SIEF2017 13th Congress: Göttingen, Germany
26-30 March 2017

Sacred space and place and their symbolic adoption
Location KWZ 1.731
Date and Start Time 27 March, 2017 at 08:30
Sessions 2


  • Jelka Vince Pallua (Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar, Zagreb, Croatia) email
  • Ingrid Slavec Gradišnik (ZRC SAZU) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

We are inviting you to focus on the adoption of sacred space and place by the symbolic inscribing of meaning into space and place. It is ritual that creates sacred space of physical structures where "God dwells", as well as of some ritually consecrated places of the houses we live in.

Long Abstract

The relationship of ethnology and cultural anthropology towards the notions of space and place has been manifold and is offering a multitude of theoretically and methodologically different approaches. It is at the same time closely connected with different ways of dwelling - with home and its making, material and immaterial, with crafting and experiencing space and place.

We are inviting you to focus on the notions of sacred space and place, the symbolic adoption of them by the symbolic inscribing of meaning into space and place. By stepping on the ground of sacred space we are at the same time involved with rituals that don't only set apart particular times as sacred, but certain spaces as well. It is ritual, not actual physical structures (temples, houses of worship), that creates sacred space.

We would also like to call your attention not only to the experience of space in temples and the houses of worship where "God dwells", but also to the houses we live in and their immaterial making. Namely, we know that some places in the house can be culturally constructed physical places filled in by the meaning and be identified as ritually consecrated places like for instance the threshold, hearth, roof, gable, the place under the main balk etc., places important for various customary ritual functions.

The mentioned physical, built-up spaces transform themselves into the symbolic places by "making of place" by the ritual as the pathway to the sacred.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Ashura and sacred space: the territorialities construction in modern Brazil

Author: Karina Arroyo Meneses (Universidade Do Estado Do Rio De Janeiro)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is a partial result of the doctoral thesis in the field of cultural geography. It analyzes the spatiality of the Islamic sacred celebration of Ashura for a comprehensive knowledge about the constructions of religious territorialities in Brazil.

Long Abstract

This research analyzes a religious celebration with particularities relevant to the field of geography. The investigation sought to understand how the sacred is manifested in its territory, considering the particularity of the research object. From the conceptual deepening on the screen, the perspectives on the meaning of territory seek to describe, analyze and classify, within human geography, specifically the renewed cultural geography, a cultural and religious performance of great demographic expressiveness and still little divulged in the Brazilian academic community. Therefore, the knowledge of this Islamic celebration adds, in a comprehensive and timely manner, new possibilities to interpret the place and the territory, extending its meaning and proposing new forms of appropriation of the concepts, thus surpassing the spatial Paulo, Brazil, and entering into subjectivity with the mobile territoriality through Terra Imaginalis. The geosymbols exposed in their representativeness as the foundation and standard of an ideological apparatus, gain in this research, focus and relevance. Through this new territorial construction, new developments of great social impact, such as the construction of new identities and the maintenance of a Libanese community originating from a great migratory mass after 1880, are observed, which today compose Brazilian society in a continuous process of assimilation. For an in-depth analysis of Ashura, the ethnographic method of participation, collection and analysis of data was made necessary and appropriate.

Church architecture in cultural analysis: a theoretical framework

Author: Jens Wietschorke (University of Vienna, Austria)  email

Short Abstract

The paper looks at church architecture from a praxeological point of view. Churches will be focussed not only as spaces of symbolic representation, but of negotiation and cultural reproduction of social relations. Some problems of cultural analysis in architecture will be discussed.

Long Abstract

Catholic churches - as well as Protestant ones - are a big topic in academic research and reflection in theology, religious studies and history of art. From these disciplinary points of view, they are scenes of divine presence, of liturgical practice, and of astonishing works of art in architecture, painting and sculpture. But what are catholic churches if consequently interpreted as spaces of social practice? The paper underlines the necessity of thematizing sacred architecture as a material "medium" shaping the social (Heike Delitz). Catholic churches will be read not only as spaces of symbolic representation, but of negotiation and cultural reproduction of social relations. Situated in the contexts of recent material religion studies, historical anthropology and empirical cultural analysis, the study will show that catholic sacred spaces are important catalysators for political culture as well in history as in the present. In my presentation, I will suggest a theoretical framework for the cultural analysis of sacred space. This framework considers four dimensions: the church as 1) a space of symbolic order, 2) a space of cultural memory, 3) a space of sensuality and emotional practice, and 4) a space of social interaction. These four analytic dimensions are also relevant with regard to a general perspective on architecture and built space. Finally, there will be pointed out some methodological possibilities and problems of cultural analysis in architecture. Three major approaches will be discussed: symptomatic reading, praxeological analysis and ethnographic study of architecture.

The placeless chapel: memory, meaning and destruction in sacred space

Author: Katharina Eisch-Angus (University of Graz)  email

Short Abstract

An ethnographic narrative from Israel, with its sacred sites marked by war and destruction, explores the dynamics of absence and presence, of imagination and reality of religious dwelling places.

