Mircea Eliade – Phenomenologist of the Sacred and the Profane


Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), born in Bucharest, Romania, was a historian of religion. He is often regarded as the most influential comparativist scholar of religion (particularly of his day) for his contributions to introducing the study of religion in North America (1).

One scholar says that “Eliade’s popularity as a religious studies scholar was without parallel” and that it is difficult to discuss the phenomenology of religion without referring to him (2). Eliade was also a very religious individual and this, as we will discover, comes through strongly in his theory of religion. This entry will look at Eliade’s concept of archetypes, his theory of religion involving the sacred and the profane, and why, despite his popularity and strong reputation, he is a fairly controversial theorist in the study of religion.


Eliade was very interested in the psyche and this led him to theorize concerning the human’s underlying mental structures. He posited a structural element called “archetypes” which he believed shaped religious experience (3). These archetypes had accumulated over humanity’s long history and shaped religious data in certain ways. According to Eliade, “every man carries on, within himself, a great deal of prehistorical humanity” (4). These archetypes are “‘living fossils’ buried in the darkness of the unconscious, which now becomes accessible to study through the techniques developed by depth psychologists (5).

An attempt was then made to lay out these “archaic” elements of the human mind because within them one would discover how religious experience formed. Eliade came to the conclusion that these archetypes were “preserved in myths, symbols, and customs which still, in spite of any corruption, clearly show what they meant when they begun” (6).

A Phenomenology of the Sacred

As noted, Eliade was an influential contributor to the phenomenology of religion, and as a phenomenologist, his intent was to identify the prominent and influential patterns or structures of religious experience. His book, The Sacred and the Profane, was used in American college courses and was often the first book to introduce readers to the subject of religion and religious studies.

Eliade intended to do more than just list patterns of religious phenomena as some other phenomenologists, such as C. P. Tiele, had down, but rather, through identifying select patterns wanted to demonstrate an integrated morphology of the sacred. According to Eliade, “the sacred” refers to a distinct modality of consciousness and he wished to examine it via its constitutive elements. This would require identifying and describing some of the perennial aspects of religion, as well as approaching it through an examination of its structures, patterns, and forms of religious sensibility and behaviour.

Eliade was much influenced by the German theologian Rudolf Otto and his notion of The Holy (Das Heilige). However, rather than focusing on the total otherness and irrational elements of the experience of the sacred, as did Otto, Eliade sought a fuller and more comprehensive account of the sacred itself; he wanted to comprehend the “sacred in its entirety.” Eliade introduced an important distinction between the sacred and the profane which he dubbed “the two modalities of experience”:

All the definitions given up till now of the religious phenomenon have one thing in common: each has its own way of showing that the sacred and the religious life are the opposite of the profane and the secular life” (7).

The Profane

One of Eliade’s goals was to examine the relationship between a worldview motivated by religious attitudes and those worldviews in which this attitude is not given the same place. He argued that there are major differences between worldviews informed by religious sensibilities of the sacred and those which are not. The latter worldviews are unconscious of the religious sensibility or deliberately rejected or blocked it. This dichotomy in worldview is evident in the different sensibilities between the East and the West. Eastern religious sensibilities articulated well the sacred modality whereas western views were influenced by industrialization and technological progress and thus tended to display non-religious (profane) modes of apprehension.

However, Eliade believed that the sacred modality could lay dormant, unrecognized, or unconscious in non-religious (profane) attitudes and that even the most profane mode included traces or vestiges of the sacred mode of apprehension. Eliade was convinced that the non-religious (profane) mode had not obliterated the religious mode, but rather that the modern person might find it “increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious man in archaic societies” (8).

This dimension has just become more difficult to perceive although “Religious man attempts to remain as long as possible in a sacred universe” (9). Despite the obvious religiosity of the majority of archaic peoples, the profane modality was also a possibility for them. However, for Eliade, this modality is far more characteristic of those living in the modern technological and industrialized world. In this latter world, one finds “the man without religious feeling… the man who lives, or wishes to live, in a desacralized world” (10).

Desacralization is synonymous with the profane and is a symptom of those modern societies that cultivate a profane orientation to the world. This modality, thought Eliade, manifests itself as broken and alienated, but no matter how strong and pervasive it ever became it could never be separated from the sacred. Eliade also claimed that these two modalities could only exist in relation and contrast to each other and, as such, he wished to flesh out the specific dimension of religious experience as “to bring out the differences between it and profane experiences of the world” (11). This would mean that as a phenomenologist, Eliade would have to, at some point, articulate both modalities, although he clearly favoured the sacred.

