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Mircea Eliade: The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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The first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane.Eliade, p 10

For religious man, space is not homogenous ... there is, then, a sacred space ... there are other spaces that are not sacred and so are without structure or consistency, amorphous. ... This spatial homogeneity finds expression in the experience of an opposition between space that is sacred -- the only real and real-ly existing space -- and all other space, the formless expanse ...Eliade, p 20

Then Eliade has a tautological explanation of sacred as that which is not profane; reflecting on his use of the term profane to encompass anything not absolutely sacred, he would have been better off defining sacred as anything that is not non-sacred. However, he prefers to stretch the definitions of words at will in order to make himself seem more legitimate and mask his inability to actually define what is sacred (though it is perhaps only definable in a tautological manner, as something relative to its inverse).

To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany ... something sacred is shown to us. ... The history of religions -- from the most primitive to the most highly developed -- is constituted by a great number of hierophanies ... from the most elementary hierophany -- e.g., manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree -- to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity. ... The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshipped precisely because they are hierophanies, because they show something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred, the ganz andere [all other]. ... By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding cosmic miieu. ... A sacred stone remains a stone ... from the profane point of view, nothing distinguishes it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. ... All nature is capable of revealings itself ... the cosmos in its entirely can become a hierophany.Eliade, p 11 - 12

I looked up the word solution; most of the definitions only add ambiguity and diminish the clarity of Eliade's point, but apparently he was referring to its definition in a medical context. In this case, solution refers to a break, termination or laceration -- and the example is that there a solution of continuity in a fracture or laceration. This book relies on rarely-used and obfuscatory terminology to confer an air of gravity and importance.

So far Eliade has used page after page to say this: the sacred is defined only in the context of a dichotomy between the sacred and the non-sacred; and the sacred manifests itself to religious man as anything from a tree to a divine prophet; and in sum, any manifestation of the sacred is better referred to as a hierophany (etymologically meaning to bring the holy to light) as opposed to the oft-used phrase theophany (etymologically to bring God to light). Of note, Eliade uses hierophany and cosmic sacrality interchangeably. A piece of advice to Eliade: make a glossary, not a book.

Naturally, we must not expect to find the archaic languages in possession of this philosophical terminology, real-unreal, etc.; but we find the thing.Eliade, p 13

Give me proof, Eliade. I'm waiting for your riveting ethnolinguistic dissection of archaic languages.

Something that is de-sacralized is profane in Eliade's mind, or more accurately it would be non-sacred.

Descralization pervades the entire experience of nonreligious man of modern societies and that, in consequence, he finds it increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious man in the archaic societies. ... The man of the traditional societies is admittedly a homo religiosus, but his behavior forms part of the general behavior of mankind and hence is of concern to philosophical anthropology, to phenomonology, to psychology.Eliade, p 13 & 15

Do we not seek to discover the answers to the same problems? The origin of the universe, of life, of disease, of cure -- we just have a different approach to these same issues. But by divorcing present-day humanity from the rest of humanity, Eliade makes the difference seem vast enough that the reader thinks in awe that the pious must be some sort of different species. Eliade is college-infected and abuses italics.

In order to obtain a better grasp of the poetic phenomenon, we should have recourse to a mass of heterogenous examples, and side by side with Homer and Dante, quote Hindu, Chinese, and Mexican poems; that is, should take into consideration not only poetics possessing a historical common denominator (Homer, Vergil, Dante) but also creations that are dependent upon other esthetics. From the point of view of literary history, such juxtapositions are to be viewed with suspicion; but they are valid if our object is to describe the poetic phenomenon as such, if we propose to show the essential difference between poetic language and the utilitarian language of everyday life.Eliade, p 16

Our primary concern is to present the specific dimensions of religious experience, to bring out the differences between it and profane experience of the world.Eliade, p 17

There are differences in religious experience explained by differences in economy, culture, and social organization -- in short, by history. Nevertheless, between the nomadic hunters and the sedentary cultivators there is a similarity in behavior that seems to us infinitely more important than their differences: both live in a sacralized cosmos. ... We need only compare their existential institutions with that of a man of the modern societies, living in a desacralized cosmos, and we shall immediately be aware of all that separates him from them. At the same time we realize the validity of comparisons between religious facts pertaining to different cultures; all these facts arise from a single type of behavior, that of homo religiosus.Eliade, p 17-18

Regarding the above, it could be said that religious people's commonality is that they are in awe.

