Mircea Eliade: The Sacred & The Profane 3 Sacred Nature (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), Chap. 3/4 on Sacred Nature.

SACRED NATURE

In this section, Eliade examines hierophany in nature. He looks at various natural phenomena in turn, interpolating some generalised considerations as he goes.

Sky

Eliade starts his survey with the sky, claiming that our experience of it is necessarily religious, because when we contemplate it, the sky appears to us as wholly other. For example, he states that the infinite height of the sky suggests transcendance.

Many religions had their supreme god dwelling in the sky, with a name which reflected that. In some cases, celestial gods came to be transformed into storm gods and the like: the creator of the cosmos revealing himself not only through the immensity of the sky, but also through the awesomeness of storms.

Remote Gods

For Eliade, an important consideration concerning supreme gods associated with the sky is that, once they had created the cosmos, they had, according to many religions, withdrawn, leaving successors to complete creation on earth. Such a deus otiosus, remote god, did not figure in normal religious observance, though he might be called on in extremity, when all else had failed.

Eliade links the withdrawal of the creator sky gods with the coming of agriculture. Religious man became more concerned with things like fertility and therefore focussed on relevant dieties: mother goddesses and the like.

Eliade interprets the relations of the ancient Hebrews with Yahweh in the light of the remote god phenomenon. In times of plenty, the Hebrews worshipped Baal, Astarte etc, the fertility gods of their neighbours. But in critical moments, they turned back to Yahweh, the creator. Gods of fertility etc made life flourish in normal times, but only the creator of the cosmos could deal with problems threatening the Hebrewswhole world.

Water

Water performed a symbolic role in religion, according to Eliade. It represented formlessness, so on the one hand, emergence from water symbolised creation and birth, the acquisition of form, whereas on the other hand, immersion in water meant the loss of form and symbolised a return to the situation prior to creation, and death prior to rebirth.

From this perspective, Eliade explores Christian baptism. In discussing baptism, the early Church Fathers had tapped into traditional religious aquatic symbolism, while adding new, specifically Christian meaning to it. Thus, Noah emerging triumphant from the Flood was seen, for one thing, as prefiguring the Christian emerging reborn from baptism.

Eliade here makes a general point to the effect that Christianity could only add to the previous power of symbols to reveal the sacredness of the cosmos. Christianity could not in any fundamental way alter religious man's inheritance of cosmic symbolism.

Earth

Turning to consider the part played by the earth in religion, Eliade states that the belief in humans being born out of the earth was found worldwide. He quotes a late 19th century expression of this belief from a prophet of the North American Ghost-Dance religion. He also comments that some feeling of autochthony, a religious sense of belonging to a particular place, remains with some Europeans of his own day.

A practice found all over the world was that of birth taking place on the ground. This signified that a person's real mother was the Great Earth Mother. Even more common was the custom of laying a new born baby on the ground.

Earth as Mother was also borne witness to in customs that involved placing the sick on the ground or even symbolically burying them. Symbolic burial enabled the sick to be ritually reborn, free from their sickess. Symbolic burial was also part of initiation rituals: on rebirth from the Mother, the initiate was a new person.

Eliade points out that, in some religions, Mother Earth was believed to conceive alone. He associates this sort of belief with matriarchy and the invention of agriculture by women.

But in other religions, the creation of the cosmos was held to result from a union of Mother Earth with the Sky God. Such divine unions provided the paradigm for human sexual relations, giving a sacred, cosmic significance that modern, non-religious man finds hard to appreciate.

Trees

The tree might be taken not only as a symbol of the cosmos, but also to stand for other things that religious man regarded as especially sacred. Thus, the Old Testament had trees of immortality and of knowledge and Indian religion a tree of youth; in various religions, myths told of heroes seeking trees whose fruit or leaves conferred superhuman gifts.

In another general comment, Eliade argues that we moderns still retain a little of religious man's feeling for the sacredness of nature. Our positive feelings towards nature reflect the memory of a degraded experience of nature as sacred.

Stones, Moon, Sun

Eliade concludes by considering briefly the sacredness of stones and of the moon and the sun. Stones he sees as having been hierophanies, that is manifestations of the wholly other, on account of their hardness and permanence.

The moon had a religious significance because through its cycles of phases it helped humans discern an underlying pattern in their world: that of birth, growth and death, followed by rebirth.

The hierophany of the sun was sensed by religious man as powerful, intelligent etc (kingly qualities). So in some religions where the creator sky god faded into the background, he was replaced by a sun god. In some religions, myths told of heroes associated with the sun fighting against darkness.

(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