Interpreting Myths in the 21st Century

Chinese Traditional Pattern-Phoenix and Peony

Modern Investigations of Mythology and Mircea Eliade

The study of mythology in the current century differs dramatically from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To begin with, the study of mythologies underwent a process of demythologization. By creating a secular world through scientific innovations, the world has been de-deified and consequently, de-mystified. The term myth is avoided and has been replaced by holy story or sacred story.

Sadly, some myths are rejected totally and explained away by science. The allegorical-symbolic reading of myths remains, with an emphasis on the representations present in myth, but not their literal reading. Through a process of demythologization, myths are read as exposing a culture’s important concepts and images but are not historically accurate.

Mircea Eliade – The Sacred and the Profane

Mircea Eliade (1907-1988) was a Romanian historian of religion and a philosopher. His 1933 Ph.D. was a thesis on yoga, and he continued his work as a professor at the University of Chicago. Eliade’s works contributed to the development of religious studies, religious symbolism, and mythology. Eliade argued that important mythological, symbolic, and religious constructs are cloaked in Western society but still viable. Eliade spent his life-defining myth and differentiating between the sacred and the profane.

The foundation of Eliade’s work is in his definition of defining myth, and how it is separate from religion. A myth is a sacred story that explains the origins, the universe and is connected to a belief system, rituals, and social institutions. Myths provide a method of knowing and conveying information; it is one method of revealing logic about a group and how they construct their worldview. People imitate sacred events and mythological narratives to connect with them and “live” an experience of sacredness. Myths are a symbolic narrative that has events and is associated with religion, behavior, or a symbol. It depicts a period that serves a totally different purpose than historical or linear time, allowing religious events and rituals to continue to exist and be supported by modern people.

Eliade argues that religion is rooted in the experience of a sacred connection, as well as myth, time, and nature. Religion and myths are similar because they both provide a framework for people to ascribe meaning to their lives, especially symbolically. Eliade explains, “myth assures man what he is about to do has already been done; in other words, it helps him to overcome doubts to the result of his undertaking.” Even if people are not consciously seeking the sacred, they are subconsciously seeking it in their lives to provide significance. For Eliade, human existence is fundamentally religious. In other words, people know what is sacred and want it to fulfill their lives; they seek it without knowing.

Eliade differentiated between the sacred and profane.  Eliade defines the sacred and profane as “Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany.” For example, something that is ascribed as sacred can simultaneously be an ordinary object like a stone or tree, or it can be complex like the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Whatever the object is, it does not belong in our daily, ordinary world; the sacred object will be distinguished somehow and will become sacrosanct, creating its own supernatural reality. 

In contrast to something that is sacred is the profane, which is regarded as non-religious and secular. This is because the profane has no pattern to identify or does not provide an orientation for people. The sacred connects people to religion in some way, and it is known to be sacred because people naturally respect it. Usually, the sacred is mythology or lost history, which is different or somehow parallel to our current historical timeline. In contrast, the profane is a familiar object or time that has no meaning for people, does not contain anything considered sacred, and may be regarded as ordinary life. 

Eliade argued that humans are inherently religious and want to participate in sacred events to fulfill and give meaning to their lives. The Theory of Eternal Return argues that people want to participate in the past mythological episodes, and this is the purpose of performing rituals. In other words, the myths act as a vehicle of the “eternal return” to a lost age. By having people participate in sacred events, a point in time is restored that allows the myth and its events to exist in the present day. 


Further Reading

Eliade (2004) The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion.

Eliade (2009) Myth and Reality.

Eliade (1982) Ordeal by Labyrinth.

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