Recapping the Introduction

This awful book sacrifices concrete evidence, and omits mentioning the lack thereof, in favor of sweeping assumptions which embarrass a reader with any level of astuteness. Let me note that it takes eleven pages for Eliade to list a single reference. Mortifying. However, he addresses what is sacred, that the sacred manifests in the world as a hierophany and that the hierophany is adored for its sanctity rather than its rational literal existence (ie, a stone or a pole).

Chapter 1

Homogeneity of Space and Hierophany

For religious man, space is not homogenous ... there is, then, a sacred space ... there are other spaces that are not sacred ... nonhomogeneity of space ... [is] homologizable to a founding of the world. ... the break effected in space allows the world to be constituted, because it reveals the fixed point, the central axis for future orientation. When the sacred manifests itself in any hierophany, there is not only a break in the homogeneity of space; there is also revelation of an absolute reality ... In the homogeneous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center.Eliade, p 21

Religious man always sought to fix his abode at the "center of the world." If the world is to be lived in, it must be founded -- and no world can come to birth in the chaos of the homogeneity and relatively of profane space. ... For profane experience, on the contrary, space is homogeneous and neutral; no break qualitatively differentiates the various parts of its mass. ... We need only remember how a classical geometrician defines space.Eliade, p 22

What is he talking about regarding geometricians? I am sitting in the LGBT Center as I read this book and write my notes, and I was earlier in the library, and after this I head to a parking lot so that I can get inside a van that will take me to a different part of the city. But really, none of that matters according to Eliade's perception of a religious man: I am going toward the Mormon temple, then toward the Christian church at Forest Lawn and then arriving just a few miles from the Masonic temple in Pasadena; because outside of religious insitiutions, no other space divisions exist. Imagine early peoples thoughts on divisions of space: where is water; where is good soil; where is good hunting; where is safe from flooding; where this happened, or that happened, etc.

Profane experience still includes values that to some extent recall the nonhomogeneity peculiar to the religious experience of space. There are, for example, privileged spaces, qualitatively different from all others -- a man's birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in his youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the "holy places" of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life. This example of crypto-religious behavior on profane man's part is worth noting.Eliade, p 24

Theophanies and Signs

The temple constitutes an opening in the upward direction and ensures communicating with the world of the gods.Eliade, p 26

Every sacred space implies a hierophany, an irruption of the sacred that results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and making it qualitatively different.Eliade, p 26

Regarding choosing a sacred place,

Often there is no need for a theophany or a hierophany properly speaking; some sign suffices to indicate the sacredness of a place. "According to the legend, the marabout who founded El-Hamel at the end of the sixteenth century stopped to spend the night near a spring and planted his stick in the ground. The next morning, when he went for it to resume his journey, he found that it had taken root and that buds had sprouted on it. He considered this a sign of God's will and settled in that place." In such cases the sign, fraught with religious meaning, introduces an absolute element and puts an end to relativity and confusion. ... When no sign manifests itself, it is provoked. ... For example, a wild animal is hunted, and the sanctuary is built at the place where it is killed. Or a domestic animal -- such as a bull -- is turned loose; some days later it is searched for and sacrificed at the place where it is found. Later the altar is raised there and the village will be built around the altar. ... In each case the hierophany has annulled the homogeneity of space and revealed a fixed point.Eliade, p 27 - 28

We must not suppose that human work is in question here [in the establishment of a sacred space], that it is through his own efforts that man can consecrate a space. In reality the ritual by which he constructs a sacred space is efficacious in the measure in which it reproduces the work of the gods.Eliade, p 29

