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Friday, March 15, 2024

Mircea Eliade's Limitations


This is the fourth in a series on the failures of leading 20th century mythologists and religionists to uncover significant antecedents of the religions they studied. The first considers the work of Joseph Campbell, the second addresses Raimon Panikkar's Limitations, and the third looks at the failure of Carlos Castaneda to empirically investigate the roots of shamanism. 

Dr. Alice C. Linsley

The Romanian born Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) is rightly regarded as a preeminent scholar of religions and one of the world’s foremost interpreters of religious symbolism and myth. He was a prolific writer and of the five writers I am considering in this series, I find his research to be the most empirical. 

Eliade's writings reveal great insight on how early human populations viewed time as cyclical, how they understood the "world" to be that of their limited experience, and how events outside their worlds were viewed as magical or supernatural intrusions. 

Eliade understood myths to be symbolic sacred narratives about mythic events that cannot be identified with historical events. Through enactment of sacred rituals humans enter again and again into the timeless mysteries of their ancestors. According to Eliade, creation myths and origin myths describe "breakthroughs of the sacred (or the 'supernatural') into the World." He called such breakthroughs "hierophanies" rather than "theophanies" because while these narratives do not always involve deities, they all involve the sacred or holy (hiero).

In mythic hierophanies, the sacred appears in the actions and commandments of gods, heroes, priests and shamans. By manifesting an ideal such as self-sacrifice, the sacred gives the world value, direction, and purpose. According to Eliade, "The manifestation of the sacred, ontologically founds the world." In this view, all things are to imitate or conform to the sacred models reflected in hierophanies in order to have true reality.  All things "acquire their reality, their identity, only to the extent of their participation in a transcendent reality."

Christian sacramentalists easily can relate to this. Christ, the Man-God, comes to us in the bread and wine consecrated by a priest of the Church. His self-sacrifice gives infinite value, purpose, and strength to those who receive Him in faith and obedience.

Eliade's analysis of secular man

Eliade saw a sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane. In this he followed the lead of Émile Durkheim who considered the distinction between the sacred and the profane to be a central reality of religion. Both thinkers were reacting to the lack of respect in modern western societies for sacred things that deserve reverence or veneration.

Eliade criticized those who attempted to reduce religion to psychological, social, economic, historical, or other nonreligious phenomena. According to him, such attempts failed to convey the unique essence of the "sacred" in religious experience.

In his book The Sacred and the Profane, he exposes the lack of self-recognition of secularists. Moses was told to remove his shoes because he stood on sacred or holy ground (Ex.3:5). Religious people regard their places of worship as sacred ground, and while the secular person may belittle that attitude, he too has sacred spaces. For the one who loves to cook, it may be the kitchen. For the one who loves to garden it may be an enclosed refuge.

Sacred Time and Space

Eliade observed that time for traditional communities is not historical. Rather, it is archetypal or mythical. They observe periodic times of festival, propitious days for weddings, and days of rest. These were determined by lunar cycles, solar cycles, and agricultural cycles.

Eliade recognized that rituals, ceremonies, and even the architecture of ancient societies expressed belief in the connection between earthy sacred space and heavenly sacred space. The Babylonian temple had seven tiers because the number seven represented the number of visible celestial bodies: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. The architecture was intended to express a celestial reality on earth.

Eliade believed that many ceremonies represent humanity's attempt to overcome chaos by renewing the primal estate of innocence or sinlessness. Such ceremonies mark a new beginning, "the mythical moment of the passage from chaos to cosmos" and new year ceremonies are "a resumption of time from the beginning, that is, a repetition of the cosmogony." (The Myth of the Eternal Return, p.54).

The early Hebrew had a consciousness of the cyclical nature of time associated with the seasons, agriculture, fertility, etc. However, they believed that time was created by God. Genesis 1 speaks of this. In this view, since God is eternal, that is outside of time, there must have been a "beginning" and that beginning was when God began to create.

Mircea Eliade noted that the religious person can hold both the mythical cyclical view of time and also commemorate a beginning such as the divine work of creation of the world (The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, p. 104).

Eliade on Shamanism

Eliade's book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was first published in French by Librarie Payot in 1951. The book was later translated into English by Willard R. Trask and published by Princeton University Press in 1964. This book, along with the writings of Carlos Castaneda, influenced the Neoshamanic movement which developed in the western world in the 1960s and 1970s.

