Methods in the Study of History of Religions
by Octavian Sarbatoare (BA
The Romanian-born author and scholar of religious
studies Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) is credited with a substantial contribution
to the advancement of the study of history of religions. As Eric J. Sharpe
puts it, Eliade 'ranges far and wide over the world of religion.'1
It is our attempt in this paper, to analyse Eliade's methods in the study of
history of religions by looking into the relevant textual material found in
Eliade's works as well as uncovering some of their critique.
Although there are numerous contributions
written about Eliade's hermeneutics, we intend to add more data to the
subject by pointing out to other ideas, which suggest an influence upon
Eliade's hermeneutics, particularly in relation to his Romanian spiritual
roots we share in common. We briefly argue that Eliade's hermeneutics has
been decisively influenced by the spiritual milieux of his native Romania, and
that his history of religions evolved as scholarly construct of the empirical
experience of the sacred he encountered first in his country of birth. Worth
mentioning is that Eliade's major works were initially written in Romanian
language, that was for him a way of being connected to his origins, a theme
prevalent in his hermeneutics (vid. inf.). For the start in our paper, we attempt
to analyse Eliade's methods in the study of history of religions by engaging
with his major ideas, followed by the exposition of some Romanian influences,
then the critique of Eliade's legacy (further down the track in our work).
By comparative methods Eliade
attempts to separate elemental and timeless patterns of religious life, in
order to arrive at what is constant and beyond the transitory aspects of time.
For Eliade, religion is basically the experience of the sacred related to the
ideas of "being", "meaning" and "truth" (French: d'être, de signification et de vérité; Romanian: a fi, semnificaţie/ înţeles şi realitate/ adevăr).2 Part of our argument is developed based on these three lines.
According to Eliade, the importance of the sacred experience is paramount. The
sacred as 'a universal dimension'3 plays a significant role in
the history of humanity because 'the beginnings of culture are rooted in
religious experiences and beliefs'.4 One idea in Eliade's view
of meaning of religion is in relation to "being" (d'être), as notion of existence and key ontological element of his
The basic archetypes are, according to Eliade,
the meaning and value of existence for traditional humanity. Indicative of
archetypes and repetition in the history of religions is Eliade's work Le
mythe de l'éternal retour: Archétypes et répétition5 in
which the idea of patterns of religious experience is prevalent. For Eliade,
the evidence for the 'morphology of the sacred' is provided by archaic
cultures. For the archaic man, reality is a function of imitating a
celestial archetype (archétype céleste).6 Reality
is accessed by participation into the 'symbolism of the Centre' (symbolisme
du Centre7), in which constructions like temples become real
for being assimilated into the 'Centre of the World' (Centre du Monde).8
The profane transmutes into sacred by imitating the ab origine
actions of gods, heroes or ancestors.9 As Eliade puts it, 'the sacred
always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from
"natural" realities.'10 In Eliade's view, the basic
'definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the
profane,'11 its act of manifestation being designated by the
term hierophany.12 Such hierophanies play a crucial role in the
history of religions. Eliade writes that:
history of religions – from the most primitive to the most highly developed
– is constituted by a great number of hierophanies, by manifestations of
sacred realities. From the most elementary hierophany – e.g., manifestation
of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree – to the supreme
hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of G od in Jesus Christ)
there is no solution of continuity. In each case we are confronted by the same
mysterious act – the manifestation of something of a wholly different order,
a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral
part of our natural "profane" world. 13
od in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity. In each case we are confronted by the same mysterious act – the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane" world. 13
Thus, according to Eliade, there are two modes of being in the
world: the sacred and the profane (German: das Heilige und das Profane French:
le sacré et le profane).14 While the profane is just the
negation of the sacred, it is the sacred in its qualitative aspects that are
regarded to be of paramount importance. First, according to Eliade, a sacred
space (l'espace sacré) has to be defined in relation to the making
the world sacred. The sacred space is part of
'the only real'15 that can bring 'revelation of the
absolute reality.'16 Then, there is the sacred time (le temps
sacré) that is reversible for being 'a primordial mythical time made
present.'17 The nature plays a key role because 'sacrality is
revealed through the very structure of the world'18 (French: la
sacralité se révèle à travers les structures même du Monde19). Finally, the aim of the religious experience is to live a
sanctified life (vie sanctifiée)
'on a twofold plane; it takes its course as human existence and, at the same
time, shares in a transhuman life, that of the cosmos or the gods.'20
Thus, living the experience of the sacred goes beyond the ordinary perception
of life. The entire planet Earth is regarded as terra genetrix, the
divine anthropocosmic being, who is the creator and nurturer of great
proportions.21 But, whoever is engaged in the religious quest, and
wants to go beyond the ordinary perception of life, has to learn the means by
which the sacred manifests. Thus, we have the second aspect of religion, which
according to Eliade is linked to the idea of "meaning".
