The sacred and the holy

Interestingly, many Pagans (including myself) seem to prefer the word “sacred” to the word “holy”.

To me, ‘sacred’ implies something that celebrates the sanctity of being alive, and it can include the erotic and the wild.

‘Holy’, on the other hand, implies abstinence from the erotic and embracing ‘civilisation’.

Interestingly, the first sense of ‘sacred’ offered by the Merriam-Webster dictionary uses a Pagan-sounding example:

Definition of SACRED

  1. a : dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity <a tree sacred to the gods>
    b : devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) <a fund sacred to charity>
  2. a : worthy of religious veneration : holy
    b : entitled to reverence and respect
  3. : of or relating to religion : not secular or profane <sacred music>
  4. archaic : accursed
  5. a : unassailableinviolable
    b : highly valued and important <a sacred responsibility>

Whereas ‘holy‘ is defined using Christian and monotheistic examples:

Definition of HOLY

  1. : exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness
  2. : divine <for the Lord our God is holy — Psalms 99:9 (Authorized Version)>
  3. : devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity <a holy temple> <holy prophets>
  4.  a : having a divine quality <holy love>
    b : venerated as or as if sacred <holy scripture> <a holy relic>
  5.  —used as an intensive <this is a holy mess> <he was a holy terror when he drank — Thomas Wolfe> ; often used in combination as a mild oath <holy smoke>

Of course, some Pagans do use the word ‘holy’ occasionally. Here are a couple of examples.

  • How to make Pagan holy water. Once the author has established that holy water was used by the ancient Greeks and is not restricted to Christian practice, the author subsequently refers to blessed water.
  • Pagan sacred space. This article by Carl McColman (now a Catholic, but presumably still a Pagan when he wrote it) uses the term holy as synonymous with sacred at one point, but then reverts to using sacred throughout the rest of the article.

However, the word ‘sacred’ is much more frequently used in contemporary Pagan discourse. (Google for Pagan + sacred versus Pagan + holy if you don’t believe me!)

Wiktionary unpacks the etymology of ‘holy’:

From Middle English holihali, from Old English hāliġhāleġ (“holy, consecrated, sacred, venerated, godly, saintly, ecclesiastical, pacific, tame”), from Proto-Germanic*hailagaz (“holy, bringing health”), from Proto-Germanic *hailaz (“healthy, whole”), from Proto-Indo-European *koil- (“healthy, whole”). Cognate with Scots haly (“holy”), Dutch heilig (“holy”), German heilig (“holy”), Swedish helig (“holy”). More at whole.

The Old English connotation of ‘tame’ bears out my idea that  the term ‘sacred’ can include wildness, but ‘holy’ cannot.

Interestingly, when an Anglo-Saxon Heathen set out to create sacred space, it was space set apart from the surrounding land, which was inhabited by spirits regarded as malevolent.

The etymology of sacred comes from Middle English, but ultimately from Latin.

From Middle English sacredisacred, past participle of Middle English sacrensakeren (“to make holy, hallow”), equivalent to sacre +‎ -ed.

Wikipedia defines ‘holy’ as associated with the Divine, whereas ‘sacred‘ is associated with something more generally consecrated for ritual use:

holy (perceived by religious individuals as associated with the divine) or sacred (considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspiring awe or reverence among believers in a given set of spiritual ideas).

So ‘sacred’ is used as a more general term without reference to the Divine.

Pagans use the term ‘sacred’ to refer to sacred space (usually a place consecrated for ritual), sacred sites (usually places that feel special and numinous, often because they were used for ritual in the past, such as stone circles, burial mounds, and holy wells), and sacred sexuality (consensual sexual activity for a spiritual purpose).

The word ‘holy’ is generally used only when it would be more easily understood by a general audience, in phrases which are already in general usage like ‘holy book‘, ‘holy well’, ‘holy water’.

