Notes on Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane. Based on the 1959 Harcourt Brace edition of the translation by Willard Trask. Numbers in brackets refer to pages of this edition.


The manifestation of the sacred (hierophany) is "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." (11) It is the manifestation of the "wholly other" within the wholly mundane.

The sacred reveals itself as something more real, more present than sensory reality. Societies attuned to the sacred live in a consecrated cosmos in which every human act has symbolic significance and is sacramentalized. Therefore, religious man lives in an entirely different space than modern man, for whom reality is purely physical and physiological. Sacred and profane are existential categories and designate two very different modes of being in the world.

1. Sacred Space and Making the World Sacred

"For religious man, space is not homogeneous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different from others." (20)

The separation of sacred space from nonsignificant, profane space is the primordial act of creation. This separation does not proceed on the basis of intellectual speculation or deliberation. It is the product of primary, immediate religious experience. The separation of sacred from profane space is a "founding of the world."

For it is the break effected in space that allows the world to be constituted, because it reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation. When the sacred manifests itself in any hierophany, there is not only a break in the homogeneity of space; there is also revelation of an absolute reality, opposed to the nonreality of the vast surrounding expanse. The manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world. In the homogeneous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center. (21)

Hierophany is an emergence of form out of chaos. "If the world is to be lived in, it must be founded—and no world can come to birth in the chaos of homogeneity and relativity of profane space." (22) "The sacred is pre-eminently the real, at once power, efficacity, the source of life and fecundity." (28)

The revelation of the sacred is of significance to more than the particular individual who encounters and apprehends the sacred. It is culturally foundational.

Religious man's desire to live in the sacred is in fact equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality, not to let himself be paralyzed by the never-ceasing relativity of purely subjective experiences, to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion. (28)

Note: Maistre's assertion that no durable institution can be founded except on the basis of religion is borne out by what Eliade has to say about the cosmogenic implications of hierophany. Responding to Rousseau's notion of social contract (which is the origin of social constructivism and the belief in the infinite amendability of "social constructs"), Maistre argues that constructivism inverts the order of events. Societies come into being fully articulated. They do not elect their form. Form precedes them. It is supplied not by deliberation but by revelation. At the beginning of every society and every people, there is a Sovereign who creates without deliberation, acting solely on the basis of inspiration. There can be no deliberative social beings prior to society, thus no possibility of a social contract. Reading Maistre through Eliade, we can say that at the origin of every society is a hierophany. And because hierophany is a non-rational mode of cognition, the founding of societies and the entire set of rituals and customs that define them are non-rational and can only be sustained by myth. It follows that the desacralization of societies is their unraveling.

Profane man too marks out spaces that are significant to him. "They are the 'holy places' of his private universe." (24) But they never attain more than personal significance.

The paradigmatic sacred space is an exclosure (such as a temple) whose very stucture maps the cosmogenic division of the world and which incorporates passages or openings to the mundane world and to the world beyond. but it is not only specific buildings that follow this scheme. It is reproduced in the structure of each habitation and the structure of the aggregate of habitatios that is the village or city. The construction of sacred space is simultaneously its consecration. It involves

--first, the hierophany, which can either be spontaneous (as in a vision or supernatural sign) or "provoked" by recourse to divination;

--the hierophanic establishment of a center around which the cosmos is oriented and which functions as an axis that connects the various planes of reality, typically the underworld (the primordial, fluid chaos to which decay and death return all things), the mundane world, and heaven (the abode of the numinous);

--openings that enable communication between all levels of the cosmos;

--the modelling of the construction of sacred space on the cosmogenic acts of the gods: consacration is always a repetition of the creation of the cosmos.

Note: The fundamentally repetitive nature of consacration has important artistic ramifications. Sacred art does not aspire to originality or innovation. These are concepts alien to it and appropriate only to an art that dwells in chaos and, therefore, reproduces this chaos in its own restlessness. Sacred art dwells in absolute reality, a fixed point, and its crucial characteristic is stasis.

