‘The Sacred and the Profane’ – A Review

The Sacred and the Profane’ is a classic book on the history of religion. Discover how it reveals the Universe, Nature and Humanity as our connections to the sacred.

I had a happy childhood and very caring parents. I grew up in a very easy-going household. Like many adults of their generation, my mom and dad were fans of the permissive parenting guru Dr. Benjamin Spock.

My family was devoutly religious, but not in the rigid, dogmatic style of Evangelical Christians. Looking back, I can only remember being punished once when I was growing up; I’d been acting up in Church.

It was an example of the theme of Mircea Eliade’s classic work, The Sacred and the Profane. As long as I wasn’t endangering myself or others, I could be a free spirit at home. 

Church Was a Sacred Time in a Sacred Space

On the other hand, Church was a sacred time in a sacred space, and it commanded respect and dignity. There were two separate worlds for me to navigate, and by the time I was in my teens, I could find my way around almost effortlessly.

This duality is the thesis of Eliade’s book. As its title suggests, Eliade points out that Humanity sees the world as divided in two between what is sacred and profane.

Eliade is primarily a historian of religion. He isn’t advocating any particular set of religious views or trying to convert people. 

Hopes to Explain Religion’s Place in Culture

Instead, he’s working to look at all religious behaviour objectively. He hopes to explain religion’s place in culture and its role in individuals’ and communities’ lives.

As the author puts it, “The ultimate aim of the historian of religion is to understand, and to make understandable to others, religious man’s behaviour and mental Universe. It is not always an easy undertaking.”

He believes that before the Enlightenment, people saw the Universe as divided or heterogeneous. There were two kinds of places and two kinds of time.

Two Kinds of Places and Two Kinds of Time

Sacred spaces started out as specific trees or mountains or even poles. Later, when people started building houses as shelters, they treated those as sacred spaces as well.

They’d include altars, artwork, and artifacts that the occupants would see as different from the home’s everyday parts. When they built temples, the entire structure became a separate, sacred world that worshippers could enter and then return to the profane, everyday world. 

Time worked similarly, according to Eliade. Humanity tends to think of time as linear in one way and yet cyclical in another. Our modern thinking sees time going in a straight line. It chugs along its track from its departure to its destination. Modernists tell us that “you can’t turn back the clock.”

Traditional Cultures Tend to Think of Time Cyclically

Eliade points out that traditional cultures are aware of past, present and future. Still, they tend to think of time cyclically. Their lifeways are connected to the seasons, the moon’s cycles, the equinoxes and the solstices.

Their patterns of living are punctuated by recurring natural events. The dates on which those events take place become sacred times. They hold festivals to celebrate the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. They rejoice after the Winter solstice when they begin to realize that the days are getting longer again.

Festival activities are just as separate from everyday life as a temple is to the neighbourhood around it. These festivals are also connected to stories about the world’s origin and our place in Nature.

Elaborate Ceremonies at Sacred Times of Year

Often, traditional cultures will create elaborate ceremonies at sacred times of the year. People put on costumes and play the roles of the characters depicted in myths.

Observers need to respect that these individuals believe that they “become” the mythical characters they portray. The creation of the world or of Humanity is happening yet again in the circle of sacred time.

We all know that it isn’t strictly true that modern cultures only recognize linear time. For example, western countries celebrate New Year’s Eve, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Every Country Has National Holidays

The United Nations declares countless International Days of this or that. Every country has national holidays marking historical events or heroic birthdays.

Individually, we celebrate our birthdays and our anniversaries. We also follow the school year’s rhythm, and we plan vacations based on the time of year. Even our sports teams compete in annual seasons.

Eliade recognizes all of that, but he considers it a connection to our more traditional ancestors. In his view, sacred time is cyclical and profane time is linear.

Sacred Qualities of Nature and the Cosmos

Having established the foundations of sacred time and sacred space, Eliade discusses Nature’s and the Cosmos’ sanctity. As he puts it, higher powers “manifested the different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world and of cosmic phenomena.”

For Eliade, traditional cultures connect with the sacred in two ways. They’re the cosmic experience of stargazing and communing with Nature.

The sky is usually the first connection that people feel with the sacred. Cultures may create a divinity to represent this connection as a remote father figure and creator.

Conscious of Fertility and the Web of Life

If cultures shift to agriculture, they’re more conscious of fertility and the web of life. Deities resembling Mother Nature arise along with fertility rituals to bless seeding and harvesting.

Water also plays an essential role in defining the sacred. Humanity tends to view life as bursting forth out of the seas. The North American Indigenous story of Turtle Island follows this pattern.

Eliade believes that in traditional cultures, the Universe is holy, as is Nature. The third leg of the stool is that Humanity is sacred too. 

“Finds Himself in the Same Sanctity as the Cosmos.”

In Eliade’s words, “Man conceives of himself as a microcosm. He forms part of the gods’ creation; in other words, he finds himself in the same sanctity as the Cosmos.”

Every human being is sacred and intimately connected to the Universe and to Nature. Eliade was writing in 1957, and now 21st-century science confirms this intuition.

All of the chemical elements come from stardust. At the end of their lives, stars explode and churn out all of the chemicals that make up life. Stars are their only source.

Stars Are Their Only Source

The human genome shows that our bodies are links in an evolutionary chain. We’ve traced the links in that chain to the single-celled common ancestor of every living thing on Earth.

Eliade has his share of critics. Like most of us, his most admired strength may also be his greatest weakness. He has a gift for revealing deep, historical patterns at a cosmic level.

Yet, many of his colleagues believe that he overgeneralizes, going far beyond where the evidence leads. Do all traditional cultures follow Eliade’s proposed patterns? Probably not.

Do All Traditional Cultures Follow Eliade’s Patterns?

Readers will see the apparent connections between The Sacred and the Profane and ideas we share at Dare to Know. I imagine that many of them have already read the book themselves. 

I only stumbled onto it recently, and I found it to be a revealing and enlightening read. Religious historians call this book a classic, so it feels good to be conversant with it.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion
Yoga: Immortality and Freedom
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Rock Art Depicts Oldest Story Ever Told
Music is Universal After All, Harvard Study Finds

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