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The “Sacred”

December 12, 2009

Finding both time and energy to write at the same time has been more difficult the past couple of weeks, with Nigel taking the whole month off so he won’t lose accumulated vacation time. In a way, I’ve been enjoying it, but it’s really been throwing my usual schedule off. At least I have been doing better with not feeling like I have to be “on” all the time, without as much time to myself!

This isn’t the post I’ve been meaning to write, but I got frustrated again a little while ago at how difficult it was to describe what I was thinking in real-time conversation. Not that it’s ever easy to talk about spiritual matters directly; the best a person can do is talk around experiences and try to describe them. Even though it’s easier for me to express ideas with more time to think and write, I’m still probably going to do a half-assed job. 🙂

Language is not well suited to the task–especially English, IME, which just doesn’t have easy ways of expressing a number of concepts.

As Evan Hadkins points out:

This confusion of languages brings its difficulties. There is much misunderstanding and confusion. Consider the way the words ’self’ and ‘ego’ are discussed in the blogosphere; it seems that there are many different understandings of these words.

I touched on this kind of thing in some other posts, including the “charity”/gadugi and “honor”/duyukta ones.

The English description which struck me again today as frequently misunderstood is “sacred”.

This afternoon, Nigel and I were watching Ray Mears on television; I called (Swedish) Nigel in for the only full episode I watched, because Mears was in Sweden and I thought he might be interested.

When Mears was in Sápmi, he talked some about the Sámi people’s traditional spiritual connection to place. (One of the things I like about Ray Mears is how respectfully he does deal with other people and their cultures, AFAICT.) He also talked to singer Yana Mangi about the yoik; she also gave a stunning performance. Video of the relevant part of this episode straddles two sections of the episode on YouTube; it starts at about 6:15 in Ray Mears in Sweden part 6/7 and continues in part 7/7.

I was struck by the familiarity of connection to place being crucial to spirituality/religion. Trying to transcribe part of what Yana Mangi said after talking some about how you find the song in your natural surroundings:

The nature, the forest, the mountains: for us it’s not something that you long for or are attached to. You’re addicted to it. You need it in your life and it’s a part of our life, so it’s natural. You cannot think of a life without it.

That’s one of the best descriptions I’ve run across of being deeply rooted in a particular place, and having spirituality/religion grow out of that relationship to place. I almost started crying. No wonder yoik has been compared to some American indigenous songs, with similar inspiration.

And yes, that form of “addiction” has been something of a theme in my life these past years, living on the other side of an ocean from the environment I’ve got that kind of connection with. It took several years of observation and feeling things out before I started feeling like I might have some glimmer of understanding about how things fit together in this part of England–and that’s without throwing human culture into the mix, much. 🙂 Now we’re planning to move to a very different part of North America. It’s a challenging path in life, to say the least, even living in a “modern” way, as Yana Mangi mentioned. A “modern” lifestyle can give you an even stronger need to feel that kind of connection to the world around you, IME.

It may seem as if I’m moving away from the idea of the sacred, but I’m trying to talk around my own understanding of how this term can apply. I don’t think it was even used in that program, but it came to mind with the “reverence” for nature theme. I’d be talking through my hat, at best, if I even tried to apply this to traditional Sámi spirituality/religion, so here are some thoughts on how it might apply to my own approach** to the world.

Looking at a handy dictionary, how do we define sacred in English?

1. devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated.
2. entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
3. pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to secular or profane ): sacred music; sacred books.
4. reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object: a morning hour sacred to study.
5. regarded with reverence: the sacred memory of a dead hero.
6. secured against violation, infringement, etc., as by reverence or sense of right: sacred oaths; sacred rights.
7. properly immune from violence, interference, etc., as a person or office.

That covers an awful lot of conceptual ground.

Note that the top meanings don’t make much sense outside a (mono)theistic framework, and are set up as directly “opposed to secular or profane”. The word “sacred” as commonly used just does not make much–if any–sense when applied on top of a very different worldview.

