Wednesday 21 May 2008

The Sacred and The Profane by Mircea Eliade

The Sacred and Profane
Mircea Eliade

ISBN 015679201X

Ascending and Descending the Staircase of the Sacred and the Profane!

The book The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade is considered a classic in the field of Religious Studies. As such, to attempt a review of t
he book is a daunting task. If I may be permitted the use of a metaphor, Eliade takes us up a staircase through a progression of his thoughts on the topics of Sacred Space, Sacred Time, Sacred Nature, and finally Sacred Life. In this review we will examine these in the reverse order; we will descend the staircase Eliade has constructed and go from his conclusions and work our way back to his premises.

herefore, we will first examine Human Existence and Sacred Life. Then we will look at Eliade's views on The Sacredness of Nature and Cosmic Religion; after that a study of Sacred Time and Myths. Next, we will take a look at Sacred Space and Making the world Sacred. Finally we will examine some of Eliade's ideas and goals as he entered into this work.

In his study of the Sacred Self, Eliade requires the reader to take a broad approach to this aspect of the study of religion. Eliade states: "The ultimate aim of the historian of religion is to understand, and to make understandable to others, religious man's behaviour and mental universe. It is not always an easy undertaking." Eliade outlines a number of tools to help make this study possible. He suggests looking at a number of historical points of view and using them as tools to look at the study of religion afresh. He recommends that we examine the peasant beliefs in Europe, especially folklore, and through this and looking at pre-agriculture societies we will get a view of 'religious' man in the raw. In order to do a full examination of Sacred Life, after we have glanced at these two societal examples, he examines a number of specific samples. He shows the student of religion the relationship of body, and home to the cosmos. He also looks at the specific example from earlier cultural societies - self and home as mini versions of the greater Cosmos of creation. Through that he looks at rites and rituals, both for men and women, and then the rites involved in Death. Eliade recognizes the shortfall in his covering so much material in such little space. He declares: "The fact is that this little book is necessarily summary and incomplete; it represents only a rapid introduction to a vast subject." As such it leaves the reader hungry for more depth, more substance, more detail.

Next as we proceed down the staircase of The Sacred and the Profane we encounter
Sacred Nature. Eliade looks at a number of topics in this section, from the symbolic uses of Sky, Water, and Earth to the concept of remote Gods and then trees, stones, sun and moon. This reminds me of a fiction book by Steven Brust. His book The Sun, The Moon and the Stars in its two different editions has this on the back:
"Once Upon A Time

there was a kingdom, that
lived in darkness, for the Sun, the
Moon, and the Stars were hidden in a box …
which was hidden in a sow's belly …
which was hidden in a troll's cave …
which was surely hidden at the end of the world.
And …

Once Upon A Time

there was a struggling young painter
who also lived in darkness, and - like
the hero of that Hungarian folktale - was
beginning his most perilous quest.
shooting for the Moon. And the Sun.
And the Stars …"

"Once Upon A Time

there was a studio of artists who feared
they were doomed to obscurity, for though
they worked and they worked,
no one was interested in the paintings
that stood in racks along their studio walls.

The Sun, the Moon
& The Stars

is a tale of two quests, of two young men
who are reaching for the moon. And the sun.
And the stars."

This story, much like Eliede's vision, is a myth being retold in a modern setting, with the two stories running parallel to each other - the myth and the modern story. Eliade lo
oks at the elements of sky, earth and water and their ancient symbolic usage and the modern usages of these elements in rites and rituals across different traditions. Then from this sacred nature we step further down the stairs to sacred time.

In addressing Sacred Time, Elaide makes an argument for the fact that man interacts with time in two modes, sacred time and profane time. His argument is that when entering into a ritual service, such as prayer, the person moves
from profane time into sacred time. Author Madeleine L'Engle wrote two series of religious books called the Kairos and Chronos Series. One is based in profane time and one is based in Sacred time. Eliade states: "One essential difference between these two qualities of time strikes us immediately: by its very nature sacred time is reversible in the sense that, properly speaking, it is a primordial mythical time made present." But in reality all time is on a continuum between the two different types of times. This can be seen in Madeleine L'Engles's books in that she has her two series based on the different types of time and then she has her non-fiction and theological work, and a few characters, especially Canon Tallis, appear in all three types of books. He fits into Sacred Time (Kairos) Profane time (Chronos) and real life - the blend between the two that each religious person lives in (See Appendix I).

Next we return to the bottom step, or the first step we ascended in reading the book, the step of Sacred Space. The concept of Sacred space is not new to almost any student of religion, from the personal shrine to Kali, to a prie-dieu, such as the one in my den before a portrait of Mary; to a church, synagogue or mosque. Eliade says that he gives but a few examples of Sacred place, yet each of us knows of hundreds of sacred spaces we have encountered in our own lives, even if we are not religious. The number of churches, grottos, symbols, places, and graveyards we encounter as we journey through life is a constant reminder of sacred space - space set apart and different from our normal day-to-day life. This, of his four topics, we experience maybe the most, but have the least understanding of the historical significance and selection and creation of these places about which Eliade enlightens us.

Eliade begins his work by referencing Rudolf Otto's seminal work Dad Heilige (The Sacred) as his beginning point in the study of religion, and the themes we have just examined. The praise Elaide gives to Otto's book is the praise and respect that Eliade's work now receives. As such Eliade will broaden the p
erspectives of the student of religion, and his book will not only provide some answers but generate many more questions and lead the reader off on a number of different tangents that can be future areas of study.

In conclusion, this is a book with a great reputation and by
a fantastic scholar. However, it is often used at the undergraduate level, and many of the topics only get skimmed over or are painted with broad brush strokes without filling in the details. My wish would have been for Eliade to have written a book on each of the four sections of this book, thus having the room to expand and complete his thoughts more thoroughly for the student of religion.


  1. Eliade, Mircea The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, FL 1987, p.162
  2. IBED p.201
  3. Brust, Steven The Sun the Moon and The Stars Orb Books, 1996, Back Cover
  4. Brust, Steven The Sun the Moon and The Stars Ace Books, 1986, Back Cover
  5. Eliade, Mircea The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, FL 1987, p.68

Appendix I

Note: The character is based on L'Engle's real-life spiritual advisor, Canon Edward Nason West of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.


Eliade, Mircea The Sacred and the Profane:
The Nature of Religion
Translated: Trask, Willard R.
Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, FL, 1987.

Brust, Steven The Sun, The Moon and The Stars
Orb Books, 1996
ISBN: 0312860390

The Sun, The Moon and The Stars
Ace Books, 1986
ISBN: 0441790992

(First written for RS200 The Study of Religion Winter 2008.)

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