Mircea Eliade presents this work “The Sacred and the Profane” to define the concept of sacred in its whole complexity, describing not just its main characteristics but its opposition to profane and to the natural world. The sacred manifests in objects belonging to the natural world, but in another order. Objects which belong to the profane world become sacred manifestations. The object continues being part of the cosmic reality but at the same time becomes something else. Moreover, for religious men and for those having a religious experience, any object is capable of revealing itself as sacred, as part of a cosmic reality. Sacred means reality and at the same time means enduringness and efficacy, so religious man tries to stay on a sacred reality as much as possible. We find this polarity as a concept, between sacred and profane, real and unreal, on the minds of primitive societies, for Homo Religiosos.
The aim of this book was to describe the specific characteristics of the religious experience. Dr Eliade aims at explaining with this book: “in what ways religious man attempts to remain as long as possible in a sacred universe, and hence what his total experience of life proves to be in comparison with the experience of the man without religious feeling, of the man who lives, or wished to live, in a desacralised world?”. From the book title is already felt that there are two modes of being in the world, a sacred and a profane. The sacred is felt differently in the concepts of space, time, on the relation of religious man to nature and the world of tools, of human existence, or on the sacrality which man’s vital functions are charged with.
For example, for the profane experience space is homogenous and neutral, there are no breaks that qualitatively differentiate its various parts. In a profane world there are only fragments of a shattered universe, an amorphous mass consisting of an infinite number of neutral places in which man moves, governed by the obligations of an existence incorporated into an industrial society. On the contrary, Dr Eliade believes that every sacred space implies a hierophany, an irruption of the sacred that results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and making it qualitatively different. Sacred spaces such as shrines, temples or sanctuaries represent a door to heaven, a door symbolising the passing from the profane to the sacred, and to be inside them is to have a direct communication with the gods. Those sacred places are passages between heaven and earth. From the inside man can ascend to heaven, to join the divine.
Mythological stories speak of how those places became sacred. Signals such as the one found by Marabout, who founded El-Hamel when he woke up and found his stick turned into a rooted tree. Sometimes the signal is provoked, to put an end to the tension and anxiety caused by relativity and disorientation, to reveal an absolute point of support. As for example when a wild animal is hunted, and the place where it falls, becomes a sanctuary. Therefore there are times when men are not free to choose sacred places, signals are required, guide by the mysterious is necessary. At times locations are revealed by animals.
Religious man wishes to live close to a sacred place, in a sacred world. Sacred means fertile, power, efficacy, a source of life and fecundity. Therefore a world that any religious man wants to inhabit. Primitive men wishes to live in a real and effective world, and not in the illusion of a never-ceasing relativity of purely subjective experiences. However, to live in a sacred world needs of rituals, to perform certain ceremonies to turn profane places into sacred ones. We have seen this concept in other articles of mine. Dr Eliade mentions that inhabited territory is the cosmos, while the surrounding indeterminate space is chaos. In the chaos lives daemons, foreigners and the souls of the dead. Religious man wishes to turn the space into sacred, and to achieve this, consecration rites are required. The sacred reveals absolute reality and makes orientation possible; it finds the world, fixing its limits and establishes order within. We find the Vedic example of building an altar of fire (Agni), in which the fire implies the communication with the divine, while the water is made of represents the chaotic state before earth (clay) flourishes from a sea of nothingness. This altar is a microcosmic representation of the creation of the cosmos happening on the primordial time. The world is a universe within which the sacred has manifested itself, in which, consequently, the break-through from the plane of the profane to the plane of the sacred is possible. Man seeks to recreate the macrocosmic act of creation by performing rituals and ceremonies anytime, aiming at sacralising space, building a shrine, a temple, or any other space which will become a microcosmic representation of that universe. The aim is the transformation of chaos into cosmos that occurred in that primordial time of creation. Only our world is sacred, so when we conquer other territories, acts of sacralisation are performed for those alien chaotic territories to be turned into order. When they arrived to America the conquistadores took the territories on the name of Jesus Christ and erected a cross to consecrate the place and to bring up a new birth to those lands. This act of consecration aimed at repeating the primordial act of creation.
