Territory and totemism. The body politic of sacred space

Sacred space has been a popular topic among scholars of religion and anthropologists for years. Theoretically, the focus has been mainly on demarcation, and distinctions between the sacred spot and its surroundings. These studies bare witness to the enormous influence of Durkheim’s sacred/prophane dichotomy and Mary Douglas’ theory of  purity, contamination and ambiguity. The sacred (place) is seen as something extraordinary, which is distinguished from its prophane context by rules and practices, not by any intrinsic quality of its own – or as Douglas would have it, by some structurally significant traits that give the sacred its ambiguous qualities of uniqueness and danger (1966).

This project will try to be more daring. While building on the classics, we will place more emphasize on Durkheim’s conception of totemism and concentrate on sacred space as a totemic centre where group formation takes place (1913).

We wish to go beyond the sacred/prophane dichotomy by tracing how ritual actions and religious symbols help constitute lasting patterns of meaning in the landscape and look at how these ritual actions structure the relations between individuals turning them into a (ritual) collective. How does ritual actions constitute the special relationship between the (sacred) space and the totemic group, i.e. the (sacred) collective? Is the sacred contagious or bestowed by some other magic? How does the collective ritual translate into a shared sense of belonging – a “we” who belongs here

When addressing these questions we presuppose that ‘sacred space’ is constituted through rituals and associated with group identity (Durkheim). Wishing to understand how ritual and place combine to create a certain group identity we hypothesise that sacred space is important to the collective, for whom it serves as (1) a symbol of belonging, and (2) centre of the world (Eliade 1957; Smith 1978). To those who hold it sacred, the holy site (3) exudes an almost palpable attraction, which is created and maintained through rituals and remembered in shared stories (myths). (4) The group’s relation to the sacred space is often expressed in claims of ownership.

We suggest that Durheims theory of totemism may illumination. In an effort to capture the significance of sacred sites to the adherents, we will focus on how the group address the totem, the sacred centre,

Sacred space is saturated by a sacred quality which may reside in a natural phenomenon like a mountain, stone or a tree, or in a precious sculpture. If we approach this as “totemism”, we may expect the group’s attachment to be symbolically expressed through rituals taking place at the sacred site. Outside the ritual context the group’s sense of belonging is symbolised in material objects, e.g. jewellery, that can be carried by the individual member in everyday life – what Durkheim referred to as physical reminders or nametags. In the context of today’s globalised world, how is this totemic attachment created and how is it maintained?

We belong here

Whereas most studies of ritual focus on the place and time where ritual take place, this study will emphasise the totemic aspect of rituals – their ability create a collective (group) identity by instilling a sense of belonging to one sacred place and to each other. What interests us, however, is how this belonging comes about. In order to address this, we will also take those who are not present and do not participate in ritual into consideration: the diaspora who maintains a strong bond and to whom the sacred place functions as a totemic centre; an anchor point in their view of the world.

Although the construction of a sacred place clearly requires repeated ritual interaction, and ritual is a constituting activity, we take this as a given when we try to encircle the meaning of sacred space as totemic centre – that is, its function as a symbol of group identity. Our contention is that the meaning of sacred space goes beyond the physical reality of a given place, as well as the experience of ritual interaction – no matter how intense, to create lasting patterns of meaning (to paraphrase Clifford Geertz), by centring the group’s self-understanding and its world view. One way of exploring this would be to analyse the long distance effects, or in other words look for reminders outside the sacred space or the ritual context, and identify the various reminders or manifestations of the sacred space in the group’s everyday lives.

Analysing how sacred space or totemic centres work long-distance will help us to better understand religious group formation. While historians and anthropologists have studied the ‘fatherland’ and ‘mother tongue’ and group formation among immigrant communities (Ebaugh and Chavez eds. 2002), few have studied how religious identity formation relates specifically to sacred places “back home”. Our hypothesis is that for diasporas and others “who are not there”, the memory of a sacred place anchors the idea of collective belonging and give (symbolic) shape and form to identity construction.

