Eliade on the Sacred and the Profane

Bird 10 Willmann, Michael (1630 - 1706) - Creation of the World (1668)

Michael Willman (1626 – 1679): Creation of the World (1668)

The Romanian born anthropologist Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986) led a hectic life in his thirties.  Embroiling himself in politics on the right, he became a target even so of right-wing ire on the accusation that his novella Domnișoara Christina (1936) partook in pornography and obscenity, but the very next year he enthusiastically espoused the Iron Guard’s program that Romania should reconcile itself with its Byzantine, and therefore Christian, origins.  No one in the 2020s knows anything about the Iron Guard except, when hearing it mentioned, to categorize it automatically with “fascism.”  Eliade left Romania after the Communist takeover in 1945, migrated to France, and taught in Paris; he migrated to the United States in 1956 and lectured at the University of Chicago and elsewhere on the topic that obsessed him in the second half of his life – the meaning and function of religion, especially of the sacred.  That Eliade had a stake in Romanian Orthodoxy is not contradicted by his opposition to “spiritualism.”  In his twenties, Eliade read the French writer René Guénon (1886 – 1951), and came under his spell.  Guénon also opposed “spiritualism,” by which he indicated the various theosophical banalities descending out of the Nineteenth Century, including Theosophy itself.  Guénon wrote a hefty volume on the fraudulence of Helena Blavatsky’s mystical posturing and the quasi-criminal undertakings of her dubious followers.  Elsewhere Guénon consistently emphasized the radical difference between his own Traditionalism and the somber but hollow tenets of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888).  Theosophy belonged to pseudo-initiation and counter-initiation, Guénon argued.  These Guénonian attitudes became Eliade’s own; they inform his work.  With Guénon and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), Eliade constitutes the stable core of what might be called Twentieth Century skeptical esotericism.

Eliade 04 Pablo Amaringo (1943-2009)

Pablo Ameringo (1943 – 2009): Paradise (Date Unknown)

Eliade’s non-fiction authorship often carries the same over-empirical weight as that of James G. Frazer (1854 – 1941), in whose Golden Bough, originally published in twelve volumes (1906 – 1915), the reader must slog his way through thousands of words describing the minutiae of myths and rites of ancient and primitive peoples.  From this mass of detail, patterns emerge, which a central thesis governs, yet it is only in the one-volume condensation (1922) that Frazer adjusts the detail to the thesis so as to lend tractable clarity to the exposition.  Eliade’s Shamanism (in French, 1951; English translation by Willard Trask, 1964) while not as monumental as The Golden Bough, nevertheless includes massive detail; the same might be said of The Myth of the Eternal Return (Trask, 1971).  In both books, the reader must sift through multitudes of analogies, variations, and parallelisms while keeping Eliade’s main thesis and his sub-theses in mind.  The patience required by the task proves its value in the end, but during the slog, one wonders, could the author have made this slimmer?  Eliade perhaps achieved the optimal balance between empirical detail and argumentative exposition in The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion (Trask, 1957), a fairly svelte volume of 256 pages divided into four manageable chapters.  The book undoubtedly sprang from lectures delivered to first-year graduate students in Paris and Chicago so as to familiarize them with the author’s fundamental categories and his style of thinking.  In these endeavors The Sacred and the Profane performs well.  It becomes clear in reading Eliade’s modest presentation that he took Guénonian Traditionalism quite seriously; that he exercised sharp criticism in respect of modernity; and that he stood against the Twentieth Century’s shallow scientism – not to mention its accompanying general decerebration.  The chapters of the book come in the following succession. –

I. Sacred Space and Making the World Sacred.
II. Sacred Time and Myths.
III. The Sacredness of Nature and Cosmic Religion.
IV. Human Existence and Sanctified Life.

