A Term that Varies in Meaning


Reprint from  Transactions of the Westermarck Society I 1947.























Mortalia facta peribunt

                                 Nedum sermonum stet honos et gratia vivax.



What does the great word »holy» signify? What stimuli, what experiences lie at the dawn of time — and what to-day — as the root of our conception of something as holy?

   GEO WIDENGREN, Professor of theology, Söderblom’s successor as religious historian at Upsala has, in »The World of Religion» (Religionens värld), and in an article published in the December 1945 number of the »Word and Picture Magazine» (Ord och Bild), made juvenile assertions against the origin of the word »holy» accepted since the days of WESTERMARCK, SÖDERBLOM and OTTO1. He aims at assigning to the belief in God the basic significance of the conception of holiness. Widengren has neither alluded to, nor, obviously, acquainted himself with Westermarck's investigations on the subject — if he had it may be assumed that he would have cited various facts from Westermarck's works to support his own doctrines. Now, one may say instead: Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.

   But paradoxes reveal, from time to time, those points of view that have been ignored. Inadequate definitions are the source of most scientific dissensions. By a precise definition of the term holiness — in its former and present meaning — a number of dissentient views may be disposed of.


   1 Compare Westermarck: Om helighetsbegreppet i den marockanska folktron, Sv. Litt. Sällsk. i Finland Förh. och Uppsatser 1909, The Moorish Conception of Holiness (baraka) Finska Vet.-Soc. Acta 1916; Ritual and Belief in Morocco 1916: in which 260 pages deal with holiness; Pagan Survivals in Muhammedan Civil{i}zation 1933: 57 pages. Söderblom’s investigations on the subject (see Gudstrons uppkomst p. 63, 91, 94, 181, 198; Encycl. of Religion and Ethics ed. by J. Hastings VI) were carried out in 1913 and 1914; Otto’s in 1917.






According to the aforementioned older school of religious scientists, the belief in a so-called High God is preceded by a superstitious belief in a gruesome, powerful something — in Melanesia called mana — and by the fear of dangerous spirits. The conception of holiness had (also etymologically in the old Teutonic word for mana, heill,) its origin in a similar superstition. The word »holy» would thus be older than the belief in gods, and in religions more essential than the idea of God. Soderblom continues: »All that arouses astonishment and dismay, wonder and superstition, is regarded by the primitive peoples as being holy». And this powerful, wonderworking property they could also attribute to objects and places in nature which differed noticeably from their surroundings. OTTO, the Marburg theologian, illustrated this point more clearly: Originally there was no

conception of a god, the belief in a divinity must have proceeded rather from the contact with something »numinous», not yet a numen — still less a nomen — only a tremendum et fascinosum which one is attracted by, but dare not approach. Westermarck and Otto both state that our apprehension of the supernatural which is held to be charged with a dangerous power, may also include horror. The dread of corpses, blood and everything impure, moreover, and especially of sexual life, is what a modern expression terms ambivalent. Common to this element of impurity and that which is evocative of terror from a sense of respect, is the fact that both must be met with precautionary measures.   Whatever is holy is supernatural, it is sensitive to contact with anything profane; thus blood as a more or less potent juice, has a polluting or destructive influence on the miracle-working power of that which is holy.  If bloodshed occurs near a temple or a saint’s shrine the spot must be consecrated anew. The right of asylum dates back to this belief. The Christian Church prescribed punishment »without bloodshed» for heretics.   In former times Christian clergymen were not permitted to partake in warfare, they were not even allowed to perform a major surgical incision.

   Söderblom likewise maintains that no distinction was originally drawn between the holy and the impure (Encycl. VI p. 736—37; Gudstrons uppkomst p. 88, 101). It was primarily through the influence of ethics that the impure and the noxious, the holy and the benefical were combined; nevertheless in such a way that the holy always remains dangerous. It may bring disaster to whomsoever fails to approach it in the enjoined manner. The deity is also a dangerous, not seldom an irate being, appeased with a prescribed cult. OTTO states expressly: »All developments in the history of religions have






proceeded from sensitiveness to the horrible, the fantastic». The fear of demons appears to him to be »the first religious instinct that stirred in the human mind». »How can one comprehend)), he enquires, »the most surprising fact in the history of religions, i. e. that spirits which have evidently initially been born of dread and horror become gods, that is to say beings that one worships, to whom one confides sorrow and happiness and to whom one ascribes the origin of customs, laws, justice, rules of conduct and the sanctity of them?»

