Meditations on Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane Part I
For the next couple of weeks, I wanted to discuss and interpret the mythoreligious ideas found in Mircea Eliade’s seminal text The Sacred and the Profane, an exploration of the religious impulse and the contrast between the sacred man and the profane man. Eliade shows us how the total human experience of the religious sacred man compares to that of the nonreligious profane.
The sacred man is one who lives God or the gods not as an idea, an abstract, but a power. A terrible power. One that inspires a feeling of terror, awe, and mystery. The Mysterium Tremendum, the Numinous, and the wholly other.
The profane man, the modern, Nietzsche’s final man, the Bugman, lives in the present material world divorced from the Numinous. In past ages, man lived in the sacred. He yearned to be in the reality of the gods. Modern man lives outside of it.
I will explore the concept of Sacred Space, Sacred Time, Sacred Nature, and Sacred Humanity, and try to put forth my ideas on how these concepts apply to our current socio-religious reality.
PART I: SACRED SPACE
“Draw not nigh hither,” says the Lord to Moses, “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” Exodus 3-5
The first concept I wanted to focus on is the idea of Sacred Space. Space is not in a material way that can be measured and mapped but space as a mythological religious idea. From the religious man’s perspective, there exist two distinct ideas of space, the sacred and the mundane.
Sacred space is outside the material, it is not homogenous, and it is not interrupted. Sacred space is strong and significant, it holds meaning and power. Mundane space is without structure or consistency, an amorphous locale.
Everyday life is filled with such mundane space which lacks meaning. We spend our lives going from place to amorphous place that we don’t even register or remember our location. Meaningless stores that are identical, boxy locations that we forget the instant we exit, roads and structures that exist in the vast ocean of chaos that lacks orientation.
Sacred space in contrast is a religious experience because it represents a break in the mundane ocean. It reveals a fixed point, a sacred hierophany in the vast nothingness that gives us a revelation of absolute reality by revealing a point that we can use to orient ourselves.
The discovery of a fixed point, a center eternal, is the equivalent of the creation of the world. If a man has a fixed point then man can orient himself, create a map, define a territory, and create the world.
In the profane, space is homogenous and neutral. There is no break differentiating its mass. It is wholly desacralized. Mundane space maintains homogeneity and relativity. No true orientation is possible. The true point disappears and appears in accordance with the needs of the day. It is an infinite number of neutral spaces that man traverses through driven by the needs and obligations of modern society.
Yet even the most profane desacralized Bugman retains vestiges of the sacred space. Thresholds, and entrances, hold spiritual power. The doors we use to enter our homes have solidity and meaning well beyond the material that even the Bugman recognizes. Note how the agents of chaos attack the idea of homeownership and despise laws like the Castle Doctrine, that give men dominion over their own sacred space.
The mundane modern man even recognizes and assigns privilege to some space, acknowledging, often subconsciously qualities different from the other in a sacred way. His birthplace. The first city visited. The bench in the park where he kissed his first love. The sacred breaks through the mundane even for the blind and deaf allowing revelation from a reality other than which he participates in during everyday mundane life.
Consider a church. It is a sacred place. The church exists in a different space from the street on which it stands. Crossing its threshold separates the two spaces, one sacred and one profane, indicating the difference between the two modes of being.
The threshold is the limit, the boundary, an object of great spiritual importance. A true liminal space. The history of mankind is filled with rituals dedicated to the guardians of thresholds, its gods, and spirits who forbid entrance to human enemies, demons, and pestilence. Consider the thresholds in your life, I guarantee that once you attune yourself to the sacred concept you will notice the spiritual importance of such places even in the mundane. There is a reason that all religions place great importance on them, for by passing through a threshold one can enter into a sacred space and transcend into communication with the gods. Paradoxical points of passage.
Creation of Sacred Space
Sacred spaces are created by a theophany, by signs, or through deliberate rituals. Locations of spiritual revelation become sacred. Churches are built on sacred ground sanctified by the lives of the saints. Rituals are performed. Primitive cultures would often let loose an animal, seek it out, sacrifice it, and build an altar on the spot, allowing the sacred to be revealed.
