1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Consecration

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22369871911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 6 — ConsecrationFrederick Cornwallis Conybeare

CONSECRATION (Lat. consecratio, from con and sacrare, “to make sacred”), the separating or setting apart of certain persons, animals, things, places and seasons as sacred, so as to hallow and sanctify them in themselves or adapt them to a religious rôle and purpose. Thus we consecrate a king, a priest, a deacon; a temple or a church and any part of church furniture; we also consecrate water for use in lustrations, bread and wine in the sacrament; a season or day is consecrated, as a feast or fast. We consecrate ourselves either in a ritual act, as of baptism or ordination, vows or monkish initiation; or, without any implication of particular ceremonies, a man is said to consecrate himself to good works or learning.

The above are good senses of the word, but it is also used in the sense of devoting things and persons to destruction; and in this sense it is tantamount to cursing. Holiness is dangerous and may even involve degradation, as in the case of the Burmese para-gyoon or servitor of the pagoda who is by heredity for ever a slave and outcast, unclean of the unclean, with whom none may eat or intermarry, yet ever tending and keeping clean the shrine. Particular sites, rivers, springs, hills, meadows, caves, rocks, trees or groves, are holy and from time immemorial have been so, as the natural homes or haunts of gods or spirits. Here God has appeared to men, and will again. Such sites in the Old Testament were Hebron with its tree, Sinai with its burning bush, Bethel, Shechem, Beersheba, Mount Gerizim. As a rule their initial consecration goes back beyond memory and tradition; we can rarely seize it in the making, as in the case of a Roman puteal, or spot struck by lightning, which was walled round like a well (puteus) against profanation, being thenceforth a shrine of Semo Sancus, the god of lightning. In ancient society certain animals, plants, kins, families, were also holy and bound up with the god by blood-ties or otherwise. A priestly kin owned perhaps the spot haunted by the god, and so became holy. Plants and animals were often hallowed as totems (q.v.). Among the Australian natives we catch the consecrating agency at work. Their babies are incarnations of spirits which quitted a bush or rock passed by the mothers at the moment of conception. Each spirit, as it quits its nanja or natural haunt to enter the mother, drops a churinga, a slab of stone or wood marked with the child’s totem and containing its spirit attributes. These are collected and treasured up for ever.

We also catch the god himself at the work of consecration in tales of voices heard from heaven or of birds alighting on favoured heads. In the Talmud the voice from heaven, called Bath Kol, attested Rabbi Hillel, as he walked in Jericho, to be worthy of the holy spirit’s descent and in-dwelling. At his baptism a dove descended upon Jesus, and one quitted Polycarp’s body at the moment of his death. In Philo the wild pigeon symbolizes the holy spirit. A dove also descended out of a pillar of light on the occasion of the baptism in Jordan of the saintly Basil, bishop of Caesarea; and an eagle lit down upon King Tarquin. Most birds for the primitive man are souls, and the Polynesians hold that birds convey from and into their idols the spirits which live therein. A natural consecration also hallows objects fallen from heaven, like the holy shield of the Sabii, or the holy ikons or pictures “not made with hands” which abound in Russia.

