10. Sacred to Profane: Temples, Tables, Toilets and Tombs

Tasting Religion - Aldea Mulhern

Graham Harvey [+-]
Open University
Graham Harvey is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University, UK. His research is concerned with the performance and rhetoric of identities among Jews, Pagans and indigenous peoples. He is particularly interested in the 'new animism', embracing relational and material approaches to interactions between humans and the larger than human world. His recent publications include The Handbook of Contemporary Animism(2013) and Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding Religion as Everyday Life (2013).


A contrast between “sacred” and “profane” is evident in some religions. While derived from a relatively neutral Roman distinction between temples and their surroundings, it has taken on a more dramatic sense of a contrast between good/valued and bad/denigrated. “Profanity” can then refer to bodily functions or to words for / about some body parts. This chapter reflects on the materiality and the discourses of waste, disposal and “dirt” (following Mary Douglas). Following discussion of some examples of the profane problem of toilets and waste in some religions, the chapter engages with the scholarly theorisation of sacrality and profanity, of temples, tables, toilets and, indeed, tombs. The absence or distance of toilets from many religious buildings before the secularising and democratising impact of Modernity provides some telling religious examples. Some Qumran / Dead Sea texts suggest that toilet areas were beyond the permitted shabbat travel distance. Rabbinic Judaism’s imagination of tables in Jewish homes as somehow equivalent to the altar in the temple also marks them as separate from toilets (so that mezuzot are not placed on toilet doors). In some forms of Christianity, unconsumed communion wafers and wine have to be disposed of in particular places, not in drains. Further or different examples will be drawn from other chapters in this book and other sources. Before too strong a contrast is reified, it will be important to note contrary indicators. Medieval monastic production of sacred art required tanning of skins and the production of paints. Excrement and urine were vital ingredients in such processes. The sacred/profane contrast is not only a religious one but also sometimes a scholarly one. The chapter will therefore confront the reification of the terms as bordered and boxed categories rather than as continuously negotiated and assemblages.

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Harvey, Graham. 10. Sacred to Profane: Temples, Tables, Toilets and Tombs. Tasting Religion. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Feb 2025. ISBN 9781000000000. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=44093. Date accessed: 08 Dec 2023 doi: 10.1558/equinox.44093. Feb 2025

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