Long Abstract

Imagining to build a church for our time: What ambiguous messages would it give, which stories would it tell, how would they be materialised in stone, glass and colour, and where would this sacred home be built? Who authorises it, how can it be consecrated? Is there a place for it, or will it rather be on the road and off the ground, a placeless chapel?

This idea of a Chapel of Placelessness underlies an ethnographic field diary written in the summer 2015 in Israel, with its density of sacral buildings, each seemingly founded on the temples and synagogues, mosques and churches underneath. In this way, sacred spaces offer their presence built on absence, on layers of cultural memory that are filled with meaning through ongoing re-negotiation of material power and immaterial world interpretation, and shaped by ancient wars that reverberate in present-day destruction and violence.

The focal point of my diary is the town and the sacred sites of Nazareth, built on the incarnation of the word, and, more concretely, on Mary's house. The place where Mary gave her "Yes" to the Angel can be found as a disputed archaeological site, a mythical place as well as an embodiment of the inner void of religion. It is an everyday dwelling place in local narratives, and a centre point of world-wide pilgrimage. And yet, at one and the same time, the House of Mary is itself imagined as a travelling chapel, absent, but ubiquitously present in innumerable Loreto churches.

The sacred-profane serambi among Javanese Muslims' belief and living environment

Author: Hee Sook Lee-Niinioja  email

Short Abstract

A serambi is an open-roofed hall in Javanese mosques and houses. It separates secular activities from spiritual practices, but is a sacred space as the soul of ancestors could be invoked by a ritual that Islam adopted. My paper discusses the sacred-profane serambi in Javanese belief and environment.

Long Abstract

Early Javanese mosque is extended in the front by an open-roofed veranda(serambi) and encircled by water, open space, and an enclosing wall. Although a serambi intends to separate secular activities from spiritual practices in the mosque, it was a significant space for the Hindu-Buddhist wayang shadow play, because Javanese believed that the soul of ancestors as shadows could be invoked by a sacred ritual which Islam adopted.

This spatial arrangements of a mosque and a serambi can be related to a typical ideal Javanese house: an initial house(omah) and an open-roofed hall. Moreover, mosque and house share similar concepts in spatial expressions and atmosphere. Located at the back of the house, omah is a sacred domain as it contains the abode of the rice goddess Sri.

Many houses use this place for prayer, indicating the concept of the sacred domain to Javanese belief, while serambi is for public activities such as ritual performances and social gatherings. The spatial quality of omah are governed by darkness, opaqueness, and mystery; serambi by brightness, openness, and transparency.

The tradition of a serambi in the front of the mosque continues in modern times, suggesting Javanese Muslims' consideration of the serambi as a sacred space, and the encircling water is an adaptation of the Javanese cosmology in which the central Java is enclosed by a ring of ocean.

As the notion of the sacred-profane serambi is based on Javanese belief system, my paper demonstrates both places, to enhance Javanese syncretic Islam in their living environments.

Ritual space in mind: a cognitive viewpoint

Author: Siria Kohonen (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

Is there a sacred ritual space in premodern Finnish healing practices for skin burns? The paper discusses rituals via the competence theory of rituals by T. E. Lawson and R. McCauley. The aim is to conceptualize the factors that make human cognition categorize a specific situation as a ritual.

Long Abstract

The paper presents a cognitive viewpoint to the concept of ritual space. What happens in the mind and cognition when people perform a ritual? Why do people experience a space of ritual as sacred even if the ritual is not performed in materially limited spaces of rituals and religions? This paper takes the viewpoint of competence theory of rituals (Lawson & McCauley 1990) while considering what happens in a human mind in a ritualistic event or situation. The theory presents ritual actions the way the human cognition discriminates them from other behavior, such as routines.

As an ethnographic example I use premodern Finnish healing practices for skin burns. In premodern time the vernacular view for the causes of wounds and burns were often seen as something that the origin has transmitted from itself to a human. This something could be conceptualized as an anomalous state, a disease, and it was called 'vihat' ('anger' in plural). The healing practice often headed to erase 'vihat' from the patient. The concept of wounding and healing was tightly linked to the spiritualistic world and worldview, for example by concluding different kinds of interactions (e.g. incantations) between the origin of the wound, the patient, and the healer.

The ethnographic example of this paper stands for healing rituals that are presented in everyday life and outside of material sacred places. Therefore the example is very suitable for presenting, how the ritual space is experienced in mind and which cognitive factors affect to that experience.

The Nine Emperor Gods in transit: 'vessels for the gods' in Singapore and Penang

Author: Fabian Graham (Max Planck Institute)  email

Short Abstract

A comparative study of the Nine Emperor Gods festival in Malaysia and Singapore illustrating the inter-relationship between material culture and ritual forms, and the way in which ritual forms define sacred space.