Life is connected to an opening to the transcendence, so the recreation of the divine act is necessary. An example of this is the Achilpas, Australian aborigines, who erected a pole, symbolising the pillars that sustained heaven and at the same time a passage of communication with the gods. The breaking of that pole had terrible consequences, bringing up chaos to communities, who desperately ended killing themselves before facing the transcendent consequences of the damage.The idea behind is that the pole, the axis mundi, is the centre of the world connecting the three worlds, heaven, earth and the underworld. The whole of the habitable world extends around it. So the world is formed from a sacred place, constituting a break in the homogeneity of space. That break is symbolising an opening passage to pass from one cosmos to another one. Communication, not just with heaven, but also with the underworld is possible through that axis mundi. represented by pillars, a ladder, mountains, trees, vines… and around that axis mundi lies the world. A cosmic mountain is represented by the Ziggurat in Mesopotamia, and the world around it was “ours”. Examples are many, from the Iranian land (Airyanam Vaejah), or Shiz as birth place of Zarathustra, or towns such as Nippur, Larsa or Sippara, all representing the centre of the world. As a connection to the underworld, Eliade mentions other cultures such as The Gate of Apsu, representing the water of chaos before creation, a pre-formal modality of cosmic matter, the world of death, of all that precedes and follows life, or the rock of Tehom, inside the temple of Jerusalem, connecting to the after life.
The idea is all the time the same, our world, our sacred world, is always located at the centre, where there is a break in plane and hence communication among the three cosmic zones is possible. Whatever the extension of the territory involved, the cosmos that it represents is always perfect, an imago mundi. The centre of world has multiplicity of centres, in smaller and smaller scales. People wanted their houses to be at the centre of the world, so their dwellings were also built as image of that axis mundi. This comes from the need for religious men to live on a totally organised world, in a cosmos. Men were created at that centre of the world, at the “navel of the earth”. We find villages built on divisions of four, built in cross sections. Every construction or fabrication has the cosmogony as paradigmatic model. The creation of the world becomes the archetype of every creative human gesture, whatever its plane of reference may be.
Our world is cosmos, therefore the threat from without might turn it into chaos. We see represented this struggle between cosmos and chaos, represented in cultures such as the Ancient Egyptian with the god Re who defeated the dragon Apophis. Cosmos is made by gods and chaos is made by daemons, arch-daemons, dragons. The victory is always of cosmos over chaos. It is the victory over the dragon, over the marine monster, the primal snake, symbol of the cosmic waters, representing darkness, night and death, a formless non-being. Moreover, the dragon needs to be defeated and cut into pieces, just to bring life and the cosmos to being. This is the primordial act of creation, which must be repeated continuously, as this is the point in time and space when the divine were are their most powerful, and life flourished out of darkness. This act brings life anew, so it must be repeated to regenerate life on earth.
The defeat and cut into pieces of the dragon is assimilated to the killing and dismemberment of a sacrificed animal, performed by primitives as rituals to sacralise the place of living. To create your own dwelling required the sacrifice of animals, imitating that act of creation and killing for the dragon. To turn the space into a centre of the world was accomplished by imitating this primordial act of creation. Besides, this process of sanctification of the dwelling assimilated the cosmos by the projection of the four horizons from a central point or by the symbolic installation of the axis mundi. It was all aimed at repeating the paradigmatic acts of the gods with rituals, to the time when chaos was defeated. An example is North Americans from the Arctic who believed heaven to be hold by a pole and the sky to have the shape of a tent, such as the ones they dwell. Just as central Asians and the Yurt, which represented a ladder leading to their heaven. In India to place a stick exactly in one point when building a house represents the primordial act of killing performed by Indra when struck the snake in his lair. This cornerstone is exactly at the centre of the world. Another recreation of the act of origin was to behead the snake. An example is Marduk’s killing of the Tiamat monster and its breaking into pieces as the act of creation in Sumer, which was an act imitated by locals whenever they built their houses, temples and shrines. This was a representation performed through an act of sacrifice. These sacrifices were carried out for the renewal of the cosmos. These myths around the killing of the representation of chaos, namely the dragon or the marine snake, were also acts bringing to live plants or social classes. Every beginning repeats the primordial beginning, when the universe first saw the light of day.
All symbols and rituals having to do with temples, cities and houses are finally derived from the primary experience of sacred space. Buildings such as temples, basilicas, cathedrals are earthly reproductions of a transcendent model, an imago mundi. The world is the work of the gods, sacred. The temple constitutes and imago mundi, re-sanctifies the world, it represents and contains it. It enjoys a spiritual, incorruptible celestial existence, as it has been build by the gods and it exists in heaven. Some of the buildings were dreamt by their monarchs such as Gudea King or Sennacherib, who built Nineveh according to a plan came from heaven.
