The Sacred and the Profane

By Mircea Eliade, 1957

This is one of my favorite books.  Renowned anthropologist and historian of religion Mircea Eliade attempts to describe how religious people experience the sacred.  He also gives a fascinating explanation of primitive religions.  The popular image of the religion of primitive peoples is pretty unflattering:  they worship rocks, animals, and whatnot; their rituals are just attempts to extract favors from imaginary spirits; their myths are laughably bad attempts at scientific explanations, etc.  Eliade shows that these are complete misunderstandings.  Primitive people don’t worship natural objects, but they believe that natural objects can be revelations of the sacred, and that one can worship the gods through them.  Primitive men certainly do want help from their gods (who wouldn’t?), but they are also driven by what Eliade calls an “ontological nostalgia”, a desire to live in the presence of the gods who are the preeminently real and the source of all being.  Nor do their myths seem so silly when one understands the function they serve and the universal symbolism they employ.

The first chapter is on “sacred space.”  According to Eliade, religious men experience space differently than nonreligious men due to the presence, for the former, of sacred spaces where the gods are especially present.  The existence of a sacred place breaks the homogeneity of space and becomes a “center of the world”.  Since it is a point of access to the gods, the sacred place is also symbolically the highest point in the world (because high regions are closer to heaven).  In some cases, the sacred place connects to the underworld as well, and so it is also represented as a pole connecting the three realms.  For religious people, the establishment of a sacred place is necessary to give order to the world; indeed, it is a reenactment of the creation of the world, when God brought order out of the primordial chaos.  Therefore, the establishment of a home is a sacred act, the act of centering one’s world and establishing an access to the gods.

The second chapter is on “sacred time.”  Sacred time is the time of the creation of the world, the time in which the archetypical acts of the gods “live”.  It differs from profane time in that it is reversible.  By imitating the archetypical acts done by the gods “in the beginning” or by reciting the myths of these sacred acts, the religious man is connected to gods and their creative potency is made present.  Before Judaism, religious people tended to regard time as cyclic.  According to Eliade, the Christian liturgy is also an example of sacred time, but with the difference that the Incarnation has “valorized” history, so that now it is a particular point in history (the time of Christ) that is made present.

In the third chapter, Eliade explores the sacredness of nature.  For a religious person, everything in nature is a symbol of some aspect of God, some modality of the sacred.  The sky represents transcendence, the earth fertility, the rock permanence, the moon mutability, and so on.  These symbols are universal and account for the commonalities of the world’s mythologies:  its sky gods, earth goddesses, etc.  A particularly interesting symbol is water—water represents unformed potentiality.  The world was formed out of the primordial waters.  Immersion in water evokes a return to the unformed state of the beginning; it thus symbolizes death and rebirth, and it washes away sins.

Eliade makes it clear that the universality of these symbols does not mean that all religions are the same or teach the same things.  It does mean that they all partake of the same symbolic vocabulary; one might say that they are like different books written in the same language.  A religion may add a new meaning to one of these symbols, as the Christian sacraments do in relating them to the life of Jesus Christ, but it does this not by negating the prior meaning, but by building upon it.

This book will enhance your understanding and respect for any sacred literature and ritual, from the most primitive to the most advanced.

4 Responses

  1. […] familiar with.  Compare this failed attempt at cultural appreciation with the brilliant success of Mircea Eliade who has unveiled the inner meaning of myths around the world.  The key difference between the two […]

  2. […] by his conservative temperment, was the same example I used:  Mircea Eliade.  (By the way, The Sacred and the Profane is one of my favorite books of all time–all of you should read it.)  He also discusses Eric […]

  3. […] phenomenology of religion, a study which was later carried to greater heights by Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade; he and these other thinkers have proved that religion is not merely a substitute for philosophy […]

  4. […] phenomenology of religion, a study which was later carried to greater heights by Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade; he and these other thinkers have proved that religion is not merely a substitute for philosophy […]

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