The Linguistic Origins of Sacred Space

In the Roman Empire, sacred space was not limited to physical structures—the gods were everywhere, and nearly all facets of life were imbued with the sacred.

There were however, some spaces which were more sacred than others. These spaces were known as templum, a word that looks an awful lot like our modern “temple” but actually refers to a segment of space deemed sacred, rather than a building or something like that (to which the term aedes would apply).

In On the Latin Language, Varro attempts to explain where this term came from. He says the following:

The word templum is derived from the word ‘to gaze’ [tueri], and so likewise is the word ‘to contemplate’ [contemplare]…the notion that a temple [templum] is a consecrated building [aedes sacra] seems to have stemmed from the fact that in the city of Rome most consecrated buildings are temples… (Varro, On the Latin Language, VII.8-10)

Varro’s explanation connects the word “templum” to the actions of augurs, who ultimately determine the boundaries of sacred space. They can do this in many ways, but here Varro details the establishing of sacred boundaries by trees, and how one sees the physical space between them. Basically, the auger eyeballs a specific space, chooses a few boundary points (in this case, trees), and designates that area as holy.  Easy peasy.

But…I think Varro is wrong. Ok, well not totally wrong. But not totally right, either.

Now, before we really get into this, I want to make clear that I am not a linguistic expert. I have a few years of Greek under my belt, but I still have a lot to learn and my translations are usually a bit bumpy. That said, I do know a few things, and I think they are applicable to this dilemma.

In Greek, the word for sacred space is τέμενος, a word whose root is τμ and is related to the idea of cutting or separating (verbal form: τέμνω). According to the most-holy-and-venerable LSJ, this word means “a piece of land cut off II. A piece of land dedicated to a god, the sacred precincts.”

We can see, in this use that a physical space is cut away from regular space, and given a special status. The idea is the same as the Latin one, this is an area set apart for things related to the gods.

Transliterated, τέμενος is temenos. Already, we see a shared word structure with temple—they both have the same “tm” (τμ) root! Furthermore, the act performed by the augurs in Varro’s description, can be seen as a “cutting apart” of sacred space from the secular. The key concept in both words is one of sacred demarcation. The question is: Is this conceptual sharing reflected in the root of the word?

I think it is. I certainly think it tells us more about the conceptualization of space than Varro’s explanation, which seems a bit circular to me. The Greek word τέμενος encapsulates not only the idea Varro is hinting at—that the word templum is related to other words of sacred space—but also shows the linguistic root at the heart of the concept.

Anyone who studies Latin and Greek will eventually notice similarities, despite the different alphabets used. It strikes me as strange that Varro didn’t put that together here. Perhaps there is a political reasoning behind his explanation that has to do with establishing Roman religious autonomy. Either way you slice it (ugh), sacred space in the Roman world was defined as a place physically separated, or cut away from regular space.

Varro’s attempts to determine the linguistic roots of templum show that the word had much in common structurally and conceptually with the Greek word τέμενος, which suggests that the idea of sacred space was similar throughout these parts of the ancient Mediterranean. While Varro may have some good instincts here about what the word templum means, it seems we can get a bit more clarity from going back to the Greek.

Photo by Sharon Mollerus.

Source: Varro, On the Latin Language, VII.8-10

3 thoughts on “The Linguistic Origins of Sacred Space
  1. Hey, Justin!

    Thank for this reference (and for chiming in!). This looks really good–I am always curious about where words come from, for sure.

    Congrats on your MA! Everyone I’ve talked to who has done, or is doing, the program at Amsterdam, really seems to love it. Cheers!

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