To summarise the ideas from Dr Eliade around sacred space, firstly to say that the experience of sacred space makes possible the founding of the world, where the sacred manifests itself in space, the real unveils itself, the world comes into existence. This also results in a break in plane from the profane, with a communication passage to heaven and the underworld being possible. For religious man the world becomes apprehensible as world, as cosmos, when it reveals sacred. It is only by participating in a sacred world, that men participates in being, that he has a real existence. This is related to the terror felt by religious man towards chaos, towards the formless darkness of nonbeing. The profane is related to nonbeing, to darkness, to chaos. Besides, the symbolism of the centre is the formative principle, not only of countries, temples or shrines, but of human dwellings, as every religious man wants to place themselves in direct communication with the divine, and want to be part of being, which is to be part of the sacred, of the absolute reality, ensuring that communication with the gods. The aim is to live in a pure and holy cosmos, as it was in the beginning, when it came fresh from creator’s hands.
Another important concept discussed by Mircea Eliade is time. For religious man, he claims, time is not homogenous, neither continuos, like it is for non religious man. Religious man believes there is ordinary temporal time and then sacred time, which is passed on through rites, festivals, periodical acts to bring those primeval times to rebirth. Sacred time is seeing as reversible, indefinitely recoverable, repeatable, as a primordial mythical time made present. Sacred time never changes, nor is exhausted. Festivals are recreations of that primordial time. They are acts of recreation of that primordial time of creation, to the time when it was created and sanctified by the gods at the period of their gesta, the sacred time ab origine, in illo tempore. religious man therefore lives in two times, one of which is circular, reversible and recoverable, an eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites.
This concept of religious – non religious man is an existential attitude and behaviour. Non religious discontinuity and heterogeneity of time sees a monotonous time-work. However, for religious man the intervals of time are sacred, have no part in the temporal duration that precedes and follows them, have a wholly different structure and origin. Sacred time is primordial, sanctified by the gods and capable of being made present by the festival. For religious man time is renewed annually and each year time recovers its original sanctity, the moment when it was created ab originan. With each year the world is created anew, regenerated. Cosmic time is the paradigmatic model for all other times, the archetype of all creation. Every creation is imagined as having taken place at the beginning of time, in principio.
The way in which a reality came into existence is revealed by its myth. In places such as Mesopotamia, Egypt and during the Hittites empire, at the last days of the year and beginning days of the next one, ceremonial activities were performed in which the struggle between the God Marduk and the dragon Tiamat and his chief ally Kingu was represented. Two groups representing chaos and order respectively were formed and the whole festivity aimed at regenerating time by sacralise it, imitating the primordial act of creation. This was a time when locals could expel sins or daemons. It was a time for abolishing the past year and past time, a purification as an act of annulling sins and faults of individuals and of the community. In this transition time water annuls everything, bringing chaos again, before a primordial act of creation regenerates life. Man was also created anew by participating in those acts. They were reintegrated into the sacred and strong time of creation. Mircea Eliade points here that the primordial time was sacred as transfigured by the presence of the gods, and strong as the most gigantic creation ever accomplished. It was the creation of the universe, an act performed in illo tempore. Men wanted to experience this statu nascendi, to participate in this primordial act of creation. Men believed on the rebirth and regeneration of his vital forces with these acts.
Festivals re-actualised this event, the primordial act of creation. This was a paramount time of origins, the time of the cosmogony, the instant that saw the appearance of the most immense realities, the world. The most gigantic creation and divine manifestation was the act of creation of the world. This was the most powerful act performed by the divine, so a reactualisation brought fortune to the king. An act such as this one fertilised the crops, brought strength before wars, luck for a sea voyage, etc. Festivals happened in the original time and man’s behaviour changed during those times, because men believed to be living on another time, returning to the mythical illud tempus. Examples Mircea Eliade gives various to the reader. The Intichiuma festival, in which Australian Aruntas repeat a journey taken by the creator as if in a dream. The Tikopia festival in Polynesia, in which the community performed certain works on only few objects and on a classed division of works, repeating the works of gods such as repairing boats, but just because gods did this in illo tempore, not because boats needed repairing. This was an archetype image of the acts performed by the gods in the myth of origin.This way religious man becomes contemporary with the gods.
