Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Mircea Eliade

Romanian Historian of Religion, Fiction Writer, Philosopher and Professor at the University of Chicago

"Problems linked to illness, such as psychic crises, but also pains of a physiological nature (fever, migraines, rheumatic pains) can be assumed to be just so many initiatory trials. Uncovering the religious significance of illness and physical pain constitutes in effect shamanism’s essential contribution to the history of spirit."

"Death signifies the surpassing of the profane, non-sanctified condition, the condition of the “natural man,” ignorant of religion and blind to the spiritual. The mystery of initiation discloses to the neophyte, little by little, the true dimensions of existence; by introducing him to the sacred, the mystery obliges him to assume the responsibilities of a man."

"Every ritual has the character of happening now, at this very moment. The time of the event that the ritual commemorates or re-enacts is made present, `re-presented’ so to speak, however far back it may have been in ordinary reckoning."

"It was long ago observed that `rites of passage’ play a considerable part in the life of religious man. Certainly, the outstanding passage rite is represented by the puberty initiation, passage from one age group to another (from childhood or adolescence to youth). But there is also a passage rite at birth, at marriage, at death, and it could gbe said that each of these cases always involves an initiation, for each of them implies a radical change in ontological and social status."

"For those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality."

"A religious phenomenon will only be recognized as such if it is grasped at its own level, that is to say, if it is studied as something religious. To try to grasp the essence of such phenomenon by means of physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it — the element of the sacred."

"The crude product of nature, the object fashioned by the industry of man, acquire their reality, their identity, only to the extent of their participation in a transcendent reality."

"Psychoanalysis justifies its importance by asserting that it forces you to look to and accept reality. But what sort of reality? A reality conditioned by the materialistic and scientific ideology of psychoanalysis, that is, a historical product."

"Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany. It is a fitting term, because it does not imply anything further; it expresses no more than is implicit in its etymological content, i.e., that something sacred shows itself to us. It could be said that the 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 God 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."

"The History of Religions is destined to play an important role in contemporary cultural life. This is not only because an understanding of exotic and archaic religions will significantly assist in a cultural dialogue with the representatives of such religions. It is more especially because ... the history of religions will inevitably attain to a deeper knowledge of man. It is on the basis of such knowledge that a new humanism, on a world-wide scale, could develop."

"The interpretations of Freud are more and more successful because they are among the myths accessible to modern man. The myth of the murdered father, among others, reconstituted and interpreted in Totem and Taboo. It would be impossible to ferret out a single example of slaying the father in primitive religions or mythologies. This myth was created by Freud. And what is more interesting: the intellectual élite accept it (is it because they understand it? Or because it is "true" for modern man?)"

"It is above all the valorizing of the present that requires emphasizing. The simple fact of existing, of living in time, can comprise a religious dimension. This dimension is not always obvious, since sacrality is in a sense camouflaged in the immediate, in the "natural" and the everyday. The joy of life discovered by the Greeks is not a profane type of enjoyment: it reveals the bliss of existing, of sharing — even fugitively — in the spontaneity of life and the majesty of the world. Like so many others before and after them, the Greeks learned that the surest way to escape from time is to exploit the wealth, at first sight impossible to suspect, of the lived instant."

"The history of religions reaches down and makes contact with that which is essentially human: the relation of man to the sacred. The history of religions can play an extremely important role in the crisis we are living through. The crises of modern man are to a large extent religious ones, insofar as they are an awakening of his awareness to an absence of meaning."

"When the sacred manifests itself in any hierophany, there is not only a break in the homogeneity of space; there is also a 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 homogenous 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."

"It is not without fear and trembling that a historian of religion approaches the problem of myth. This is not only because of that preliminary embarrassing question: what is intended by myth? It is also because the answers given depend for the most part on the documents selected."

"The way towards 'wisdom' or towards 'freedom' is the way towards your inner being. This is the simplest definition of metaphysics."

"In archaic and traditional societies, the surrounding world is conceived as a microcosm. At the limits of this closed world begins the domain of the unknown, of the formless. On this side there is ordered — because of inhabited and organized — space; on the other, outside this familiar space, there is the unknown and dangerous region of the demons, the ghosts, and the dead and foreigners — in a world, chaos or death or night. This image of an inhabited microcosm, surrounded by desert regions as a chaos or a kingdom of the dead, has survived even in highly evolved civilizations such as those of China, Mesopotamia and Egypt."

"It would be frightening to think that in all the cosmos, which is so harmonious, so complete and equal to itself, that only human life is happening randomly, that only one's destiny lacks meaning."