In parallel with Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Jose Ortega y Gasset, and other contemporaries, Eliade discovers the startling diminution of Western consciousness since the so-called Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century and the corresponding loss of whole categories of intellection.  One of these one might name as mythopoeia or thinking on the level of connotation, metaphor, and transcendent meaning, rather than of mere rationality, quantification, and encyclopedic exclusion.[i]  Myth, for Eliade, constitutes an originary category of thinking, one that deserves the appellation of “creative” because it always begins with the birth of the cosmos out of the preceding chaos, sometimes by the intention of an immense and ineluctable spirit, and sometimes by spontaneity whereby the cosmos brings the gods and demons along with it.  In the latter case, the gods and demons subsequently create the human species thereby making Man genetically cosmic from first ancestry and deific in his parentage.  The sacred thus precedes the profane, to which belong the routines and abstractions of the modern world.  The profane, as it succeeds, tends to repress the sacred.  Eliade writes in his Introduction how “for modern consciousness, a physiological act – eating, sex, and so on – is in sum only an organic phenomenon, however much it may still be encumbered by tabus.”  Yet, as he writes, “for the primitive, such an act is never simply physiological; it is, or can become, a sacrament, that is, a communion with the sacred.”  Eliade contrasts the ancient domus, with its Cult of Vesta, with modern living spaces as the quintessentially modern Le Corbusier defines them: “A house is ‘a machine to live in.’”

Nothing could be more abstract than the Kantian categories of perception, which sum up the Enlightenment philosophically.  Eliade pushes back against Kantian epistemology by insisting on the ontological origin of space and time in the sacred.  “For religious man,” Eliade writes in Chapter 1, “space is not heterogeneous… some parts of space are qualitatively different from others.”  Sacred space is for religious man “the only real and real-ly existing space.”  The same can be said of time.  Eliade writes in Chapter 2, “Time, too, like space, is neither homogeneous nor continuous”; rather, “there are intervals of sacred time, the time of festivals.”  Both sacred time and sacred space take their character from what Eliade calls hierophany.  Eliade’s hierophany establishes difference: “For it the break effected in space that allows the world to be constituted, because it reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”  Hierophany is a “revelation of absolute reality, opposed to the nonreality of the vast surrounding expanse.”  Hierophany appears in myth as something titanic and imposing – a Tree, a Mountain, or a Pillar.  This point-of-orientation rises out of homogeneous space as a first event and allows, for the first time, that chaos might be distinguished from cosmos.  And indeed, ordinary space “is homogeneous and neutral”; it resembles the characterlessness of the Cartesian dimensions, and it therefore resembles chaos.  Think of it as Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California – an immeasurable stretch of four-lane asphalt and cinder-block strip malls connecting nothing of significance and going nowhere in a perpetual traffic-jam.  Ventura Boulevard only acquires personality when, at its remote western end, it sidles up into the Calabasas hills.

Eliade 12 Alex Grey Oversoul

Alex Grey (born 1953): Oversoul (Date Unknown – But Recent)

Ventura Boulevard once constituted part of El Camino Real, the highway of Spanish missionaries seeking the conversion of the native peoples of California to Christianity with the support of the Spanish Crown.  Whereas the “revelation of a sacred space makes it possible to obtain a fixed point and hence to acquire orientation in the chaos of homogeneity,” Eliade writes, again in Chapter 2; in profane space “the fixed point no longer enjoys a unique ontological status.”  In profane space “there is no longer any world,” but only a grid encompassing “fragments of a shattered universe.”  The driver running his daily errands on Ventura Boulevard and the priestly traveler afoot seeking to spread the Gospel not only move in distinct spaces; they move – and live – in distinct temporalities.  The latter, as Eliade writes in Chapter 3, “experiences intervals of time that are ‘sacred,’ that have no part in the… duration that precedes and follows them” because “they are of a primordial time, sanctified by the gods and capable of being made present by the festival.”  El Camino Real grew by hierophany.  Each of the California missions occupies a site where the sacred erupted into the profane, which is to say where order erupted into chaotic homogeneity and made it part of a cosmos.  If in the usual pattern of Christian conversion these sites were already sacred to the native order, then the hierophany had likely faded in its luster.  A Christian miracle would thus resacralize the spring or grove, lending it a novel and attractive orientation.  According to Eliade, sacred time is paradoxically eternal.  It not only can, but must, be regularly revived so that eternity might supervene on temporal duration.  Man, through ritual, sustains cosmic order.[ii]