Besides, periodical reactualisations of those divine acts through festivals restored human knowledge of the sacrality of the models. This sacred time did not form part of the profane time, it was composed of eternal presents, indefinitely recoverable. It was in fact the eternal presents of the mythical event that made possible the profane duration of historical events.
Life for religious man could not be repaired, it could only be healed by regeneration, by the symbolic act of repetition of the cosmogony. Hence why myths of origin of medicine are always incorporated into the myth of origin. The latter incorporates the birth of illness and the primordial act and paradigmatic act of healing, therefore its repetition regenerated and therefore healed from illness other human beings. It is the divine hierogamy that made possible sexual union, the time when the god and goddess united for the first time in illo tempore, which gave humans a profane sexual union. It is within the divine and by virtue of it that everything exists in a profane world. Festivals recall how everything was created, so it makes sure it endures, as by only living in a profane world, we risk to miss the fundamental. Religious man does not reject progress but accepts it bestowing on it a divine origin and dimension. Progress is no other than a divine revelation.
To live near the centre of the world, building shrines, temples, cathedrals or dwellings imitating the act of creation ab origine and illo tempore, aims at being close to the divine, in communication with the gods. Festivals aim at that, at being closer to our heroes, ancestors, divinities, to be contemporary to them. It is religious men’s need to return to that original time and to that space when gods originated civilisation, to that mythical time. Man desires to recover that active presence of the gods on that time of perfect beginning, on the time of the strong birth of the cosmos.
Mircea Eliade explains clearly on the fundamental mentality of archaic man, when he says that to a psychologist, this concept might imply that religious man shows “anxiety on the phase of change, seeking to be freeze on an embryonic stage insufficiently detached from nature”. However, the professor believes that archaic societies don’t refuse a responsibility for a genuine existence. On the contrary, they aim at participating on it, on the creation of the cosmos, of creating their own world, ensuring life on earth. Archaic man has a clear idea of his responsibility on a cosmic plane, rather than on a social, historical way, such is the case for modern non religious man. To aim to bring back the divine mythical time of creation, is to seek a return when the gods were present, when the divine was at its most pure, fresh time, when the cosmos was created. It is a thirst for the sacred and a nostalgia for being.
The primordial myth reveals a gesta by divine beings, gods or heroes, constituting a mystery, revealing it. Those primordial acts are revealed to man, through dreams, through key figures in the community such as the shaman, and once told become an absolute truth. The profane does not participate in being, it is not ontologically established by myth. Myth is bound up to ontology, it speaks of sacred realities, not of profane ones. The more religious man is, the more does he enter into the real and the less is he in danger of becoming lost in actions that, being non paradigmatic, subjective, are finally aberrant. Myth unveils absolute sacrality, reveals the work of the gods and the sacredness of their work. To tell how things come into existence is to explain also why did they come into existence. Every creation sprung from an abundance, an excess of power of the gods. This is why the myth narrating this sacred ontophany becomes the paradigmatic model for all human activities. Recreating the mythical past has a twofold function. Firstly, man remains in the sacred by imitating the gods, therefore in reality. He does assume a humanity that has a trans-human, transcendent model. He is not consider to be truly man except when imitates the gods. He makes himself being by approaching the models. Religious man consider himself made by history, but sacred history revealed by the myths, not by human history like non-religious man. Secondly, men’s religious behaviour contributes to maintaining the sanctity of the world, its existence.
This imitation of the gods implies a very grave responsibility. Man repeats the divine slain and sacrifice, when building villages, temples and so on, and the representation of this is the immolation of the divine being, which inaugurates the need to eat, the doom of death and of sexuality to ensure continuity of life. The immolated parts become food. His or her spirit descends to the underworld, where it establishes the land of the death. So it has few consequences for living on earth, for non being on the underworld, for human existence and functioning. This is first seen in paleo-agricultural societies. This immolation primordial act is an archetype that needs to be recreated, periodically evoked. That primordial act of death establishes the present condition of humanity. The festivities recreating these acts aim at not forgetting that original act of creation in illo tempore. This is why headhunting, sacrifices or cannibalism were accepted in archaic societies, because ensured life of plants, our coming to this world. Cannibalism is a cultural behaviour in primitive man practiced for the vegetable world to continue. Men must kill, be killed and must assume the sexuality of the world at its extreme limit, the orgy. Cannibalism appears as constituted by the gods in myth, introduced so humans have the opportunity to assume a responsibility in the cosmos, to enable vegetable life on earth. Those aberrant and barbarous behaviours in fact are mythical and divine, they are trans-human models. Dr Eliade believes that this is not in fact a pessimistic approach to life. By repeating the mythical acts of creation, the eternal repetition of those paradigmatic gestures, archaic and primitive man has a guarantee of existence, of being save from nothingness and death. As long as those eternal acts are repeated, the continuing of natural live, including human existence, on earth is guaranteed.
