Mircea Eliade: The Sacred & The Profane 2 Sacred Time (Summary)

Hits since 28-01-12:    45900

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), Chap. 2/4 on Sacred Time.


Eliade introduces his section on sacred time by claiming that for religious man there were two types of time, sacred and profane, the former experienced in religious festivals, the latter in ordinary daily life. Religious festivals reactualised sacred events from the mythical origins, so participating in them meant stepping out of ordinary time and into sacred time, the time of origins. Religious festivals occurred periodically, so sacred time was also circular.

By contrast, modern, non-religious man does not experience sacred time. He has his periodic celebrations, but they are not experienced as sacred, as involving contact with the divine.

According to Eliade, for archaic cultures, the cosmos regained its original sacredness at each New Year. In fact, the cosmos was recreated each New Year and time began afresh.

Thus, for the ancient Babylonians, when their creation myth was recited over the New Year period, the creation of cosmos out of chaos actually happened all over again. First, the world fell back into chaos, as symbolised by, for example, chaotic behaviour such as orgies. Then, through the ritual, the god Marduk slew the chaos monster Tiamat and created the cosmos out of his body. As part of all this, time, seen as profane by the end of the old year, was abolished, then recreated as sacred once more.

Illud Tempus

Pursuing his theme further, Eliade introduces his phrase illud tempus, to refer to the time of origins, the sacred time when the world was first created.

Religious man accessed illud tempus whenever he ritually recited his cosmogonic myth, thereby reactuating the creation of his world. In various cultures, this gave an approach to the healing of the sick, for by being taken ritually to the time of origins, the sick could be reborn without their sickness.

More generally, religious man needed to enter sacred time periodically because sacred time was what made ordinary, historical time possible. For the events of the sacred time of origins, enacted in ritual, were paradigms on which made the conduct of ordinary life was based. Thus ordinary sexual unions between men and women were possible because of divine sexual union between god and goddess in the time of origins.

Eliade rejects the idea that religious man's desire to be constantly going back to the time of origins in his religious festivals should be seen as escapism. What religious man was doing in his rituals was participating positively in the cosmos, in being. That is not our modern way, but it should be taken seriously by us.


The events of the time of origins were recorded in myth. Myths revealed how the cosmos, or some part of it, (however small, such as a particular species of plan or human institution) came into existence and why.

The most important function of myth was to store the paradigms for all rituals and significant human activities. By behaving the way the gods or semi-divine hero figures did in myths, religious man could be sure that he was behaving properly. Thus, in New Guinea, captains embarking on long sea journeys took on the persona of the mythical hero, Aori, wearing the sort of costume he wore, performing the dance he performed etc.

This sort of imitation of mythic models of behaviour ensured that religious man remained in touch with sacred reality and that, at the same time, he contributed to the sacredness of the world by reactualising the divine paradigms. Indeed, Eliade argues, religious man believed he only truly became a man by imitating the gods and heroes as described in the myths.

Human Sacrifice and Ritual Cannibalism

An issue that Eliade highlights in this context is that of human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism. He sees these as cultural developments associated with the beginnings of agriculture and no earlier. In the myths of the earliest cultivators, human mortality, human sexuality and the need for humans to work all came about as a result of divinities allowing themselves to be sacrificed so that crops could grow out of their body. Human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism were the religious reactualisation of such illud tempus events, performed to assure the continuance of crops.

Eliade comments that we need to bear in mind when judging cannibalism that it had been divinely instituted, though of course he deplores religious man going to such extremes in imitating the gods.

The Eternal Return

Eliade now introduces the notion of the eternal return. In his primitive and less developed civilised religions, the cyclical, repetitive nature of time according to the annual calendar was the cause of optimism. For it meant the reactualisation of sacred time and the imitation of the gods at annual religious festivals.

But in some more developed civilised religions, the learned elites lost the sense that the cosmos was sacred and were left with a terrifying vision of cyclical time repeating itself for all eternity. Elites in India came to hope in the possibility of escape from the cycle of eternal return to existence involved in the cosmos being periodically destroyed and recreated. The ancient Greeks also were familiar with the idea of eternal return.

Historical Time

Judaism, on the other hand, abandoned cyclical time. Unlike the gods of other religions, Yahweh manifested himself to his people in their irreversible, historical time, thus giving history a certain sacred value.

Christianity went even further. By having the historical events of the Gospels as its illud tempus, the sacred time of its rituals, Christianity turned all of history into sacred history.

Eliade notes that Hegel went on again, making the whole of history the work of a universal spirit. Finally, modern historicism had come to see historical time in a terrifying light, the way the ancient Indians and Greeks saw the eternal return: in this case leading unpredictably to death.

(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