Eliade writes, again in Chapter 3, of “a transhuman quality of liturgical time [that] is inaccessible to a nonreligious man.”  The nonreligious or modern man experiences time as routine and interprets it in one way, with resentment, as a token of mortality: A counting-down.  Contrastingly, “for religious man… profane temporal duration can be periodically arrested.”  Eliade sees Christianity as an advance in this mode of suspending duration in order to come into contact with the supreme reality of illud tempus, the moment of cosmic origin, or of the coming-into-being of something of significance in the cosmos: “Christianity radically changed the experience and concept of liturgical time, and this is due to the fact that Christianity affirms the historicity of the person of Christ.”  By “historicity,” Eliade means a degree of reality higher than that of myth.  In paganism, rituals revive the time of myth, from Cosmogenesis onward; but Christianity bases its liturgy on actual events that function as a cosmic center and divide mere duration into halves – before and after the Incarnation.  Even so, in both the pagan and Christian orders, the celebrant of the festival may enter the time of ontogenetic events; he may become contemporary with the gods or with God.  “Religious man,” Eliade argues, “assumes a humanity that has a transhuman, transcendent model.”  Because the nonreligious man rejects myth and transcendence as falsehoods he cannot share in religious man’s view of himself.  For Eliade, as for Guénon, the modern view of meaning as nothing but rationality is radically impoverished and leads to an existential impasse.  Rationality contributes to the whole of the intellect yet it must be balanced with mythopoeia and other modes of thinking if the subject and the society are to have a complete picture of the world.  Although modern people like to think of themselves as cosmopolitan, they in fact have only a partial conception of what a cosmos is; or very likely they have never encountered the word cosmos.  The builders of Stonehenge conducted rituals that attuned them to the majestic movement of the heavens; the Twenty-First century astrophysicist regards the universe as a mass of numbers.

To treat of Eliade or his elder Guénon in writing, the early Twenty-First Century non-scholar must exercise a measure of irony.  Guénon produced his Crisis of the Modern World in 1927, almost a hundred years ago; Eliade, nudged and influenced by Guénon, wrote The Sacred and the Profane in the mid-1950s, almost seventy years ago.  In all probability Guénon, in The Crisis, addressed the world of the mid-1950s because in that world, at the time of writing three decades in the future, the destructive trends that Guénon remarked in his own time would have become patent.  And Guénon’s argument would have been inarguable in that context, just as it is in the context of 2021, only more so.  Eliade found himself in a similar situation: The retracting horizon of consciousness that stemmed from the desacralization of the world had advanced to a new pitch of urgency; and if consciousness failed to address its shortcomings, the situation would be much the worse seven decades later.  One might invoke the name of Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821), who rightly deserves the title of the Father of Traditionalism.  Maistre, too, was acutely aware that, since the Enlightenment, of which he took a dim view, consciousness had diminished.  Europe had declined from Christendom to Revolution, from cosmic connotation to this-worldly denotation, as great a fall as it was possible to imagine.  As it happened, few read Maistre; few read Guénon, and few read Eliade – too few to make a difference, too few to restore consciousness to its full livelihood.  Most of the few who read them misunderstood them or irately dismissed them.  Calling attention to Maistre, Guénon, and Eliade is likely therefore in 2021 a vain gesture, but vanity is the writer’s game.