Sacred man views the universe in two modes. Our world, the cosmos, and everything outside, the other world, is populated by chaos, demons, ghosts, and dangerous animals. The cosmos creates reality, it forms reality. There once was nothing but chaos then it was shaped into the cosmos.
Man takes possession of the territory and creates it, he transforms it from chaos to cosmos. This transformation is a divine act of subcreation, imitating the act of God who organized chaos by giving it structure, form, and norms.
Think of the Spanish conquistadors, discovering and conquering new territories, they took possession of the land and consecrated it in the name of Jesus Christ, creating a new world with the planting of the cross. The world of the natives was thrown into chaos and their gods relegated to the graveyard of memory, and that chaos reformed into a new land.
Even on a smaller yet equally sacred level man creates and consecrates. When a couple buys a new house they consciously and subconsciously perform rituals by bringing a family, housewarming, celebrating, decorating, and turning the empty mundane chaos of an empty house into a sacred space, a home.
Axis Mundi, Communication with the Divine
The Sacred Space, the church, temple, shrine, and holy grove, allows communication with the divine through the cosmic pillar, The Axis Mundi, which connects Heaven and Earth and the Earth and the Underworld.
Consider the ancients, almost all recognized the holy cosmic mountain. The place that touches heaven. The place where you can communicate with the gods. We see this in almost all cultures. In Judaism and Christianity Moses goes to the mountain where he experiences theophany. Crist takes the three disciples up the mountain for the transfiguration. The cosmic mountain appears time and time again in both the West and the East. Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, Mount Fuji, Mount Olympus, on and on we find sacred space where the earth meets the heavens because man has the religious urge to be near the divine.
Holy sites, and sacred spaces, are sacred representations that religious man considers replicas and paradoxical reality of the cosmic mountain, therefore, linking the sacred and the profane, the heaven to earth and the earth to the underworld.
Ziggurats, pyramids, and massive cathedrals, all shoot for the heavens yearning for the divine in imitation of the cosmic mountain. The same places also dig deep into the underworld. Pyramids are tombs housing the passage of the dead. Churches house catacombs, crypts, and burial grounds. Holy sacred places are a fixed point, the Axis Mundi, a representation of the holy center that connects and creates the universe.
Human society recreates the sacred Axis Mundi by starting at the center. The village comes into existence at the intersection. Sacred space, four corners, four cardinal directions. The shaman's hut, the village well, the sacred loghouse, the cathedral. They all anchor and connect the human habitation to the divine. From this center, the world is created and cities spread.
The city is a sacred space. It is a space of subcreation against chaos. An attack on the city is an attack by the forces of chaos against order. City walls, in the past, blessed and sanctified are used to keep demons and disease out.
The Importance of the Sacred Space
Religious man, in tune with the Numinous, yearns to be near the center, yearns to have a point to orient himself and his life, allowing him to take part in the act of creation. The forces of chaos recognize this. We can see that in the enemy’s constant want to get rid of the sacred. We see the desacralization in the constant tearing down of the beautiful, replacing it with the ugly and lifeless. Le Corbusier, “the house is a machine to live in.” Desacralized and spiritless.
We can see the forces of chaos in the policies and cultural movements that encourage modern mundane man to move from city to city, becoming rootless and disconnected from the sacred. We can see it in how we turn a blind eye to the destruction of holy places, and churches, and in the inability or lack of desire to address riots and homelessness. The tearing down of statues, symbols that connect one to the past and give to the future. All are attacks on sacred space. There’s a reason that city parks, once sacred glades in the middle of the mundane are now associated with homelessness, chaos, and danger. Chaos has breached our once sacred walls and is running rampant among us.
Sacred space is important to spiritual health and the future of our very existence because if the sacred man is to survive he must continue taking part in the religious experience of recreating the creation process.
I think we should all meditate on the concept of sacred space. Take the time to look and feel, even the least of the places in our lives that allow us a glimpse into the divine, and strive to protect the great places that remain while creating new ones.
If you enjoyed this piece, please take the time to share it on social media and more importantly comment below with your insight. I want to know about your experiences with the concept of sacred space.
THE DACIAN is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.