Mircea Eliade was a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. He was a leading interpreter of religious experience, who established paradigms in religious studies that persist to this day. As a tool for interpreting religion, his theory that hierophanies form the basis of religion, splitting the human experience of reality into sacred and profane space and time, has proved a far more widely applicable than the older term theophany, which denotes the manifestation of a god.
His most enduring and influential contribution to religious studies was possibly his theory of Eternal Return, which holds that myths and rituals do not simply record or imitate hierophanies, but, at least to the minds of the religious, actually participate in them. In academia, the Eternal Return has become one of the most widely accepted ways of understanding the purpose of myth and ritual. His literary works belong to the fantasy and autobiographical genre; the best known are the autobiographical novels Maitreyi (La Nuit Bengali or Bengal Nights), the novella Domnisoara Christina (Miss Christina), and the short stories Secretul doctorului Honigberger (The Secret of Dr. Honigberger) and La Tiganci (With the Gypsy Girls).
Early in his life, Eliade was a noted journalist and essayist, a disciple of Romanian far right philosopher and journalist Nae Ionescu, and member of the literary society Criterion. He also served as cultural attaché to the United Kingdom and Portugal.
Remarkable for his vast erudition, Eliade had fluent command of five languages (Romanian, French, German, Italian, and English) and less command of three others (Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit). He was elected postmortem member of the Romanian Academy.
Symbolism of the Center
A recurrent theme in Eliade's myth analysis is the axis mundi, the Center of the World.
According to Eliade, the Cosmic Center is a necessary corollary to the division of reality into the Sacred and the profane. The Sacred contains all value and structure, and the world only becomes structured through the sacred events recorded in myth; this structuring of the world may be visualized as a "solidification" of previously chaotic elements, spreading outward from a central point:
"In the homogeneous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation is established, the hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center."
Sacred existence should thus have purpose and direction, both of which cannot exist in the "homogeneity and relativity of profane space"; thus, the creation of a fixed point, or center, allows the Sacred to found the world.
A manifestation of the Sacred in profane space is, by definition, an example of something breaking through from one plane of existence to another. Therefore, the initial hierophany that establishes the Center must be a point at which there is contact between different planes — this, Eliade argues, explains the frequent mythical imagery of a Cosmic Tree or Pillar joining Heaven, Earth, and the underworld.
Eliade noted that, when traditional societies found a new territory, they often perform consecrating rituals that reenact the hierophany that established the Center and founded the world. In addition, the designs of traditional buildings, especially temples, usually imitate the mythical image of the axis mundi joining the different cosmic levels. For instance, the Babylonian ziggurats were built to resemble cosmic mountains passing through the heavenly spheres, and the rock of the Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to reach deep into the tehom, or primordial waters.
According to the logic of the eternal return, the site of each such symbolic Center will actually be the Center of the World; according to Eliade's interpretation, religious man apparently feels the need to live at the mythical Center as much as possible, given that the Center is the point of communication with the Sacred.