Eliade 08

The World Tree, or Yggdrasil (Yew Tree) of the Old West Norse Sacred Verses

Eliade shares with Guénon admiration (love – even) for Christianity and deep respect for symbols.  These simultaneous attitudes put both men in minor self-contradiction.  Most of the sacred symbols of the West, not to mention of the world, originate in pre-Christian times, going back to the Palaeolithic; and whereas early Christianity never felt itself bothered by the adoption of pagan symbols, a strain of Puritanism among Christians has periodically pointed a hostile finger at importations from pre-Christian cults.  Eliade disarms such hostility by canny quotations from the early Patristic writers.  “Certain Fathers of the primitive Church had seen the value,” he writes in Chapter 3, “of the correspondence between the symbols advanced by Christianity and the symbols that are the common property of mankind.” Thus, for example, “Theophilus of Antioch appealed to the signs (tekmeria) that God had set before them in the great cosmic rhythms.”  And for Clement of Rome, quoting him, “day and night show us the resurrection; night sets, day rises; day departs, night comes.”  Eliade insists that “the revelation brought by the faith did not destroy the pre-Christian meanings of symbols; it simply added a new value to them.”  Nevertheless, “It remains true that the new valuation was in some sort conditioned by the very structure of the symbolism.”  This deference to the Church Fathers, and to the symbolism they cheerfully appropriated, represents the Traditional view of mankind’s saga quintessentially: Before the downward turn imposed itself, post-Renaissance, there came a gradual building-up based on hierophany.[iii]

The downward turn consists in a progressive amnesia by which deliberately a petulant mentality first rejects and then forgets transcendence and substitutes its impoverished materialistic “explanations” of things for the epiphanies of truth.  The modern world, if it were to evade its crisis, would need to reconcile its purely materialistic cosmology with the ancient view according to which, as Eliade summarizes it, “the world exists because it was created by the gods.”  The notion of Man as a microcosm embedded in the macrocosm springs not from ratiocination or some exercise in misdirected deduction, but from openness to a larger life; such notions “are experiences and not simply ideas.”   Indeed, archaic man, Homo religious, possesses “a whole system of micro-macrocosmic correspondences” that tells of a systematic homology of the person to the universe.  These “bear witness to an inexhaustible capacity for speculation.”  When philosophy forms itself in the Greek milieu, it benefits from this type of thinking and this type of living.  The primary cosmology of the Classical world, Plato’s Timaeus, articulates itself around an assumption, which, if isolated, would draw contemptuous laughter from a college faculty, which says more about a college faculty than it does about the mental subtlety of the Neolithic mind.  “For the nonreligious men of the modern age,” Eliade asserts, “the cosmos has become opaque, inert, mute; it transmits no message, it holds no cipher.”  SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) scans the heavens with its radio telescopes but never receives confirmation of mindfulness.  The universe behaves oddly, so cosmologists invent “Dark Matter” to explain the anomalies they have observed.  “Dark Matter” has been joined by “Dark Energy.”  The verbalisms perfect themselves in an age for which the universe is, as Eliade writes, opaque to men.  Man is opaque to himself.

Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane laments the disappearance of rites of passage and customs of initiation in modern society.  Here again Eliade’s commentary runs in parallel with that of Maistre and Guénon, who criticize the formlessness that an absence of such practices leave in the community from which they have been withdrawn.  Eliade’s work also parallels the anthropological discourse of Victor Turner (1920 – 1983), who, confronting the vacuum of modernity and converting to Roman Catholicism, took with renewed seriousness rituals both pagan and Christian and documented them in his many books.  Eliade devotes a section of Chapter IV to “The Phenomenology of Initiation.”  Initiation, one of Turner’s favorite topics, is connected with hierophany and education; it transmits knowledge: “If the novice dies to his infantile, profane, nonregenerate life to be reborn to a new, sanctified existence, he is also reborn to a mode of being that makes learning, knowledge, possible.”  Eliade adds that, “Initiation is equivalent to a spiritual maturing.”  The startling immaturity of those in their twenties and thirties today, especially college graduates, points to a missing function of the pedagogical institutions.  Schools now function in the opposite way to initiation: They preserve an adolescent indifference to life; they inculcate the thought that what I know now is enough – and there is nothing more for me to learn.  The classroom especially fails in teaching delight in beauty.  Everything nowadays steeps itself in ugliness.

