Mircea Eliade: The Sacred & The Profane 1 Sacred Space (Summary)

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Eliade pages on this site:
The Sacred & The Profane - Summaries:
Introduction  | 1 Sacred Space  | 2 Sacred Time3 Sacred Nature4 Sacred Self
Comment:  1 Criticisms2 Eliade's Sacred

This page summarises Mircea Eliade's The Sacred & The Profane (1957), Chapter 1 on Sacred Space.

SACRED SPACE

Eliade claims that, whereas for non-religious man the spatial aspect of the world is basically experienced as uniformly neutral, for religious man it was experienced as non-homogeneous, partly sacred and partly not so. In particular, religious man experienced the world as having a sacred centre and sought to live there.

Eliade qualifies his claim that modern, non-religious man experiences the spacial aspect of his world as uniformly neutral. In fact, the latter experiences particular locations as special on account of personal associations: locations such as his place of birth. This sort of experience is to be regarded as degraded religious experience.

Eliade next discusses sacred places. An obvious example for us is the church, whose door is a threshold between the profane on the outside and the sacred inside. An equivalent to the church in archaic cultures was the sacred enclosure, which opened upwards towards the sky, the world of the gods. Sacred places were revealed to religious man by means of signs of various sorts, recognised as coming from the divine.

Cosmos and Chaos

The major differentiation of space for religious man was that between cosmos and chaos. Traditional societies understood their own territory as cosmos, a world created out of primordial chaos by their gods, with surrounding territory remaining as chaos. Any extension of its territory was understood by a society as a repetition of the cosmogony, of the original divine act of creation of its world.

An example of how cosmogony worked, of how cosmos was imposed on chaos, concerns a nomadic Australian tribe, called the Achilpa. Their divine founder had fashioned and anointed a sacred pole, which the tribe carried with them on their wanderings. Its bending told them in which direction to travel and its very presence ensured that wherever they were they had cosmos, their world, around them. At the same time, the pole linked the people with their founder, above them in the heavens: after making the pole, he had climbed up it and vanished into the sky.

Similar beliefs in other pre-modern societies attached to sacred pillars, trees etc. They maintained the cosmos of our world amid the chaos of surrounding space and kept open the connection with the divine founders in the heavens above.

Axis Mundi

In fact, in developed religious systems of this kind, there were three cosmic levels: not only earth and heaven, but an underworld as well. The axis mundi, the vertical feature, was seen as the centre of the world and as linking together all three cosmic levels. Instead of a pole, pillar or tree, the axis mundi might be, say, a ladder or a mountain.

Beliefs in cosmic mountains included the idea that our world is holy because it is the place closest to heaven. Eliade notes that temples might be seen as equivalents of sacred mountains. Indeed, some, such as the Babylonian ziggurat, were built to be artificial sacred mountains.

Religious man might understand his world as being at the centre of the world on three scales: country, city, sanctuary. That way, Palestine, Jerusalem, the Temple were all seen as the centre of the world.

Imago Mundi

What is more, for religious man, cosmos in its birth spread out from the centre. Consequently, when he undertook new construction work, religious man, by analogy, organised it outwards from a central point. Thus, a new village might be developed from a crossroads outwards, giving it four zones. Such a plan made a new construction an imago mundi, a representation of the cosmos on the ground.

Understanding his world this way, religious man experienced attacks from enemies as the work of demons, enemies of the divine creation who threatened to return that creation to chaos. Typically, such demons were represented as dragons; in fact, chaos itself might be represented as a dragon.

Eliade notes that something of this way of thinking persists in his contemporary world, in talk of dark forces threatening to plunge civilisation into chaos.

Going back to the imago mundi, the cosmic order represented in construction, Eliade points out that religious man saw it in his dwelling. Thus, peoples whose tents or huts had a central post or pillar could understand it as an axis mundi, supporting our world and linking it to heaven.

Sacrifice in Building Work

An alternative way of associating the dwelling place with the cosmic order was to make the building of it imitate the creation of the cosmos. So, we may associate traditions in which new construction work involved blood sacrifice with cosmogonies in which the creation of the world out of chaos was represented as the slaying of some primordial monster.

Overall, Eliade finds a chronological progression in sacred space from that created by the sacred pole of the nomadic Achilpa, to that of fixed dwellings, to that of religious architecture.

Temples

With the advent of the temple, Eliade discerns an altogether new stage in religious man's understanding of sacred space. A temple was an imago mundi, symbolising the cosmos, the sacred order divinely imposed on primordial chaos. But it was more than that: it was the house of the gods and as such positively sustaining the sacredness of our world. This new understanding carried through into the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In his concluding remarks, Eliade points out that religious man's experience of sacred space obviously differed from culture to culture. However, beneath the differences there was an underlying commonality of experience that becomes evident in the contrast with non-religious man's non-experience of sacred space.

(c) John C Durham, 2003

Eliade pages on this site:
The Sacred & The Profane - Summaries:
Introduction  | 1 Sacred Space  | 2 Sacred Time3 Sacred Nature4 Sacred Self
Comment:  1 Criticisms2 Eliade's Sacred