Eliade:
History and Sacred Time

 

I.  The problem of history and the solution of escape through the eternal return to origins

 

1.     Nostalgia for Paradise: The one theme that dominates the thought of all archaic peoples is the drive to abolish history, all of history, and return to that point beyond time when the world began. Archaic believers desperately wish to escape the daily round of labor and struggles.  They would rather be out of history and in the perfect realm of the sacred.

a.     A constant theme in archaic myth and ritual: the wish “to live in the world as it came from the Creator’s hands, fresh, pure, and strong.”

2.     Rituals are very important, especially in association with creation myths.  They involve a reenactment of what the gods did in illo tempore (“in that time”), at the moment when the world came into being.  The New Year’s festival, every myth of rebirth or regeneration, every rite of initiation is a return to beginnings, an opportunity to start the world over again.

a.     Example: Archaic festivals of the new year: a scapegoat is sent out and purifications done to rid community of demons, diseases, and sins; this is not just a rite of transition from one year to the next, but “the abolition of the past year and of past time”.  An attempt “to restore – if only momentarily – mythical and primordial time, ‘pure’ time, the time of the ‘instant’ of Creation.”

3.     Why do archaic peoples attempt to abolish time? 

a.     [Negative reasons] Because archaic peoples, like all others, are deeply affected by mysteries of suffering and death

b.     [Positive reasons] Because they are also deeply affected by concerns about living without purpose or meaning. They long for significance, permanence, beauty, and perfection as well as escape from sorrows.

c.     “The terror of history” is the experience that the human adventure as a whole might be merely a pointless exercise, an empty spectacle with death as its end.

d.     This is why people have been so powerfully drawn to myth, especially the myth of the eternal return.  Ordinary life is not significant, real meaning can never be found within history, so archaic people choose to take their stand outside of history.  In a defiant denial of history, through symbol and myth, they reach back to the world’s primal state of perfection, to the moment when life starts over from its origin, full of promise and hope.
“The primitive, by conferring a cyclic direction upon time, annuls its irreversibility.  Everything begins over again at its commencement every instant”.

e.     Example: The doctrine of rebirth or reincarnation through the endless cycles of time (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism).  Humanity is hopelessly enslaved in endless cycles of nature. Through struggles over lifetimes, one eventually returns to the source = a release from history.

II.  The revolt against archaic religion: Judaism and Christianity

 

1.     With Judaism and later Christianity: A new religious outlook that alters the whole equation of archaic religion: the idea that the sacred can be found in history as well as outside it.

a.     The idea of the meaningless cycles of nature is pushed into the background and human events come to center stage.  Human events take shape as a meaningful story – a history – with the sacred, in the form of the God of Israel, a participant in its scenes.

                                      i.     A meaningful sequence of sacred historical events. This innovation fashioned chiefly by the prophets  of Israel – Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.

                                    ii.     When disasters fell: the troubles not viewed as miseries to be escaped but as punishments to be endured, in history, because they came from the very hand of God.

                                   iii.     A God who reveals his will.  Historical facts become situations of man in respect to God.

b.     Encounter of a people with a personal God of history is new: Cf. Abraham prepares to kill his son as an offering to God.  If it were an archaic religion, this act would have been an instance of human sacrifice, the killing of the firstborn to renew the sacred power of life in the gods.  In Judaism, the encounter is a personal transaction in history with a God who asks him for his son simply as a sign of faith.  God doesn’t need sacrifices to renew his divine powers.  He requires a heart loyal enough to make the ultimate sacrifice if asked. 

c.     Christianity inherits this same perspective. Life and death of Jesus = singular and historic instance.  A decisive moment, occurring only once only, serving as the basis for a personal relationship of forgiveness and trust between Christian believers and God.

                                      i.     Celebrating the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, Christians do not engage in a ritual of seasonal rebirth; they do not act out an eternal return to beginnings.  They remember a specific and final historic event, one that requires an equally singular and final decision of personal faith.