Initially, I thought that the Pagan aversion to the term ‘holy’ was just an adverse reaction to its usage in Christian discourse, but I think the avoidance of it may be due to something deeper — the widespread Pagan view that everything is sacred in its own right, and does not depend on divinity to sanctify it. In addition to this, the connotations of ‘holy’ include abstinence from sex, whereas ‘sacred’ can include sexuality. In Christian discourse, ‘holy’ appears to mean something directly affected by God, whereas ‘sacred’ appears to mean something consecrated by humans. In Pagan usage, the sacredness of a thing or place can be either an inherent quality, or something conferred on it by using it in a ritual, or consecrating it. If we wanted to say that something was directly affected by, or associated with, a deity, perhaps we might use the term ‘holy’. The phrase ‘Holy Names’ appears in a Gardnerian Book of Shadows dating from 1957.

What do you think? Do you prefer ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and why?

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19 thoughts on “The sacred and the holy

  1. Well, in my native language (Dutch), we do not really have a word for ‘sacred’ other than ‘heilig’ (holy). There is ‘sacraal’ (related to sacred), but this word is as much used in a Christian context as ‘heilig’, and is mostly applied to sacred objects used in mass, not so much to places. As such, in the Dutch language, the definitions of holy and sacred can even seem to be the complete reverse from the general American Pagan understanding. (I am not sure, but there may be differenced between in the English and the Americans in this regard). Yet the Dutch version of holy is not free of complications in understanding either. For example, the word ‘saint’ in English stems from its Latin root, while in Dutch we say ‘heilige’ or ‘holy person’.

    When I speak or write English I prefer to use ‘sacred’, as it seems the more commonly used among Pagans, and when I speak Dutch I use ‘heilig’. Oddly enough, I have completely accepted the common English understanding of these terms, but I discard them when I use my native language, which is odd, even the more so since ‘holy’ and ‘heilig’ do stem from the same root. So I speak of of a sacred place, but of a ‘heilige plaats’. I think we underestimate to what extent the English language shapes our understanding of religion, and of Paganism. Almost all Pagans who form part of the online Pagan community, have to think in English. Which we do not mind, since most of us Europeans speak it well, but it does lead to some odd linguistic choices. I never thought one has to know the language of a culture in order to worship its gods, but we cannot deny the way language shapes our religious understanding.

    Since I participate in SDF, I started doing ritual in the English language. It helps me to connect to this wider community. But yes, It also feels odd at the same time.


  2. I am British (not American) but most Brits also use sacred rather than holy.

    It’s very interesting that Dutch doesn’t have the same distinction between sacred and holy. But you do have gewijd (consecrated), and gezegend (blessed).

    In German, there’s geweiht (consecrated, as in Weihnacht), heilig (holy), and gesegnet (blessed).

    And then there’s the difference between sacred (inherently sacred in and of itself) and consecrated (made sacred by some ritual action).


  3. One of the most non-tame human forces, which exists in both Christian and other religious contexts, is the “holy fool.” “Sacref fool,” which could technically work, just doesn’t tend to get used in that phrase…

    Some of my colleagues use “holy powers” to refer to a wide variety of divine beings, which can be useful. And, in some of the liturgical texts I’ve written for the EA, “holy” does get used as well.

    I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with or preferable about either one. All other linguistic considerations aside (rhyme, meter, alliteration, etc.), either one could be equally fine. Semantically, I don’t think the range of meanings and shades of difference between them you’ve outlined above are necessarily set in stone as far as Pagan usage is concerned.

    Although, for some of us, since deities are the main source of divinity, holiness, and sacrality, saying that things are sacred without dependence upon deities is a bit of a stretch. If things are sacred in their own rights, that would usually presume pantheism or panentheism, both of which still involve a divine presence behind or within everything. I know it’s beating a dead horse at this stage, but I really don’t understand the need for constantly distancing discourse from deities within modern Pagan theology these days.


    • “If things are sacred in their own rights, that would usually presume pantheism or panentheism, both of which still involve a divine presence behind or within everything.”

      Maybe, but I think that many modern Pagans would not acknowledge this. Though I understand your view point, and I am all for the gods, most Pagans are not consciously distancing discourse from deities. But, yes, most Pagans are pantheist or pantheist in a way. That is just the way things are at the moment. And most Pagans, including me, also honour the sun and moon in their own right, apart from their godly connections. I remember your statements about nature being indifferent, maybe it is, but the fact remains that we are not indifferent towards them. I still welcome the sun itself, even if it cannot talk back, I still feel such a joy on the morning that I need to shout it out. I do not necessarily care that I don’t hear back from the sun. To be honest, most of the gods I honour don’t talk back either. And I am sure that the gods have varying levels of interest or disinterest for the human race. Pantheism and panentheism are as much part of modern Paganism at present as polytheism. And frankly, many pagans just honour nature and/ or the gods without concerning themselves much with theology or theological language.