This religious world view started disappearing with the eternal return cycles, of non-religious nature, found in India with the Yugas and in Ancient Greece with the Aions. It is with Judaism though than a linear historical view appears, with a beginning and an end, presenting their god Yahweh as a historical figure, in a time that is irreversible. Yahweh’s gestures are personal interventions in history and reveal their deep meaning only for his people, the people he has chosen. The historical events acquire a new dimension; it becomes a theophany. Then with Christianity, we have a theology of history, for god’s interventions in history, and above all his incarnation in Jesus, have a transhistorical purpose, the salvation of man.
Mircea Eliade continues with his analysis of the cosmos by looking at the sacredness of nature and cosmic religion. He believes that for primitive and archaic man, for religious man, nature is fraught with a religious value. The cosmos is a divine creation, comes from the gods, therefore the world is impregnated with sacredness. This we can experience on the transparency of the cosmos for example, where the sky reveals the infinite distance, the transcendence of the deity, or on the earth presenting itself as universal mother and nurse. Nature always expresses something that transcends it, It is super-nature that the religious man apprehends through the natural aspect of the world.
The sky signifies high and far, an image of the divine, the transcendence, eternity. Those climbing the ritual ladder or a tree through a sanctuary that leads to the sky, cease to be man and turn to participate with the divine. Beholding the sky, man simultaneously discovers the divine incommensurability and his own situation in the cosmos. Gods manifested themselves in nature and there are many gods manifested as high, representing the immensity of the sky: Sumerian term Dingir, Chinese T’Ien, Babylonian Anu, Islander Adaman, Maori Io and many others, represent height, sky divine beings. Certain privileged structures of the cosmos constitute favourite epiphanies of the supreme being; he reveals his presence by what is specifically and peculiarly his majesty of the celestial immensity, the terror of the storm. These celestial gods become remote, far away, which makes them almost disappear from myth. Their enormous work of creation of the cosmos, life and man, tired them, almost exhausted them and their resources, so they cede to their sons, daughters and other divine beings the reigning over earth. Those supreme celestial beings would reappear just in times of calamity, as a last resource.
The remoteness of the celestial being also expresses man’s increasing interest in his own religious, cultural and economic discoveries. Humans focus more on the fertility of the earth, in other more concrete religious experiences. There are changes provoked by the discovery of agriculture, sexuality, fertility, the mythology of women and of the earth. Fertility goddesses and the mother-earth goddess are more dynamic and accessible than the creator god. In times of peace communities turned to divinities of fertility, of opulence, of fullness of life, of cosmic life-vegetation. However, those divine beings can’t save humanity in critical moments. Those were divinities who governed the cosmic rhythms admirably, but proved incapable to save the cosmos of human society in crisis. In times of catastrophe, man turned to the celestial god.
The celestial god is present in a number of rites around the ascent and climbing, of myths such as the cosmic tree or mountain, or in legends as a magical flight. Besides, Dr Eliade’s comments about the centre of the world relates also to the celestial god and to the communication with him. This is also about the verticality of the world made divine, reflecting the transcendence and dimension of the cosmos created by gods.
