevated status. But neither does it imply profanity, which connotes something “bad” or negative. An apple is more or less a “neutral” food.

    As Durkheim’s system was originally developed to classify religious activity, I think we run into problems when trying to transfer the dichotomous system to other areas (and certainly, there are problems with using the system in regard to religion, as there would be with any sort of rigid classification system). However, I agree with you in saying that the obvious importance placed upon size and intricacy of design of the these Susa buildings does likely indicate a “sacred” space.

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