Sacred space

In former Yugoslavia where the social fabric was torn by ethno-religious conflicts and wars (1991-95), many sacred places were sites of aggression (Moe 2007). Such aggressions often result in additional symbolic value as these places also come to symbolise suffering and loss. Historically, however, such memories adds just another layer of memories that render it a meaningful place. The main logic is the same: there is a place which is set off from its surroundings– be it a mountain top or a church or sacred grove –as something special. Usually it is visually differentiated from its surroundings by fences or walls, or indirectly by natural features, but for it to serve as a reference point for collective memory it must be a place where rituals, celebrations and processions take place (Connerton 1989). Once the sacred status is thus secured, the stories attached to the place secure its function as a collective symbol with layers and layers of memories and stories. They express the groups’ identity and symbolise collective belonging.

Sacred places are exceptional; highly valued; surrounded by mystery and taboo, they are part of and yet different. More importantly in the present context, sacred places are not private, or more precisely, they do not belong to a private person (but can of course be an organisations’ property). They are shared territory, a place that belongs to a group. Sacred places are constituted and maintained by the group when it performs its rituals, and in this way expresses its claims and rights to the place.

Rituals constitute a group of individuals as a collective “we”. In Durkheim’s vocabulary, this “we” is extrapolated into “God”. But if we look closer and linger a bit in the process of creating the collective “we”, Victor Turner’s concept of communitas may better capture what we are after (1969). Instead of postulating the collective adoration of God as the epicentre of group formation, Turner is interested in the relations between the participants, the group of individuals who are actually there. On this view, the collective “we” emerges in a moment of reciprocity when a group of you-s and I-s reconize each other simultaneously. In his view, the emergence of a collective “we” is an event, something that may occur when a group of individuals transcending their isolated selves to become a collective “we”. The actual shredding one’s individual self and becoming a “we” implies transcending individuality and shredding all normalcy. 

Turner associated the collective “we” (communitas) with liminality, of being outside the normal. Emphasising that the collective “we” is an ephemeral phenomenon, a passing phase, which cannot be maintained (1964; 1969), Turners explains how the liminal nevertheless has lingering effects. It is a core memory which is shared among “those who were there”. An experience of communitas can be life changing and bestow a new identity (i.e. the purpose of “rites de passage”), but normally the experience of communitas, togetherness, provide a shared point of reference for the group, and anchor the individual’s self in the collective memory of “we who were there”.

The acts and experiences of the collective “we”, can be analysed as “collective intentionality”, a term launched by Andrea Rota (2022). The  term allows us to treat the collective as a discreet entity, a collective self and a subject in its own right. In this way we may distinguish between the individual and the collective without analytically submerging the one into the other.

Collective intentionality allows us to capture what happens when you and I engage in the same ritual, a collective action that takes place in a special (sacred) place here-and-now. The element of co-presence is essential here, since without it there is no collective intentionality. In other words, the collective “we” relies on physical togetherness and co-presence. Religious rituals are paradigmatic, since all the individual participants are submerge into their prescribed roles acting together as a “we” addressing a god or gods (an absent you, Stensvold 1987). This “we” is different from you or me and something more than the sum of you-s and I-s. It is a collective “we”, expressing its collective intentionality when all the participants act together, not only in time, sharing the moment, but also sharing physical space or territory.

With the advent of electronic media (first television, then social media) make it possible to participate long-distance –in rituals and sports events – looking on in real time. But looking is not the same as being there; it is a parasitic mode of participation, which feeds on those who are actually there. They are the real participants who act vicariously for all of those who are not there. Thus social media allow the absentees (e.g. the diaspora) to participate in pilgrimage and rituals vicariously and at a distance, but they do not contribute to the communal act that creates the collective “we” at the core of the sacred site.

