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Part 5. Mircea Eliade and the Two Orders of Reality

Being the Fifth Part of the article entitled "This World and That"

[This essay was originally posted to]

The Condensed Version

Eliade speaks of the Sacred and the Profane and the relationship between the two. The discussion covers both Space and Time, both Nature and Humans.

Jung's influence was tremendous, and went far beyond the field of psychology. In working out his theories, his research ranged across literature, art, anthropology, and numerous other fields of human enterprise. Not surprisingly, professionals in these other fields sometimes adopted Jung's insights and made them their own.

Mircea Eliade

One of these was Mircea Eliade. Jung and Eliade knew each other, and Eliade acknowledged his debt to Jung's work. However, he also distinguished what he did from Jung's theories--there is, for example, the clarification of his use of archetype as distinct from Jung's, as described in the Preface to the 1959 edition of The Myth of the Eternal Return (xv).

Like Jung's work, Eliade's corpus is deep and wide. No attempt will be made to capture the scope of his work here. Instead, in keeping with the theme of This and That, we will examine one of his central theories, one that has a lot to say for our study. This is his system of the Sacred and the Profane. Even this one idea generated a huge body of work, as it is one of the controlling ideas of his entire opus. Perhaps it is best to focus on the book of the same name, and to take in its broad view.

The Sacred and the Profane 

The Sacred and the Profane has an Introduction, four numbered chapters, and an appendix (which will be of little use to us here), as well as a bibliography and an index. The four chapters are titled:

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

Even the titles are tantalizing. And dipping in at almost any point yields gems. But the titles themselves give shape to an approach to Eliade's thinking. The titles establish two pairs of ideas:

Space <--> Time
Outer Nature <--> Human Nature

Before we consider any particulars, though, let's look at the main idea.


Eliade, following Rudolph Otto, suggests in the Introduction that there are two orders of reality, one of which he calls Sacred and the other Profane. Somewhat coyly, he defines the Sacred as "the opposite of the profane" (10). He says that the purpose of the entire book is "to illustrate and define this opposition between sacred and profane." One of the many peculiarly Eliadean terms he uses is coincidentia oppositorum, the moment when opposites collide and, in some ways, annul each other. In an extended consideration of duality, Eliade denies that the Sacred and the Profane constitute "an embryonic dualism" because, when they encounter each other, "the profane is transmuted into the sacred by the dialectics of hierophany," as he explains in The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion. Hierophany--a manifestation of the sacred--is one of the brightest gems from Eliade's treasure chest of terms, as it accounts for one of our central problems: how This and That are brought into relationship.

Returning to his work in The Sacred and the Profane, we find that as an academician, Eliade (after his brief nod to Otto) avoids the question of whether he believes in the Sacred; rather he adopts the view that has led me to term his work an anthropological approach to This and That. He describes the Sacred and the Profane as "two modalities of being in the world, two existential situations assumed by man in the course of his history" (14). While he protests that these modes are of interest to "the history of religions... sociology... historical, social, or ethnological study…[and] the philosopher…" (15) he in fact takes a fiercely (if not always accepted) anthropological view of the matter. His study examines how humans encounter the Sacred, especially in cultural contexts; his sources are almost exclusively ethnological, literary, and artistic. When he speaks of human existence, he speaks in terms of "the nomadic hunters and the sedentary cultivators" (17), or names cultural groups such as "the Mesopotamians, the Indians, the Chinese, the Kwakiutl and other primitive peoples" (15).

I. Sacred Space and Making the World Sacred

Of the pairs of opposites indicated by the chapter titles. the first, "Sacred Space," tells us that space is not homogeneous in quality; that is, some parts of space are perceived of as different in quality from others (20ff). Those places where theophanies occur are clearly different; just as the Sacred is "more real" than the Profane, so Sacred Space is more… something… than Profane. If we could describe that quality, it wouldn't be Sacred; Otto calls it "numinous." And just as originally cosmos was brought out of chaos, so the consecration of any space repeats the original creative act (32ff). Such places become "the center of the world" (36ff), and "our world" is always at the center (42ff). Eliade says more on Sacred Space, but this is enough for our purposes. Sacred Space is That Space; but This Space can be made into That Space through ceremony and hierophany.

II. Sacred Time and Myths

As for "Sacred Time," another one of Eliade's great terms is illud tempus, "That Time," as opposed to This Time governed by the motions of the planets. That Time is still, eternal--not "everlasting," but of a different nature from This Time, which is ever moving forward. This seeming motion, however, is actually circular: the world is renewed with the coming of each new year (77ff). Both this natural cycle, and the ritual "return to the time of origins," help humans to create the world anew (80ff). This is done through such activities as festivals (85ff) and "reactualizing myths" (99ff).

It is not surprising to think that Space can be divided into That and This, as we discussed in "The Two Worlds." However, Eliade says that the hierophany can also transform external nature, such that a tree becomes a Sacred Tree, or a rock a Sacred Rock.

III. The Sacredness of Nature and Cosmic Religion

Thus in "The Sacredness of Nature," he says, "For religious man, nature is never only 'natural'; it is always fraught with religious value" (116). Recent thinkers like Mathew Fox and Thomas Moore have popularized the idea of seeing nature as Sacred; but what Eliade is proposing here is something more like Huxley's first point: Nature is God, or at least of the gods: "The gods…manifested different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world and cosmic phenomena" (116). And later, "The cosmos as a whole is an organism at once real, living, and sacred…" (117, emphasis his). Gods are discussed, as is the "perenniality of celestial symbols" (128ff). Water (129ff) and earth (138ff) are explored as symbols, as are women (144ff) and vegetation (147ff) in terms of fertility. Finally, there is an assessment of the "desacralization of nature" (151ff).

IV. Human Existence and Sanctified Life

After much important exposition, Eliade comes at last to the culmination of his argument: "Human Existence and Sanctified Life." His homo religiosus has an "existence open to the world" because "it is not strictly confined to man's mode of being" (162, 166). All of life can be sanctified (167ff); there is a micro-meso- macrocosmic relationship between the body, the house, and the cosmos (172ff). The rites of passage (184ff), initiation (188ff), social structures (192ff), and funerary customs (195ff) all facilitate having a foot in each modality, allowing participation in That while living in This.

Eliade's Sacred, like Jung's collective unconscious, points toward a unitive experience among all human beings. Eliade says much about the Sacred, but in the end never differentiates, say, the Indian Sacred from the Mesopotamian Sacred, or the Kwakiutl from the Chinese. Whatever the cultural trappings of the hierophany, there is a single That lying behind the manifestations.

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