The Sacred

The sacred modality is not only the opposite of the profane but it is also most central to religion. By consequence, when a scholar examines religion he should focus on the sacred, for it is what is most fundamental and central. Eliade wanted, moreover, to demonstrate, describe, and characterize the sacred in its multiple dimensions. Eliade believed that the sacred was universal in that it applied to all human beings and he wanted to prove that the experience of the sacred is fundamental to religion.

One description of the sacred is sacred time and sacred space. Sacred time was circular for it occurred periodically and takes place during religious festivals in which sacred events are reactualized. Participants would step out of ordinary time and into sacred time, the time of origins. A good example of this was the Babylonians who physically acted out their creation story, the Enuma Elish, during the New Year period with drama and performances. Such differed greatly from the profane time denoting the modern, non-religious person who does not experience sacred time. Although the modern person engages in periodic celebrations, he does not experience them as sacred, as involving contact with the divine.

Sacred space, moreover, marked a definite place or orientation suggesting that some spaces and places are more important than others. The church is an obvious example for it “shares a different space from the street in which it stands… the threshold that separates the two spaces… indicates the distance between two modes of being, the profane and the religious” (12). It was different for the modern, non-religious person who experiences the spacial aspect of his world as neutral.

Eliade wrote that the sacred becomes visible and accessible through the presence of a hierophany. This denoted a transcendent reality which “breaks through” in some tangible form within mundane existence that then becomes an object of devotion in a religious tradition. This could be one or more of many things, including stones, trees, fire, symbols, etc, which express some modality of the sacred and a moment in its history. For the scholar studying religion, the hierophany discloses something about the sacred and something about religious man’s attitude, and when the scholar has obtained information about a particular hierophany, she must then develop a coherent collection of its common features.

Eliade’s Controversial Motivation Underpinning His Theory of Religion

It is at this point we arrive at the more controversial aspect of Eliade’s theory of religion, namely that his study was not a neutral project but one with vested ideological interests.

Phenomenology of religion and religious studies in general takes after Edmund Husserl’s notion of the epoche, namely the bracketing of personal convictions and beliefs, religious or other, when engaging in his or her work. As such, it is never in the religious scholar’s right to show personal convictions in his or her work. The only convictions which should filter through the work are those derived from the religious community, group, or individual being studied. Eliade’s phenomenology, however, was designed to serve an important religious function. It was a tool whose ultimate purpose was to enlighten human beings, so to speak, regarding the necessity of the sacred mode of consciousness, particularly over and above that of the profane modality. To Eliade, the sacred modality was a pure and unspoiled form of access to reality as opposed to the desacralized and the profane. The profane modality was the product of obstacles and could be overcome through a new comprehensive form of sensitivity and recognition of the sacred.

It is thus clear why Eliade’s theory is an affront to secular scholars of religion, which is essentially to say that it is an affront to all scholars of religion because all professional western scholars operate within the boundaries of the secular discipline of religious studies. Scholar of religion Ivan Strenski reveals that “one way to look at Eliade’s approach to the study of religion is, then, as a deliberate (and contrary) religious assault on secularity – a turning of doubts about religion into doubts about secularity at its very roots” (13). Although it was not Eliade’s attempt to convert people to a new religious point of view, his goal was to convince secular people that they are already religious, particularly by showing how human beings depend upon religious archetypes within the inner workings of their cognitive faculty.

A critic might ask some penetrating questions as to whether or not Eliade’s theory of religion would essentially make religious studies itself a kind of religion or devotional practice. To have it evolve in that direction would assure that it would lose any sense of objectivity and attempts at neutrality, and thus become impugned with strong religious points of view. Religious studies would become a discipline motivated by religious convictions but this is unacceptable for the majority of scholars in the field.


1. Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 140-145.

2. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 157.

3. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 141-153.

4. Eliade, Mircea. 1961. Images and Symbols. London: Harvill. p. 12.

5. Eliade, Mircea. 1960. “Encounters at Ascona.” In Man and Time: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Bollingen Series 4, edited by J. Campbell. London: Harvill. p. xix.

6. Eliade, Mircea. 1958. Patterns in Comparative Religion. London: Sheed & Ward. p. 10.

7. Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harper Torchbooks. p. 10.

8. Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Ibid. p. 13.

9. Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Ibid. p. 13.

10. Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Ibid. p. 13.

11. Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Ibid. p. 17.

12. Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Ibid. p. 25.

13. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 142.


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