In order to construct the sense of the
"meaning" (signification) as relevant to the religious experience,
Eliade starts from the time of Palaeolithic hunters after the Ice Age, about
8000 BCE, that was a time, he believes, when a religious symbolism emerged as
a consequence of a radical change of the climate and landscape.22 According
to Eliade, that was the time when archaic religious ideas developed in
relation to the mythology of origins like 'origin of the world, of game, of
man, of death23 – that is typical of hunting civilisations.'24
With the transition from hunting and gathering type of civilisation to
the one based on cultivation of cereals (thus the practice of agriculture, and
domestication of animals),25 Eliade continues, the religious
symbolism26 became enriched by new magico-religious meanings; the
alimentary theologies as new religious myths generated new kinds of behaviour.
For instance, Eliade assumes that the
pre-Neolithic people believed that 'edible tubers and fruits (coconut,
banana, etc.) were born from an immolated divinity.'27 Expounding
further, Eliade describes 'that all responsible activities (puberty
ceremonies, animal or human sacrifices, cannibalism, funeral ceremonies, etc.)
properly speaking constitute a recalling, a "remembrance," of the
primordial murder.'28 'This primordial murder radically changed
the human condition, for it introduced sexuality and death29 and
first established the religious and social institutions that are still in
force.'30 A significant feature of the religious life became
'the mystical solidarity between man and vegetation,'31 but
'religious creativity was stimulated, not by the empirical phenomenon of
agriculture, but by the mystery of birth, death, and rebirth
identified in the rhythm of vegetation.32 Thus:
The agrarian cultures develop
what might be called a cosmic
religious activity is concentrated around the central mystery: the
periodical renewal of the world. Like human existence, the cosmic rhythms
are expressed in terms drawn from vegetable life. The mystery of cosmic
sacrality is symbolised in the World Tree. The universe is conceived as an
organism that must be renewed periodically – in other words, each year'.33
Furthermore, Eliade asserts that the human can access
the "absolute reality" thus:
reality," rejuvenation, immortality are accessible to certain privileged
persons through the power residing in a certain fruit or in a spring near a
tree. The Cosmic Tree is held to be at the centre of the world, and it unites
the three cosmic regions, for it sends roots down into the underworld, and its
top touches the sky.34
Full of hermeneutical ideas of the sacred is Eliade's
work Patterns in Comparative Religions, perhaps the most complete
scholarly construct concerning the structure and morphology of the sacred in
Here we have the significant ideas of the
emergence of the sacred as experience within human communities, and the
gradual conscious progression from the profane to the sacred. The hierophanies
of multiple aspects emerged in so-called "primitive" religion35
in which the sky and sky gods play an important role for the sacred religious
experience. Eliade writes about the sky symbolism thus:
sacred as manifested by the sky lives on in men's religious experience,
after the actual sky god has faded into the background, in the symbolism of
"height", "ascension", "centre", and so on.36
Furthermore, Eliade asserts, the mountains as the
nearest thing to the sky are endowed with holiness, sharing in the spatial
symbolism of transcendence as places of the dwelling of the gods.37
There are, according to Eliade, hierophanies of the Sun in which a
"solarisation" of Supreme Beings occurred.38 There is a
mystique of the Moon in a symbolism related to waters, vegetation, fertility,
and initiation as cosmo-biology and mystical physiology.39 The
water symbolism is related to the links between the earth, woman
and fertility.40 The vegetation plays a central role for the rites
and symbols of regeneration,41 which is regarded as sacred time and
part of an eternal renewal. Eliade writes that:
what we may call the
"history" of primitive societies consists solely of the mythical events,
which took place in
illo tempore and
have been unceasingly repeated from that day to this.42
In such terms, Eliade takes up the issue of
phenomenological structure and historical contingency and poses a solution.
Thus, in his hostility to history Eliade asserts that the truly "historic"
events are those that present importance as having mythico-historic precedent,
for the various symbolic forms related to the sacred are not products of
historical circumstances, although they might influence them, but major
factors in religious life.43 As Eliade argues, the renewal of the
world by repetition of the cosmogony is part of the structure of the myths (la
structure des myths). The rites of renewal (rites de renouvellement)
aim at a renaissance mystique of the world.44 Such rites,
Eliade argues, are to be found among the Australians and a number of North
American tribes.45 In Eliade's view, the religious symbolism as a
vast hermeneutical theme, he supports by examples, particularly by looking for
meanings of various customs of people of today who still belong culturally to
archaic cultures. Thus Eliade relies decisively on valorisation of the
One example is the symbolic meaning of burials
among the Kogi Indians, a tribe of natives in Colombia. Eliade writes that:
Kogi identify the world – womb of the Universal Mother – with each
village, each cult house, each habitation, and each grave. When the shaman
lifts the corpse nine times, he indicated the return of the body to the foetal
state by going through the nine months of gestation in reverse order. And
since the grave is assimilated to the world, the funerary offerings acquire a
As a conclusion to the link of religion to the
interpretation of "meaning" it can be said that by understanding the
symbol a religious person can attain to the highest spirituality, thus living
the universal. The sacred as "meaning" (signification) is thus
paramount for the understanding of the "truth" as experience of the
Thus, we have the third aspect of
religion according to Eliade as being linked to the idea of "truth" (vérité) in which the homo
religiosus has to rest upon. Among all symbols and mysteries the homo
religiosus has to find their meaning because 'becoming aware of his own
mode of being and assuming his presence in the world together constitute a
"religious" experience.'47 The homo religiosus, as
model of the human motivated by an irreducible religious intentionality, has
to rest upon the idea of the existence of a final truth. Eliade writes:
represents the "total man"; hence, the science of religions must become a
total discipline in the sense that it must use, integrate, and articulate the
