Mircea Eliade: The Sacred & The Profane - Eliade's Sacred

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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 comments on the sacred in Mircea Eliade's The Sacred & The Profane (1957)

The Sacred & the Profane is based on a fundamental contradiction. Eliade wants the sacred to be wholly other and simultaneously wholly familiar. He defines the sacred in terms of the wholly other, yet sets out to demonstrate that his religious man lived a life immersed in the sacred.

Churches as Wholly Other?

At the start of his book, Eliade offers an example of the sacred ~ profane distinction that a modern, non-religious person will understand: the contrast between the inside and the outside of a church, separated by the threshold. Let's consider this example as illustrative of Eliade's problem.

A modern, non-religious person will certainly appreciate the point Eliade is making. Thus tourists who go inside a medieval church today will very likely get some vague sense of the wholly other. That's because a building like that will be wholly outside their ordinary experience.

But what about the kind of person who actually attended such a church regularly in its heyday, the medieval peasant, Eliade's religious man in the flesh. It is extremely difficult to believe that such a person's experience was not that of the wholly familiar. I can best make the comparison with my own churchgoing Catholic youth.

For me, the inside of my parish church was certainly special, sacred in fact, but it felt quite the opposite of the wholly other, for it was very much a place of pleasant and familiar associations. For example, at tight-packed Sunday mass, the smells of the burning candles, of the incense if it was High Mass, those of the women and girls in their Sunday clothes, even those of the sweaty, boozy Irish migrant workers crowded at the back, many from East Mayo as my mother's father had been, had a reassuring potency; I could expect to see relatives I loved, other people I knew and so on: mostly the patronising late colonialist Mary Douglas's bog Irishor descendants of same, of course.

Medieval Churches

We can imagine that when the Anglo-Saxon peasants first entered the new stone built churches of their new Norman overlords, they felt some sense of awe and maybe even of the wholly other. To overawe was, after all, the Normans' intention. But that effect must have soon dissipated, as familiarity set in.

Maybe the rood screen separating the people from the liturgy sustained some slight sense of mystery, but not much, very likely.

Indeed, it could be that one of the causes of the Reformation was that familiarity had bred contempt in the churches, with people using them to get out of the rain, meet friends, or whatever. Don't I recall something in Chaucer about people going to church to see and be seen? One can imagine that the same kind of contempt through familiarity had happened at the Temple in Jerusalem for Jesus to have to cast out the moneylenders.

It is difficult to believe that a similar tendency was not at work in the past in any sacred precinct to which ordinary local believers were encouraged to participate in rituals on a regular basis. You can be sure that if local Salisbury Plain religious man had gone to Stonehenge every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation it would soon have lost its mystique! [1]

Exclusion from the Sacred

But we may suppose that on the whole ordinary people were in fact excluded from sacred precincts in ancient times, thus maintaining their wholly other feel. This of course leaves Eliade with the alternative problem. If the sacred places and their sacred rites were kept wholly other to ordinary people's experience, what sense does it make to say that that ordinary people were immersed in the sacred?

It does not help to say that that there was more to the sacred in pre-modern times than churches, temples, stone circles etc and the rituals that went on inside them. Let's step our way through all the various sorts of manifestations of the sacred Eliade discusses in the course of his book, hierophanies as he calls them, and see how the fundamental contradiction is always there.


Eliade's first and most widereaching hierophany is cosmos, the our world of his religious man, given its form by a creator god. Here, already, there is an inescapable contradiction. Formed by the divine, the cosmos is sacred, by Eliade's definition wholly other, but at the same time it is our world, meaning it is wholly familiar.


And the confusion gets worse. Eliade contrasts cosmos with chaos, the initial formless space from which it was shaped by the creator god. Now this gives us a problem when we think of chaos in terms of either of Eliade's definitions of cosmos.

If cosmos, being sacred, is wholly other, where does that leave chaos, which is not cosmos, therefore not wholly other? What can that possibly mean: not wholly other? Wholly familiar perhaps?