Another symbolism present in myth is that one of water. It is the spring and origin, the reserve of all the possibilities of existence; water precede every form and support every creation. Immersion in water symbolises regression to the pre-formal, reincorporating the undifferentiated mode of pre-existence. The symbol of an island flourishing from the water is seen in many cultures, such as Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, as the birth of the world. But water also symbolises the end, such as the flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Dissolution in water is followed by a rebirth. There is more to the concept of water. It is a symbol for regeneration, immersion in water fertilises and multiplies the potential of life. We find ceremonies such as baptism, the flood or submersion of continents such as Atlantis, which symbolise death, rebirth, regeneration. Water is not an equivalent of death, but of a temporary reincorporation into the distinct, followed by a new creation, a new life, a new man. The old man dies through immersion in water, and gives birth to a new, regenerated being. In Christianity, immersion in water symbolises a decent into the abyss of the waters for a combat with the marine monster, fight that when won, gives immortality to those who are victors. The flood symbolises a descent into the watery depths and baptism. Noah confronts the sea of death where sinful humanity is destroyed and he emerges from it. So baptism is a symbol of purification, of getting rip off the corruption in you, a return to the innocence before Adam’s corruption. Water is formless, things take shape by detaching from it. The function of water is to disintegrate, to abolish form, wash away sins, purify and regenerate, precede the creation and to reabsorb it.
Christianity adde value to archaic and primitive symbolism such as with water and the nudity paradisiacal stage of baptism, connecting it to an innocence and pure state of human being. But nevertheless that new valorisation brought by Christianity was in some part conditioned by the very structure of the symbolism. History has not modified the structure of archaic symbolism, instead, has added new meanings to that symbology. Mircea Eliade states: “every cosmic fragment is transparent, its own mode of existence shows a particular structure of being, and hence of the sacred”. For religious man sacrality is a full manifestation of being. Those revelations of the sacred are primordial revelations, archetypes which are transformed but maintaining their core structure.
Another important symbol discussed on the book is the concept, as Dr Eliade named it, of terra mater, mother earth. There are many myths around the world in which humans are born from a cavern, from the earth, form rivers, springs, etc. American myths state that the first humans were breastfed by the earth. Other myths depict humans flourishing as plants.The cycle finishes were it starts, as old man wants to be buried in the earth. Every woman repeats the primordial act of birth. In illo tempore the earth gave birth to plants, to humans. There are cultures in which women gives birth on the earth, she needs to be in contact with the mother of all fertile beings, so protection for that new life is guaranteed. Besides, symbolic burial, partial or complete, has the same magic-religious value as immersion in water, baptism. The sick person is regenerated, he is born anew. The earth is depicted with characteristics such as bringing life, but not just to an existence in this world, but also of healing, of life on the after life.
Mother earth is directly connected to agricultural society, illustrating humans’ dependence on its fertility for economical life and survival. We find mythical expressions of the self-sufficiency and fecundity of mother earth. Cosmic creation in some myths connect the sky god with the mother earth, which is the cosmogonic myth of the broom and the bride as a divine and human marriage, a cosmic hierogamy. From here we have orgiastic ceremonies in which the regeneration and fertility of the land is connected to sexual acts at its most extreme expression. Orgy is an expression of a return to a formless state, the waters, in order to ensure complete regeneration of life and hence the fertility of the earth and an abundance of crops.
Moreover, for religious man the great mystery is the flourishing of life, which does not come as s short temporary period but as part of a pre and post existence cycle. The cosmos is a living organism regenerating itself periodically. The mystery of the inexhaustible appearance of life is bound up with the rhythmical renewal of the cosmos. The cosmos is seen as a gigantic tree; its mode of being and its capacity for endless regeneration symbolically expresses the life of a tree. Tree expresses life, youth, immortality, wisdom. Similarly, we find fruit as symbol of immortality, omniscience and limitless power, a fruit that can change men into gods. Trees and plants in myth represent nature, incarnate the archetype and paradigmatic image of vegetation. For religious man, nature symbolises the rhythms of life and creation and the mystery of renewal, youth and immortality.
Taoists understood a perfect place to have water, a mountain, trees and grottos. This is found in non religious art such as modern bowls. This bowls that seem to desacralise the world, in fact utilise the same symbology used by primitive Chinese to represent the perfection of nature, the divine image of a cosmos as a whole, as a harmonic world created divinely and functioning as made by gods. Aesthetic emotion retains a religious dimension, even among intellectuals. The experience of cosmic sanctity is transformed into pure human emotion, such as art.