results obtained by the various methods of approaching a religious phenomenon.48
By practices and behaviour, the religious man attempts
to remain as long as possible in a sacred universe thus having a different
experience of life 'in comparison with the experience of the man without
religious feelings, of the man who lives, or wishes to live, in a desacralized
world.'49 For the religious man, in his mode of living the
experience of the sacred, consecrates own life to 'the sacrality with which
man's vital functions (food, sex, work and so on) can be charged.'50
For example, once being a participant to a festival as sacred time event, the
intervals of time that are "sacred," that have no part in the temporal
duration that precedes and follows them, that have a wholly different
structure and origin, for they are of a primordial time, sanctified by the
gods and capable of being made present by the festival.'51
Thus for the homo religiosus the liturgical time
has a transhuman quality.52 The nature entirely 'is always
fraught with a religious value.'53 for structures of the
sacrality of nature represent cosmic hierophanies.54 But, there is
more to the existential situation of the homo religiosus, as Eliade
All his behaviour, his
understanding of the world, the values he accords to life and to his own
existence, arise and become articulated in a "system" on the basis of this
belief that his house or his village is situated near the axis
Eliade asserts, in the case of such beliefs, that
'demystification does not serve hermeneutics,'56 as he calls
for 'a creative hermeneutics in the perspective of the history of
religions.'57 For in the last instance, Eliade's journey into
the history of religions is about self-discovery and self-understanding,
according to Taylor.58
Olson sees Eliade's creative hermeneutics as
an anthropological view upon the history of religions that leads to a change
in human beings, and a source for new cultural values.59 It appears
to be a farsighted concept, for it has a vision for humanity, although so far
there are no signs of happening. For Eliade, the modern societies, the virtual
destruction of the sense of the sacred, the attenuation of rituals and the
relegation of myth to the subconscious amounts to a new Fall,60 a
vision looking almost prophetic that has generated scholarly debates (vid.
inf.). As Eliade puts it, this phenomenon of a desacralized world is quite
new, for 'the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized
cosmos, is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit.'61
By changes in 'spiritual attitudes and behaviour modern man has desacralized
his world and assumed a profane existence.'62 As Eliade writes,:
enough to observe that desacralization pervades the entire experience of the
nonreligious man of modern societies and that, in consequence, he finds it
increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious
man in the archaic societies.63
But, 'the nostalgia for a lost mystical solidarity
with nature still haunts Western man'.64 Eliade regards life as
mythological in structure, thus his new humanism is spiritual in nature. As
David Cave, one of the defenders of Eliade, puts it, Eliade's new humanism
has 'a spiritual, humanistic orientation toward totality capable of
modifying the quality of human existence itself,'65 for his
transhistorical humanism aims at 'escaping profane time, the time of decay
and of dualism, and of entering into sacred time.'66 Furthermore
Cave argues, 'for Eliade, the principal way in which the profane time
acquires meaning as sacred time is when it repeats a cosmogony.'67
that is the reliving of a primordial creative moment. We now attempt to unveil
some ideas in relation to Eliade's Romanian spiritual roots, i.e. the
Romanian folklore and popular culture, which are regarded as sources of
inspiration for his scholarly construct of the history of religions.
A comparative study on Zalmoxis, an
ancient god prevalent in the areas of historical Dacia (about the present day
Romania), is subject to Eliade's work Zalmoxis the Vanishing God:
Comparative Studies in the Religions and Folklore of Dacia and Eastern Europe.68
Mac Linscott Ricketts, one of the scholars of history of religions who has
learned Romanian language and travelled to Romania in order to create a
biography of Mircea Eliade, makes a good assessment of Eliade's influence
from symbols found in Romanian folklore. The legend of Meşterul Manole (Master Manole)
is relevant as an archaic myth of creation through sacrifice.69 The
ritualistic use of certain healing plants like mandrake (Romanian: mandragora)
for example, is indicative of the power of the gods manifested as essence of a
plant. The cult of the mandragora is described as prevalent in Romania70
as part of the practices of so-called Romanian "Shamanism".71
Thus, such concrete elements provided the row material for the construct of a
theory on the history of religions in which symbolism appears to play a key
role. The formative years of Eliade as the future scholar in the study of
history of religions were marked by Romanian folklore inspiration. For the
construct of his hermeneutics Eliade used the examples of certain remnant
practices of archaic societies still found in Romania today, in a 'very old
rural civilization, with its roots in the Neolithic but enriched by later
cultural influences.'72 Thus Eliade's cultural roots in native
Romania proved to be primary material which inspired him to create a composite
scholarly interpretation of the experience of the sacred in relation to the
understanding of the religious phenomena. Although Eliade admits that the
Indian spirituality helped him 'to understand the structures of Romanian
culture,'73 it did not add anything substantial to the basic
ideas about the history of religions Eliade formed already while being in
Romania. Eliade writes:
common elements of Indian, Balkan, and Mediterranean folk culture proved to me
that it is here that organic universalism exists, that it is the result of a
common history (the history of peasant cultures) and not an abstract
Thus, the major point Eliade wants to make in relation to an
organic universalism is that 'the Romanian folk creations were articulated
in a much broader perspective'75 pertaining to universalism as
vision for history of religions. Basically, Eliade's famous theme of the 'mythe
de l'éternal retour' (Romanian: mitul eternei întoarceri) applies not only to the
ideas of human societies re-enacting the sacred in one form or another, but
also at personal level for an individual. This is precisely what Eliade wants
to communicate: societies and individuals again and again re-enact a theme
born or acquired at the time and place of their origin.76 For 'la
nostalgie des origines' (Romanian: nostalgia originilor) is seen
by Eliade as one of the universals for both communities and individuals.