"The great cosmic illusion is a hierophany.... One is devoured by Time, not because one lives in Time, but because one believes in its reality, and therefore forgets or despises eternity."

"Myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from various and complementary viewpoints. Speaking for myself, the definition that seems least inadequate because most embracing is this: Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the "beginnings." In other words myth tells how, through the deeds of Supernatural Beings, a reality came into existence, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality — an island, a species of plant, a particular kind of human behavior, an institution. Myth, then, is always an account of a "creation"; it relates how something was produced, began to be. Myth tells only of that which really happened, which manifested itself completely. The actors in myths are Supernatural Beings. They are known primarily by what they did in the transcendent times of the "beginnings." hence myths disclose their creative activity and reveal the sacredness (or simply the "supernaturalness") of their works. In short, myths describe the various and sometimes dramatic breakthroughs of the sacred (or the "supernatural") into the World. It is this sudden breakthrough of the sacred that really establishes the World and makes it what it is today. Furthermore, it is as a result of the intervention of Supernatural Beings that man himself is what he is today, a mortal, sexed, and cultural being."

"The hearer of myth, regardless of his level of culture, when he is listening to a myth, forgets, as it were, his particular situation and is projected into another world, into another universe which is no longer his poor little universe of every day. . . . The myths are true because they are sacred, because they tell him about sacred beings and events. Consequently, in reciting or listening to a myth, one resumes contact with the sacred and with reality, and in so doing one transcends the profane condition, the "historical situation." In other words one goes beyond the temporal condition and the dull self-sufficiency which is the lot of every human being simply because every human being is "ignorant" — in the sense that he is identifying himself, and Reality, with his own particular situation. And ignorance is, first of all, this false identification of Reality with what each one of us appears to be or to possess."

"For the past fifty years at least, Western scholars have approached the study of myth from a viewpoint markedly different from, let us say, that of the nineteenth century. Unlike their predecessors, who treated myth in the usual meaning of the word, that is, as "fable," "invention," "fiction," they have accepted it as it was understood in archaic societies, where, on the contrary, "myth" means a "true story" and, beyond that, a story that is a most precious possession because it is sacred, exemplary, significant. This new semantic value given the term "myth" makes its use in contemporary parlance somewhat equivocal. Today, that is, the word is employed both in the sense of "fiction" or "illusion" and in that familiar especially to ethnologists, sociologists, and historians of religions, the sense of "sacred tradition, primordial revelation, exemplary model." ... the Greeks steadily continued to empty mythos of all religious and metaphysical value. Contrasted both with logos and, later, with historia, mythos came in the end to denote "what cannot really exist." On its side, Judaeo-Christianity put the stamp of "falsehood" and "illusion" on whatever was not justified or validated by the two Testaments."

"In one way or another one "lives" the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or re-enacted. "Living" a myth, then, implies a genuinely "religious" experience, since it differs from the ordinary experience of everyday life. The "religiousness" of this experience is due to the fact that one re-enacts fabulous, exalting, significant events, one again witnesses the creative deeds of the Supernaturals; one ceases to exist in the everyday world and enters a transfigured, auroral world impregnated with the Supernaturals' presence. What is involved is not a commemoration of mythical events but a reiteration of them. The protagonists of the myth are made present; one becomes their contemporary. This also implies that one is no longer living in chronological time, but in the primordial Time, the Time when the event first took place. This is why we can use the term the "strong time" of myth; it is the prodigious, "sacred" time when something new, strong, and significant was manifested. To re-experience that time, to re-enact it as often as possible, to witness again the spectacle of the divine works, to meet with the Supernaturals and relearn their creative lesson is the desire that runs like a pattern through all the ritual reiterations of myths. In short, myths reveal that the World, man, and life have a supernatural origin and history, and that this history is significant, precious, and exemplary."

"In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time."

"Whereas "false stories" can be told anywhere and at any time, myths must not be recited except during a period of sacred time (usually in autumn or winter, and only at night).... This custom has survived even among peoples who have passed beyond the archaic stage of culture. Among the Turco-Mongols and the Tibetans the epic songs of the Gesar cycle can be recited only at night and in winter."

"And I realize how useless wails are and how gratuitous melancholy is."

"As long as you have not grasped that you have to die to grow, you are a troubled guest on the dark earth."

"The primitive magician, the medicine man or shaman is not only a sick man, he is above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself."