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. But the irruption of the sacred does not only project a fixed point into the formless fluidity of profane space, a center onto chaos; it also effects a break in plane, that is , it opens communicaton between the cosmic planes (bertween earth and heaven) and males possible ontological passage from one mode of being to another. It is such a break in the heterogeneity of profane space that creates the center through which comminication with the transmundane is established that, consequently, founds the world, for the center renders orientaton possible, Hence the manifestation of the sacred in space has a cosmological valence; every spatial hierophany or consecration of a space is equivalent to a cosmogony. The first conclusion we might draw would be: the world becomes apprehensible as world, as cosmos, in the measure in which it reveals itself as a sacred world. (63-64)

Religious man can live only in a consecrated world because a consecrated world is the only world that is real. Unconsecrated space is the realm of chaos. It is the space of "absolute nonbeing," an evil void. Without the sacred, there is no orientation, no symbolic order, and, ultimately, no meaning or purpose to existence. Indeed, without the sacred, there is no world.

2. Sacred Time and Myths

For religious man, time, like space. is not homogeneous or continious. Sacred time ends and begins again every year. It is reversible and renewable. It is time outside history.

Religious man experiences two kinds of time—profane and sacred. The one is an evanescent duration, the other a "succession of eternities," periodically recoverable during the festivals that made up the sacred calendar. The liturgical time of the calendar flows in a closed circle; it is the cosmic time of the year, sanctified by the works of the gods. And since the most stupendous divine work was the creation of the world, commemoration of the cosmogony plays an important part in many religions. The New Year coincides with th first day of Creaton. The year is the temporal dimension of the cosmos. "The world has passed" expresses that a year has run its course.

At each New Year the cosmogony is reiterated, the world re-created, and to do this is also to create time—that is, to regenerate it by beginning it anew. This is why the cosmogonic myth serves as paradigmatic model for every creation of construction; it is even used as a ritual means of healing. By symbolically becoming contemporary with the Creation, one reintegrates the primordial plenitude. The sick man becomes well because he begins his life again with its sum of energy intact.

The religious festival is the reactualizaton of a primordial event, of a sacred history in which the actors are the gods or semidivine beings. But sacred history is recounted in the myths. Hence th participants in the festival become contemporaries of the gods and the semidinvine beings. They live in the primordial time that is sanctifiesd by the presence and activity of the gods. The sacred calendar peridically regenerates time, because it makes it coincide with the time of origin, the strong, pure time. The religious experience of the festival—that is, participation in the sacred—enables man periodically to live in the presence of the gods. This is the reason for the fundamental importance of myths in all pre-Mosaic religions, for the myths narrate the gesta of the gods and these gesta constitute paradigmatic models for all human activities. In so far as he imitates his gods, religious man lives in the time of origin, the time of the myths, In other words, he emerges from profane duration to recover an unmoving time, eternity.

Since for religious man of the primitive societies, myths constitute his sacred history, he must not forget them; by reactualizing the myths, he approaches his gods and participates in sanctity. But there are also tragic divine histories, and man assumes a great responsibility toward himself and toward nature by periodically reactualizing them. Ritual cannibalism, for example, is the consequence of a tragic religious conception.

In short, th4rough the reactualization of his myths, religious man attempts to approach the gods and to participate in being; the imitation of paradigmatic divine models expresses at once his desire for sanctity and his ontological nostalgia.

In the primitive and archaic religions the eternal repetition of the divine exploits is justified as an imitatio dei. The sacred calendar annually repeats the same festivals, that is, the commemoration of the same mythical events. . . . The festal calendar everywhere constitites a periodical return of the same primordial situations and hence a reactualization of the same sacred time. For religious man, reactualization of the same mythical events constitutes his greatest hope; for with each reactualizatioon he again has the opportunity to transfigure his existence, to make it like its divine model. . . . For him it is by virtue of this eternal return to the sources of the sacred and the real that human existence appears to be saved from nothingness and death. (105-107)

Eternal return becomes a source of horror and pessimism when it loses its sacred meaning and the repetition is no longer understood as renewal of creation and a recovery of the presence of the gods. Once desacralized, eternal return becomes a dead mechanical process that makes existence unbearable.

Judaism and Christianity integrate historical time into sacred time.

3. The Sacredness of Nature and Cosmic Religion

For religious man, nature is not natural. "The world is impregnated with sacredness." (116) The sacred manifests in the very structure of the world. "Nature always expresses something that transcends it." (118)

Simple contemplation of the celestial vault already provokes a religious experience. the sky shows itself to be infinite, transcendent. It is preeminently the "wholly other" . . . . Transcendence is revealed by simple awareness of infinite height. "Most high" spontaneously becomes an attribute of divinity. . . .