   Now, WIDENGREN is in radical opposition to a course of evolution such as that described above. The essence of the controversy is whether a magic, powerful something precedes and covers the term holy, or if the belief in a deity was initially included in and decisive for the said conception. Widengren rejects the postulate of the so-called Pre-Animists, relative to the belief in a magic matter, antedating the conception of spirits and gods; on the contrary, he declares that this supposed mana always emanates from personal beings: he is harking back accordingly to the so-called Animism which still counts adherents. One of them is the Finnish ethnologist RAFAEL KARSTEN, who quite recently, in the December 1946 number of the periodical »Finsk Tidskrift», like Widengren explained that the mana theory is an antiquated one and that »it is no longer necessary to waste any more words on the so-called pre-animistic theory of the origin of religion». However, Karsten attacks Widengren's other theories with vigour; but they both have an adversary in the Upsalian professor Arbman (Seele und Mana, Archiv f. Religionswiss 1931, p. 502.)

   In support of Widengren's statement that holiness is no derivative of an impersonally conceived, wonder-working power, but »originally a purely religious term significative of all that belongs to the divine sphere and, consequently, inviolable and sacred», one might quote phrases such as for instance »the holy family», the three holy kings», the holy sacraments» and Isaihah’s (6: 3) »holy, holy, holy» of the sole God of the Old Testament.

   That ARBMAN is correct in his conclusion that »mana», viewed as a supernatural power, is »a constituent factor in all living religions» can, however, scarcely be denied. Widengren must assume that a sort of charge of power occurs subsequently, resulting from contact with the consecrated object; thus an emanation could radiate from the relics of saints, the metal of church bells, church plate, the host — and even conversely — and »entirely automatically» Widengren declares, when that which is holy has chanced to come into contact with something contaminating and polluted. In other words, what-






ever is connected with the divine service becomes holy and is filled with miraculous power. But the divine element comes first; that of power arises in the second place.

   How can this dilemma be avoided? The problem is solved by exchanging the term holy which comprises too much, with what is sanctified by common belief. Söderblom makes no distinction between mana and taboo — he sometimes refer to »mana or taboo» — but »mana» by no means becomes »holy» before a taboo is added to it. What separates the holy from the merely terrifying, is just the taboo sanction. In accordance with the Bible story of the Creation of the World, the tree of good and evil formed the object of the first taboo prohibition. As a result, this tree of knowledge became holy. Widengren would probably aver that the tree was reserved for the gods and accordingly became holy. »And the Lord God said: See, man has become like unto us and knows the difference between good and evil.» To this WESTERMARCK would object that holiness precedes religion, as surely as respect for natural objects precedes their association with gods. That giant and sacred groves were considered to be holy before legends of higher spirits were connected with them, he illustrates with 15 various pieces of evidence from the Semitic races. Another matter would be that the taboo-precepts have gained in power with religion.

   In short, a more careful scrutiny makes it apparent that a closer definition of the conception of holiness is required to separate that which is holy from that which is only fearful and dangerous, and from that which is loathsome. The devil is not holy, however much he may inspire people with dread. He is as sinister as wraiths and ghosts, or as Death the Reaper himself, but he lacks the awe-inspiring characteristics which common consent assigns to these products of the imagination. With these and other examples before one's eyes (»awful weather», »confounded bad luck» — a succession of diverse misfortunes which make one exclaim »it's the very deuce!» —), the nucleus of the problem — what imbues the holy with sanctity — may be discerned without any difficulty; it is achieved with the sanction of a community, a tribe, a parish or a state. Mutatis mutandis what Hobbes said of religion, may be applied to holiness: »Religion is belief in spirits acknowledged by the state; superstition is belief in spirits that the state does not acknowledge». What a community no longer believes in, as appears to be the case with the belief in Hell, reverts to folklore and superstition when the sanction of the community has vanished. »Formerly this was genuine religion», Söderblom remarked of a certain rite of fertility, »now it is folklore.»






And with this we have reached a compromise with our adversary Widengren. The primitive experience of wonder and dread is surely the original source of holiness; but it is the taboo of a collective will that transforms the superstition into holiness. When the respective authorities have confirmed the miraculous power of the supposed potent element, sanctity ensues from that which was loathsome and compelling. Wonder and fear are only preliminary attitudes towards what is going to be declared holy and later overlaid with binding ritualistic demands.