There are many other hierophanies connected to the sun, the moon, stones, animals or plants. Each hierophany expresses and reveals a particular structure of the sacrality of nature, a modality of the sacred expressed through a specific mode of existence in the cosmos. Stones for example are connected with power, hardness, permanence, its existence reveals to man the nature of an absolute existence, beyond time, invulnerable to becoming. The moon is connected to birth death and resurrection, which at the same time connected with water, plants, woman, fecundity and immortality; the cosmic darkness, prenatal existence and life after death, followed by a rebirth. Lunar symbolism reflects a cycle idea, dualism, polarity, opposition, conflict, reconciliation of contraries. The moon symbolises that death is not final but part of a cycle. The sun symbolises power, autonomy, sovereignty, intelligence. It is always in motion, does not share in becoming and always unchangeable. In myths we find a solarisation of supreme beings. We find heroic myths in which the icon is assimilated to the sun. He fights darkness, descends to the realm of death and emerges victorious, just as the sun descends every night and emerges victorious in the morning. The sun is also connected to intelligence. Solar hierophanies give birth to ideas in myth, giving birth to rationalisation.
In fact, a lot of those primitive ideas built up by myths, before the big complex religions flourished, have remained on as rural communities’ beliefs all around the world, in places such as Europe, China, Mesoamerica or India. Other sources for those concepts have been neolithic and nomadic herdsman’s traditions, people still living from hunting and gathering. To understand the mental universe of religious man, we must take into account the men of these primitive and archaic societies, because those are religious thoughts as its most pureness and simplicity.
For religious man the world lives and speaks, it has a purpose and a meaning. The mere functioning of the cosmos is proof of its sanctity, since the cosmos was created by the gods and the gods show themselves to men through cosmic life. Man also was conceived by the gods, so they are a microcosmic world within the macro cosmos, part of the world lives in man and man lives in the macrocosmos.
For religious man life on earth was twofold in terms of existence. In one hand there was a profane plane, and in the other the trans-human plane of life. For humans in religious communities, provably every physiologic and behavioural act had some weight with religious meaning. So organs and their functions had some religious value by being assimilated to the various cosmic regions and phenomena. So for example, women is assimilated to the mother earth, marriage to the union of sky and earth, wind to breath, the two eyes to the sun and the moon, the crane to the full moon, and so on. There are some of more complex symbology as the womb with caves or the intestines with a labyrinth. These assimilations are found on complex religious matrixes such as Hinduism, but it comes from more archaic and primitive religious thoughts. This comes from the idea of “every human experience being capable of being transfigured, lived on a different, trans-human plane”. In Tantrism for example, a sexual union is the union of the supreme Shakti with the spirit Atman, the union of nature, the cosmic goddess and the male, pure, motionless, serene spirit. This is though an example of more of a mystical act, instead of a physiological one.
Religious man sees himself and his house as a microcosmos in assimilation to the cosmos. He sees himself as in constant communication with the divine and also shares in the sanctity of the world. So in Indian thought we see that the spinal column is the cosmic pillar or Shambka, breaths are the winds. The human body is a homology to the cosmos or the Vedic altar. Religious man reproduces on a human scale the system of rhythmic and reciprocal conditioning influences that characterises and constitutes the world, that defines the world. Man cosmilises himself. So it also works in the opposite way, so the temple or the shrine symbolises the human body. Man inhabits the body in the same way he inhabits the house or the temple. Every lawful and permanent situation implies location in a cosmos, in a universe perfectly organised and hence imitated from the paradigmatic model, the creation. At the same time, every cosmos has a door of communication with the transcendent. In Buddhism the opening to the higher plane of existence, from the human to the trans-human plane, expresses transcendence, abolition of the cosmos, absolute freedom. It is though particular this human thought, because absolute freedom means annihilation of any conditioned world. Indian philosophy implies the breaking, destruction of the house, of the personal cosmos one has chosen to inhabit the sacred.
All these microcosmos, such as the house, the temple, cathedrals and so on, symbolise also the passage from one mode of existence to another one. Man needs to go through a series of successive initiations, passage rites, of birth, death, rebirth in spirit, to attain completion. The structure and meaning of passage is found in his house, when they go to work or cross the bridge. The upper opening symbolises the wish to join transcendence, the passage from the profane to the sacred. A narrow passage symbolises danger, initiatory and funerary rituals and mythologies, from one mode to another one. There is the metaphysical symbolism of the bridge and the gate. The road and walking are transfigured in the experience of religious man, roads symbolising the road of life, a walk, a pilgrimage journey, a peregrination to the centre of the world. The house symbolises the family, so we have the world of the family and those choosing the quest, the road that leads to the centre, who must abandon that life, the nest, and walk towards the supreme truth, the hidden god.
