Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was one of the twentieth century’s most groundbreaking and influential historians of religion. Born in Romania, he eventually became the chairman of the department of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. He was the author of a great number of books, the most significant of which are generally held to be The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion and The Myth of the Eternal Return (also known as Cosmos and History).
Eliade’s chief aim was to identify and describe the underlying patterns in the mindset with which people who belong to traditional religions have historically approached the world around them and their place within it. While this mindset has naturally manifested in different ways amongst the adherents of different religions, what Eliade was after were the ultimate commonalities in the religious mindset itself.
Eliade saw religion as an irreducible category of human experience and history; in other words, religion couldn’t be reduced to the kinds of factors studied by, say, a sociologist or a biologist. To be properly understood, religion had to be studied as a discrete thing, and Eliade sought to isolate and articulate what exactly constituted the uniquely religious element of human life.
As a historian, Eliade was primarily a scholar working with factual phenomena. But his works have profound philosophical, psychological, and theological implications, and a large part of his enduring fame is probably a result of the fact that his readers find in his works not just dry history, but often something inspiring and existentially nourishing as well.
The Sacred and the Profane
For Eliade, religion is at bottom a matter of experiencing the sacred, which Eliade thinks of as being essentially synonymous with the divine or numinous. There are “two modes of being in the world:” the sacred mode and the profane mode. In the profane mode, things and actions don’t point to anything beyond themselves, whereas in the sacred mode, some things have – and virtually anything potentially has – the capacity to become the basis for a “communion” with the numinous.
People experience the sacred through a “hierophany,” an “act of manifestation of the sacred.” Certain stones or trees, for example, might be experienced as conduits of divine presence and power. But, Eliade cautions, “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 [wholly other].”
For the religious person of traditional societies, almost everything in the world – features of nature, words, culturally-sanctioned activities, and so on – has some kind of religious significance. It was created or instituted by the gods in time immemorial, and people have experienced the same hierophanies and repeated the same gestures ever since then, which has enabled them to retain a high degree of closeness to the gods. The sun is not just the sun; it is a manifestation of a solar deity, or at least his or her power and benevolence. Sex is not just sex; it is an enactment of some mythical sexual act. And so on.
Only the sacred can be truly valuable and truly real, so in order for something to possess value or reality, it has to point back to the sacred. “Objects or acts acquire a value, and in doing so become real, because they participate, after one fashion or another, in a reality that transcends them.” In modern society, we tend to see reality and fact – in the sense of profane information – as being synonymous. But, in Eliade’s view, this isn’t so for the adherents of traditional religions; what we would call “facts” only become real if they participate in a sacred “reality that transcends them.” Otherwise, they’re just part of the noise of the profane.
Thus, “religious man wants to be other than he finds himself on the ‘natural’ level and undertakes to make himself in accordance with the ideal image revealed to him by myths.”
Cosmos and Chaos
The transcendent reality of the sacred, and the objects and acts in this world that partake of that reality, constitute the cosmos – the known, ordered, and sacralized world. The cosmos “is a universe within which the sacred has already manifested itself, in which, consequently, the break-through from plane to plane has become possible and repeatable. … The sacred reveals absolute reality and at the same time makes orientation possible; hence it founds the world in the sense that it fixes the limits and establishes the order of the world.”
The cosmos is always situated around a central point, usually represented by a pillar, tree, ladder, or mountain – an axis mundi or “world axis” – that connects the people to the divine powers above and below them. An example would be Yggdrasil, the tree at the center of the pre-Christian Norse cosmos.
Anything that one might encounter that is not part of the cosmos – anything that doesn’t in some way manifest divinity – belongs to chaos, the formless nothingness that existed prior to the creation of the cosmos and continues to lurk just beyond its borders. Chaos isn’t truly real in the same way that the cosmos is real, no matter how much an aspect of chaos might impose itself upon someone’s life. By belonging to nothingness (no-thing-ness), it’s not truly a thing.