Since Eliade’s death a new authority has risen to prominence as a student of myth – René Girard (1923 – 2015).  Now Girard gave the words sacred and to sacrifice the new connotation of scapegoating, that is, of murdering an innocent victim, which he decrees as the first gesture of culture.  It would be a shame to lose the word sacred, which, in Eliade, retains the luminosity that it has in the myths that Girard has convincingly deconstructed.  Girard himself helps by distinguishing a false holiness from a true holiness – the former belonging to myth and the latter to Christian Revelation.  In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade shows awareness of the evil implicit in the sacred.  We have already seen this awareness in his recourse to the Greek Fathers, who redeem the ancient symbols, but from what?  It can only be a taint.  Elsewhere in his book, Eliade writes how for Homo religiosus the “imitatio dei sometimes implies a very grave responsibility”; namely, “certain blood sacrifices” that “find their justification in a primordial divine act.”  This is almost a Girardian formulation.  Eliade concedes that “man repeats this blood sacrifice – sometimes even with human victims – when he has to build a village, a temple, or simply a house.”  The immolation commemorates a “first murder” that “basically changed the mode of being of human life.”  Rituals thus “evoke the primordial event,” but they do not have to repeat it with literal fidelity.  Eliade’s words come close, very close, to Girard’s central insight.  In Girard’s theory too even those who by the Grace of Christian Revelation have freed themselves from the pattern of scapegoating still owe a moral debt to the victims of thousands of years of sacrificial rites.

[i] Modern people think of the Britannica or the Larousse as inclusive – as containing all necessary knowledge.  From the point of view of the Britannica or the Larousse, this is true.  In fact, the founding principle of the encyclopedia is not inclusion, but exclusion.  An encyclopedia purposefully excludes all knowledge that ill conforms to the parameters of an exclusively profane mentality.  The existence of the encyclopedia as the official repository of knowledge functions not only to exclude, but to annihilate from memory whatever might undermine self-congratulant pure rationality.
[ii] Eliade gives numerous examples.  Ventura Boulevard, El Camino Real, and the Missions are my own substitutions, enlivened for me because I grew up in California with a keen interest in the history of my state.
[iii] The Felix Culpa in Eden foreshadows the downward movement of culture from the Golden Age to the Wolf Age, just as the Britannica or the Larousse foreshadows Funk & Wagnalls.

Wiener Dog

7 thoughts on “Eliade on the Sacred and the Profane

    • Thank you. I will read the text at the other end of the link. The Italian Fascists were atheistic, like Mussolini himself. Classifying the Iron Guard as “fascistic” ignores its Orthodox orientation.

  1. Thanks, Tom. I knew Eliade was in the pantheon of 20th Century trads, but had not quite placed him, until I read this.

    Is Otto amenable to the same sort of placement?

    • Dear Kristor. —

      There were two Ottos, I believe, Rudolph and… I can’t remember the other given name just now. What book prompts the question? That’s how to resolve the dilemma. Oddly though, German classical scholarship in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries tends to be scholarly rather Traditional or Progressive.


  2. Nice essay! Reading Eliade seems necessary for understanding the contribution of religion and myth to human existence. I would not like to have to make my way intellectually without knowledge of him; specifically, “The Sacred and the Profane.” The style of some of his other books I found tiresome, such as The History of Religion, as though he is more interested in establishing his scientific, scholarly bona fides than communicating insights to the reader. Maybe, he had to get himself taken seriously before he could make his contribution.

    I like his stated goal of reading the findings of specialists – who he regarded as stupid – and attempting to determine their meaning. Since meaning is a things relation to context his job was to provide the missing element.

  3. Thank you, Richard. Eliade had to make his living as a university professor, first in Paris and then in Chicago. He therefore needed to impress people, as one might say, “in their own language.” I think that explains the “crowded” character of some of his prose. The Sacred and the Profane is, indeed, an exception. I was genuinely excited by the anticipations of Girard in the book’s chapters, not to mention by the echoes of Guenon.


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