A sense of belonging to a sacred place used to be limited geographically to the local congregation. Every village had its sacred place, a mountain or a tree; a chapel or a miraculous well, where members of the local community would come together as ritual participants and act together as a group with a shared religious identity. These are local events where the sacred becomes a tangible presence. It used to require physical proximity and be restricted to the local community. Today, the communication revolution (air travel and social media) has extended the “local” group to include those who live in the diaspora. They function as a reservoir of long-distance members of the local community, and make their presence felt through (vicarious) participation in ritual events via social media, occasionally refreshing their membership by visiting “back home”.

Trying to think about (sacred) space in terms of a collective “we”, participation and belonging, may help us understand how absentees and those who participate virtually relate to the collective “we” In what way does social media influence the construction of the collective “we”?

Although social media can minimise emotional distance and allow emigrants to participate vicariously in long-distance group activities here-and-now, e.g. rituals, pilgrimage, the relationship between local and distant members of a totemic group is lopsided and opens many questions.

As Benedict Andersson (1991) suggests, the idea of a society or nation which is includes people you never meet, relies largely on imagination. In an effort to rethink the meaning of sacred space and totemism, we introduce the concept of body politic.

Body politic or how to overcome distance and diversity

The body of the church is a well known metaphor. It was elaborated within Medieval ecclesiology to denote the relationhip between Christ and the faithful (The Oxford Handbook of ecclesiology, 2018). This relationship was conceived of as a mystical union between Christ and his Church, a union where Christ was the head, and all the members together constituted the body. The Church understood as all its members – dead and alive – was represented in art by the Virgin Mary, depicted as the universal mother under whose skirts all the faithful could take cover (Warner 1990).

When the Church was identified with Mary’s body and acquired a female identity, it served to emphasise the difference between the faithful (female) as opposed to the maleness of the head (Christ) (Bynum 1992). Thus the hierarchical divide between humanity and god was rendered more clearly by assigning them gendered personalities.

The body that was construed in Catholic ecclesiology encompassed the entire church, disregarding hierarchical divides between the laity and the clergy; women and men. In short, in medieval usage, the body of the Church referred to the united community of believers who count themselves as Christians and who recognised each other as such – as opposed to heretics and heathens. God was the father of all, but on this side of eternity, the Pope served as stand-in for Christ – and on the local level the priest was stand-in for the pope.

The political history of the medieval ages tells of a constant power battle between the pope and kings. With the Protestant Reformation in 16th century religion was effectively subordinated to the king as a part of his sovereignty (Kantorovicz 1957). The king’s religion was automatically the official religion of his country. Where he met resistance from influential religious minorities, the king would often be forced to make dispensations, but in the present context it is important to underline that these dispensations were limited to religious matters and did not diminish the king’s secular power. Or in other words, his ‘body politic’ was kept intact.

The Protestant Reformation redefined religion as a matter of choice for individuals, including the king, a choice famously illustrated by the qualms of Henry the 8th. Religion was a matter which concerned the soul, and the king’s decision required close examination of his heart. As we have seen, the king’s decision had consequences for his subjects, since the king’s religion was the official religion, his religious affiliation would automatically include them. When religion was defined as a matter concerning the heart and the soul, the remaining body parts were implicitly included in the secular realm. Here for the first time in the history of Christianity, religion was given a limited function: its sole purpose was to cater for the soul and salvation, and relegated (by the king) to be cared for by priests. All other matters were the direct responsibility of the king.

Ever since the ecclesiastical theology of Augustin of Hippo (350-420), the relationship between the two realms – of religion and the worldly; between Caesar and God – had been hierarchically defined. The secular was thought of as subordinate, less valuable. Thus everything pertaining to religion, the realm of God, was held in custody by the Church on behalf of God. The main purpose of the Church was to safeguard the sacred within a secular world. The secular world, then, was intersected by the sacred made manifest in church buildings as well as rituals; in convents and Bibles and celebrated in rituals. By contrast the secular realm belonged to kings. The king belonged to the secular realm, and ruled over it, and as such he was hierarchically subordinate to the pope and dependent on his approval, as illustrated by ceremonies of enthronement. But from the Reformation onwards, the monarch became an independent, autonomous ruler separate and no longer dependent on the Church.

