Mircea Eliade and The Myth of the Eternal Return

Mircea Eliade and The Myth of the Eternal Return

“It was myth that told the truth: the real story was already only a falsification."

Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

Mircea Eliade was a philosopher and writer born in Bucharest, Romania in 1907 and died in 1986 at the age of 79 in Chicago, Illinois. He earned his MA in Philosophy and spent years writing and thinking about the history of religion. Eliade was terrified by the notion that cultures could eclipse the living flesh and memories – entire histories and spiritual realities – that made up the ground beneath their feet. 

Mircea Eliade

Influenced by Rudolf Otto’s exploration of the numinous in The Idea of the Holy, Mircea Eliade pursued the common experiences of religions, symbols, and myth across cultures. This made both Otto and Eliade early pioneers of what we now call comparative religion.

Mircea Eliade’s sympathies for other cultural experiences were also informed by his travels abroad. Eliade studied abroad in Italy for several months in 1928 before heading to India. 

Time and space were always intimately linked for Mircea Eliade. While he wrote on the histories of religious experiences over time, he offered fresh insights into the relationship between space and cultural. He was specifically interested in how we apprehend space in a way that celebrates our spiritual experiences. 

We recently discussed how American writer, Joseph Campbell, returned from his trip abroad in 1929 hoping to study Sanskrit while pursuing his PhD at Columbia. He ultimately opted out of the PhD and chose the path of independent scholarship because he had no support. Had he received support, it is very likely he would have crossed paths with Mircea Eliade. Eliade began studying Sanskrit in India in 1928.

Mircea Eliade’s writings straddle several genres including short fiction and novels as well as autobiography, journalism, and essay writing. His philosophy is focused on religious experience, which means he is also exploring aspects of phenomenology as well. 

He is largely credited with articulating the dialectic of profane space and sacred space, and Eliade proposes something called “creative hermeneutics” in an effort to recognize the sacred yearnings that emerge when navigating profane space.

The Myth of the Eternal Return

In his 1949 book, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade explores the origin stories that make up the fabric of reality. Understanding the unique impressions of various cultures enriches our contemporary imagination.

Especially interesting to Eliade are transcendent creation myths that we experience in the form of personal and cultural memories. We apprehend these through memory, but every time we experience a memory, the act of remembering is an act of invention. Not just any act, though, a cosmogonic act – an act of creation.

“To assure the reality and the enduringness of construction, there is a repetition of the divine act of perfect construction: the Creation of the worlds and of man. As the first step, the “reality” of the site is secured through consecration of the ground, i.e., through its transformation into a center; then the validity of the act of construction is confirmed by repetition of the divine sacrifice. Naturally, the consecration of the center occurs in space qualitatively different from profane space. Through the paradox of rite, every consecrated space coincides with the center of the world, just as the time of any ritual coincides with the mythical time of the “beginning.” Through repetition of the cosmogonic act, concrete time, in which the construction takes place, is projected into mythical time, when the foundation of the world occurred. Thus the reality and the enduringness of a construction are assured not only by the transformation of profane space into a transcendent space (the center) but also by the transformation of concrete time into mythical time. Any ritual whatever, as we shall see later, unfolds not only in a consecrated space (i.e., one different in essence from profane space) but also in a sacred time, once upon a time (in illo tempore, ab origine), that is, when the ritual was performed for the first time by a god, an ancestor, or a hero.”

Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

Mircea Eliade The Myth of the Eternal Return

This passage contains the same devotion to repetition that someone like Soren Kierkegaard might offer in his similarly bold insight:

 

“Repetition is the reality and the seriousness of life.” Soren Kierkegaard

 

In his 1993 work exploring Micrea Eliade’s visionary impulse, Mircea Eliade and the New Humanism, David Cave acknowledges that it is through the repetition of experience that we come to interpret time and space at all:

“This repetition of archetypes belonging to the time of "beginnings" is what Eliade meant by the "myth of the eternal return." To recall the primordial archetypes is to give meaning to the present as a creative moment. In fact, it is only upon the existence of earlier experiences and events that we can interpret the present at all.”

David Cave, Mircea Eliade's Vision for a New Humanism

David Cave Mircea Eliade's Vision for a New Humanism

If reality is a closely woven fabric, then it is by and through each instance of connection that stories are sewn into time and space. With each repetition, creation is regenerated. To apprehend sacred space or to qualify sacred experience, repetition is necessary, but so is narrative. It is only through experiencing each instance of repetition in a sort of cause and effect  analysis that myths are preserved – even if part of their preservation means a creative evolution.

“The myths preserve and transmit the paradigms, the exemplary models, for all the responsible activities in which men engage. By virtue of these paradigmatic models revealed to men in mythical times, the Cosmos and society are periodically regenerated.”

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

The terror of history that Mircea Eliade writes about in the final chapter of The Myth of the Eternal Return is a profound critique against cultures wanting to rewrite history by discounting any kind of divine resonance. The unbelief of this age perverts the rich and complex histories of so many different cultures. 

Especially interesting is a comment he hides in footnote acknowledging this position is most often enacted by cultures and countries writing and thinking from a place of privilege. 

When countries suffer violence and atrocities, they are more inclined to interpret history with a transcendental horizon. If we see God in the face of the other like Emmanuel Levinas taught us, it makes sense that we might open our eyes to the pain of our brother and sister more easily.  

Mircea Eliade offers a creative hermeneutics as a solution that might surprise modern and contemporary scholars: 

“Basically, the horizon of archetypes and repetition cannot be transcended with impunity unless we accept a philosophy of freedom that does not exclude God.”

Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

In his 1949 book, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade explores the role of repetition, imagination, and participation in creating history.