Although Eliade's scholarly
construct of hermeneutics was influenced by other authors of similar
approaches (particularly the phenomenological) to the study of history of
religions, his personal experience of the sacred acquired from his native
spiritual roots, from what he calls Romanian folk spirituality (Romanian: spiritualitatea
populară românească), played a major role. Eliade asserts for
example that his 'efforts to
understand the structures of archaic and Oriental thought contributed more
genuinely to the decipherment of the values of Romanian folk spirituality'
than other sociological interpretations.77 Other authors who
studied the Romanian folklore and popular culture show indeed elements that
are recognised in Eliade's hermeneutics. There is for instance in Ana
Cartianu's Romanian Folk Tales work, there is a tale called "Youth
Everlasting and Life without End" (Romanian: Tinereţe fără bătrâneţe şi viaţă fără de moarte).78 Here the
hero of Romanian folk tales known as Făt-Frumos, who had a
miraculous birth by the use of special herbs by his mother, is endowed with
magical powers. Făt-Frumos starts a journey in search for a place where there is
everlasting youth, thus immortality, a kind of Shambhala (the mythical kingdom
of happiness and immortality), which he discovers eventually. In the Tinereţe fără bătrâneţe şi viaţă fără de moarte tale we identify the use
of magical herbs and the quest for immortality, as ideas that Eliade
integrated into his hermeneutics (vid. sup.). Another example we find
relevant to our inquiry is in the scholarly research done by Gail Kligman in
Romania, and made available to the public in her book The Wedding of the
Dead: Ritual, Poetics, and Popular Culture in Transylvania. Kligman
discovered in Romania the strange idea of the wedding of the dead (Romanian: Nunta
mortului) in which the funerals of an unmarried young person are mixed
with marriage ceremonies. The deceased bride or groom, who are dressed in
wedding attire,79 are married to a divine being as ideal marriage.80
The divine is symbolically represented by a virgin bride for a dead young man,
or by a crown for a deceased girl.81 As Kligman writes, the
symbolic marriage ceremony, 'the death-wedding becomes a cosmic marriage.'82
Such elements were later integrated by Eliade in his notion of
hierogamy, the sacred marriage, which is basically a form of heaven-earth
interaction and union. As Eliade asserts, the findings from the study of
comparative folklore and ethnology in Romania were of historico-religious
values and much relevant to his hermeneutics.83 We give one more
example from the Romanian folk tradition we find relevant for the peasant
culture, in which we have personal experience.
There is for instance a folk custom
known as paparuda (Pl. paparudele) that hardly could be
translated as word, but described as practice only. It is a ritualistic dance
performed by one or more virgin girls during a time of drought. Many people
assembly at such a ceremony in which chanting is performed to propitiate the
coming of rain to save the crop that is in danger of being destroyed. During the chanting, the virgin girl
(Romanian: fata virgină) is thoroughly washed with buckets of water as ritualistic mode
of sacrifice to the Divine. In other words by the connection between a virgin
girl and water, those performing paparuda custom are offering the
purity that comes with the involvement of a virgin girl in exchange for water
as rain they are asking the Divine to send. This is a relevant example of a
surviving archaic custom denoting the practice of the sacred in the Romanian
culture that we find to be in tune with Eliade's hermeneutics of the history
of religions. On the other hand, Eliade's hermeneutics of history of
religions has generated both founded and unfounded criticism.
As far as the modern interpretations
of myth are concerned, Eliade places himself within the group of scholars from
to Claude Lévi-Strauss who advanced the history on the subject.84
Like the case of any other scholar in the study of religion, Eliade's ideas
on the history of religions have been criticised from various view angles.
Cunningham gives credit of inspiration to Carl Jung (1875-1961) and Rudolf
Otto (1869-1937) for Eliade's hermeneutics85 although not taking
into account Eliade's spiritual roots and background (vid. sup.). But
Eliade did not intend to construct an entirely new vision on the history of
religions, but to build upon other similar ideas, thus enlarging the picture.
