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The Linguistic Origins of Sacred Space

By Sarah Veale

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.

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