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Th holy ground.jpg


Middle English, from Old English hālig; akin to Old English hāl whole

The word "sacred" descends from the Latin sacrum, which referred to the gods or anything in their power, and to sacer, priest; sanctum, set apart. It was generally conceived spatially, as referring to the area around a temple.

The English word holy dates back to at least the 11th Century with the Old English word hālig, an adjective derived from hāl meaning whole and used to mean 'uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, complete’. The Scottish 'hale' (health, happiness and wholeness.) is the most complete modern form of this Old English root. The modern word 'health' is also derived from the Old English hal. As “wholeness”, holiness may be taken to indicate a state of religious completeness or perfection. The word holy in its modern form appears in Wyclif's Bible of 1382.

In non-specialist contexts, the term "holy" is used in a more general way, to refer to someone or something that is associated with a divine power, such as water used for Baptism.

For lessons on the related topic of Sacred, follow this link.


  • 1. Kept or regarded as inviolate from ordinary use, and appropriated or set apart for religious use or observance; consecrated, dedicated, sacred. (This sense blends eventually with 3b.)
  • 2. As applied to deities, the development of meaning has probably been: Held in religious regard or veneration, kept reverently sacred from human profanation or defilement; hence, Of a character that evokes human veneration and reverence; and thus, in Christian use, Free from all contamination of sin and evil, morally and spiritually perfect and unsullied, possessing the infinite moral perfection which Christianity attributes to the Divine character. Cf. sense
  • 3. Hence, a. Of persons: Specially belonging to, commissioned by, or devoted to God (or so regarded): e.g. angels, the Virgin Mary, prophets, apostles, martyrs, saints, popes, bishops, etc. the holy souls, the souls of the faithful departed, the blessed dead.
b. Of things: Pertaining to God or the Divine Persons; having their origin or sanction from God, or partaking of a Divine quality or character. the Holy Name, the name of Jesus as an object of formal devotion among Catholics, as in the Litany of the Holy Name and the festival of the Holy Name of Jesus.
c. More generally: Of high and reverend excellence; formerly said of things highly esteemed for their qualities or ‘virtues’.
  • 4. Conformed to the will of God, entirely devoted to God: in earlier times often connoting the practice of asceticism and religious observances; now usually: Morally and spiritually unstained; free from sinful affection; of godly character and life; sanctified, saintly; sinless. a. Of persons.
b. Of actions, feelings, etc.
c. Used trivially: (a) with horror or the like (orig. U.S.), expressing intensity; (b) with unfavourable implication of piety or sanctimoniousness (colloq.); (c) used with a following word as an oath or expletive, as holy cow!, holy Moses!, holy smoke! holy Joe; holy terror: a person of exasperating habits or manners; holy Willie: a hypocritically pious person.


Holiness, or sanctity, is in general the state of being holy (perceived by religious individuals as associated with the divine) or sacred (considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspiring awe or reverence among believers in a given set of spiritual ideas). In other contexts, objects are often considered 'holy' or 'sacred' if used for spiritual purposes, such as the worship or service of gods. These terms can also be used in a non-spiritual or semi-spiritual context ("sacred truths" in a constitution). It is often ascribed to people ("a holy man" of religious occupation, "holy prophet" who is venerated by his followers), objects ("sacred artifact" that is worshipped), times ("holy days" of spiritual introspection, such as during winter holidays), or places ("sacred ground", "holy place"). The French sociologist Emile Durkheim emphasized the social nature of religion, in contrast to other leading thinkers of his day such as William James, who emphasized individual experience. Based on studies of Indigenous Australians, Durkheim proposed that most central to religion was not deity but the distinction between sacred and profane: "religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden." In Durkheim's theory, the sacred represented the interests of the group, especially unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols, totems. The profane, on the other hand, involved mundane individual concerns. Durkheim explicitly stated that the dichotomy sacred/profane was not equivalent to good/evil: the sacred could be good or evil, and the profane could be either as well.

The German theologian Otto Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy (originally in German, Das Heilige), defined the holy as an experience of something "wholly other," most famously mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a frightening and fascinating mystery. (He was following the tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who defined religion as a feeling or experience rather than adherence to doctrine.) Otto claimed that this experience was unlike any other; the subject experienced the spirit (the numinous, in Otto's terminology) as overwhelming, sublime, truly real, while he or she was nothing.

Mircea Eliade, among the most influential twentieth-century scholars of religion, adopted Durkheim's terminology, but Otto's idea. Eliade defined the sacred as "equivalent to a power, and in the last analysis, to reality." Like Otto, Eliade insisted that this experience was not reducible to any other experience: in other words, that the sacred is not a mere experience, such as a hallucination, but it really exists. Eliade's analysis of religion focused on the sacred, especially sacred time and sacred space, and very many comparative religion and religious studies scholars in the twentieth century followed him, though scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith and Russell McCutcheon have challenged his theories.


  • Durkheim, Emile (1915) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin (originally published 1915, English translation 1915).
  • Eliade, Mircea (1957) The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World).
  • Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl (2006) Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love. Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill.
  • Pals, Daniel (1996) Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. US ISBN 0-19-508725-9 (pbk).
  • Sharpe, Eric J. (1986) Comparative Religion: A History, 2nd ed., (London: Duckworth, 1986/La Salle: Open Court). US ISBN 0-8126-9041-9.