The cosmos—paradigmatic work of the gods—is so constructed that a religious sense of the divine transcendence is aroused by the very existence of the sky. (118-119)


Because of the sky's remoteness, celestial gods, widely held to be the most powerful of all gods, tend to become dei otiosi, inactive gods who are the originators of all things but who, after the moment of creation has passed, do not further intervene in their creations. They become deities of last resort, only supplicated in times of extreme crisis.

The advent of agriculture changes the economy of the sacred and brings with it a new set of deities much more closely involved in practical human concerns. "The great mother-goddesses and the strong gods or the spirits of fertility are markedly more dynamic and more accessible to men than was the Creator God." (126) Nonetheless

It could be said that the very structure of the cosmos keeps memory of the celestial supreme being alive. It is as if the gods had created the world in such a way that it could not but reflect their existence; for no world is possible without verticality, and that dimension alone is enough to evoke transcendence. (129)


The waters symbliize the universal sum of vitualities; they are fons et origo, "spring and origin," the reservoir of all possibilities of existence; they precede every form and support every creation. . . . Immersion in water signifies regresssion to the preformal, reincoporation into the undifferentiated mode of pre-existence. Emersion repeats the cosmogenic act of formal manifestation; immersion is equivalent to a dissoluton of forms. This is why the symbolism of the waters implies both death and rebirth. Contact with water always brings a regeneration—on the one hand because dissolution is followed by a new birth, on the other because immersion fertilizes and multiplies the potential of life.

In whatever religious complex we find them, the waters invariably retain their function; the disintegrate, abolish forms, "wash away sins"; they are at once purifying and regenerating. Their destiny is to precede Creation and to reabsorb it, since they are incapable of transcending their own mode of being, incapable, that is, of manifesting themselves in forms. (130-131)

Baptism combines the symbolism of immersion/burial/death and that of emesion/birth/regeneration. The Flood can be thought of as a primordial baptism that regenerated a fallen humanity.


Belief in mother earth was once universal. For religious man, the earth is the source of life to which life returns, the womb and tomb. This belief is reflected in such rites as the laying of the newborn and the dying on the ground and the belief that temporary burial, like water immersion, is regenerative.


Matriarchal ideas developed alongside the discovery of agriculture. "The sacrality of woman depends on the holiness of the earth. Feminine fecundity has a cosmic model—that of Terra Mater, the universal Genetrix." (144)

In some traditions, Mother Earth is capable of conceiving alone. "Traces of such archaic ideas are still found in the myths of the parthenogenesis of Mediterranean goddesses." In other traditions, creation is the product of a hierogamy, the sacred union of a sky god with mother earth. Human marriage as well as ritual orgies are sacralized as an imitation of the cosmic hierogamy.

Tree (Vegetation)

Human life is not felt as a brief appearance in time, between one nothingness and another; it is preceded by a pre-existence and continued in a postexistence. . . . The cosmos is a living organism, which renews itself periodically. The mystery of the inexhaustible apprearance of life is bound up with the rythmical renewal of the cosmos. This is why the cosmos was imagined in the form of a gigantic tree; the mode of being of the cosmos, and first of all its capacity for endless regeneration, are symbolically expressed by the life of the tree. (148)


The image of the tree was not chosen only to symbolize the cosmos but also to express life, youth, immortality, wisdom. . . . The tree came to express everything that religious man regards as pre-eminently real and sacred . . . (149)

In time, the desacralization of nature proceeds by displacement of sacred reverence for nature by aesthetic appreciation.

Moon and Sun

The moon and its cycles lend themselves to hierophanies that foreground "cycle, dualism, polarity, opposition, conflict, but also of reconciliation of contraries, of coincidentia oppositoriom." (156)

The sun, unlike the moon does not exhibit becoming. It is changeless. Thus, "Solar hierophanies give expression to the religious values of autonomy and power, of sovereignty, of intelligence." (157)

In solar mythologies, darkness is not a mode of being of the deity but a nemesis to be vanquished. Eventually, the identification of the solar with the intellectual goes so far as to transform religions into rationalistic philosophies. "Solar hierophanies give place to ideas, and religious feeling almost complerely disappears after this long process of rationalization." (158)

4. Human Existence and Sanctified Life

What we find as soon as we place ourselves in the perspective of religious man of the archaic societies is that the world exists because it was created by the gods, and that the existence of the world itself "means" something, "wants to say" something, that the world is neither mute nor opaque, that it is not an inert thing wihout purpose or significance. For religious man, the cosmos "lives" and "speaks." The mere life of the cosmos is proof of its sanctity, since it was created by the gods and the gods show themselves to men through cosmic life. (165)

