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Symbols and the Sacred

Frater Vameri

Image by Jordy Meow at Pixabay.

Rudolf Otto points out that to understand something as sacred it is necessary to be within the field of religious concepts. He understands that if there is sacredness there is religion (OTTO, 2007, page 37). For Otto, the sacred cannot be conceptualized in any way because there is a strong ethereal component to it (OTTO, 2007, page 37). Here, Otto, of course, is influenced by Judeo-Christian thinking. Especially when we think of the Holy Name of God for the Hebrews and its quality of being ineffable. However, he points out that this does not mean that it is impossible to grasp the concept of the divine (OTTO, 2007, page 34).

Otto uses the term “numinous” to speak about a state of sacredness and about things that are in this very state (OTTO, 2007, page 38). This he does in order to move away from the corrupted use of “sacred” which has already been widely spread. Otto argues that the numinous causes a sensation of diminution in those who experience it because it is overwhelming. In this context a “dependency” would be created (OTTO, 2007, page 43). In other words, we would become dependent on this thing that diminishes us, because in the face of it we would be “powerless”, perhaps. This dependency relationship is complex but we could summary it as some kind of “creator-creature” duality.

The numimous is classified by Otto by means of a very particular feeling of fear. It is also very characteristic of Christianity, which has this notion of being “God-fearing” (OTTO, 2007, page 45). Otto also highlights another aspect: the “overwhelming” (OTTO, 2007, page 51) and this has to do with the feeling of dependence because it gives the impression that the numinous is something unattainable, distant and absolute. Otto also talks about the “energy” of the numinous, which would be the aspect that “inspires” people in the sense of spiritual and religious actions (OTTO, 2007, page 55).

The mystery aspect is also highlighted and explored in the form of astonishment (OTTO, 2007, page 57). In other words, it is what causes a strangeness and surprise because it is by no means within the ordinary repertoire of man. Otto says that even if the numinous is inconceivable and inspires fear it is, at the same time, attractive (OTTO, 2007, page 68). It seems to me that this attractiveness happens precisely because it is amazing and so outside the most ordinary recognizable universe. Otto also says that it is not possible to transmit or to pass along the numinous (OTTO, 2007, page 100). Here, there is a clear connection with the esoteric tradition that states that the “mystery” cannot be transmitted, only experienced. Therefore, Otto says that the numinous is passed through indirect means (OTTO, 2007, page 101).

Otto concludes that the sacred is “a category composed” by “irrational and rational components” (OTTO, 2007, page 150). He states that the aspects of the numinous which make up for the sacred are “pure sensations” (OTTO, 2007, page 150). For him, the rational components give shape to the irrational ones, that is, they reduce them to understanding (OTTO, 2007, page 177). It is worth mentioning: for Otto, rational concepts are not able to fully apprehend divinity (OTTO, 2007, page 34). The irrational, in turn, is something so out of the ordinary that it cannot be analyzed by the methods of rationality (OTTO, 2007, page 97). For Otto, finally, “divination” would be the faculty that allows the identification of the sacred manifest (OTTO, 2007, page 181).

Eliade seems to understand that the sacred is present through its own manifestation and that it can also do so by connecting to a symbol (ELIADE, Symbol, Page 549). He points out that most primitive symbols are related to sacred objects (ELIADE, Symbol, Page 549). Thus, he says that the manifestations of the sacred ( hierophany ) turn out to be symbols (ELIADE, Symbol, Page 550). What this seems to mean is that the sacred inevitably passes for a symbol: either it is already linked to one or it will become one. In other words: it is also not possible to know the sacred in any way other than the indirect one. This is somehow in accordance with what Otto understood.

The symbol then embodies and emanates hierophany, perpetuating it (ELIADE, Symbol, Page 550). Eliade points out that there is a border between the sacred and the profane and a link between them that allows the profane to be made sacred, even if not completely (ELIADE, Symbol, Page 551). This sacredness is given by the symbol, which continues to manifest the sacred. The symbol would be that which unites these two separate things, which cannot be completely united, or else, of course, the sacred would cease to exist. However, the symbol is still profane. A religious amulet is, after all, still only an amulet in the material sense. It is a curious tension.

Eliade points out that “the magical-religious experience allows the transformation of man into a symbol” (ELIADE, Symbol, Page 560). This points to man being able to be himself the emanation of the sacred. Not the sacred itself, but a sacred instrument . Eliade understands that the sacred and the profane are two distinct ways of existence. Since the sacred is always somewhat transcendent in relation to the profane (Dialética do Sagrado, page 105). This transcendence would be characterized by an experience or sensation or nature that is not born from the known world, but from some other place, unattainable naturally. Thus, only when the sacred is manifested by the profane, does man become aware of it (ALLEN, page 105).

Allen puts it well when he affirms that the term Hierophany is Eliade's way of embracing the religious phenomenon through the observer's perception and subjectivity (ALLEN, page 106). Turning to the idea of ​​the sacred manifesting by the profane, it seems clear that the only way for the sacred to stand out would be precisely to manifest itself through what is different. Thus, the opposition between sacred and profane would be, in a way, complementary (ALLEN, pages 109-111).

Finally, Allen emphasizes that man has a negative religious experience in his life and that, therefore, he seeks positive expression (ALLEN, pages 116-117). For the sacred, for Eliade , is what the religious man understands as the most important category of meaning in the world (ALLEN, page 124). Furthermore, Eliade understands that the religious experience is ambiguous because it can be wonderful or terrifying (ALLEN, page 125).

In the understanding of both Otto and Eliade , we see that the sacred exhibits an aspect of enchantment, terror and also of transcendence. For these authors, man is not living the sacred routinely and when the experience of the sacred "reaches" him, man experiences something out of the ordinary. Eliade, however, admits that the sacred exists in a way that is closer and even mixed with the profane, in the figure of the symbol. The symbol would be the way for the sacred to take shape. In a way, we can compare (rather crudely) with the idea of ​​a rational component of Otto's sacred. The symbol is the way for man to take that experience and to systematize it into something palpable, understandable and even to relive (even if partially) the experience. Otto, with its rational components, wants to try to explore how man does to understand, but the symbol of Eliade seems to go further, as a material component that can pass along sacredness, even if in a less potent way than the authentic experience.

The symbol, by this “turning into sacred” capacity, by dividing a piece of the sacred, functions as a more effective transmitter of the experience than any explanation or rationalization. This happens because the symbol causes a “sub-experience ” of sorts. Of course, it depends on who looks. For the cetic observer, perhaps the symbol will be only profane. However, I do not believe that Otto's rational components are more successful than the symbol in conveying something even in this case because the explanation of the abstract will seem abstract and can be ignored by anyone who doubts the authenticity of the experience.


OTTO, R. O Sagrado. 2007. Editora Vozes.

ELIADE, M. A estrutura dos símbolos. In: Tratado de história das religiões.

ALLEN, D. Mircea Eliade Y El Fenomeno Religioso

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