November 24, 2009
Where did our “sacred time” go?
By Mircea Eliade
Princeton: Princeton University Press
You can’t explore early cosmological thought without very soon tripping over the theories of Mircea Eliade. He’s been criticized by some modern scholars for being too sweeping in his generalizations and occasionally getting some facts wrong, but his influence can be found in so many authoritative studies of early thought that I felt a compulsion to see for myself what he has to say.
Perhaps because I’d already seen him quoted so often, his ideas in The Myth of the Eternal Return didn’t surprise me, but they did consolidate an important theme contrasting early societies and our modern worldview. That theme has to do with Time. Specifically, the difference between what Eliade calls “sacred” and “profane” time. And the contrasting views of time lead to contrasting views of the significance of your actions, and just about everything else in your life.
Eliade describes how “archaic man” (his words) felt himself “indissolubly connected with the Cosmos” and as a result “lived in harmony with the cosmic rhythms; we could even say that he entered into these rhythms.” This is a theme near and dear to my “pfc thesis”, which argues that in the early days of human consciousness, the pfc interacted more in harmony with our animate consciousness. What were these cosmic rhythms? The natural rhythms that all creatures adapt to and live by: the seasons, the moon’s phases, day and night, procreation and birth, maturity and death. Eliade notes how, in ancient China, even sexual habits, from emperor down to common folk, were seen as synchronizing with the correct season:
In China, young couples went out in spring and united on the grass in order to stimulate ‘cosmic regeneration’ and ‘universal germination.’ In fact, every human union has its model and its justification in the hierogamy, the cosmic union of the elements. Book IV of the Li Chi, the ‘Yüeh Ling’ (book of monthly regulations), specifies that his wives must present themselves to the emperor to cohabit with him in the first month of spring, when thunder is heard. Thus the cosmic example is followed by the sovereign and the whole people. Marital union is a rite integrated with the cosmic rhythm and validated by that integration.
“Sacred time”, then, is the time spent in synchrony with those cosmic rhythms, a synchrony that repeats and imitates the original actions of the gods and/or the ancestors. “We must do what the gods did in the beginning,” Eliade quotes from the Satapatha Brahmana. “All religious acts,” he tells us, “are held to have been founded by gods, civilizing heroes, or mythical ancestors.”
The fundamental point is that “sacred time” wasn’t just the time when you were taking part in a religious ritual. On the contrary, most of the activities that make up a person’s life exist within sacred time, that time “when the individual is truly himself.” Eliade gives us a brief list: “alimentation, generation, ceremonies, hunting, fishing, war, work.” In modern verbiage: eating, having sex, working and group activities. The rest of your time (what little there is that doesn’t fit into sacred time) is viewed as “profane”, without any meaning.
There’s an interesting possible linkage with a description by Jan Assmann of the ancient Egyptian conception of two different forms of time: neheh-time and djet-time. As Assmann describes it, neheh-time is a “coming, coming” kind of time “an incessantly pulsating stream of days, months, seasons, and years.” Sound familiar? That would potentially match up with Eliade’s “profane” time, the kind of time that we modern folk tend to live in: alarm clocks, news updates, deadlines, e-mails, phone calls, text messages, etc. etc. By contrast, djet-time, in Assmann’s words, “remains, lasts and endures.” It’s that Ecclesiastes kind of time: for everything there is a season, or as Assmann says, “the enduring continuation of that which, acting and changing, has been completed in time.” Although this may not be a perfect match with Eliade’s “sacred time”, my guess is that they’re talking about essentially the same thing. [If any reader has any views on this, I’d like to hear your comments.]
So what happened to the “sacred time” that used to resonate through people’s lives? In Eliade’s view, the cyclical view of time was demolished by the linear conception of time imposed by Christian thought. As he puts it (quoting Henri-Charles Puech):
… for Christianity, time is real because it has a meaning – the Redemption. ‘A straight line traces the course of humanity from initial Fall to final Redemption. And the meaning of this history is unique, because the Incarnation is a unique fact. … Consequently the destiny of all mankind, together with the individual destiny of each one of us, are both likewise played out once, once for all, in a concrete and irreplaceable time which is that of history and life.’”
Along with the Christian transformation of time came the invalidation of the sacred cosmic cycles. Now, a new form of “sacred” arose. As Eliade describes it, “what is called ‘faith’ in the Judaeo-Christian sense differs, regarded structurally, from other archaic religious experiences.” For the new monotheistic religions, “faith is due to a new theophany [manifestation of God], a new revelation, which, for the respective elites, annuls the validity of other hierophanies [sacred revelations.]”
According to my pfc-based timeline of human history, this shift to monotheism is one of the major stages representing the ascendance of the pfc to greater control over our human consciousness. Ever since that time, the term “religious” is reserved for specifically defined spaces that connect with what’s transcendent: church, prayer, priests. The natural world and its cycles have lost their sacred resonance: they’ve now been demoted into the profane, which becomes a catch-all for just about everything related to our material world.
Eliade presents a powerful thesis, which remains relevant and meaningful. If you’re serious about understanding some of the ways the conception of the universe differed between earlier cultures and our own “profane” culture, Eliade’s may not be the first book you should read, but you’d be rewarded to pick it up at some point in your explorations.
 One of the early Vedic scriptures, dated to the first half of the 1st millennium BCE.
 Assmann, J. (1984/2001). The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, D. Lorton, translator, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press,pp. 74-6.
 My recommendation for a broad but in-depth review of early cultures would be Bruce Trigger’s Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, (2003). (A big book, but well worth it.)