In 1651 the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published Levithan. Here he described the new power of the king using the metaphor of the king’s body politic to designate his people; his society; his realm where the king was Head. Building on established Christian metaphors ‘the body politic’ is parallel to the ‘body of the Church’ and understood to include the entire society. It treats all members of society as if other distinctions do not matter, disregarding status and well as genre, wealth and age. Hobbes wrote for an English audience and addressed the legitimacy crisis of political rule in England a hundred years after Henry VIII’s break with papacy. Using ecclesiological metaphors, he effectively subsumed religion under the political realm by replacing pope with king.

The body politic metaphor allowed the king to treat 17th century fragmented English society as a unity – as subjects of the king. It allowed him to place religious divides in brackets. From now on society was defined in relation to the king, and religion was relegated to a different sphere structured around the relationship between the faithful and God, thus the secular came to its own. In addition to allowing the king to look beyond differences of religion, and treat his people as one (body), the body metaphor provided a model for the conceptualisation of the king’s authority vis-vis his people. As Head of the social body, the metaphor effectively aligned the people with their king along the same lines that they were aligned to Christ as one body (the Church).

When Hobbes defined the king’s ‘body politic’ in opposition to the king as a person, and not in opposition to the Church, his rhetoric signalled a break with a thousand years’ of the Church’s political influence. By introducing the body politic as a concept referring to the entirety of the king’s political power and influence, Hobbes created an analogy between the realm of the king and that of the Church. In doing so he managed to feed on what was already a well established metaphor and make the new political reality understandable. The rhetoric of body politic of the 17th century Europe was not just a radical change in vocabulary, but an  effectively reconceptualise the world,  a changed world that was rendered acceptable and recognisable through clever reuse of metaphor.

Trying to make sense of totemic society as a body politic aligned with a sacred place, we will  look at group identity as a special kind of spatial belonging. In order to try its analytical potential we will compare how religious communities aligned with their respective sacred sites by choosing some illustrative cases from across Europe, ranging from peaceful and secular Norway where identity politics is a contested issue to a few select cases from the region known as the former Yugoslavia, where the war (1991-95) was defined along religious-nationalistic lines and many holy sites came under attack.

Religious territoriality in former Yugoslavia

Across the region known as former ex Yugoslavia, the landscape bears witness to an aggressive ethno-religious identity politics: large cement crosses are placed on hilltops and and dominates the view from Muslim villages, and slim minarets – a reminder of its Arab donors – spring to the eye in Serb-Orthodox or Catholic-Croat neighbourhoods (Perica 2002).

Through the disruptive experience of war (Croatia and Bosnia 1991-1995, Kosovo 1998–1999, Macedonia 2001) there emerged seven nation-states (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo) marked, to varying degrees, by and religious nationalism and religio-ethnic diversity (broadly: Orthodox Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins; Catholic Croats and Slovenes; Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians).

Three ethno-religious institutions (the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church  and Islam), each with their own territorial claims, and connected to the outside world in different ways: the national orthodox churches in the Balkan countries (Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania) have bonds with their larger sister-church in Russia; the Catholic Church in Croatia and Slovenia are formally connected to the pope in Rome and associate with the West; and the Islamic Community has long standing connections with selected parts of the Muslim world, largely represented by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In addition to institutional contacts, they are also connected to the outside world through their membership bases, which consist of local concregations as well as emigrant groups (diaspora) living in scattered communities in Western Europe and North America.

The presence of three ethno-religious traditions within the same territory – the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church  and Islam – each with its own territorial claims, has far-reaching political and social implications, notably among emigrant communities abroad included. Over the past decades massive emigration from these troubled areas has resulted in a global web of diaspora communities with strong bonds to the “Vaterland” (on global diaspora networks, see Ebaugh 2002, 2010). Among these immigrant communities a particular sacred place – be it a saint’s grave, or a convent with priceless icons – may serves as a source of identity, or put differently, it may symbolise totemic belonging.

