ranging from “supreme” to “elementary” hierophanies (Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane 11). Hierophanies are symbolized, among other things, as:


·        pillars

·        ladders

·        mountains

·        trees

·        vines

·        people


These terms serve as the paradigmatic, or associative, relations that are containers to “house” the hierophany. They also serve the purpose of valorizing as “higher” or “lower” the religious expressions of different cultures and traditions.


Textuality of Space


Eliade’s notion of sacred space can be located within the framework of the spatial trialectics of Lefebvre and Soja. I summarize Lefebvre and Soja as follows:



Lefebvre’s terms

Soja’s terms


Space 1

·     perceived space

·     spatial practice


physical, material space

Space 2

·     conceived space

·     representations of space


concepts/ideas about space

Space 3

·     lived space

·     spaces of representation


space as experienced (physically, emotionally, intellectually, ideologically, etc.)


Eliade appears to be dealing with both Firstspace and Secondspace, but not Thirdspace. He describes sacred space as physical, material space (the sacred, he says, is experienced in space) and he deals with conceptualizations of sacred space (for instance, the different conceptualizations of how the sacred manifests itself in space). But, it seems to me, his encounter with the Firstspace of sacred space is largely textual or literary, not a description of any really existing space. His sacred space is generic – it is all spaces and no space at all. Invoking Saussure’s semiotics, Eliade’s conceptualization is reminiscent of the Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole. Langue is language in the sense of the entire linguistic system. This system is given in culture and constitutes what it is possible to say, such as words, sentences, and sounds. Parole, on the other hand, is speech in the sense of the individual utterances an individual makes. These actual speech acts are constrained by the linguistic system of which they are a part. One of Saussure’s own examples is that of the rules of chess (langue) and the individual moves one makes while playing (parole). Individual moves can only be made according to the larger rules of the game. Extending this idea to Eliade’s conception of sacred space, we can understand his notions of hierophany, tripartite planes, and the sacred as system-level rules (langue), while particular manifestations of the sacred – such as pillars, or stones, or people – constitute particular expressions of the sacred (parole).


Soja describes Firstspace as “fixed mainly on the concrete materiality of spatial forms, on things that can be empirically mapped” (Soja 1997: 10), that is, tangible physical space. But Eliade’s description of sacred space is generic. Scholarly descriptions of religious space as a generic, cross-cultural category have their own changing discursive history. The discursive logic of, for example, Eliade's notion of sacred space, does not necessarily fit with, say, postmodern notions of religious space. What is at stake in this shifting terminology? One possible answer is that Eliade’s realist account of religious space hides a theological agenda. Eliade has been critiqued on this point. Whether intentional or not, Eliade’s textual maneuvers allow him to both speak (apparently) as the dispassionate comparative religionist while at the same time putting forth a theological assertion about the nature of the sacred and profane. At points, Eliade resembles Rudolf Otto more than he does a historian, especially when he contrast an “elementary hierophany – e.g., manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree – to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ)” (Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane 11). Again, this view is not about a physical space or place, but rather a thinly disguised cultural Darwinistic view of religion and a theological assertion of Christian superiority.


In contrast to Firstspace, Secondspace and Thirdspace, present us with the significance of language and textuality for understanding and conceptualizing space. Secondspace, says Soja, is “conceived in ideas about space, in thoughtful re-presentations of human spatiality in mental or cognitive forms” (Soja 1997: 10). Thirdspace represents the lived experience of space, “lived realities as practiced” (Soja 1997: [page number??]), “that draws upon the material and mental spaces [Firstspace and Secondspace] of the traditional dualism but extends well beyond them in scope, substance, and meaning” (Soja 1997: 11). While Secondspace is entirely linguistic, Thirdspace is both physical and linguistic. Physical space (Firstspace) is also always conceptualized space – looking out over a natural landscape is still done through a conceptual lens – and is also always lived and experienced. One’s experience of space – lived space – is an experience of a conceptualized, physical space. The point here is that space is never merely a physical location that can be represented conceptually through a photograph, painting, architectural drawing, or map, as if the representation was a one-to-one likeness of the physical space. (I am reminded here of Baudrillard’s recounting of the Borges story in which a map is so detailed that it covers the entire space it represents and becomes more “real” that the physical space itself.) Space seems to require the linguistic or textual in order for it to make sense.


I conclude with the suggestions that spatial textualization is accomplished in at least three ways.


·        First, space is sometimes described experientially even when no specific experience has necessarily taken place. In this instance, language “stands in” for the concrete experience, representing it as experiential when it is really a linguistic construct.


·        Second, space becomes the focus of a narrative that constructs the significance of a particular space. The space becomes meaningful as a result of this narrative move.


·        Finally, space is textualized through the metaphors and other tropes embedded in spatial narratives. The language used to describe space masks linguistic practice, but can never fully escape it.





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