Mircea Eliade: The Sacred & The Profane 4 Sacred Self (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. 4/4 on Sacred Self.


To gain a broad understanding of religious man, which is the aim of the history of religions, says Eliade, it is necessary to probe beyond the great religions of literate cultures. We need to study European folklore, which preserves to a significant degree the structure of the cosmic religion of the pre-Christian, indeed neolithic, European agriculturalists.

What is more, we need to go back before agriculture, to the primitive mental world of the nomadic herders, of the hunters and gatherers. There, we find that religious man experienced himself as fully integrated in the cosmos created by the gods and as sacred himself because of that.

However, this does not mean that religious man was unaware of himself as distinct from nature. He was conscious of himself as human and, at the same time, as himself as part of the cosmic order.


For religious man, his life was sanctified because it corresponded to paradigms established by the gods in the time of origins. Eliade suggests that in the very distant past, absolutely every aspect of life, even the most basic bodily function, had a religious significance. He sees this reflected in the case of an Australian people called the Karadjeri, whose mythology provided them with a paradigm on the position to take up for urinating.

Clearly, this immersion of life in sacred values is total contrast with the experience of non-religious man, whose life has become desacralised.

As well as acquiring religious value from divine paradigms, particular aspects of the life of religious man could also take on a sacramental value. Thus in Indian tantrism, sexual union became a religious ritual.


Directing us beyond religious man's body, Eliade points to religious symbolism that involved the house in three equivalences with the cosmos and the human body. Again, Eliade uses illustrative material from Indian religions; he talks about the symbolic equivalence of openings through the skull and through the roof of a house. No further precision is offered because Eliade is here at one of his points of maximum obliqueness and confusion, and is not amenable to useful summarisation.

Eliade now makes a general point to the effect that the religious significance of the fabric of life has been lost to modern people, including Christians, apart from peasants. For most Christians, there is no longer a cosmic dimension to their religious experience. Religion is a private affair for them; they feel a personal responsibility to God and also to history.


Moving now beyond the home in his demonstration of the interpenetration of religious man's life and his religion, Eliade looks at notions of passage, in particular at the bridge as symbolic of those dangerous transitions, initiation and death. Thus, in various religious traditions a narrow or otherwise dangerous bridge had to be negotiated by the dead in order to get to the next life.


Initiation now comes to occupy Eliade's attention. Regarding his primitive cultures, he distinguishes between age group initiations, in which everybody had to take part, and secret society initiations, which had restricted admission. He also emphasises the role of initiation in informing religious consciousness.

The phenomenon of initiation reveals archaic man's religious idealism. It shows that he felt a need to rise above his natural self, by imitating the initiation rites of the gods, heroes or ancestors described in his mythology.

Typically, archaic initiation rites imparted three kinds of revelation: about the sacred, about death and about sexuality. They meant subjecting initiates to some kind of symbolic death, followed by rebirth as a new person. Eliade refers very briefly to various examples of both puberty and secret society initiation rites, revealing that at the level of detail the symbolism varied from culture to culture.

Women's Initiation

We are told that the secret societies of women always involved revelations about fertility and childbirth and that women's role as creators of life provided them with a religious experience not shared by men. Also, signs of the women's mysteries still survived in Europe.

Eliade suggests a sort of escalation of secrecy in women's initiations from age group initiations of all girls through to closed societies such as the Maenads of ancient Greece. He remarks that such groups were very persistent over time, as shown by the medieval witches with their ritual gatherings.


A general conclusion that Eliade draws is that the association of death in rites of passage with initiation into a sacred level of existence meant that, for his primitive religious man, death was always an initiation of that kind.

Eliade finds the same sort of symbolic structure in his higher religions. One way or another, in Indian religions and in Christianity, a mystic's access to the sacred was a matter of death to profane life, follow by rebirth.

The Persistence of Religion

Eliade concludes his text by arguing that modern, non-religious man has not yet by any means freed himself from his religious antecedents. There are still very widespread superstitions and taboos, religious or magical in structure, along with disguised religious myths and debased religious rituals.

We find mythology abounding in the theatre, the cinema and the novel. Reading a novel is about escaping from the everyday into a sort of mythic time.

Again, religion keeps rearing its head in aberrant forms, as new cults and as political movements with strong resemblances to religion: Marxism, for example, with among other things a whole eschatology corresponding to that of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Unconscious

In psychoanalysis, Eliade detects the structure of initiation rituals. The requirement for the patient to descend into the unconscious, to grapple with personal demons, corresponds for Eliade to the initiate's symbolic death in a rite of passage.

In fact, Eliade suggests finally that this failure of religion to go away from modern life should not be surprising. For the religion of religious man has informed the modern unconscious and will reveal itself from there.

Eliade is obviously talking here about some kind of collective unconscious. He has religious man generating religious solutions to existential crises [p 210], (such as the rise of agriculture, presumably,) and these giving the modern unconscious its structure and content.

[Note that Eliade has an appendix giving a brief history of the study of the history of religion.]

(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