      “Saying that things are sacred without dependence upon deities is a bit of a stretch.”
      Maybe objectively it doesn’t make much sense. But there are plenty of things that are sacred to ME. I may associate them with the gods now, but they were as sacred to me before I did so. In life people use the word ‘sacred’ al the time. This may be theologically inaccurate, but it is how the word is used in nowadays in daily life. My father is an atheist (and does not accept the label pantheist), but he still feels some places are more sacred than others. I live in one of the most secular countries in the world, and still the word sacred is used fairly often.



  4. I find this idea that “holy” is separated/separable from the erotic kind of odd, but it’s worth noting that when I wrote a short mystical piece titled “I want to be holy” it was about sexuality.

    I use “holy” less often because it is a more rarefied thing, harder to access: the mystical heart, the I-Am, the moment of oneness, of pure essence. Holiness is not something easy-access, not a place one can just go to; holiness is secret, that which is protected by silence. Sanctity is easier than holiness. Blessings are generous, but completion lasts only a moment, until the wind changes.

    … I can’t talk about this without going all mystic-mode, apparently.


  5. I would personally view sacred and holy as referring to the same basic concept, the only difference being that one word is of Germanic origin and one from Latin (which is a common enough phenomenon in the English language: take belief and faith, for example; belief is Germanic in origin and faith Latin- from Latin fides via Old French feid). I also have problems with notion that everything is sacred in its own right, without needing deities/ the divine involved. The words sacred and holy strike me as requiring some opposite for them to have any meaning. For there to be sacred things, there must also be things that are not sacred, I guess Eliade would call this profane. If all things are equally sacred or holy, then how can one create sacred space? Something has to set that space aside as more sacred than the space outside.

    Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil. – Tao Te Ching


  6. I actually prefer “holy” because of that “healthy, whole” connotation (and because of the strong Eliade- influenced sacred/profane dichotomy — to make something spiritual, to me, is not to set it apart). I also refuse to let the Christian tradition completely co-opt particular words. :> In practice, though, I use the two words interchangeably.


  7. “the widespread Pagan view that everything is sacred in its own right”

    I agree with Kauko -this is one of those statements that endlessly yanks my chain in discussions of Pagan theology. It’s inherently contradictory: “sacred” is only meaningful in juxtaposition to things that are *not* sacred (“profane” is the technical term, but it’s come to have colloquial meanings that make it problematic in this context). It’s right there in your first definition: “dedicated or set apart” implies being set apart *from* something; “devoted exclusively to one service or use” necessarily means *not* being used for anything else. And I don’t think it’s fair to try to fob this off on Eliade – he may have tried to systematize the concept for academia, but I think there’s a good case to be made that it’s endemic to human ritual thinking. If what we mean is that “everything is worthy of respect” or “everything partakes in the underlying Divinity of the cosmos” or something, can we please say that instead?


    • Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest it was Eliade’s idea, but his articulation of it is very influential.

      I haven’t read enough about this to be sure, but it seems like sacredness as “being set apart” makes little sense in animistic religious cultures. Certainly there are times and places for particular focuses, but what is valued doesn’t seem defined so much in terms of what is not valued.


      • The fact that you’re automatically reading “valued” into the definition is a substantial part of the issue – neither the definitions above nor my previous post stipulate “valued” as part of the definition of “sacred.” It is entirely possible, I would suggest, to have things that are set apart without devaluing the things they are set apart from. And animistic cultures set things apart all the time: the contents of the inner shrine in Shinto holy sites, for example, or the various roped-off trees, rocks, etc. that are said to contain kami.


