Mircea Eliade: The Sacred & The Profane - Criticisms

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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 accumulates criticisms of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred & The Profane

p 12 The ganz andere

In attaching the Otto tag ganz andere, wholly other, to the sacred as applied to natural phenomena like stones and trees, Eliade makes a fundamental mistake. He fails to distinguish between, to use the terminology of this site, the unmediated sacred and the mediated sacred, between primary and secondary religious experience.

Unmediated Sacred

The unmediated sacred is encountered in primary religious experience. For religious believers, it is a matter of spontaneous, personal, direct contact with the supernatural. James had discussed this contact in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Then Otto had discussed the same sort of thing in The Idea of the Holy, as the encounter with the numinous. It was in this context that Otto had used the term wholly other.

We may note that James emphasises that primary religious experience is restricted to a small minority, to a spiritual elite, including his so-called religious geniuses. James specifically labels the religion of the vast majority second hand.

Otto does not say whether or not primary religious experience is for him open to ordinary believers. However, he points to the occurrence from time to time in history of individuals who were particularly sensitive to the numinous, his equivalents of James's religious geniuses. So we may suppose that Otto too took some kind of elitist view of primary religious experience.

Mediated Sacred

The mediated sacred is encountered in secondary religious experience, that is to say through the provisions of organised religion. It involves the religious use of phenomena belonging in some way to the natural world and it may be open not just to a spiritual elite but to believers generally.

Now Otto's term, wholly other, was applied by him to the first sort of experience. It is impossible to see how Eliade may legitimately extend its use to the second kind of religious experience, involving natural objects such as stones or trees, and, we may suppose, believers generally rather than an elite.

A Contradiction in Terms

In fact, it is merely playing with words to claim that any object from the natural world can be experienced as wholly other. You can put the two words numinous and object together, but what you get is a contradiction in terms. You cannot have a numinous object: you cannot actually have a wholly other stone.

Eliade may label some object a hierophany, but that does not make it real. In this context, with hierophany you are merely looking at an example of Eliade's ploy of using esoteric terminology to gain spurious credibility.

Of course, this is not to say (religiously speaking) that a natural object cannot be sacred, only that it cannot be sacred in the sense of wholly other, out of this world. A natural object can in fact be experienced as sacred in the sense of awesome. But awesome and wholly other are not the same thing at all. Unlike the wholly other, awe is found in secondary religious experience and may be felt by anybody.

Religious Theatre

For example, Catholics may have found a sacred relic awesome in certain circumstances: if it had been made so by cultural means, by religious spin and stage management. This might have involved the relic in being kept in a gold receptacle encrusted with jewels, having stories of miracles associated with it, being brought out in imposing buildings only on very rare and special occasions and with great pomp: candles, incense, choirs, processions of richly vestmented bishops and priests, bowings and prostrations etc, not to mention in the presence of tightly packed masses of people generating crowd psychology.

Let's be absolutely clear where Eliade is not: sacred objects experienced as awesome are as such cultural artefacts, made and sustained by religious theatre. Without the theatre, they are experienced just as natural objects. Otto, the Protestant, was not talking about religious theatre, which is precisely what Protestantism rejected.

(Objects may also be experienced as sacred through familiarity, but that's a story for later.) [Back to Article]

p 13 Desacralized Cosmos

If cosmos is sacralised space, as Eliade suggests on p 30, for example, it is difficult to understand how there can be the desacralized cosmos he refers to on p 13. According to Eliade's opposition between cosmos and chaos, the desacralisation of the cosmos would surely be a matter of returning it to chaos. This time, a contradiction in Eliade's own terms. [Back to Article]

p 13 Religious Man

Eliade states that It does not devolve upon us [1] to explain how religious man came to be replaced by non-religious man. On the contrary: it most certainly did devolve on him. We may suppose that Eliade declined to explain the matter because he was incapable of doing so.

The book's title, The Sacred & The Profane, is a misnomer: it could more informatively have been called Religious Man , seeing that this is what it is essentially about. Indeed, the whole work is invalidated by Eliade's - the historian of religions's - failure to provide any kind of account of the history of his religious man, of his appearance in and disappearance from the real world.


