In his introduction, Eliade puts forth an initial definition of “sacred” as that which is the “opposite of profane”, establishing early on the polarity between the sacred and the profane, the two modalities of experience, or “the two existential situations assumed by man in the course of history”. For the religious man, the sacred is equivalent to reality. Only that which is perceived to be sacred is ultimately real in both its enduringness and efficacy. Conversely, that which does not manifest itself as sacred belongs to the mundane and profane universe thus making it unreal or pseudo-real. As such, the religious man deeply desires to be real and to participate in reality, and thus tends to remain as much as possible in the sacred or in close proximity to consecrated objects, as will be discussed later on.
On the other hand, the nonreligious man of the modern world subsists in a desacralized and profane universe. The sacred realities perceived by the religious man through hierophanies (i.e., manifestations of sacred realities) remain mundane in the profane reality of the nonreligious man. However, this does not suggest that the religious man and nonreligious man live in completely opposing realities. Eliade describes the nature of hierophanies as such: “By manifesting the sacred, an object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding cosmic milieu.” The difference merely lies in the capability of the religious man to experience reality of a wholly different order aside from the same reality experienced by the nonreligious man.
Eliade first tackles the concept of sacred space or space as hierophanies. He builds on the premise that for the religious man, space is not homogeneous. For the religious man, there exists sacred space or space which significant and profane space or all other areas of space surrounding the sacred space, signifying that the sacred space, be it a country, city or sanctuary, lies at the center of the world. To quote, “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.”
At the center of the world also lies the axis mundi, the universal pillar, that which connects and supports the three cosmic levels: the earth, heaven and underworld. The three cosmic levels communicate through the axis mundi and this is how sacred space is revealed to the religious man, from heaven to earth. It must be noted that sacred space is revealed through the gods, and at times, even provoked by man, but it is never chosen by man himself. Sacred space is communicated to man by the gods through the axis mundi. Naturally, the religious man dwells in this sacred space, situated at the center of the world. This inhabited territory is juxtaposed against the surrounding expanse of space around it, which is unknown space. The sacredness of the inhabited territory by religious man signifies the cosmos, or the world created by the gods, a world of order and form. Conversely, the unknown space surrounding it signifies chaos, that which is foreign and formless, populated by ghosts, demons, or the dead.
Time shares a similar characteristic with space in that they are both not homogeneous to the religious man. Moreover, similar to sacred space that exists both in the profane world and in a wholly other order, the religious man also lives in two kinds of time. The first is ordinary time, that which is linear and profane and devoid of religious significance. The second is sacred time, that which “appears under the paradoxical aspect of circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically integrated by means of rites”.
In this definition, Eliade highlights two characteristics of sacred time as follows: “Sacred time is reversible” and “Sacred time is a primordial mythical time made present”. This is elucidated in archaic societies wherein religious festivals or any liturgical time represents the reactualization of a sacred that took place in a mythical past, in illo tempore, or the time of origin. During this time, the religious man does not only re-enact the mythical past for he actually dwells in it. The religious man periodically becomes contemporary with the gods. This again reflects the religious man’s desire to emulate the gods, to share the characteristics of the gods, which he perceives to be real and enduring, just as the religious man desires to dwell at the center of the world, near the axis mundi, where communication with the gods is possible. Eliade labels myths as “paradigmatic models” for “one becomes truly a man only by conforming to the teaching of the myths, by imitating the gods”.
Sacredness of Nature and Human Existence
Finally, Eliade examines other hierophanies present in nature and other aspects of human existence. For the religious man, nature is never “only natural” and is always fraught with religious value. Cosmic religion reveals that sacrality is revealed the structures of the world. He elucidates this point by examining universal symbols such as the transcendence of the sky, the duality of water as a symbol of life and death, beginning and end, through emersion and immersion in water and the fecundity and fertility of the earth.
Sacred and Profane in the Modern World
In understanding Eliade’s text, it is important to make the distinction between the man of archaic societies, that which he typically ascribes to be the religious man and the man of modern society, that which he typically ascribes as the nonreligious man. To be clear, he argues that even the modern man is not completely nonreligious. Desacralization of the universe and human existence is a recent discovery, and as such, traces of religious action and thought remain in the modern nonreligious man as he is a descendant of his ancestor, the religious man of the archaic societies. He goes on to suggest that religiosity may be an unconscious aspect of being, ingrained even in those who live in the most desacralized modern societies. He writes, “The majority of the “irreligious” still behave religiously, even though they are not aware of the fact… But modern man who feels and claims that he is nonreligious still retains a large stock of camouflaged myths and degenerated rituals.” He also asserts that while the existence of the modern man is impoverished in the sense that the nonreligious modern man only dwells in his profane universe, “the unconscious offers him solutions for the difficulties of his own life, and in this way plays the role of religion.”