  8. Yeah, this is the absolute reverse of the way I use the words, which I think was influenced by anthropologists’ use. “Sacred” means “set apart,” as in sacred space, and so experiences of the sacred are transitory — they stand out in your memory because they are set-apart from regular life. I love the word “holy,” because it really is something you can strive for at all times — because, as you mention, it basically just means “whole.” It makes no sense to say that everything is sacred, but everything could theoretically be made holy — be made more whole, more healthy, more what it truly is. Regarding wildness, I define that a lot the same way: the state of being wild is a sort of unreflective dwelling in who you really are, without excising certain parts or putting false layers on top. So to me, wildness and holiness are very, very similar, while sacredness can be (though isn’t always) a more deliberately constructed thing, as in ritual.


  9. Really interesting points being made in the comments – I meant that people seem to be using ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ in the ways that I described, not that those meanings are inherent in the words. I’m all about describing the ways people are using terminology, not prescribing how they should use it.

    I think it would be great if we could reclaim the word holy – and yes I did see an article entitled “The Holy O” which was about sexuality. And of course there is an erotic aspect to Christian spirituality, though it is not often acknowledged.


  10. I started out preferring the word “sacred” because of the connotation of setting apart and also because it made sense to me in the animist context of my first tradition. I have ended up liking it somewhat less specifically for that same reason: whatever is holy, sacred, or divine is, in my theology, specifically NOT set apart, but profoundly immanent and present. I also learned a piece of liturgy that prominently uses the word “holy,” and saying it every day has made the word more a part of my vocabulary without any strong intention on my part.

    Relatedly, I’ve noticed that some Pagans, even non-deists, like to use the word “creation,” perhaps because of the strong connotations we have of the world be worldly (as opposed to sacred), and I used to find it jarring but now — having found a deep, devotional relationship with a creation story I love — find it lovely.


  11. I honestly find myself using “sacred” much more than “holy”. With the exception of “holy water”. I think in that regard were I to come to call it “sacred water” I would expect it to be something more natural that had come from the Earth, rather than be something I had worked to make. To me space is sacred, and things may be sacred to a specific divinity. Something about the sound of the word sacred seems like something so much more natural and feminine, a smoothness to it almost. Whereas holy seems a little more forced and traditional or structured without much room for interpretation.


  12. I think in discussions of this sort, people often forget the difference between connotation and denotation. A word is much more than its dictionary definition (its denotation); how it is used in any particular discourse or context (its connotations) is also really important.


  13. I don’t have any preference for one over the other, but I do think ‘sacred’ does seem to be used more in the pagan community than ‘holy’. I’ve never personally heard a pagan say ‘holy’ nor have I read it in any literature. The word ‘sacred’ also seems to be used quite a bit with (GASP!) New Age types and academia. I personally don’t use ‘holy’ myself, but then again, I don’t usually use ‘sacred’ much either. All that being said, I think sacred can be used to indicate things other than spirituality. In the definition above sacred can also mean something revered, extremely respected,or held in high regard, and that something(s) can be things not considered ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’. For example, many modern Americans hold sacred money, productivity, celebrities, and technology, but I don’t think anyone(or many anyway) would consider any of those things ‘spiritual’. Whereas ‘holy’ always means spiritual or connected to religion or divinity.


  14. There’s a book in my library here titled “Sacred Sexuality.”

    My take on the phrase “the sacred and the profane” is that “profane” is used to represent “secular, ordinary” rather than any indication of “damned” or “sinful.”

    There’s the idea where to “sacrifice” something is to make it sacred, and in the terms of burnt-offering sacrifices, to remove the item sacrificed from the world of humanity and make it usable only to the deity/deities it is being sacrificed to. To remove it from the secular altogether.

    There’s also the idea wherein a rock/beast/bird/flower/craft-skill/etc. is held to be sacred to a particular deity (or that they are the patron deity of it). Perhaps you could call them “things in service to a deity” in this sense. These things are also associated with the deity’s identification (by mortals, anyway) and spheres of influence/rule over, and perhaps are shown in created icons in order to make these designs specific to indicate THAT particular deity is being represented.

    And then for “holy,” we have common usages as “holy bible” and “holy ghost” and “holy sepulcher” and “holy of holies” and . . . Kind of giving the idea of things a bit more directly associated with the very immanent presence of deity Itself.

    Looks like I’ve got another thing to be mulling over . . .


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