The fact is, Eliade's religious man is ahistorical. Once we try to relate him to actual history, he does not make sense.

For example, how would religious man fit into the history of England? Let's suppose that the population was made up exclusively of Eliade's religious man up until the start of the years AD and that we are now non-religious. When specifically over the 2000 year period did the transition take place? Did invaders bring non-religion with them: the Romans, the Angles and Saxons, the Danes, the Normans? Did the transition happen during later upheavals: the Black Death, the Reformation, the Civil War or the Industrial Revolution?

Or was the change maybe a long, slow process. At any given moment of the last 2000 years of Britain's history, have some people been religious man and others non-religious man? For instance, were some of the British soldiers at Waterloo examples of religious man and others not? Were the town dwellers of 1815 already non-religious man, say, and the country dwellers still religious man?


Of course, once we start thinking historically, in terms of real people, we have to start thinking psychologically. We have to consider at what human level within real individuals could the transition Eliade declines to describe have taken place.

Take a comparison with language. It is clear that we humans have language on two levels. Innately, as a matter of nature, we have the ability to use language. Culturally, as a matter of nurture, we have the particular languages we do use.

How does Eliade's notion of religious man fit into this scheme of things? At what human level was a person religious man: was it a matter of innateness or of culture? If being religious man was innate, then the transition to non-religious man must mean that there has been an evolutionary change in humans. If being religious man was merely cultural, then the transition has been merely superficial: it could be reversed in fact, with non-religious man individuals switching to religious man, the way a person might convert from one version of Christianity to another.

Obviously, Eliade's religious man cannot be fitted into this scheme of things. Religious man exists neither innately or culturally: as well as ahistorical, he is apsychological.

Religious explanations

The message here is that we should reject the idea that everything in ancient or tribal or peasant societies must necessarily have a religious explanation. Eliade was undermined decisively in 1966 by the leading British anthropologist, Edmund Leach [2], but neither Leach nor anybody else has ever offered an alternative general theory of non-modern culture. Consequently, our archaeologists continue to this day to interpret their evidence in terms of homo religiosus: it is quick, easy and comprehensible to non-specialists, such as fund-providers and television audiences.

Regrettably, The Sacred & The Profane is not only listed but also actually quoted in the standard British undergraduate archaeology text book, Renfrew and Bahn: Archaeology (3rd Edn, 2000) [pp 397 - 398], thus giving it the establishment seal of approval. To quote Eliade uncritically is to endorse a model of human development that is little better than Frazer's.

Religious mentality

Effectively, Eliade took Frazer's three phase evolutionary model of human development - magic to religion to science - and consolidated the first two phases to give his own two phase model of religious man to post-religious man. Apart from the lack of mental effort required in applying it, the obvious attraction Eliade's model is that it allows avoidance of the term primitive, which is not politically correct.

Nevertheless, to apply this model is to suppose that until some undetermined moment in time people generally had in some undetermined sense a different mentality, a religious mentality that people don't have now. This was nonsense when Eliade proposed it and is nonsense today.

Social symbolism

It is easy to spot the religious man assumption in discussions of pre-modern symbolism. In fact, a lot of early, so-called religious symbolism may basically be social or political symbolism. Consider the analogy with Catholic iconography. There we see social symbols associated with religious figures, as in images of Christ the King. But this does not mean that crowns, sceptres etc are an essential part of Catholic religion.

On this basis, we need to be wary of the glib pronouncements of archaeologists and others. For instance, despite Miranda Green: The Gods of the Celts (1986) [pp 179 - 181], the appearance of the wild boar in Celtic iconography or the discovery of domesticated pig bones in Celtic excavation sites or the presence of these animals in Irish mythology, as handed down, may reveal nothing significant about Celtic religion, particularly that of pre-Roman times. The wild boar may have been basically a symbol of social status, hunted only by Celtic nobles, like the deer in medieval England.