Eliade admits that 'Otto's analyses have not lost their value,'86
but he (Eliade) adopts a different perspective,87 when he writes:
We propose to present the
phenomenon of the sacred in all its complexity, and not only in so far as it
is irrational. What will concern us is not the
relation between the rational and the nonrational elements of religion but the
sacred in its entirety.88
Carl Jung appears to be of inspiration to Eliade. In
relation to Eliade's views to express human realities and spiritual values
in a cultural language and his originality of ideas, Eric J. Sharpe writes:
it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that Jung gave Eliade at least part
of the grammar of that language; the comparative study of religion provides
the vocabulary; the syntax, however, is Eliade's own.89
On the other hand, Eliade's understanding of
hermeneutics has 'been criticised for its antihistorical bias and eclectic
use of data drawn from the religions of non-literate peoples,'90
but the evidence of Eliade's hermeneutical enquiry is that it leads from the
data of history to the search for their trans-historical meaning and value.91
The trans-cultural validity of hermeneutics of history of religions is part of
an ongoing debate.92 Later criticism, after Eliade's death,
became more virulent, and connected to the alleged involvement of
Eliade into anti-Semitism and the nationalistic movements in Romania before
the Second World War, although 'no genuinely damning evidence has been
forthcoming.'93 In a rush to denigrate Eliadean legacy, the
recent most relevant case of unfounded criticism of Eliade is that of
McCutcheon's. As we shall see, McCutcheon's virulent criticism for
rejecting Eliade's hermeneutics is mistaken.
In his Chap. 9 "Methods, theories, and the
terror of history: Closing the Eliadean era with dignity", McCutcheon
considers the "Eliade affair"
'similar to other cases of notable European intellectuals of the inter-war
generation whose youthful, political past emerged long after they had
established themselves as influential figures in their respective scholarly
fields.'94 Furthermore, McCutcheon associates Eliade with the
literary critic Paul de Man and the philosopher Martin Heidegger, two scholars
suspected of anti-Semitic remarks and association with Nazism.95 Basing
himself on the criticism of Eliade by Adriana Berger,96 whose
allegations against Eliade were never proven, McCutcheon's assertion of
Eliade being a card-carrying Romanian fascist is also unfounded.97
But, McCutcheon's attempt to assess Eliade's scholarly contribution is
also a failure. It is utterly nonsense to describe 'Eliade's life and
works as political,'98 and his scholarship having a 'politics
embedded within it.'99 Labelling Eliade's terminology of his
hermeneutics as 'troublesome categories and abstractions,'100 McCutcheon
criticises other relevant scholars of religious studies who found meaning in
Eliade's works. In McCutcheon views, Cave's sympathetic exegesis of Eliade
is 'routine talk',101 Rennie is an apologist of Eliade's
concoction of subjectivity,102 while Olson' ideas for defending
Eliade pertain to obscurantism.103 At the end of his chapter,
McCutcheon calls to 'close the Eliadean era in the study of religion'104
for radical change and reshaping in order to:
room for a newly invigorated field of study, then it means that we must retool
the field from top to bottom – from our curricula, to our public presence,
the structures of our scholarly meetings, and our research agendas and
But, McCutcheon rhetoric does not give any suggestion
of how all the above ideas are to be implemented. For, the discovery of
history of religions is a work, which is incrementally built upon by various
scholars in a greater and more encompassing vision. There are no such things
as retooling 'the field from top to bottom' (vid. sup.) in the
study of the history of religions. As Eliade created a hermeneutics by taking
into account his predecessors in the field (like van der Leeuw, Otto, Jung,
Wach, and so on), so also we expect another scholar to create an even larger
scholarship view. Thus, McCutcheon's call for 'redescribing how we define,
classify, compose, and explain behaviours and institutions in the public
university,'106 is simply lacking insight into how things work in
social sciences. From the history of religious ideas we know that ideas and
concepts are simply reshaped, thus nothing is made new from 'top to
bottom' (vid sup.) as McCutcheon suggests in relation to closing the
Eliadean era. On the other hand, McCutcheon fails to make an objective
scholarly critique of Eliade, for no solid scholarship is built upon
allegations and defamatory positions of others (see Adriana Berger). Then,
McCutcheon's style of describing Eliade's case makes no sense by
considering such comparison as to substitute "the historical Eliade" for
"the historical Jesus"107 in an attempt to discredit Eliade in
the social formation of history of religions. The entire debate upon Eliade as
scholar has indeed generated a crisis in the study of religions.
As Rennie remarks all scholars of religion
have a stake in the Eliade affair especially in relation to resolving the
identity crisis in the study of religion.108 Worthy to mention is
the fact that three of Eliade's main critics lack consensus why Eliade's
scholarship has been successful. Ivan Strenski for example, believes that the
catastrophic political upheavals in Europe have a dramatic impact on
Eliade's theory of religion, thus in less catastrophic times like today a
theorist like Eliade would not be successful.109 Russell T.
McCutcheon attributes Eliade's success to a new kind of religious studies at
U.S. collages, the 'teaching about religions in classes with believers from
various religious traditions.'110 We should remind here that
Eliade was already successful before coming to the United States by publishing
relevant works in the field of religions and other literature in Romanian and
French while teaching at the University of Bucharest and at the Sorbonne in
Paris. The other critic of Eliade, Steven M. Wasserstrom, in his work Religion
after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade and Henry Corbin at Erasmos,
explains why Eliade and the others, who are mentioned in his work title, had a
tremendous impact beyond their academic reputation: it is because 'the three
scholars expected a knowledge from religious history that humankind in the
modern age urgently needed.'111 According to Wasserstrom,
Eliade's sacred/ profane contradiction 'has to do with living in a world
torn by rival claims of truth.'112 The above three critiques add
nothing new, for Eliade's success like that of his predecessors in the
field, is simply attributed to a social need at a certain historical
period. It is natural that the Eliadean era in the study of religions be
closed eventually, but this call is still premature, for no such era is closed
without opening another era. Regrettably some scholars listen to such calls as
McCutcheon's, who simply lacks vision calling for demolition without real
plans, means and workers to build a better construction.