Moreover, religious man "finds in himself the same sanctity that he recognizes in the cosmos." (165) Thus his life and every one of his activities is "homologized to cosmic life." (165) The full import of this has to be understood. Everything in the life of religious man has cosmic significance and is dignified by this significance. "Probably in a very distant past, all of man's organs and physiological experiences, as well as all his acts, had religious meaning." (167) (In contrast, everything in the life of modern man never achieves more than personal significance and very often not that. The default characteristic of modern life is banality.) "Cosmic symbolism adds a vew value to an object or action, without affecting their peculiar and immediate values." (167)

This sanctification of every aspect of human existence (including sexual life) gave rise to a complex network of homologies between man and the universe. The homology house-body-cosmos has far-reaching implications. From this arises the concept of an upper opening (in the house, the cranium, the cosmos) that permits communication with another world. "Passing beyond the human condition finds figural expression in the destruction of the 'house.'"

"Passage is predestined for every cosmic existence." (180) The openness of house-body-cosmos allows passage from one mode of being to another. This is crucial because man is not born completed but attains completion through a succcession of passage rites, each of which involves an initiation and the acquisition of new knowledge. The symbolism of the narrow gate or bridge expresses the ordeals of passage. Passage is difficult because transcendence is predicated on the death of the prior mode of existence. "To become a man in the proper sense he must die to this first (natural) life and be reborn to a higher life, which is at once religious and cultural." (187)

"Initiation usually comproses a threefold revelation of the sacred, of death, and of sexuality." (188) The initiate emerges from the initiating mysteries as one who knows. The symbolism of death and (re)birth figures prominently in these mysteries. The initiatory ordeals force upon the consciousness of the initiates the full import of assuming the position of man or woman. In contrast, in a totally desacralized society such as ours, the symbolism of death and birth is unavailable, as is symbolism in general, and rites of passage no longer exist. Thus each individual must "choose" his of her own identity. Today, this has extended to each individual being conferred the "right" to choose his or her gender identity. But because these identities are effortlessly self-confered they carry little weight and are as easily cast off as they are put on. Under these circumstances, one never attains the position of one who knows. One remains a perpetual infant, not to say embryo, arrested in a lifelong condition of labile identity, anxiety, and bewilderment.

Initiatory death reiterates the paradigmatic return to chaos, in order to make possible a repetition of the cosmogony—that is to prepare the new birth. Regression to chaos is sometimes literal—as, for example, in the case of the initiatory sichnesses of furture shamans, which have often been regarded as real attacks of insanity There is, in fact, a total crisis, which sometimes leads to disintegration of the personality. This psychic chaos is the sign that the profane man is undergong dissoluton and that a new personality is on the verge of birth. (196)

Religious man conquers the fear of that by transforming it into a rite of passage. Secular man shrinks from death and is, therefore, condemned to live what in comparision to the primitive is a cowardly, compromised, half-life.

Home religiosus always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real. He further believes that life has a sacred origin and that human existence realizes all of its potentialities in proportion as it is religious—that is, participates in reality. The gods created man and the world, the culture heroes completed the Creation, and the history of all these divine and semidivinee works is preserved in the myths. By reactualizing sacred history, by initating the divine behavior, man puts and keeps himself close to the gods—that is, in the real and the significant. (202)

The desacralized man is not a different species of man from the religious but the product of desacralization.

He forms himself by a series of denials and refusals, but he continues to be haunted by the realities that he has refused and denied. To acquire a world of his own, he has desacralized the world in which his ancestors lived: but to do so he has been obliged to adopt the opposite of an earlier type of behavior, and that behavior is still emotionally present to him, on one form or another, ready to be reactualized in his deepest being.

Note: If today the Enlightened West has turned against itself, it is to the extent that its own desacralization pits it against an identity that had a sacred origin. What we see today is that desacralization is not without consequences, that it must ultimately produce social disintegration. A truly secular society has no ground to stand on, no absolute to make it cohere, stabilize it, and distinguish it from any other. "Diversity" is a regression to preformal chaos.

The modern repression of the sacred relegates the rich symbolism accumulated in the time when man lived in a consecrated universe to the unconscious.

Do we then await the arrival of a messiah who can reactivate in Western man the capacity for hierophany?