Durkheim on the Sacred

Hits since 28-01-12:    26141

Mircea Eliade travesties Durkheim in The Sacred & The Profane (1957) by ignoring completely his fundamental contribution to the study of the sacred. Durkheim had made the sacred - profane dichotomy a central theme of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), [1] but Eliade passes over this in total silence, leaving you to suppose he is himself first in the field, with no previous account to consider.

Allotting a single sentence to Durkheim in a kind of appendix to The Sacred & The Profane, Eliade comments that the French pioneer of sociology believed that he had found the sociological explanation for religion in totemism (p 231). In a book on the sacred this is misleading in the extreme. This article aims to offer a summary of Durkheim's ideas on the sacred, as they appear in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. A further article will comment on these ideas from the perspective of this site.

Durkheim's Understanding of Religion

Durkheim starts Forms by looking at how religion may be defined and here the sacred - profane dichotomy comes immediately into play: the primary characteristic of religion is that it divides the world into the two domains of sacred and profane. [2] In fact, the two are opposed so fundamentally that they are seen as separate worlds.[3]

In Durkheim's view the sacred is far from being synonymous with the divine. Not only may gods and spirits be sacred, but also things like rocks, trees, pieces of wood, in fact anything. For what makes something sacred is not that it is somehow connected to the divine but that it is the subject of a prohibition that sets it radically apart from something else, which is itself thereby made profane.

Durkheim describes religion in terms of beliefs and rites. For him, the details of these in particular religions are particular ways of dealing in thought and action with the fundamental dichotomy of sacred and profane.

The Origin of the Sacred

Having defined the key role of the sacred and the profane in religion, Durkheim addresses next the question of how it is people come to see the world the way he claims: as two separate worlds, in fact. He starts by dismissing theories of the origins of religions based on animism and what he calls naturism.

On the one hand, Tylor had argued that religion had started with people trying to make sense of their dreams and come up with animism, religion involving belief in the existence of the soul and of spirits. [3A] On the other hand, Müller had suggested it started with people trying to make sense of their experience of awe in the face of the mighty forces of nature. Durkheim simply refuses to accept that people would have found either dreams or natural phenomena extraordinary enough to have felt the need to create religion because of them.

He supposes that, as neither man nor nature is inherently sacred (p 84) [4], the source of the sacred must be elsewhere.


For his own attempt to locate the source of the sacred and lay bare what religion is all about, Durkheim examines just one type of religion, Australian totemism, which he sees as the most basic type available for study. [5] In totemism, tribes are divided into clans whose solidarity derives not from kinship, but from a religious relationship between its members. As Durkheim understands it, this relationship is based on a sacred association between the clan, its members and a totemic entity, usually a local animal or plant species.

Durkheim acquired his information on totemism from ethnographers and looked in turn at its beliefs and rites, focussing principally on the Arunta, a tribe of Central Australia. His interpretation of the ethnographic material was his own.

Totemic Beliefs

Essential to Australian totemic belief, in Durkheim's view, was the idea that the totemic emblem, a design representing the clan's totemic entity, was sacred. Its sacredness lay in the fact that it conferred sacredness on whatever was marked with it.

The totemic emblem was used to mark certain objects used in rituals: stones, pieces of wood etc. Among the Arunta these objects were known as churingas. The sacredness conferred on them by their being marked with the sacred totemic emblem was partly negative and partly positive. On the one hand, they had to be kept separate from the profane: they had not to be touched or looked at by profane persons; when not in use, they were hidden in special locations, themselves made sacred by association. On the other hand, they had powers: they could cure illnesses, confer strength in battle, assure the continuing fertility of the totemic animal or plant etc.

Not only were the totemic emblem and the ritual objects sacred: so too were the totemic entity and the human clan members. Where the totemic entity was an animal or a plant, its sacredness was a matter of it being prohibited as ordinary food to clan members, though it might be obligatory to consume it in ritual situations; it was believed that infraction of this rule would cause death. Durkheim points out that to regard animals as sacred in this way is not the same as to regard them as divine. Clan members did not worship the totemic animal as a god, but felt ties of close kinship with it.

The sacredness of clan members themselves was manifest most importantly in the use of their blood in rituals in order to confer power. Thus clan members' blood might be used to paint the totemic emblem on the ground or poured over a rock believed to represent the totemic entity; it was used in initiation rituals. Durkheim notes also that hair and other parts of the human body might be seen as sacred and also that the old men of the clan were regarded as more sacred than the younger ones.

Origins of Totemic Belief

When he comes to look at the basis of such beliefs, Durkheim argues that the animals and plants chosen as totem entities are by no means intrinsically impressive, in no way capable of themselves of generating religious feelings (such as awe). Consequently, the religious feelings involved in totemism must have been derived from elsewhere.