In our view Eliade's
phenomenological approach still holds as one 'd'examples illustres de
la tendance à fournir des interprétations uniformisantes, applicables et appliquées à des
manifestations religieuses de type et de significations fortement hétérogènes.'113 The community
of scholars, although stunned by the allegations against Eliade that came
after his death, should consider the rehabilitation of Eliade's reputation
and acknowledge the value of his scholarly contributions to the advancement of
studies in religions.114 Those callings for nullifying the Eliadean
legacy are simply non-realistic. It is hardly unlikely that will ever happen.
For Eliade is already part of the history of religions and one of those
responsible for its social formation in the fifties and sixties decades of the
twentieth century. On the other hand, other critiques like that of Seth D.
Kunin is genuine and constructive, thus giving a more realistic view upon
Eliade's phenomenology of religion.
Kunin argues that Eliade's focus 'on the
structures of religion rather that specific elements, is much narrower than
that of many other phenomenologists.'115 Eliade's work is
essentially ahistorical, 'although he pays lip service to the historical
context of the herophanies that he analyses, his primary focus is on the
universal qualities of these structures.'116 But, in spite of
this ahistorical emphasis in much of his work 'the hierophanies suggest an
underlying historical or evolutionary schema.'117 Eliade's
essentialist definition of religion 'underlies his rejection of the use of
other methodologies in relation to religion.'118 In relation to
eating and sexuality, as acts of expressing the ultimate reality for the
"primitive people", Kunin identifies Jung's views as inspiration for
Eliade believing that 'individuals in primal religions experience the world
in a very different way to modern people,'119 when through the
enactment of various rites, 'including eating and sex, "primitive"
people put themselves out of time
and connect to eternity,'120 as 'ritual repetition is a feature
of most of Eliade's analyses.'121 In a feminist critique of
Eliade's phenomenology of religion, Rosalind Shaw finds Eliade's views
partial in spite of its claim of universality, suggesting that the object of
empathy was still specifically male.122 In Show's terms,
Eliade's views 'reflect the androcentric orientation of power and are
essentially views from an entrenched power position'.123 These
are some of the critiques of Eliade's hermeneutics of history of religions.
As Eliade's scholarly construct is just one view upon the history or
religions, particularly one of phenomenological orientation, we are waiting to
see the emergence of other views even more encompassing, and from various
other angles like the sociological, psychological, feminist, anthropological
or functionalist, taken either standalone or as syntheses.
In our view Eliade lost ground in religion
academia not only because of false allegations in relation to his past, but
also because the trend of desacralization of the world still continues in now
the post-modernist era, and academia is no exception to it. The conflict
Eliade had with modernity is valid for post-modernity as well, for the
post-modern man like the modern man finds increasingly difficult to relate to
the sacred experience. Lets also make clear that our defence of Eliade's
ideas is not because we came from the same cultural climate thus being of
similar vein, but because we find value in Eliade's concept of living the
sacred experience. The contribution by Romanians to the defence of Eliade is
minimal; those relevant scholars who find value in Eliade's hermeneutics are
all westerners (vid. sup. Cave, Rennie, Olson). Thus expounding on
various critiques of Eliade's phenomenology of religion, we are now ready to
draw a final conclusion.
Basically, Eliade constructs the
experience of the sacred in connection to the ideas of "being",
"meaning" and "truth" (French: d'être, de
signification et de vérité; Romanian: a fi,
semnificaţie/ înţeles şi realitate/ adevăr). In establishing his theory upon the history
of religions, Mircea Eliade drew inspiration from archaic cultures, which he
believes provide the proof of living the sacred life experience in its natural
forms. The constant and profound reference to the archetypes is the backbone
idea of Eliade's methods in the study of history of religions. The homo
religiosus aspiration for the sacred experience allowed him to immerse
into the sacred by learning to decipher the meaning of hierophanies relevant
to a mythico-historic precedent. As the sacred unfolds, the homo religiosus
participates into the experience of the truth that was once at the origin of
those hierophanies. Thus, the homo religious has a continuous 'nostalgie
des origines' as part of the sacred experience.
Our selection of Eliade's
contextual references aimed to construct a broad view of his methods in the
study of a history of religions. We provided some significant elements of
Eliade's hermeneutics from his major works. Eliade's construct is a vision
upon the sacred experience of humanity that in his views was prevalent in
archaic communities and is still reflected in those contemporary surviving
archaic cultures. Eliade sees the experience of the sacred to be the
"real" history of humanity, for in his views it is only the living of the
sacred that is real history. We also uncovered some ideas in relation to
Eliade's spiritual milieux, the Romanian folk spirituality (Romanian: spiritualitatea
populară românească) in his native Romania, which as a popular
culture inspired Eliade's hermeneutics in relation to the development of his
study of history of religions. It is our hope this
paper to be useful as succinct reference to Eliade's phenomenological ideas
in the study of history of religions and its critique.