"It was lunar symbolism that enabled man to relate and connect such heterogeneous things as: birth, becoming, death, and ressurection; the waters, plants, woman, fecundity, and immortality; the cosmic darkness, prenatal existence, and life after death, followed by the rebirth of the lunar type ("light coming out of darkness"); weaving, the symbol of the "thread of life," fate, temporality, and death; and yet others. In general most of the ideas of cycle, dualism, polarity, opposition, conflict, but also of reconciliation of contraries, of coincidentia oppositorum, were either discovered or clarified by virtue of lunar symbolism. We may even speak of a metaphysics of the moon, in the sense of a consistent system of "truths" relating to the mode of being peculiar to living creatures, to everything in the cosmos that shares in life, that is, in becoming, growth and waning, death and ressurrection."

"I sometimes states that if they lose time. You do not know - or do not remember - when they started, what has unleashed such changes. And yet, so afraid of bliss sometimes emerges a word, a cry, a song or a single musical note, that you remain constantly present, without getting instability or even slightly surprised them. "

"Light does not come from light, but from darkness."

"Destiny is that part of time which represents the history's will printed on us."

"Memories are the icons of time lost."

"The joy of life is not a profane type of enjoyment: it reveals the bliss of existing, of sharing in the spontaneity of life and the majesty of the world."

"The crises of modern man are to a large extent religious ones, insofar as they are an awakening of his awareness to an absence of meaning."

"In love, no certainty is ultimate... That elementary thing - the feeling that you are loved - must be certified again and again, because one doubt,one mistake razes everything to madness and ecstasy."

"Myth tells how, through the deeds of Supernatural Beings, a reality came into existence, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality - an island, a species of plant, a particular kind of human behavior, an institution."

"Nothing lasts within the heart. Even the most certified conviction can be annulled by a single gesture."

"If man completely forgets that there is death, that there is an end to it all, we risk becoming monkeys again. The explanation is simple,the active man, the creative man, is especially excited by the idea that one day it will all be over, that there will be an end, a final rest. Be overly aware of the existence of this end and you'll get from people the most extraordinary efforts. Whomever knows this constantly is capable of raising mountains, is capable of the wildest liberties, the most courageous acts."

"Neti! Neti! cries the sage of the Upanishads: "No! No! thou art not this; nor art thou that! In other words: you do not belong to the fallen cosmos, as you see it now, you are not necessarily engulfed in this creation; necessarily - that is to say, by virtue of the law of your own being. Now, nature has no true ontological reality; it is, indeed, universal becoming. Every cosmic form, complex and magestic though it may be, ends by disintegrating; the universe itself is periodically reabsorbed by "great dissolutions" (mahapralaya) into the primordial matrix (prakriti)."

"Myth is always an account of a "creation"; it relates how something was produced, began to be."

"To be afraid of nothing means to see everything that happens in the world as a show, means that we can intervene anytime, through imaginatgion, and we can change the show as we want. "

"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."

"Do what he will, he [the profane man] is an inheritor. He cannot utterly abolish his past, since he himself is a product of his past. 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 an earlier type of behavior, and that behavior is still emotionally present in him, in one form or another, ready to be reactualized in his deepest being."

"[Profane/Secular] Man makes himself, and he only makes himself completely in proportion as he desacralizes himself and the world. The sacred is the prime obstacle to his freedom. … He will not be truly free until he has killed the last god."

"A non-religious man today ignores what he considers sacred but, in the structure of his consciousness, could not be without the ideas of being and the meaningful. He may consider these purely human aspects of the structure of consciousness. What we see today is that man considers himself to have nothing sacred, no god; but still his life has a meaning, because without it he could not live; he would be in chaos. He looks for being and does not immediately call it being, but meaning or goals; he behaves in his existence as if he had a kind of center. He is going somewhere, he is doing something. We do not see anything religious here; we just see man behaving as a human being. But as a historian of religion, I am not certain that there is nothing religious here."

"A creation implies a superabundance of reality, in other words an irruption of the sacred into the world. It follows that every construction or fabrication has the cosmogany as paradigmatic model. The creation of the world becomes the archetype of every creative human gesture, whatever its plane of reference may be."

"A restriction of the inquiry to "primitive" mythologies risks giving the impression that there is no continuity between archaic thought and the thought of the peoples who played an important role in ancient history. Now, such a solution of continuity does not exist."

"A rock reveals itself to be sacred because its very existence is a hierophany: incompressible, invulnerable, it is that which man is not."

"A universe comes to birth from its center; it spreads out from a central point that is, as it were, its navel."