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Sacred and Profane

Totems, Society, And The Sacred

Durkheim's analysis centered on what he considered to be the simplest and most primitive known religion, namely Australian totemism, and rested on the consideration of what the Australians held sacred: "totemism places figurative representations of the totem in the first rank of the things it considers sacred; then come the animals or plants whose name the clan bears, and finally the members of the clan" (p. 190). It is important to note that representations of totem animals were far more sacred than the animals themselves. Such designs were placed on ritual objects such as churinga (bullroarers), the very sight of which might be forbidden to profane noninitiates—foreigners, but also women and children—on pain of death. The relatively abstract nature of such representations made them particularly appropriate symbols, concrete manifestations of an abstract idea, just as the flag represented the nation; indeed, Durkheim noted, the "totem is the flag of the clan" (p. 222).

More generally, the totem represented a sacred force of energy that Durkheim (borrowing a term from other Melanesian and Polynesian peoples for lack of an appropriate Australian word) named mana. This force, external to the individual but in which he also participated, was nothing else but society itself, Durkheim argued. Ultimately, the sacred was not only social but also the very form in which society represented itself to its members.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Revaluation of values: to Sarin Gas - History And Global Production Of SarinSacred and Profane - Durkheim's Definition Of Religion, Sacred Versus Holy; Profane Versus Secular, Totems, Society, And The Sacred