The Terror of History and the Eternal Return
But even the adherent of a traditional religion still lives much of his or her life within the chaotic, profane, and arbitrary succession of events we call “history.” All of us – whether religious or not – loathe and fear the suffering we have to endure in the chaos of history. Eliade asks, “How can the ‘terror of history’ be tolerated from the viewpoint of historicism? Justification of a historical event by the simple fact that it is a historical event, in other words, by the simple fact that it ‘happened that way,’ will not go far toward freeing humanity from the terror that the event inspires.”
While irreligious people have no means of effectively dealing with the terror of history, religious people do: myths and their reenactment. “This,” wrote Eliade, “is the reason for the fundamental importance of myths… for the myths narrate the [deeds] of the gods and these [deeds] constitute paradigmatic models for all human activities.”
Ordinary historical time is “profane time, ordinary temporal duration, in which acts without religious meaning have their setting.” But by repeating the deeds of the gods and other mythical beings, people can transform profane time into sacred time, “a primordial mythical time made present.”
This is partially done by living one’s day-to-day life in accordance with mythical precedents as much as possible. Anything that is merely personal or situational, and which doesn’t link one back to a particular aspect of “primordial mythical time” is to be avoided or ignored whenever possible.
But the most powerful way in which traditionally religious people immerse themselves in sacred time is through periodic rituals designed to restore that connection as deeply as possible. “[T]he festival [or other religious ritual] is not merely the commemoration of a mythical (and hence religious) event; it reactualizes the event.” While the ritual is being performed, the participants can shed their mundane identities and cares and become consubstantial with the gods, heroes, and ancestors of the myths.
Eliade called this periodic re-establishment of the time of origins the “Eternal Return.” It is “eternal” in two overlapping senses: it can be repeated indefinitely, and it returns one to an eternal, mythical time that is always present, at least in a latent or potential state, behind one’s experience of ordinary, profane, historical time and the terror it evokes.
The Situation of Modern, Secular Humanity
Although those without a religion are deprived of the ability to reach the sacred and to transcend history, they are still, in Eliade’s words, “crypto-religious.” This is so because
[N]onreligious man descends from [religious man] and, whether he likes it or not, he is also the work of religious man; his formation begins with the situations assumed by his ancestors. … Nonreligious man has been formed by opposing his predecessor, by attempting to ‘empty’ himself of all religion… To acquire a world of his own, he has desacralized the world in which his ancestors lived; but to do so he has been obliged to adopt the opposite of an earlier type of behavior, and that behavior is still emotionally present to him, in one form or another, ready to be reactualized in his deepest being. … The ‘irreligious’ still behave religiously, even though they are not aware of the fact.
In Eliade’s view, the irreligious have “emptied themselves” of only the content of religion, but have inadvertently retained the form of religion in their thought and behavior. Since, for Eliade, the religious state is the natural, default state of humanity, religious patterns of thought and behavior are inherent characteristics of being human. Even if one turns away from their intended purpose, they remain as entrenched and active as ever, just in a rather debased state.
For example, everyone sees certain ideas as being unquestionable and self-evident, and therefore possessing some measure of the sacred. Everyone lives in a cosmos – a known, ordered world – of some sort, even if merely one of familiarity and custom rather than one that possesses any religious value. Certain memories from childhood may evoke a nostalgic longing for a lost “time of origins,” despite that time never rising above profane history. And so on.
For Eliade, we are all still “religious man” whether we think of ourselves that way or not and whether we like that or not. The only difference between the irreligious and the religious is that the irreligious lack a viable means of truly actualizing our innate religiosity.
Eliade’s detractors are quick to point out that he sometimes overstates his case by treating general patterns in historical religions as universal absolutes when one can find examples to the contrary. But, intriguingly, when one approaches this problem from the perspective of Eliade’s quintessential “religious man,” the problem vanishes. Technical factual errors of this sort belong to chaos, and can be overpowered by the sheer existential force of Eliade’s vision.
Ultimately, whether it’s taken to be history, philosophy, theology, or something else, Eliade’s body of thought does a bit of what he holds that traditional religions do for their adherents: providing a set of paradigmatic ideas that enable us to recover something of immeasurable value that has been lost – to transcend history and its terror and to return, at least in one’s mind’s eye, to a yearned-for mythical time of origins.