On the other hand,
Eliade's phenomenology of religion is far sighted; it has a vision for the
future of humanity. It aims at finding a place for the human within the larger
context of the celestial realm to which the archaic homo religiosus
aspired. Most important, Eliade's vision aims at understanding the
connectivity between the earthly and celestial realms. In his view, the
disappearance of the earth-sky sacred link raises the question of survival of
humanity. Eliade's vision of a new Fall, as result of a desacralized world, appears almost prophetic.
Critique to discredit Eliade has
been written especially after his death in 1986. We have shown that some
critiques are unfounded allegations, but others are genuine and constructive.
It is perhaps the time for scholars in studies in religions to recover from
the impact of those false claims of anti-Semitic and fascist past of Eliade,
and acknowledge his contribution to the social formation of the modern
discipline of history of religions and a particular scholarship in the history
1 Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative
Religion: A History (London: Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd., 1975), p.
2 Mircea Eliade, La nostalgie des origines: Méthodologie et
histoire des religions (Éditions Gallimard, 1971), p. 7.
3 Mircea Eliade, The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion
(Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1969b), p. 9.
5 Mircea Eliade, Le mythe de l'éternal retour: Archétypes
et répétition (Éditions Gallimard, 1969a).
6 Ibid., p. 16.
7 See Mircea Eliade, Images et symboles: Essais sur le
symbolisme magico-religieux (Éditions Gallimard, 1952), Chap. 1, pp. 33-72 for symbolisme du
Centre ideas in relation to psychology and history of religion (psychologie
et histoire des religions), archetypes (archétypes), image of the
world (l'image du monde), symbolism of ascension (symbolisme de
l'ascension), and construction of a Centre (construction d'un
8 Mircea Eliade, (1969a), op. cit., p. 16. For more on symbolisme
architectonique see Eliade's work in the French edition Briser le
toit de la maison: la créativité et ses symboles (Éditions Gallimard,
9 Eliade, (1969a), op. cit., p. 16.
10 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of
Religion (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959), p. 10.
12 Ibid., p. 11.
14 See the German and French editions of Mircea Eliade's book The
Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion published as Das Heilige
und das Profane (Hamburg: Rowohlt
Taschenbuchverlag GmbH, 1957a), and Le sacré et
le profane (Éditions Gallimard, 1965), respectively.
15 Mircea Eliade (1959), op. cit., p. 20.
16 Ibid., p. 21.
17 Ibid., p. 68.
18 Ibid., p. 117.
19 Mircea Eliade (1965), op. cit., p. 100.
20 Eliade (1959), op. cit., p. 167.
21 See Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter
between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Reality (London: Collins,
1972a), especially in Chap. 7 "Mother Earth and Cosmic Hierogamies".
French readers should consult Mircea Eliade, Mythes, rêves et mystères (Éditions Gallimard,
1957b). The Italian readers should see, Mircea Eliade, Miti sogni e misteri
(Milano: Rusconi, 1976a).
22 Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone
Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries Vol. 1 (London: Collins, 1979). p.
23 For mythologies of death, cosmological symbolism of funerary
rites and the "creative" aspects of the act of dying see Mircea Eliade, Occultism,
Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions: Essays in Comparative Religions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976b), Chap. 3, "Mythologies of Death: An Introduction".
24 Mircea Eliade (1979), op. cit., p. 32.
25 Ibid., pp. 32f.
26 For more on religious symbolism see Mircea Eliade,
"Methodological Remarks on the Study of Religious Symbolism," in The
History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, edited by Mircea Eliade and
Joseph M. Kitagawa (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959), passim.
27 Mircea Eliade (1979), op. cit., p. 38.
29 Ibid. For various myths of the origin of death
(Melanesian, Indonesian, Australian, Polynesian) see Mircea Eliade, From
primitives to Zen: A Thematic sourcebook of the History of Religions (London: Collins,
1967), Chap 2, Section D "Myths of the Origin of Death". See Kunin's
critique (vid. inf.) about Jung's influence upon Eliade's ideas of
sexuality as act of ultimate reality for the primal religion.
30 Eliade (1979), op. cit., p. 38.
31 Ibid., p. 40.
32 Ibid., p. 41.
34 Ibid., pp. 41f.
35 See Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religions (London: Sheed and Ward Ltd., 1976c), Chap. 1.
36 Ibid., p. 99.
38 Ibid., Chap. 3.
39 Ibid., Chap. 4.
40 Ibid., Chaps. 5 and 7.
41 Ibid., Chap. 8.
42 Ibid., p. 397.
43 Ibid. See more about the
ahistorical position of Eliade in Kunin's critique (vid. inf.).
44 See Mircea Eliade, Aspects du mythe (Éditions Gallimard,
1963), Chap. 3 "Mythes et rites de renouvellement".