Above are explanations of how a sacred place is chosen: via direct communication from the deity via a prophet, or indirectly via omens. In each case a hierophany has occured that distinguishes a certain spot as different than the non-sacred space surrounding it; it has been revealed to be sacred. Clearly not everything was just relative because the temples were often built according to the cardinal points, with shifts in this tradition going according to geological formations; the cardinal points were not relative, but static and definite, and the Mesopotamians clearly understood this. Further, the Egyptians strongly distinguished between the fertile and infertile land of -- kemet versus nesret. They surely did not recognize where they could and not plant by some divine revelation; they intuitively grasped what could grow where, and religion grew along with this understanding.

Chaos and Cosmos

One of the outstanding characteristics of traditional societies is the opposition that they assume between their inhabited territory and the unknown and indeterminate space that surrounds it. ... An unknown, foreign and unoccupied territory (which often means, "unoccupied by our people") still shares in the fluid and larval modality of chaos. ... By occupying it and, above all, by settling in it, man symbolically transforms it into a cosmos through a ritual repetition of the cosmogony. What is to become "our world" must first be "created," and every creation has a paradigmatic model -- the creation of the universe by the gods.Eliade, p 30 - 31

Consecration of a Place = Repetition of the Cosmogony

The cosmicization of unknown territories is always a consecration; to organize a space is to repeat the paradigmatic work of the gods.Eliade, p 33

Eliade believes that religions contend that heaven is supported by cosmic pillars, and tries to tie this into archaic beliefs to give the illusion of continuity from a literal pole to esoteric pillars,

The sacred pole of the Achilpa supports their world and ensures communication with the sky. Here we have the prototype of a cosmological image that has been very widely disseminated -- the cosmic pillars that support heaven and at the same time open the road to the world of the gods. Until their conversion to Christianity, the Celts and Germans still maintained their worship of such sacred pillars. ... The same assimilation of the cosmic pillar to the sacred pole and of the ceremonial house to the universe is found among the Nad'a of Flores Island. The sacrificial pole is called the "Pole of Heaven" and is believed to support the sky.Eliade, p 34-35 & 36

Eliade then lists various instances in which poles arise; oddly, he does not present any contradicting evidence where there is an absence of a pole, but instead emphatically lists the examples which he surely skipped dinners in order to collect from various books. This is his approach: concoct a theory, and scour scant sources to support it. This blog has good insight.

The axis mundi, seen in the sky in the form of the Milky Way, appears in the ceremonial house in the form of a sacred pole.Eliade, p 35

The Center of the world

The three cosmic levels -- earth, heaven, underworld -- have been put in communication ... through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth and whose base is fixed in the world below.Eliade, p 36

The examples he has given, beginning with the most archaic: the Achilpa's pole; the Celts and German's pillars; Romans (Horace, Odes, III 3); ancient India, the [metaphorical!] skambha (Rig Veda, I, 105; X, 89, 4; etc); Canary Islanders; Kwakiutl, who believe in a copper pole passing through the three cosmic levels; Nad'a of Flores Island.

We have a sequence of religious conceptions and cosmological images that are inseparably connected and form a system that may be called the "system of the world" prevalent in traditional societies: (a) a sacred place constitutes a break in the homogeneity of space; (b) this break is symbolized by an opening by which passage from one cosmic region to another is made possible (from heaven to earth and vice versa; from earth to the underworld); (c) communication with heaven is expressed by one or another of certain images, all of which refer to the axis mundi: pillar (cf. the universalis columna), ladder (cf. Jacob's ladder), mountain [Meru in India, Haraberazaiti in Iran, Gerizim in Palestine], tree, vine, etc.; (d) around this cosmic axis lies the world (= our world), hence the axis is located "in the middle," at the "navel of the earth"; it is the Center of the World. ... The territory that surrounds it, and that constitutes "our world," is held to be the highest among countries.Eliade, p 37 - 38

The apsu, the tehom symbolize the chaos of waters, the preformal modality of cosmic matter, and, at the same time, the world of death, of all that precedes and follows life.Eliade, p 42

"Our World" Is Always Situated at the Center

The imago mundi is a representation of earth and is built around the center of the world.