Again, the fact that the prehistoric Lindow Moss man was executed in three ways need have no more religious significance than the fact that in the c16th a person might be hung, drawn and quartered. You can assume a religious motive only if you assume the homo religiosus hypothesis.

Similarly, all that guff about valuable items like swords being thrown into lakes as offerings to ancient gods. It is perfectly possible that things were thrown in for a purely secular reason, as a conspicuous display of wealth.

Likewise, it needs to be proved, rather than assumed, that particular European peasant festivals, such as those reported in Frazer, really were religious survivals from our pagan past rather than social events that could have arisen spontaneously under Christianity. [Back to Article]



1 Marshall McLuhan on Eliade

July 2007: Marshall McLuhan: The Gutenberg Galaxy [1962], takes up the It does not devolve upon us remark of Eliade:

The later section of this book will accept the role declined by Eliade when he says: It does not devolve upon us to show by what historical processes ... modern man has desacralized his world and assumed a profane existence. [p 69]

McLuhan has previously explained, talking about

separating out the visual mode from the ordinary enmeshment with the audile-tactile interplay of senses:
It is this process, brought about by the experience of phonetic literacy, that hoicks societies of the world of sacred or cosmic space and time into the detribalized or profane space and time of civilized and pragmatic man. Such is the theme of The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion by Mircea Eliade. [p 51]

Your present writer first came across McLuhan's book by chance as an undergraduate in 1963. I was bowled over by it at the time and among other things it was my introduction to Eliade.

However, 40 odd years on, I am hostile to any version of the idea of a radical distinction between the sense experience and thought processes of pre-literate humans and our own.

McLuhan returned very briefly to desacralisation 2 years later in his more celebrated next book, Understanding Media [1964]. This offering is a sort of extremely pretentious slide show of short and snappy takes on the work of a host of other cultural commentators, some of them already pretentious in their own right: such as Eliade.

One of the chapters has the affected title Clocks: The Scent of Time, an ultimately meaningless juxtaposition. At the end of this chapter, McLuhan now claims that clock time was jointly responsible with alphabetic literacy for replacing a sacred world in which speech and sound media predominated with a profane world in which the visual held sway: a transformation of which, he says, the Eliade of The Sacred and the Profane was not aware.

McLuhan's mindlessness is clear when he summarises from Eliade as follows:

When tribal man wanted to build a city or a house, or cure an illness, he wound up the cosmic clock by an elaborate ritual reenactment or recitation of the original process of creation. [pp 155-6]

It obviously escaped the media studies guru's attention that being tribal man and building a city are mutually exclusive. In fact, in the work McLuhan refers to, it is the building of villages, not cities, that Eliade discusses. There is a crucial distinction here: cities mean civilisation, villages don't.

Again, the cosmic clock is McLuhan, not Eliade. It is mindless for him to tell us that the clock destroyed pre-clock time and then to refer to pre-clock time using a clock winding metaphor.

For another explanation of the alleged desacralisation of the world in terms of the technology of time-keeping, see on this site Sacred Time.

Note that McLuhan does not appear to get a mention in Rennie's recent Eliade offering referred to below. Indeed, it is noteworthy that in general nothing ever seems to have been made of McLuhan's contributions by either religionists or anthropologists. [Back to Article]

2 Leach on Eliade

June 2007: In spite of surprisingly being absent from Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw [eds]: The Essential Edmund Leach [2000, 2 vols], Leach's 1966 attack on Eliade is now accessible. It has recently been anthologised in Bryan Rennie [ed]: Mircea Eliade A Critical Reader [2006]. Note that An Uncritical Reader would have been a more apt subtitle for this lame Eliade hagiography in which the short and somewhat garbled 40 year old Leach piece contributes to a slight semblance of balance. The most damaging academic scrutiny of Eliade has come from France and is recent, but it is ignored by Rennie.

Rennie also passes in silence over the criticisms of Eliade's take on shamanism made a few years ago by British historian, Professor Ronald Hutton. For these, see the summary on this site of Ronald Hutton: Shamans [2001], chapter 6 and particularly chapter 10, at Hutton on Eliade. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2004

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