I started on a post about just the kinds of misunderstandings and misinterpretations which can grow out of this dissonance, and this reminds me to do some more work on it. One quote from the Kahentinetha Horn article I’ve linked to before offers a decent illustration from a Mohawk perspective:

They minimize our world down to making offerings of tobacco and sacrificing dogs and eating them. In the glass were the bones of a dog. We did not use shamans to contact any forces. We made our relationships with and respect for the natural world and developed our awareness ourselves.

Their frequent perpetuation of this kind of poor understanding is just one of the repulsive things about plastic shamans, BTW.

When you don’t have a philosophical/spiritual separation between “sacred” and “secular or profane”–when it’s all one world, we’re all related, and everything is worthy of respect–how can it possibly work for people who do not understand the basic setup to point to certain things as “sacred”? As I mentioned in a recent post, dumping toxic chemicals in the river is about as close to “sacrilege” as you’re going to get among the more traditional-minded back home, but we just are not talking about the same concepts.

In Cherokee, about the closest you’re going to find is “galvkawetiyu” or “galv”–as in “atsila galvkawetiyu”, translated as “sacred fire”. Looking back at the honor/duyukta post:

Looking into the question of “honor”, I found adalvquodi. Given that this is obviously from the same root as “honored” expressed as galvladi (famous or prominent), galvkawetiyu or galv (with more sacred connotations), I don’t think this is what we’re looking for. “Admire” can be expressed as galvquododi.

So, what we’re finding translated as “sacred” has more to do with admiration and deserving respect. (Which is pretty much by default the kind of respect you earn, in this cultural context.) “Worthy of admiration and respect” almost agrees with dictionary meaning 5 above–“regarded with reverence”–but has nothing whatsoever to do with Western versions of religion with which most people applying the term are familiar. Nothing.

The same with “sacred” tobacco, “sacred” mountains, “sacred” animals, and so on. Having seen how this is frequently misunderstood in the Americas, I don’t trust this description applied to other sufficiently non-Western cultures, either. AFAICT, similar misunderstandings have caused problems, and led Sámi indigenous religion (“three intertwining elements: animism, shamanism, and polytheism”) to be denigrated and demonized in much the same way.

Sometimes it’s frustrating, trying to discuss “religion” and “spirituality” with people whose main available mental references are based in Western monotheism. We’re just not speaking the same language, even before getting beyond basic concepts. This applies just as well to Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, etc.; when the vocabulary doesn’t have as much overlap as the surface would suggest, it’s hard to talk.

Where I really went off the rails trying to talk about this sort of thing with Nigel earlier, was jumping into the deep end of It-Can-All-Be-Metaphorical. You may or may not be thinking in terms of everything having literal spirit(s), or more in terms of “thisness”, in terms of some sort of theism, or in terms of something closer to the Tao; it doesn’t really matter. Everything is “sacred” in the usual Western sense, or nothing is–or probably both apply the same time.


** At this point, I’m using a not-so-weird-as-you-might-think combo of mainly Cherokee spirituality filled out with Buddhist philosophy. That’s a personal spiritual approach; I do not pretend that a lot of what I am doing on my own is traditional, either way! Either can work along with other religious approaches, and the combination works much better than trying to reconcile either with Christianity (like a lot of my older relatives). I was drawn to Buddhism as a teenager, largely because (again, more than Christianity) there are some similarities to begin with, once you strip off some of the religious stuff that’s collected around the basic philosophy. The same goes for Taoism, AFAICT. I have been interested by how many other younger American Indian people seem to be drawn to Buddhism or Taoism, partly because they’re accessible. The way I see it, there are lots of ways to approach duyukta , and to try to keep your own culture going strong.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 13, 2009 10:02 am

    Hi Urocyon, thanks for the mention. This is a fascinating post. I’m afraid I’m quite ignorant of Native American religion and thought-forms (I’m an Australian); they are certainly very different to the standard Western ways.

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