On the other hand, what is chaos if cosmos is our world? Surely, chaos must be not our world, which amounts to wholly other, i.e. sacred. So, if we understand cosmos as our world, we make chaos sacred!

In short, if cosmos is wholly other, what can chaos be but wholly familiar; if cosmos is our world, what can chaos be but sacred. Are you with me?


The problem is repeated when Eliade makes cosmos and chaos more specific, suggesting that religious man sees his own territory as cosmos and that of surrounding enemies as chaos. This time, we end up with enemy territory as either familiar or sacred to religious man!

Axis mundi

One of the bits of Eliade that has seeped somewhat into our general culture, (apart from the material on shamanism, which hardly comes up in The Sacred & the Profane,) is the axis mundi idea on sacred trees etc. Eliade's example of the sacred pole of the Australian nomads does not stand up to scrutiny. It just cannot be that this pole was carried around openly by a nomadic band or whatever on its peregrinations without everybody being totally familiar with it and its sacredness derived from that, rather than from it being experienced as wholly other. You cannot regard something as wholly other that you have seen every day for as long as you can remember.

We have to think of sacred poles as comparable to the military banners and standards that soldiers used to die for, as we are told. These were doubtless in a sense sacred, but not because they were experienced as wholly other, but because they symbolised the group in its triumphs and its adversities.

The fact that that this particular sacred had been made and consecrated by a band's mythic founder, who had then vanished up it into the sky, cannot have made it seem wholly other either. For people become familiarised with stories of miraculous happenings as they do with most things they are exposed to long term.

The Cross

Thus, the equivalent for the Catholic Church of the sacred pole, along with the founder disappearing up it, was the Cross, along with the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. A typical believer would have understood in theory that this was wholly other, but would not have felt it in practice. Rather the Cross, for instance, would have seemed sacred because of familiarity derived from its omnipresence in the believer's world in images and symbols.

Clearly, in the Middle Ages alleged relics of the True Cross must have been sacred as wholly other. But that would have been because to see them you had to go on a long pilgrimage just to get a brief glimpse in a ceremony and a setting stage managed to maximise the impact.

Sacred Mountains

Similar analyses can be applied to Eliade's other axis mundi hierophanies. Sacred mountains would have stayed sacred as wholly other only if they were a long way away and life threatening to climb: such as Andean mountains in some South American religions. Ziggurats and other artificial sacred mountains might have initially seemed sacred because wholly other, though probably not to those who laboured on their construction. It is difficult to see how trees in their native state could ever have been experienced as wholly other.


1 The liturgy as other

December 2006: I gather from my current reading that Eliade still exerts an influence. British Catholic religious studies academic, David Torrevel, in his book Losing the Sacred [2000] - appraising critically the 1960s Vatican II reforms to the liturgy - refers to American Catholic liturgy theorist, Francis Mannion, and it appears that both accept unquestioningly what Eliade has to say about the sacred as other!

Torrevel says that in a 1998 article Mannion recommends

a return to the ethos of Catholic liturgy

and that

This is best served returning to the insights of the Eastern and Reformed traditions, to writers such as Gerardus van der Leeuw, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade ... [Torrevel, p 169].

Torrevel later tells us that

Referring to American Roman Catholic liturgy since the 1960s, [Mannion] locates this shift from otherness to familiarity in terms of a radical process of subjectification. [p 183]

So it looks as though Mannion had swallowed the Eliade hokum about the sacred of ordinary religious experience as other. In reality, it just was not humanly possible for Catholics who attended the pre-Vatican II traditional Sunday Mass every week of their lives to experience it in any sense as other.

In fact, I strongly suspect that there is an important sense in which Mannion got it back to front, that there was in reality a shift from familiarity before Vatican II to otherness after. I'll hazard that the reformed Mass with its emphasis on participation was an alienating experience for most ordinary Catholics: the Mass became something tailored for a small minority of highly educated and socially assured Catholics, but which left the vast majority out in the cold. [Back to Article]


(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