Start Reading Eliade
I highly recommend going beyond this very brief and general overview of Eliade’s thought and actually reading some of Eliade’s works themselves. I’ve compiled the following list to facilitate that pursuit. The first two books on this list are generally considered to be Eliade’s most important (and I agree with that assessment). The third is one that I figured readers of this site would be particularly interested in. All three, despite being scholarly works, are surprisingly reader-friendly and easy to digest. Eliade wasn’t just a great thinker and scholar; he was a great writer as well.
1. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion
The Sacred and the Profane is a succinct encapsulation of much of Eliade’s thought. As such, it makes an ideal book to read first for those who want to delve into Eliade’s writings.
The book is divided into four main sections: sacred space, sacred time, the religious significance of the various constituent parts of nature, and secular humanity’s inability to shake off its inheritance from the religious past.
True to his usual method and style, Eliade discusses with extraordinary lucidity what he holds to be universal patterns in traditional religions, while also illustrating them with numerous examples from all over the world – from medieval Christianity to aboriginal Australia.
If you’re looking to read just one book of Eliade’s, this is the one I would recommend. However, I would strongly advise you to read both The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return, because the two complement each other extremely well, and together provide a far better overview of the core of Eliade’s thought than what you’d get from either book alone. Click here to view or buy The Sacred and the Profane at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 34% from its list price.
2. The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History
For a book that’s less than 200 pages in length, The Myth of the Eternal Return – or, as it was originally titled, Cosmos and History – contains a downright staggering amount of fascinating and compelling ideas. All are articulated with Eliade’s signature clarity, precision, nuance, and illustration with numerous examples.
The central concern of The Myth of the Eternal Return is the “terror of history” and how the “eternal return” strives to overcome it. The book describes how traditional religions think about myth and its ritual enactment in a way that keeps them as close as possible to their divine models at all times. Anything they encounter that doesn’t fit those models, or provide them with an opportunity to reenact them, stands to bring on the terror of history.
Some later religions, Eliade notes, have a somewhat different conception. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism all treat particular moments in history as having been the work of the divine, and see history itself as being permeated with religious meaning. But this still enables them to escape much of the terror of history, since they see it as the work of divine forces, which provides the occasion for communion with those divine forces.
Modern humanity, however, is largely stranded in a position of having no particular recourse to overcome the terror of history and return to something sacred and timeless. Eliade provides his take on what can be done about this.
Once again, I highly recommend reading The Myth of the Eternal Return and The Sacred and the Profane in conjunction with one another, because the two go hand in hand almost perfectly. But The Myth of the Eternal Return makes an excellent standalone read as well. Click here to view or buy The Myth of the Eternal Return at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 23% from its list price.
3. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
Shamanism isn’t as vital for understanding the heart of Eliade’s thought as are The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return, but I’ve included it on this list because 1) it’s another major standout in Eliade’s bibliography in my own humble opinion, and 2) readers of this particular site will likely be especially interested in this one.
Shamanism is one of the classic works on the topic of, well, shamanism. The shaman is a religious functionary that can be found in societies from all over the world that lack a particularly high degree of specialization of labor. The shaman combines the roles of the mystic, priest, magician, healer, prophet, poet, lore-keeper, musician, and others into one intriguingly dynamic role. The primary defining characteristic of shamanism is the inspired trance state the shaman enters to do his or her work – hence the book’s subtitle, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. This ecstasy is – you guessed it – a means of transcending history, reconnecting to the primordial time of the myths, and accomplishing tasks of great benefit to the wider society along the way.
This book starts by discussing the general, global defining characteristics of shamanism, then explores the many forms shamanism takes in specific societies from across the world.
Shamanism is in many ways the cornerstone of the whole field of the scholarly study of shamanism, and has been for over half a century. Read it and see why. Click here to view or buy Shamanism at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 30% from its list price.
 Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 14.
 Ibid. p. 11.
 Ibid. p. 12.
 Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 3-4.
 Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 187.
 Ibid. p. 30.
 Ibid. p. 32-42.
 Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 150.
 Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 105.
 Ibid. p. 68-69.
 Ibid. p. 81.
 Ibid. p. 24.
 Ibid. p. 204.