45 Eliade (1979), op. cit., p. 42.
46 Eliade (1979), op. cit., p. 12.
47 Mircea Eliade (1969b), op. cit., p. 9.
48 Ibid., p. 8.
49 Eliade (1959), op. cit., p. 13.
50 Ibid., p. 14.
51 Ibid., p. 71.
53 Ibid., p. 116.
54 Ibid., p. 155.
55 Eliade (1969b), op. cit., p. 69.
57 Ibid., p. 70.
58 Rodney L. Taylor, "Mircea Eliade:
The Self and the Journey," in Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in
Perspective, edited by David Carrasco and Jane Marie Swanberg. (Boulder:
Westview Press, 1985), p. 134.
59 Carl Olson, The Theology and Philosophy of Mircea Eliade: A
Search for the Centre (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), p. 38.
60 John Bowker, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 308.
61 Eliade (1959), op. cit., p. 13.
64 Mircea. Eliade, "Cultural Fashions and the History of
Religions," in The History of Religions: Essays on the Problem of
Understanding, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1967), p. 34.
65 David Cave, Mircea Eliade's Vision for a New Humanism
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 27.
66 David Cave, op. cit., p. 75.
68 Mircea Eliade, Zalmoxis the Vanishing God: Comparative
Studies in the Religions and Folklore of Dacia and Eastern Europe (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1972b). The work was initially published in French under the title De
Zalmoxis à Gengis-Khan: Études camparatives sur les religions et le
folklore de la Dacie et de l'Europe Orientale
(Paris: Payot, 1970).
69 See Mac Linscott Ricketts,
Mircea Eliade: The Romanian Roots, 1907-1945 Vol. 2 (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1988), in Chap. 28 "Symbols in Folklore, Religion, and
70 See Mircea Eliade (1972b), Chap. 7
"The Cult of the Mandragora in Romania".
71 Ibid., Chap.
6 "Romanian Shamanism?".
72 Mircea Eliade, "Marthe Bibesco and the Meeting of the Eastern
and Western Literature," in Mircea Eliade: Symbolism, the Sacred, and the
Arts, edited by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: The Crossroad
Publishing Company, 1986), p. 157.
73 Mircea Eliade, Autobiography: Volume I 1907-1937 Journey
East, Journey West (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1981), p, 203.
74 Ibid., p, 204.
75 Ibid., p, 203.
76 Mircea Eliade, La nostalgie des origines: Méthodologie et
histoire des religions (Éditions Gallimard, 1971), passim.
77 Mircea Eliade, Autobiography: Volume II 1937-1960 Exile's
Odyssey (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 8, in
78 See Ana Cartianu, Romanian
Folk Tales (Bucharest: Minerva Publishing House, 1979), pp. 17-30.
Kligman, The Wedding of the Dead: Ritual, Poetics, and Popular Culture in
Transylvania (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), p. 220.
80 Ibid., p. 223.
82 Ibid., p. 244.
83 Mircea Eliade (1988), op. cit., p. 9.
84 Mircea Eliade, "The dragon and the shaman," in Man and
his salvation: Studies in the memory of S. G. F. Brandon, edited by Eric
J. Sharpe and John R. Hinnells (Manchester: Manchester University Press,
1973), p. 99.
85 Graham Cunningham, Religion and Magic: Approaches and
Theories (New York: New York University Press, 1999), pp. 37f.
86 Eliade (1959), op. cit., p. 10.
89 Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History (London:
Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd., 1975), p. 217.
90 Ursula King, "Historical and Phenomenological Approaches,"
in Theory and Method in Religious Studies: Comparative Approaches to the
Study of Religion, edited by Frank Whaling. (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter,
1995), p. 123.
91 Ibid., p. 124.
92 Ibid., p. 127.
93 Bryan Rennie, "The Meaning and End of Mircea Eliade," in Changing
Religious Worlds: The Meaning and End of Mircea Eliade, edited by Bryan
Rennie. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 264.
94 Russell T. McCutcheon, The Discipline of Religion: Structure,
Meaning, Rhetoric (New York: Routledge, 2003), 191.
95 Ibid., p. 192.
96 Ibid., p. 193.
100 Ibid. p. 192.
101 Ibid. p. 195.
102 Ibid. p. 200.
103 Ibid. p. 202.
104 Ibid. p. 209.
107 Ibid. p. 57.
108 Ibid.; see critical articles by Roger Corless, Russell T.
McCutcheon, and Robert A. Segal.
109 Hans G. Kippenberg, Discovering Religious History in the
Modern Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. ix.
111 Ibid., p. xi.
112 Ibid. See Steven M.
Wasserstrom, Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade
and Henry Cobin at Eranos (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), passim.
113 Vittorio Lanternari, "Sciences religieuses et mouvements
religieux nouveaux dans l'Occident: Questions de méthode," in Current
Progress in the Methodology of the Science of Religions, edited by Witold
Tyloch. (Warsaw: Polish Scientific Publishers, 1984), p. 130.
114 See Joseph M. Kitagawa and Charles H., Long, eds. Myths and Symbols: Studies in the
Honour of Mircea Eliade (Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1969), as studies honouring Mircea Eliade.
Eliade is also the editor in chief of the monumental work The Encyclopedia
of Religions (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987).
115 Seth D. Kunin, Religion: The Modern Theories (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2003), p. 127.
119 Ibid., p. 128.
122 Ibid. p. 139.
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