Eliade explains that his intention is to situate world shamanism within the larger history of religion. Disputing any claims that shamanism is a result of mental illness, he highlights the benefits that further sociological and ethnographic research could provide before explaining the role of a historian of religions. Describing shamanism as "precisely one of the archaic techniques of ecstasy", he proclaims that it is "at once mysticism, magic and "religion" in the broadest sense of the term."

His book describes shamanic practices of initiation, methods of obtaining power, and the symbolism of the shaman's clothing, implements, and drum. The second half of the book considers the development of shamanism in Asia, the Americas, Oceania, Tibet, China and Japan. Eliade speculated that shamanism was the earliest religion and that all shamanisms had a common source in the Paleolithic. He was never able to provide empirical evidence to support that view. However, his thought seems to align with a long-accepted principle of cultural anthropology that the more widely distributed a culture trait, the older it is.

Many archaeologists assume that shamanism preceded the organized religions of the Axial Age (1000 BC- 200 AD). They believe cave art depicts shamans conducting ceremonies as early as 15,000 years ago, although this is controversial. Eliade believed the roots of shamanic practice are to be found in the paleolithic, but he was unable to produce evidence of this. 

Eliade's Limitations

On publication, Eliade's book on Shamanism was recognized as an authoritative study. However, as anthropological data increased, elements of the book were questioned. It is evident that that shamanism exists in many regions of the globe, but it has not been proven to be the only archaic religion, nor has it been proven that all shamanistic practices have a common source. 

Eliade failed to distinguish between shamanic religion and the ancient henotheistic, non-occult religions such as that of the early Hebrew (4200 BC) and their Nilotic priest ancestors (10,000 BC). 

Eliade's exploration of shamanism reveals the slippery work of defining the religious office. He described shamanism as a "technique of ecstasy". However, that description also could apply to non-occult religious practices of ancient populations. 

He explained that shamanism is embedded in a framework of cosmological beliefs. The same could be said for the priests of the Nile Valley who were keeping records of astronomical events as early as 10,000 years ago, according to Plato. By 4245 BC, the priests of the Upper Nile had established a calendar based on the appearance of the star Sirius that becomes visible to the naked eye once every 1,461 years. Apparently, they had been tracking this star and connecting it to seasonal changes and agriculture for thousands of years. The priest historian Manetho reported in 241 BC that Nilotic Africans had been stargazing as early as 40,000 years ago.

Shamanism can be viewed as a form of healing. The same can be said for the office of priest. The tradition of physician priests has deep roots in Africa. Only members of the elite strata of African society learned and practiced medicine. One of the earliest known medical practitioners was Eanach (Enoch). He served the Pharaoh as his physician priest, or a wab sxmt (wab sekhmet). Eanach lived around 3000 B.C. and is said to have "healed the pharaoh's nostrils."

Ancient Egyptian doctors used copper to sterilize water and wounds around 2,400 BC. They also used herbs and minerals medicinally. They mixed the substances with honey, wine, or beer. Some medicines were worked into dough balls to form pills. They used ointments for wounds and treated chest complaints by getting the patient to inhale steam infused with essential oils. Oil was used to prevent infection, treat dry skin, and for anointing the sick with prayers for healing.

The idea of sacred pools can be traced to the priest-physicians of the Nile Valley. The sick came to them at the water shrines and temples. Water was used to cleanse wounds, ease strained muscles, and for ritual healing of the inner person.

The wives and daughters of these early Hebrew ruler-priests served at the royal water shrines. One title for royal ladies who served at Bronze Age water shrines was rabitu. The term is related to an Ancient Egypt word bity, and to the earlier Akkadian words for water (raatu) and house/shrine (biitu). The emblem of the rabitu was the spindle. In the Ugaritic story of Elimelek, the queen mother holds the title rabitu and her emblem is the spindle.

Many women had names associated with Neith as she was the patroness of water shrines, rivers, pregnant women, and women in childbirth. It is likely that Neith was a holy woman who lived at one of the early water shrines along the Nile before Egypt emerged as a political entity (c.3200 B.C.). Joseph's wife Aseneth was named for her. Aseneth was the daughter of a priest at Heliopolis, a prestigious shrine city on the Nile River.

It has been argued that the office of shaman is older than the office of priest since the priest is associated with temples and with what Eliade called the "paleo-oriental cultures" of Babylon, Egypt, and Israel. Yet there were priests at Catalhoyuk in 7500 BC. They wore the traditional priestly garb of the leopard skin. Recent excavations have identified a small temple on the eastern side of the sacred settlement.

Many of the practices associated with shamans are also associated with priests. At what point in human history did the two offices become distinct? Unfortunately, that question was never addressed by Eliade, and this is one of the limitations of his work.

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