The Place of the Divinities

Randall Teal

Randall Teal is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Idaho. His pedagogical and research interests are in design fundamentals and architectural theory with a significant influence from Continental thought. His writing focuses primarily on understanding and promoting situated dialogue between creative processes and the built environment.

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12 – Autumn 2009

In an age of dire environmental concerns the preservation of “place” is one of the basic determinants of whether we live in a world worth saving. But what is place and does it possess sacred dimensions? For this discussion I turn to German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s fourfold of earth, sky, mortals, and divinities. In what follows, I focus one aspect of the fourfold, the divinities, and how they can be understood as our particular experience of place. In doing so, I suggest that the very encounter with place is an encounter with the divine.
Heidegger’s divinities should not be viewed in any typical sense. Jeff Malpas explains that of the four elements in the fourfold, the divinities “…present the greatest difficulty for contemporary readers,”1 and “that part of the difficulty resides in the common tendency to think of the gods in religious terms.”2 Damon Young reinforces this thought by suggesting that, “… Heidegger’s notion of divinity cannot be understood outside its context of poetic phenomenological hermeneutics.”3 Comprehending the divinities requires that one keep in mind, as Malpas suggests: “much of Heidegger’s thinking about the gods is determined by Greek thought and experience.”5 Heidegger, in a 1942 lecture course on Parmenides stated that: “the Greeks neither fashioned the men in their distinct essence, and in their reciprocal relation.”4 Heidegger goes on to explain that for the Greeks the gods were the “…attuning ones…,” as well as “…Being itself…”6 “Being” is a phenomenon that is not to be confused with a supreme being (the so-called ontotheological view) and Heidegger speaks to one’s relation with Being as one of attunement. Here Heidegger is drawing upon the German word stimmung, a word that means both attunement and mood. In this context, stimmung can be seen as the workings of divinities and it is from the attuning of stimmung that the sacredness of place comes into focus.
The ecstatic structure of stimmung is the “reciprocal relation” between mortals and divinities. Understanding the divinities as the mood of a particular encounter allows a clearer understanding of the nature of this reciprocation. That is to say, the divinities announce themselves as a pervasive atmosphere that illuminates one’s engagement with a specific situation, much like the Homeric gods did in coloring encounters as belligerent, fortuitous, amorous, and so on. Further, this atmosphere is constantly moving and changing. A notion of the divine that is grounded in the experience of the world is consistent with Malpas’ reading of the divinities. He advises, “Heidegger’s gods should not  be construed as ‘supernatural’ in any of the usual ways.”7 The immanent atmospheric quality of the divinities and their importance to our orientation in the world is echoed by Heidegger: “to undergo an experience with something – be it a thing, a person, or a god – means that this something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us.”8 Additionally, John Caputo’s argument that, “… ‘God’ is not the clearing itself … ‘God’ makes an appearance within this clearing…”9 further describes how place structures an opening for the divine.
An interesting nuance of this phenomenon is that instead of the divinities’ presence being limited to typical religious notions of God as reified and sacrosanct, stimmung insists that the gods are much more broadly influential in our everyday existence. In this way, the presence of the divinities can show up as happy or sad, inspiring or depressing, as well as more subtly colored moods. Intensity of mood is also variable. Heidegger asserts, “secular spaces are always the privation of often very remote sacred spaces.”10 Undergoing the experience of being moved is what matters here. Taking the divinities in this manner links mood and experience to the sacred. It reveals that there is an ever-changing quality and magnitude to place and our relation to the sacred. This non-universalizing view of the sacred suggests that encountering the divinities is, in large part, linked to one’s attentiveness, participation, and response, all of which enable the “holy sway” of the divinities to reach us constantly in our ever-changing being-in-the-world.

Place, as mood, is the vehicle of the sacred. Because of this, it is increasingly important that designers enter into dialogue with particular places. When the processes of place are experienced as mood, and attuning to place is understood as a sacred process, then the importance of place in its complex totality can remain fundamental to our existence. Here the sacred moves away from being something absolute, moralizing and exclusionary. Its new position is discovered in the simple question of whether one can take up the experience of life (in all its shades) with awe. This question is perhaps the question for the future of a planet that is not just a material resource, but rather supports and inspires humanity itself. Herein lies the opening for an architecture that bears the weight of the human condition.


“Chief Cliff.” 2009. Photos by author.

1 Jeff Malpas, Heidegger’s Topology: Being, Place, World (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), p. 274.
2 Ibid.
3 Damon Young, “Being Grateful for Being: Being, Reverence and Finitude,” Sophia 44, no. 2 (2005): p. 39.
4 Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, trans. Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington and Indianapolis Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 110.
5 Malpas, Heidegger’s Topology: Being, Place, World, p. 274.
6 Heidegger, Parmenides, p. 111.
7 Malpas, Heidegger’s Topology: Being, Place, World, p. 274.
8 Martin Heidegger, “The Nature of Language,” in On the Way to Language (New York: Harper One, 1971), p. 57.
9 John Caputo, Heidegger and Aquinas: Being, Place, World (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), p. 282.
10 Martin Heidegger, “Art and Space,” Man and World 6, no. 1 February (1973), p. 5.