In all Balkan countries there are ongoing contestation over property rights to religious real estate, and disputes over religious jurisdiction. Such conflicts take place not only between religious groups, but also between competing factions within the same religion. For example, over the past two years an intra-Orthodox conflicts over ownership to sites claimed by the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro as well as Montenegro’s Orthodox Church, have resulted in several incidents of violence. These conflicts are legitimised – on both sides – as religious nationalism.

Summing up

A sacred place is a centre where the members of a community enact their relationship in ritual and through memory (story and myth). In doing so they (re)create a sacred “we”. The collective that belongs to or claims ownership of a sacred place is what we call a totemic society.

To take place is the telling book title by the late scholar of religion, Jonathan Z. Smith (1987). The double intent of the phrase – referring to an act that can be either collective or individual – captures the ambiguity of the totemic society – and something more than the sum of all. Hopefully, this project will shed light on the underlying logic of religious identity, or more specifically, we want to understand how religion plays into group formation and creates bonds of belonging.

In today’s globalised world where distance is overcome through different means of communication and social media, we need to rethink the notions of belonging and believing – to paraphrase British sociologist Grace Davie (1992). This project addresses this by looking at the idea of sacred space and how it feeds into group formation and identity politics.


  • Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities. Verso.
  • Bynum, Caroline Walker.1992. Fragmentation and redeption. Zone Books.
  • Connerton, Paul. 1989. How societies remember. Cambridge University Press.
  • Davie, Grace. 1994. Religion in Britain since 1945. Believing without belonging. Basil Blackwell.
  • Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and danger. An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.
  • Durkheim, Emil. 1915 (1913). The elementary forms of religious life. George Alan & Ulvin Ebaugh, Helen Rose and Janet Salzman Chafez eds. 2002. Religion across borders. Transnational immigrant networks. AltaMira Press.
  • Eliade, Mircea. 1987. (1957) The sacred and the profane. The nature of religion. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Hervieu Léger, Daniele. 2003. Catholicisme. La fin d’un monde. Paris: Bayard.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. 1981 (1651). Levithan: Or the matter, form and power of a commonwealth, ecclesiasticall and civil. Crawdford B. Macpherson ed. Penguin Books.
  • Kantororwicz, Ernst H. 1997 (1957) The king’s two bodies. A study in medieval political theology. Princeton University Press.
  • Moe, Christian. 2007. Religious territoriality in the former Yugoslavia. Report for the Religion and nationalism project, IKOS, University of Oslo.
  • The Oxford Handbook of ecclesiology. 2018. Paul Avis ed. Oxford University Press.
  • Perica, Vejokslav. 2002. Balkan idols. Religion and nationalism in Yugoslav states. Oxford University Press.
  • Rota, Andrea. 2022. “(Re)Connecting analytical philosophy and empirical research”, Sophia 61:79-92.
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. 1993. (1978) “The wobbling pivot”. In Map is not territory. University of Chicago Press.
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. 1992. (1987) To take place. Toward theory in ritual. The University of Chicago Press.
  • Stensvold, Anne. 1987. “Sacred communication. An analysis of the structures of communication in the Mass”, Questions Liturgiques, vol. 68/2-3, pp. 167-174.
  • Turner, Victor. 1996. (1969) The ritual process. Structure and anti-structure. Routledge.
  • Turner, Victor. 1979. (1964) “Betwix and between. The liminal period in rites de passage.” In The forest of symbols. In Lessa and Vogt eds. Reader in comparative religion. Harper Collins.
  • Warner, Marina. 1990. Alone of all her sex. The myth and the cult of the Virgin Mary. Picador.
Published Aug. 18, 2022 8:48 AM - Last modified Aug. 18, 2022 8:51 AM