In such cases the holiness or taboo (q.v.) is traditional, or anyhow not imparted at a given moment by human intervention. The god has not been constrained or invited to enter in. The Fetish religions afford examples of such constraint or invitation. Spirits capable of being confined in matter and made useful are in various ways sung or coaxed into the tenements prepared for them. Thus a West African native who wants a suhman takes a rudely-cut wooden image or a stone, a root of a plant, or some red earth placed in a pan, and then he calls on a spirit of Sasabonsum (“a genus of deities, every member of which possesses identical characteristics”) to enter the object prepared, promising it offerings and worship. If a spirit consents to take up its residence in the object, a low hissing sound is heard, and the suhman is complete. It receives a small portion of the daily food of its owner, and is treated with reverence, and mainly used to bring evil on some one else.[1] This is a typical case of a human consecration. Invocation of a name, with sacrifice and anointing, consecrated the Semitic massebas or nosbs,—erect pillars of stone in which the god really lived, and which were no mere images or symbols of him. Two such still remain hard by the ruins of the royal sanctuary of Edom, overlooking Petra, and are obelisks in form, 18 ft. high. They were usually set up under a holy tree to commemorate a divine epiphany and were mostly unwrought (Exod. xx. 25), lest the hand of human craftsman should introduce another numen or divine power than what the votaries wished to tenant them. The consecration consisted of a smearing with fat of victims or with oil of vegetable offering (Gen. xxviii. 18), and the life or soul inherent in these passed into the stone. Such stones were familiar objects in the streets of an old Greek city, where Theophrastus (Characters, ch. 16) saw the “superstitious” man, as he passed by, take out his phial of oil, pour it over them, and kneel down before them to say his prayers. In a street of Benares similar devotions meet the eye, as dainty maidens pour out phials of holy water over erect stones of the same obscene pattern that was common also in Greece and Italy. The Semitic word for a stone tenanted by the numen was Beth-el, house of god, in Greek βαίτυλος. It was often small and portable, and known as a “stone ensouled.” Such stone pillars were usually two in number, as in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings vii. 15, 21) or in Melkarth’s shrine at Tyre, described by Herodotus (ii. 44). Sometimes twelve stood together, e.g. in Jos. iv. 20 and Exod. xxiv. 4, which passages may have suggested that Armenian rite of founding a church, in which we witness the transition from a stonehenge to a church building. The bishop and clergy choose a suitable spot, and erect twelve large stones unwrought and unpolished around the central rock of the altar, and on these the walls of the church are laid. In Armenia and the Caucasus the cult of such sacred trees and pillars passed without break into that of the cross, which was hallowed as follows. By popular preference made of the wood of a sacred tree, it was brought into church, and washed first with water and then with wine, or anciently perhaps with blood of a victim. The people pray “for the sending of the grace of the Holy Spirit into this image of the holy cross”; the priest that God will “send the grace of His all-powerful and uplifted arm” into the holy oil, with which he then makes the sign of the cross first on the eye and afterwards on the four wings of the cross, saying: “May this cross be blessed, anointed and hallowed in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” He then lays his right hand on it and ordains it, with the prayer: “Lay, O Lord, Thy holy hand upon this emblem of the cross and bless it.” The people kiss the cross and bow down to it; and ever after Christ’s spirit is enshrined in it; it cures disease, drives off demons, and wards off wind and hail. Animal victims are sacrificed before it, as in old days before the sacred pole or pillar, and it is worshipped and adored. He that dies in defence of it is a holy martyr. Thus Christ ousted in the stocks and stones the old evil spirits that tenanted them, and took their place. Among the Greeks cruciform shape sufficed of itself to hallow wood or stone.

In Hinduism the various implements of sacrifice are similarly personified and worshipped, especially the sacrificial post to which the victim is bound, and which, under the name of vanaspati and svaru, is deified and invoked. It is a survival of tree-worship and comparable to the Semitic ashera. The Rigveda (3, 8) describes it as a tree well lopped with axe, anointed and adorned by the priest. Such a post set up by the priests is a god, is thrice anointed with ghee (or holy butter), and being set up beside the fire is invoked to let the offering go up to the gods[2]

It is not always easy to mark off consecration from inspiration. Thus in New Zealand “a priest by repeating charms can cause the spirit to enter into the idol . . . it is the same atua or spirit which will at times enter not the image but the priest himself, throw him into convulsions and deliver oracles through him.”[3] It is, however, best to restrict the term “consecration” to cases where the spirit falls on a person, not automatically or unexpectedly, but by invitation, in response to prayer, through laying-on of hands and greasing, after a formal fast, continence, ritual washing, and so forth. Thus in 1 Sam. x., Samuel ordaining Saul “took the vial of oil and poured it upon his head and kissed him,” and soon afterwards “God gave Saul another heart”; so that when he met the band of prophets the contagion flew from them to him, “and the spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them.”

