In his exploration of the long ago, the far away, and otherwise seemingly primitive, Mircea Eliade reveals to each of us so-called modern men a part of ourselves we have long been missing, whether we realized our loss or not. This aspect of ourselves which we must rediscover is the experience of the sacred. The loss of this aspect of man is not inconsequential; on the contrary, it is, as a loss of that very thing which makes us human, a loss of our own humanity. As Eliade says (pg 68), “for nonreligious man, all vital experiences — whether sex or eating, work or play — have been desacralized. This means that all these physiological acts are deprived of spiritual significance, hence deprived of their truly human dimension.”
Eliade examines various components of universal and primitive religiosity, including sacred space, sacred time, and the rite of initiation. In each, he examines the pervasive nature of the spiritual within the worldview of primitive man. And each allows him to present a stark contrast with the “desacralized” world of modern man, a world which has, ultimately, been stripped of meaning and significance through its desacralization.
In contrast with modern man’s fatal combination of utility and nihilism, Eliade presents the vibrant and lively world of the primitive religious man, for whom each thing and all things have eternal importance and numinous connotations and consequences. For the modern man, each thing gains its importance only insofar as it serves to the material ends of the individual. For religious man, all things are the creation of and potential vehicle for divine beings.
Perhaps the best way to read this book is in tandem with Rudolph Otto’s Idea of the Holy. Eliade compliments Otto on some points, corrects him on others, and completes his thoughts in nearly all instances. Together, these two great thinkers of the history and nature of religion have much to tell us about what it means to be a human being.