Thursday, September 19, 2013

Studying the Sacred Texts

I've discussed at length before the "elements of the sacred" that are seemingly found in all cultures as it pertains to their various religious systems. It warrants review here though, so I'll summarize. There appears five different cultural expressions of the "sacred" that arise in all cultures I've studied. They are:
  1. Sacred Times
  2. Sacred Space
  3. Sacred Rites
  4. Sacred Offices
  5. Sacred Objects
If there is a culture that does not develop all of these elements as part and parcel to their religious system, I've yet to study it. They appear natural human instincts no matter what the cognitive beliefs underlying those expressions. All cultures develop a sense of "sacred times," particularly as it relates to a cultic schedule of high holy days, feast times or astronomical/astrologically cyclical movements. Certainly they all develop a sense of "sacred space" as they spatially oriented themselves to the spirits, deities or magical currents around them. Humans are spatially oriented creatures, and therefore their cultic rites will naturally grow a corresponding sense of that in their sacred precincts and theological geography.  Obviously they develop their various rites, incantations, rituals, liturgies, etc. also. A pastor, priest, shaman, monk, medium or "holy man or woman" of some sort performs the ritual on behalf of those that need an oracle, a blessing, a curse or magic in some form. And the use of designated objects always accompany the rituals as well, with only authorized personnel able to use them without risking angering the spirits or gods with whom they are associated. These seem obvious enough, and are found everywhere in anthropological studies of various cultures.

What is less common is when these cultures develop writing systems and utilize that ability to codify some aspect of their belief system. First of all, comparatively few cultures developed writing anyway. Far more cultures exude religious expressions and a praxi fide of their beliefs than have developed writing systems. For those that DO develop that sixth element of the sacred though (the "sacred text"), the question remains "What function does the sacred text serve in their praxi fide?"Even in my own religion, Christianity, this is not uniform. In some cultic rites, the sacred text plays a major role, having numerous passages read aloud, displayed prominently in the spatial arrangement or carried overhead in the middle of the service. Whereas in others, its importance is asserted, but the actual content or even physical volume does not find a place in the flow of the service. Seeing as how I'm unacquainted with the customs of Muslim and Jewish services, yet know that they make great use of their sacred texts, it only heightens my curiosity.

These monotheisms are not the only religions using this element of the sacred though, others have their respective texts as well. Many contemporary religions have texts that record incantations, spells, and litanies which enable those holding "sacred office" (or even the practitioner at the popular level) to access the spiritual or the magical in ways they might not have otherwise been able to. Ancient religions (no longer extant) are replete with this. Cultures of the Old World (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ugarit, etc.) all had their sacred texts to fulfill this function, only they often were written on clay tablets or on temple (or tomb) walls. Nevertheless, the element of the "sacred text" evolved into an integral requirement for performing sacred rites so as to access the divine, the spiritual or the magical in a purposeful way.

New World archaeology is revealing similar dynamics. If the culture has a writing system, it's a good bet that "sacred texts" will be included in the entire praxi fide of the culture. The question remains though: although cultures such as Aztec and Maya have their "sacred texts," it does not follow that they made use of them the same way other cultures with sacred texts did...How, then, DID they use those texts in their religious system, and what function did the texts play in the overall praxi fide (faith practice)?" Obviously since only the elites had access to them (and could likely read them), the texts themselves were not messages to the masses. Therefore, the value in writing genealogies of chiefs and priest, in recording cosmologies and funerary rites lies more in the magical use by those holding sacred office than with the general population knowing what to believe.

Nevertheless, I'm told that the Aztecs developed considerable complexity in this regard; even to the point of having "seminaries" for training priests in performing official cultic rites according to unified forms. In this case, the "sacred text" may well have served a similar function as the Scriptures do for modern monotheistic rites. My curiosity is piqued, and research here at the University of Houston is allowing those questions to blossom into full blown obsessions.