Rites of passage symbolise changes in ontological and class status. This can be seen in initiation rites in puberty, for marriage, at birth, at death. Birth rites change the status to a true living person, marriage rites change the status of males to heads of family, while death rites are complex initiation rites passing from body to soul, so there is a need for the new soul to be accepted in the afterlife, in the community of the death. Initiation rites play in society a leading role in the religious formation of man and it consists on a complete change in the novice’s ontological status. All these rites mean that religious man is not complete, he must go through various stages, including death, to be reborn on a higher life, religiously and culturally. Therefore, initiation is reducible to a paradoxical, super-natural experience of death and resurrection, or a second death. Those death rites commenced by ancestors, divine beings, heroes, and humans are just imitating the divine in accordance to myth.
Dr Eliade believes to be three revelations in initiation: death, sexuality and the sacred. Some of these related rites are of a spiritual maturing process, learning about the mysteries. The practice of aestheticism in India, going alone to the forest, is a representation of death. At times the going to the underworld is guided by animals such as the tiger, who representing ancestors, icons who have full knowledge of the underworld. The novice’s symbolic death signifies a regression to an embryonic state, which is a return in cosmological terms to a foetal state, a virtual pre-cosmic mode. In some death rituals, death, torture or torment are represented, as if this we will encounter in the after life. Other practices such as circumcision, sub-incision, tattooing or scarring, symbolise death and resurrection. We find other mystical birth rites involving giving new names, a new language, everything born anew. The life in a profane world is not true life, so initiation rites support the passing from death-life on earth, to life into the sacred world. Menstruation is a stage into a new sexual life and women is introduced into womanhood, the time when women becomes a creator on the plane of life.
Dr Eliade speaks of this perpetual cycle of birth, death and resurrection. Humans must go through this cycle, which is symbolised with beings eaten by monsters, a process of regressing into a dark cosmic night, into a primordial non-distinction, from which icons will emerge, to a cosmogony. It is a return to a chaotic stage from which order will again emerge. We find this cycle of suffering, death and resurrection in mystery rites repeating this cosmological cycle. It is a return to the womb followed by a new birth. Sacrificial acts symbolised that regression to an embryonic state, to pass to a superhuman condition. Sacred knowledge and wisdom are conceived as fruit of initiation. Shamans and wise men such as Socrates are midwifes of knowledge, bringing religious man into new births. Some of these birth rites initiate man into life, and therefore moving from a death-profane world into a sacred life. Access to spiritual life always entails death to the profane conditions, followed by a new birth.
Modern non-religious man assumes a tragic existence and his existential choice has its greatness. However, his making comes from religious man, his formation comes from his ancestors. Modern non-religious man regards himself as the subject and agent of history, and refuses all appeal to transcendence. However, those man cannot help preserving some vestiges of the behaviour of religious man, though they are emptied of religious meaning. In a pure state, non-religious man is a rare phenomenon. The majority of modern man still behave religiously. They still retain a large stock of camouflaged myths and degenerated myths, such as festivities going with the new year, the merrymaking accompanying marriage, the birth of a child, obtaining a new position or social advancement. An example of that camouflaged myth is marxism. Marx took on an eschatological myth, the redeeming role of the just, whose sufferings are destined to change the ontological status of the world. Marx’s classless society and consequent disappearance of tensions is like the myth of the golden age, that many traditions put at the beginning and at the end of history. The philosopher took this myth and added Judaeo-Christian messianic ideology, the prophetic role and soteriological function that he attributes to the proletariat, with a battle between good and evil and a final victory of the former-proletariat. It is Marx eschatological view of a hope for an absolute end to history. Other modern movements such as nudism or trends such as a total freedom of sexuality are nostalgic of Eden. These practices conceal on its content the establishing of a paradisal state before the fall, when sin did not exist and there was no conflict between the pleasures of the flesh and conscience. Modern man comes form homo religiosus. This is not surprising, all men is formed by conscious and unconscious. As Dr Jung and his associates have studied, the unconscious state exhibit astonishing similarities to mythological images and figures. Dr Eliade states: “the contents and structures of the unconscious are the result of immemorial existential situations, especially of critical situations, and this is why the unconscious has a religious aura”. Every existential crisis puts in doubt reality and man’s presence in the world. Existential crisis is religious. As Mircea Eliade explains, for primitive and archaic man being and the sacred are the same.
Based on the book “The sacred and the Profane” by Dr Mircea Eliade
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