Settling in a territory is equivalent to founding a world.Eliade, p 47


Since "our world" is a cosmos, any attack from without threatens to turn it into chaos. And as "our world" was founded by imitating the paradigmatic work of the God's, the cosmogony, so the enemies who attack it are assimilated to the enemies of the gods, the demons, and especially to the archdemon, the primordial dragon conquered by the gods at the beginning of time. An attack on "our world" is equivalent to an act of revenge by the mythical dragon, who rebels against the work of the gods, the cosmos, and struggles to annihilate it.Eliade, p 47 - 48

It is highly probable that the fortifications of inhabited places and cities began by being magical defenses; for fortifications -- trenches, labyrinths, ramparts, etc. -- were designed rather to repel invasion by demons and the souls of the dead then attacks by human beings.Eliade, p 49

The above is silly and depicts the pious as lacking any practical concerns at all.

Undertaking the Creation of the World

To settle in a territory, to build a dwelling, demand a vital decision for both the whole community and the individual. For what is involved is undertaking the creation of the world that one has chosen to inhabit. Hence it is necessary to imitate the work of the gods, the cosmogony. ... Since the gods had to slay and dismember a marine monster or a primordial being in order to create the world from it, man in his turn must imitate them when he builds his world. ... The habitation always undergoes a process of sanctification, because it constitutes an imago mundi and the world is a divine creation. ... [Among the ways of] ritually transforming the dwelling place (whether the territory or the house) into cosmos, that is, if giving it the value of an imago mundi: (a) assimilating it to the cosmos by the projection of the four horizons from a central point (in the case of a village) or the symbolic installation of the axis mundi (in the case of a house); (b) repeating, through a ritual of construction, the paradigmatic acts of the gods by virtue of which the world came to birth from the body of a marine dragon or of a primordial giant. ... The first method ... is already documented in the most archaic stages of culture (cf. the kauwa-auwa pole of the Australian Achilpa), while the second method seems to have been developed in the culture of the earliest cultivators. ... The habitation possesses a sacred aspect by the simple fact that it reflects the world.Eliade, p 52- 54

Cosmogony and Building Sacrifice

If a "construction" is to endure (be it house, temple, tool, etc.), it must be animated, that is, it must receive life and a soul. The transfer of the soul is possible only through a blood sacrifice.Eliade, p 56

This could be easily proven wrong by common sense -- the house doesn't have the soul of an antelope -- and also by analyzing other rituals like the opening of the mouth.

The habitation constitutes an imago mundi, it is symbolically situated at the Center of the World. The multiplicity, or even the infinity, of centers of the world raises no difficulty for religious thought. For it is not a matter of geometrical space, but of an existential and sacred space that has an entirely different structure, and admits of an infinite number of breaks and hence is capable of an infinite number of communications with the transcendent. ... Thus religious architecture simply took over and developed the cosmological symbolism already present in the structure of primitive habitations. In its turn, the human habitation had been chronologically preceded by the provisional "holy place," by a space provisionally consecrated and cosmicized.Eliade, p 58

Regarding the above and the multiplicity of centers of the world -- how about Mesopotamian ideas of the rotating kingship? Also, it is indeed interesting to reflect on how private architecture in Mesopotamia was sometimes adopted as a temple style later.

Temple, Basilica, Cathedral

The cosmological structure of the temple gives room for a new religious valorization; as house of the gods, hence holy place above all others, the temple continually resanctifies the world, because it at once represents and contains it. In the last analysis, it is by virtue of the temple that the world is resanctified in every part. However impure it may have become, the world is continually purified by the sanctity of sanctuaries.Eliade, p 59

Then the temple clearly isn't doing a very good job of purifying the world. Also, the temple is usually cloistered, sometimes even within its own citadel.