   Why not then in the case of the ambiguous word »holy», replace it with the empirically defined word »sanctified» meaning »holy by collective command»? No individual explanation can be supplied of the fact that the holy becomes absolute; here a common injunction must intervene, as in the case of the categorical imperative. And the deity stands for the community. A »holy life» is a life consecrated to the divinity, a »holy action», a »holy epoch» are likewise sanctified. It is to be observed that the consecration implies that the community reserves for itself, and only for itself, the right to utilize what is held to be miraculous. In the light of this sociological point of view, Widengren should be able to agree with his predecessors that it is not the holy which is the main thing in religion, but that which is consecrated to the divinity, that is to say the sacrosanct. EDV. LEHMANN has argued excellently in »Religionens värld» (P. 58, 63), that the essence of holiness is not numinous superstition, but that »existence itself is based on norms, the violation of which threaten its very foundation.» »It is on this basis» he perceives with Durkheim, »that the structure of religion is erected.»

   With greater vehemence than any other scientist, Durkheim has stressed the fact that it is the collective assent with which an object is embraced that constitutes its sanctity (»Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse» III 5: 4). To him, also, goes the credit for the realization that the great word God stands for a personification of the community.

   When Widengren declares that the holy is that which belongs under the protection of the deity, he is right in thinking that this consecrated something is contained within the sphere of a deified community. WESTERMARCK, SÖDERBLOM and OTTO are also right when they reveal the embryo of holiness as existing in the spiritual life of the individual. In the supposed interest of community, the fear of supernatural powers is first sustained with a taboo, then with the divine belief of religions. The highest God becomes in the first






place the Holy; from Him sanctity is extended to the Monarch as being sanctified in unity with the community which he represents, and then even further, to the banner and the native land. A banner is, it is true, also consecrated with the prayers of consecration, by the unanimous attitude of the troops; the feeling of solidarity that this symbol arouses conduces to self-sacrifice in the individual. Thus, it will be found that the dissensions regarding the signification of the holy, are dispelled by an adjustment of terms. To replace the word »holy» with the word »sanctified» will dispose of that dispute.

   To conclude, yet one more example. No primitive dread suggests itself when we listen to the Christmas hymn »Silent night, holy night». An ethical longing, an aesthetic exaltation have replaced the superstitious belief. The feeling of communion as a criterion of holiness has outdistanced the fear and trembling which constituted the heritage from pagan times.

   Such a metamorphosis is no rarity. Innumerable words in the language have lost their original significance. Of the word »sacrifice» Söderblom wrote in »Religionsproblemet» (P. 375—76):

   »By what right is the ancient religious term »sacrifice» which possessed the most concrete and established signification possible, used for a conception that stands in the sharpest contrast to the old one?» — He replies: »With the right of life itself. The word sacrifice still represents one of the noblest expressions in the human language and the sublimity in the life of man recalled by it, does not conjure up slaughter.»

   At least not always. And the fact that one does not in everyday speech come to think of the repellent origin of some words, is, apparently, also applicable to the word holy. Religious, doctrines are endowed with a new meaning — also in the case of words such as »miracle», »Revelation» and even the word »God» — they are reinterpreted or drop away altogether. Thus one may hope that the term holy, as signifying something powerful and miraculous, may perhaps be discarded; or that the accent may, at least, be transferred from the »heill»-filled signification to one sanctified by community.

   Such is already the case for instance in »Julkvällen» (Christmas Eve) by Runeberg: —


   »Finland rose in his mind — how frostbound —

   His poor, hidden, holy native land;

   And the grey squadron from Saima…»






Here we find a community both of sentiment and of demands; to dare to proceed against them is generally held to be sacrilegious. The criterion for what we now call holy — essential, decisive, s i n e  q u a  n o n — is an unanimous and collective belief. Should the sanction of community vanish, the holiness is instantly dispelled. No one has succeeded like Goethe in revealing that the driving force in holiness is unity and above all, a consensus gentium: —


   »Was ist heilig? — Das ist’s, was viele Seelen zusammen

   Bindet; bands auch nur leicht, wie die Binse den Kranz.


   Was ist das Heiligste? — Das, was heut und ewig die

   Geister tiefer und tiefer gefühlt immer nur einiger macht.»l


  1 Since this was written Mr. Widengren has in a very interesting account, essentially with the arguments of Goldenweiser versus Durkheim defended his views and methods in investigating ancient religions. Vide Tiden, May 1947 (Stockholm).