Long Abstract

Inherent within emic understandings of the festival, the Nine Emperor Gods are firmly posited as central points of reference around which annually, for nine days, the human actors revolve. The term 'bodies for the gods' was coined by Margaret Chan (2009) to describe the primary role tang-ki spirit mediums play in relation to the deities that possess them. Using the same analogy, I employ the term 'vessels for the gods' to include all natural and man-made objects in which the gods or their spiritual efficacy is perceived to pass through, or reside. Researched in Singapore in 2010 and 2014 and in Malaysia in 2015, methodologically, while maintaining a key focus on the role of tang-ki, the paper explores the role of material objects in the production of ritual and offers a recursive analysis. From literally following or carrying ritual objects from point A to B - from the small: deity statues and oil lamps - to the heavy: wooden palanquins and the Nine Emperor God's ship, I have observed how the vessels themselves have shaped the way in which rituals are performed, even if only doing so due to the conditions imposed on their carriers by their physicality. In essence, the actual choice or recognition of ritual vessels has contributed to the production of local ritual forms which determine the structure and location of sacred space. The paper has a dual focus: the ways in which variance in ritual vessels produces variations in ritual form, and on how ritual forms determine the microcosms and macrocosms of sacred space.

Saint on the run: the dynamics of homemaking and creating of sacred place

Author: Jan Kapusta (University of Hradec Kralove)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper, a legendary narrative on a travelling saint, homemaking, and collective guilt will be interpreted. It will scrutinize the way in which sacred space and place, invoking and making a sense of home, are symbolically adopted and created through pilgrimage ritual.

Long Abstract

In a remote Maya community in Guatemala's mountains, a legendary story is narrated. During the civil war, a group of soldiers entered the church and violated the patron saint of the community. The saint was disappointed and he decided to move away. As a pilgrim, he reached another community and requested accommodation; the day after, he turned into a statue and was moved into the temple in which he began to be venerated with others saints. After that, the former community started to make pilgrimages to the new saint's home.

In the world of the narrative, not only people, but also saints make pilgrimages in which they strive for home. This fieldwork-based paper will discuss how the experience of feeling at home is created through sacred places such as temples, dwellings of saints, or mountains. These entities represent key religious and ritual symbols, in which the sense of home and community is founded. They symbolize dwelling, protection, and safety. This fact, however, cannot be seen as something static, unchangeable, or taken for granted; rather, homemaking is a process, social practice of veneration, sacrifice, and pilgrimage. As the narrative says, immoral human treatment of sacred places and beings may result in their leaving, thus changing sacred geography of the region. These immaterial attitudes, intentions, and acts are materialized in venerated statues and sites; furthermore, the new distribution of sacred space and place is created through pilgrimages. Finally, the narrative tells us something very important about guilt, collective trauma, and collective memory.

Finnish Karelian funeral rites as a pathway to the sacred

Author: Riikka Patrikainen (University of Eastern Finland)  email

Short Abstract

In Orthodox Karelian funeral rites, the preparation of the deceased for the otherworld was an extended ritual process. The paper discusses the inscription of funeral rites onto space and lamenting as communication between the dead and the living.

Long Abstract

At the turn of the 20th century, Finnish folklorists encountered in Border Karelia a people that had maintained their old customs and beliefs while the rest of Finland was modernizing. They were mainly orthodox, but their religion was a distinctive combination of elements from vernacular beliefs and the official doctrines of the orthodox church.

Due to the physical absence of the church, the lament singer was the ritual leader of funerals. The preparation of the deceased for the otherworld was an extended ritual process, its main stages being the home, the road to the graveyard, and the graveyard.

The ritual leader used the special language of lamenting for contact with the otherworld. I will discuss the funeral rites by drawing mainly on the data collected in the beginning of the 20th century from the Suistamo-born lamenter specialist Matjoi Plattonen (1842-1928).

The paper focuses on the orthodox Karelian conception of death and its reflection on the funeral rituals, as well as the symbolic inscribing of meaning onto space and place. What was the "sacred language" and how did it build bridges between the communities of the dead and the living? How did it keep the balance between the two? The Karelian orthodox revered the christian church but practised non-christian customs as well. How did these two worldviews meet in the Karelian funeral rites and their inscription onto space?

The new house is always built on someone's head (Rus. proverb): the motif of a building sacrifice by the Slavs

Author: Oksana Mykytenko (Institute for Art Studies, Folklore and Ethnology)  email

Short Abstract

The paper deals with the universal motif of a building sacrifice and its realization in different folklore genres and in fiction. The motif is analysed through Slavic folk beliefs, lexical fond and rituals during bricklaying ceremony which is interpreted in tradition as an act of creation.

Long Abstract

The international (Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Lithuanian, Mordvinian, Hungarian, Rumanian, Albanian, etc.) motif of a building sacrifice - the sacrifice during stone-laying ceremony to foundation of church, bridge, town, fortress, mill, etc. with the aim to stop the destruction of the building, - found the realization in the system of different folklore genres (legends, epic songs, ballads) as well as in fiction (I. Andrich). Widely presented in the culture, this motif is based on the universality of the notion of human creation as a code or archetype-symbol and is valid both for synchronous and diachronous analysis of each ethnofolklore tradition. In this paper we intend not only to show its parallels in folklore and literature tradition but to discuss the meaning associated with numerous beliefs and ritua lpractice during bricklaying ceremony that symbolically forms the reality and is interpreted in tradition as an act of creation.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.