Sacred and Profane
Sacred And Profane Since Durkheim
The American anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, after conducting ethnographic research in Australia, turned in the 1930s to field work in a New England town that he called "Yankee City." He published a series of monographs about American life through the lens of a small town, the last of which, The Living and the Dead (1959), focused on symbols and symbolism. The central chapter of the book, the one that most closely reflects the title of the book, was an analysis of Memorial Day rites, which "are a modern cult of the dead and conform to Durkheim's definition of sacred collective representations" (p. 278). These rites transcended the division of the community in terms of class, ethnicity, and religion, uniting it around sacred symbols, including the cemetery, and national heroes—Lincoln, Washington, the Unknown Soldier. "The graves of the dead are the most powerful of the visible emblems which unify all the activities of the separate groups of the community," whereas the celebration of the deaths of men who sacrificed their lives for their country "become powerful sacred symbols which organized, direct, and constantly revive the collective ideals of the community and the nation" (p. 279).
The sociologist Robert Bellah explicitly built on Warner's analysis of Memorial Day rites to elaborate a concept of "American civil religion"—"a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity" (p. 10). Examining various presidential addresses on ceremonial occasions, from the founding father down to Lyndon Johnson, he notes the strategic invocation of "God" and the complete absence of mentions of "Christ," which he argued signaled the transcendent, sacred nature of the nation while acknowledging the separation of church and state by avoiding references to any particular institutionalized religious faith. Ultimately, these analyses of American civil religion developed the analogies that Durkheim had suggested by stressing the identity of "flag" and "totem" and demonstrated the extent to which this conception of the sacred could not be opposed in any straightforward way to the secular.
More than any other contemporary anthropologists, Mary Douglas has made Durkheim's distinction between sacred and profane a central focus of her work. In Purity and Danger (1966), she proposed a sweeping cross-cultural analysis of rules concerning purity and pollution that stressed Durkheim's central thesis that religious ideas depended on the active separation of antithetical domains, a separation that in turn implied a system of classification. The central premise of her analysis
was that "dirt is essentially disorder" (p. 12). For this reason, anomalous persons or animals, those that did not fit neatly into preconceived, socially determined categories, were especially powerful or dangerous. Seen in this light, European-American preoccupations with hygiene were not qualitatively different from non-European anxieties about ritual pollution. Such preoccupations with the maintenance of order and the separation of antithetical categories were intimately related to the perpetuation of social boundaries between insiders and outsiders.
Most recently, Durkheim's concepts have reappeared in a heated debate between anthropologists as to whether Captain James Cook, who arrived in the Hawaiian islands in 1778 and was killed by native Hawaiians in 1779, was really considered by his killers to be an avatar of the god Lono. Marshall Sahlins, in Islands of History (1985), asserted that Cook's murder was a direct outgrowth of his deification. Sahlin's analysis centered on the opposition between the god Lono, "associated with natural growth and human reproduction who annually returns to the islands with the fertilizing rains of winter" (p. 105) and the god Ku, associated with kingship, warfare, and human sacrifice.
Each year, the Makahiki festival celebrated the arrival of Lono along with the rains, his journey throughout the islands, and his departure/death, marked by the resumption of human sacrifice to the god Ku. The arrival of Cook in Hawaii, his journey around the island, and his departure all coincided with the ritual trajectory of the god Lono, with whom, Sahlins argued, Cook was literally identified, particularly by the priests of Lono. Disaster struck when, after his departure, Cook was obliged to return to Hawaii. The arrival of "Lono" at the wrong time and from the wrong direction was precisely a violation of rules of separation of antithetical categories, a direct threat to the god Ku and the king, who promptly had Cook killed. "Cook was transformed from the divine beneficiary of the sacrifice to its victim—a change never really radical in Polynesian thought, and in their royal combats always possible" (p. 106).
This analysis has been challenged by Gananath Obeyesekere, who has argued that such accounts of the deification of explorers like Cook were part of European imperial mythologizing rather than "native" thought. Advocating an approach derived from the sociology of Max Weber and emphasizing "practical rationality," he has suggested that Cook's death be interpreted more prosaically in terms of factional power struggles in Hawaii. Sahlins, it must be noted, carefully avoid the assertion that all Hawaiians accepted that Cook was a god. Rather, his point was that the historical events could be understood only in terms of the framework of Hawaiian ideas about the sacred, ideals that revolved around the classification of the social and the physical world in terms of one another, where the mixture of antithetical categories generated either great power or danger.
The debate shows clearly that Durkheim's distinction between sacred and profane continues to inform anthropological analyses of religion (as well as of ostensibly secular ideologies) but also that such approaches continue to be challenged and contested, and that the relevance of such distinctions is far from universally accepted.
Bellah, Robert N. "Civil Religion in America." In Religion in America, edited by William G. McLoughlin and Robert N. Bellah, 3–23. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.
Durkheim, Émile. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. New York: Macmillan, 1933.
———. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995.
———. The Rules of Sociological Method. Translated by Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller; edited by George E. G. Catlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.
———. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson; edited, with an introduction, by George Simpson. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1951.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.
Goody, J. R. "Religion and Ritual: The Definitional Problem." British Journal of Sociology 12, no. 2 (1961): 142–164.
Lukes, Steven. Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, a Historical and Critical Study. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
Obeyesekere, Gananath. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Translated by John W. Harvey. Rev. ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1936.
Sahlins, Marshall. Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Stanner, W. E. H. "Reflections of Durkheim and Aboriginal Religion." In Social Organization: Essays Presented to Raymond Firth, edited by Maurice Freedman, 217–240. London: Cass, 1967.
Warner, W. Lloyd. The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959.
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