#6: Building Better Religions, Part One: Sacred Space


Retired User
very nice review. Another important question to ask is whether the religious workers actually live in the same dwelling as their temple/grove/secret sanctum or to what degree they occupy that space. Is it a temple that gets locked up and abandoned at night? Does the priest and his divinely-mandated harem live in a loft over the sacrifice pit? Is there there the equivalent of rectory? These can become very important for characters that want to break in to a temple or who need urgent assistance during the off hours. -leeman

the q

Retired User
This is not a correction because our experiences are almost entirely western religious or site based, and therefore do not deal with other religions on a whole. My only problem with this column is that your generality is even more general than you intended.

Many religions considered all space to be religious, none more than the home. In describing temples, synagogues, or churches you are really sticking to the western treatment of religion. There is a misconception that Temples in the east were the place where you went once a weekend like we do in the west. In fact temples were usually the site of prolific and exotic pilgrimages, the end or part of a grouping of Holy Sites, and were treated with a lot of respect but were not central to religious activities [the middle East and the west]. Primitive cultures rarely had central churches. Although we recognize spiritual headquarters in the Mayan and Aztec culture, our identifying them as such does not really make it true. Most of these temples were probably accorded the same respect as Mecca is. Some temples were places where the Gods literally lived and therefore no human could ever enter [Ancient Maya].

Sacred space for most religions (and this is a generality that I can stand by and certify as a social anthropologist) are usually created by the people and require sacred objects. Common examples are diagrams like the pentagram, mosaics, sacred fires, totems, fetishes, singing/dancing, music. Most of the time sacred spaces were created by changing the environment in some significant way. On the plains near Kilimanjaro they carried blocks of Glacier down the mountain and put it in sacred huts. The Iroquois had sweat lodges. The idea is that when you enter a sacred place, you are living outside of your life. You are no longer in the real world but in the sacred world, a world full of demons and deities, gods and goddesses.

One example of a separate life is the use of sacred language [berger: The Sacred Canopy]. in studies done on religious observances priests or those who served in a priest-like activity often used heightened language, loftier or unusual syntax. In some cases, the language used was even different from the observants, an example is the Pentecosts who say the Holy language enters them at service. Another example is a tribe in Africa who use a very small number of words in their everyday language but their spiritual leaders use a heightened language that triples the number of available words.

Although setting the mood for a church or building is important I suggest really pushing the barrier and exploring religious space in all buildings. Temples in homes, god-servants who are said to hold household deities inside them, ritual cleansings, Fetishes and other sacred objects that don't benefit characters but represent a very strong sort of social "magic". Roadside saint tubes, or deity shrines. And look for a way to achieve strong unusual environments, heat and cold, clear and cloudy, etc.

Just my addition to an excellent column
The Q



Religious settings in RPGs.

Go to the column for more information.
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