The recognized modes of communicating the afflatus, power or numen to a person or thing to be consecrated are many, and only a few can be enumerated. (1) Blowing. The risen Jesus (John xx. 22) breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” The Roman priest, in consecrating the water of the font for baptism, blows over it and signs it twice with the cross. He also begins the rite of baptism by blowing in the catechumen’s face. In the rite of laying hands on an elect the bishop of the Armenian Paulicians blows three times in the face of the newly ordained. The impure spirit is blown out and the pure blown in. (2) Laying-on of hands. The particular persons whose virtue is to be transmitted lay their hands on the head or shoulders of the consecrand, e.g. three bishops in episcopal consecration. (3) Branding or signing the person, especially on the forehead, with the sacred emblem. So a Hindu paints his caste emblem on his forehead, and a fugitive slave in ancient Egypt, once marked with sacred stigmata in a temple, could not be reclaimed by the master. He belonged to the god. Roman recruits when they took the sacramentum, or oath of fealty, were tattooed with the “sign” or “seal.” So in Christian initiations the sign of the cross is made on the brow, and in Revelation the redeemed are so marked. Mexican peasants regularly paint or tattoo a cross on their foreheads, and the old Armenian equivalent for destiny or fate is čakatagir or forehead-writing. An inanimate object is similarly consecrated. The “soldiers” of Mithras, says Tertullian, were signed or sealed on their foreheads. (4) Use of a name. The invocation of a powerful name over a thing or person brings him or it within its sphere of influence, and actually communicates thereto the demoniac or supernatural power wielded by the owner of the name.

Amulets, seals, talismans, relics, ear or nose rings stamped with divine emblems or otherwise hallowed, communicate their holiness to the wearers and protect from the Adversary. Personal ornaments and decorations of dwellings, furniture, vehicles and pottery had once a consecrating, or—what often comes to the same thing—a prophylactic value and significance. Mutilations, such as circumcision, violation of chastity in the case of maidens hallowed to certain gods, ritual cutting of hair and nails, and their deposition in a sanctuary, rather belong to the category of sacrifice, as also the burial of a living victim under the foundations of a new building or bridge (see Sacrifice). Cursing is, equally with consecration, a taboo imposed on a thing or person. It may be noted in consecration how nicely the taboo or contagion, whether of holiness or unholiness, can be localized. An Arab’s curse is escaped by falling flat on the face, for it then shoots over the head; and recently the following case was referred from French Canada before the judicial committee of the privy council. A man buried his wife in a plot he had bought in a Catholic cemetery. Presently he died also, but without the sacraments, for he had changed his religion. His executors ignored the protests of the Catholic clergy and buried him in the same grave. Ultimately the bishop of Quebec, unable to get a mandamus from the English privy council to dig him up, solemnly deconsecrated the ground down to the estimated depth of the lid of the wife’s coffin. The use of specially consecrating cemeteries among Christians is first mentioned by Gregory of Tours (c. 570); but under the Roman law they had, like those of the Pagans, been held inviolable by pagan emperors like Gordian and Julian and defined as “res religioni destinatae quin immo (iam) religionis effectae” (Cod. Justin, lib. ix. tit. 19).

Lastly, a classical mode of consecrating persons, or winning or reinforcing their holiness or kinship with the god, is the sacrificial meal at which sacred animals or the god himself are eaten. (See Sacrament and Sacrifice.) Consecration is so frequently the counterpart of Purification that the article thereon should be read in connexion with this. For the consecration of bishops, see Bishop; for that of churches, see Dedication.

Authorities.—E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London, 1903); Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites (London, 1901); Mary H. Kingsley, West African Studies (London, 1901), and Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort (London, 1898); W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals (London, 1905); L. R. Farnell, The Evolution of Religion (London, 1905); J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London, 1900); A. C. Haddon, Fetichism and Magic, containing a good bibliography (London, 1906). For Christian rites of consecration, see J. Goar’s Euchologion (1647); H. A. Wilson, The Gelasian Sacramentary (Oxford, 1894); F. C. Conybeare’s Rituale Armenorum (Oxford, 1905); L. Duchesne, Origines du culte chrétien (1889); M. Magistretti, Monumenta veteris Liturgiae Ambrosianae, Pontificale (Milan, 1897).  (F. C. C.) 

  1. From A. B. Ellis, The Tshi-speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast (1887), cited in A. C. Haddon’s Fetichism and Magic.
  2. “Vedic Mythology,” by A. A. Macdonnell, in Grundris der indo-arischen Philologie (Strassburg, 1897).
  3. Tylor, Primitive Culture, ii. 174.