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Sacred Places (Sponsel, 2013)

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Course Title

Sacred Places


Les Sponsel
University of Hawaii


Anthropology, Religious Studies

Subject(s) Religion and Ecology

Often places in the landscape are not only geological, biological, cultural, geographical, historic, and/or prehistoric, but also religious, spiritual, or mystical. A wide variety of “natural” phenomena are selectively considered to be sacred, including some individual trees, groves, forests, mountains, caves, rocks, springs, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and so on. Billions of people throughout the world recognize and appreciate the special significance and meaning of various sacred places in their own habitats and elsewhere. Moreover, curiously people from many different ecological, cultural, religious, and national backgrounds may independently consider the same site to be sacred. Many of these sites attract pilgrims and tourists, some annually in the thousands or even millions.

This course explores the fascinating and important phenomena of sacred places (including sites and landscapes) with an emphasis on an anthropological perspective encompassing holism, culture, cross-cultural comparison, and ethnographic fieldwork. In addition, this course explores sacred places in “nature” in particular with special attention to their relevance for environmental and biodiversity conservation as well as for cultural and religious identity and practice, pilgrimage, tourism, cultural resource management, human rights such as religious freedom, conflict and violence, and related matters. The instructor will discuss some of his own research and publications, especially from his long-term ongoing fieldwork on sacred places in Thailand including sacred caves. Thus, the first part of the course focuses on related aspects of Buddhism through lectures and documentary films. Next the sacred places of major religions are surveyed followed by a survey of sacred places in relation to natural phenomena. The course ends with a symposium on sacred places of O`ahu. The course adheres to the anthropological principle of cultural relativism by suspending judgment on the truth or validity of the many different religious and spiritual phenomena studied.


See PDF here.