Durkheim's theory is that totemism is not essentially about the totemic entity, the animal, plant or whatever represented in the totemic emblem: it is about the clan itself as symbolised by the emblem. For it is the experience of the social group alone that is capable of generating in people the kind of intense feelings that sustain religion.

Durkheim's argument runs as follows. Firstly, people are susceptible to the moral authority exerted by respected individuals and social groups. Such authority when experienced in group situations is able to take people beyond themselves: to intensities of feeling and types of behaviour they are not capable of by themselves.

Secondly, when this happens, people cannot readily identify the source of the stimulation they are experiencing. They can only suppose it is something from altogether outside the world of their personal understanding. The sacred is that something.

Just how the sacred is represented varies from religion to religion. In some it is a matter of gods; in totemism it is a matter of the totem. But whatever the detail, one thing is sure: the sacred reality is a projection (not Durkheim's term) of a social reality. Thus in totemism the sacred totemic emblem symbolises the clan: the sacred reality is actually the clan itself.


Durkheim supposes that in practice totemic religion in particular arose out of tribal life style. Most of the time individuals lived scattered across the landscape, in groups too small to generate the kind of religious forces he identifies. But at certain moments there were social gatherings large enough to acquire what we today might call critical mass. Such gatherings would, in Durkheim's metaphor, effervesce: the experience of being with so many other people would necessarily generate the heightened emotions and correspondingly excited behaviours that lead to belief in the sacred. It must have been at these gatherings that totemism took shape. [6]

Ritual Behaviour in Totemism

When he turns to the particular sorts of ritual behaviour that developed in totemism, Durkheim distinguishes two types, the negative and the positive. Roughly speaking, the former were about things that were forbidden and the latter were about making things happen. The former provide Durkheim with more points to make about the sacred. This is not surprising, seeing that for him it is prohibitions that identify the sacred.


Negative behaviours were primarily concerned with keeping the sacred out of contact with the profane. For example, there were prohibitions regarding the sacred ritual objects, the churingas: these might be touched only by persons who themselves had been made sacred by initiation. Again, the totemic entity, if an animal or plant, was regarded as in a sense kin and too sacred to be eaten even by initiates. Many sacred rituals were required to be performed naked on account of ordinary clothing and ornaments being profane.

Sacred Space and Sacred Time

It is in this context that Durkheim introduces notions of sacred space and sacred time.

On the one hand:

religious and profane life cannot coexist in the same space. (p 312) Sacredness requires that special locations be set aside for religious rituals; for Central Australians these may be landmarks associated with the mythical ancestors. We have already come across an instance of sacred space: the places where the ritual objects are stored when not in use, which are forbidden to profane persons.

On the other hand:

religious and profane life cannot coexist in the same time. (p 313) Sacredness requires that special times be set aside for religious rituals. Thus the everyday activities of hunting, fishing and making war must be suspended for the duration of the major religious ceremonies.

The Contagiousness of the Sacred

Discussion of religious prohibitions is the occasion for Durkheim to bring up two other particularly significant considerations. The first of these is the contagiousness of the sacred. This is Durkheim's way of presenting the idea that the sacred is passed on by physical contact. It is a principle seen in operation in rituals of consecration, when things are made sacred by being touched with other things that are already sacred, as in anointings with sacred liquids: Durkheim refers to Catholicism.

The Theory of Religious Forces

Durkheim seeks to explain belief in the contagiousness of the sacred with his theory of religious forces. His demonstration that the sacred is ultimately the expression of social forces acting on the individual means that these forces are not intrinsic to the objects or other realities to which they are assigned. The assignment is merely arbitrary and the forces are in fact mobile, capable of spreading from one kind of thing to another.

The Ambiguity of the Sacred

When Durkheim turns finally to positive ritual, and in particular to rituals concerning death, he has one last important point to make regarding the sacred; it concerns the ambiguity of the sacred. Durkheim argues that there are two kinds of religious forces, those working for good and those working for ill, and that these are seen in notions of pure and impure (or maybe lucky and unlucky). Things thought of in religion as impure are not part of the profane, but part of the sacred, only producing undesirable results.

This is seen in Australian funerary rites, where a corpse was initially impure, being regarded with horror and avoided, but later became pure as an object of veneration. This was not a transformation from profane to sacred, for the corpse was always endowed with sacred power; it was rather a switch of sacred polarity, from dangerous religious force to beneficial.

In line with his theory of religious forces, Durkheim associated this sort of switch of polarity with a switch in the collective emotional state of participants: between dysphoria and its opposite, euphoria.

(c) John C Durham, 2001