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Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was a Rumanian-born historian of religions and a novelist whose works were known in translation the world over.

Mircea Eliade began his life in Bucharest in 1907. While still studying in the lycée he wrote numerous articles in a popular vein on entomology, the history of alchemy, Orientalism, the history of religions, impressions of his travels, stories, and literary criticism. In 1925 he entered the University of Bucharest, where he pursued the study of Renaissance philosophy. Thus began a life-long preoccupation with the great creative epochs in Western history and with the puzzle of human, especially literary, creativity itself. Eliade had seen, for example, how the Rumanian poets, writers, and historians he admired had drawn material and inspiration from folk sources, and he was fascinated to see an analogous process at work in the Italian Renaissance.

For Eliade, the rediscovery of Greek philosophy, exemplified in Marsilio Ficino's Latin translations of the Corpus hermeticum and the founding by Ficino of the Platonic Academies in Florence, meant "a breakthrough toward the East, toward Europe and Persia." But as he later understood, it was not a simple reacquaintance with the classical heritage that made the Renaissance such a creative period; instead, the strange "new" occult elements which Renaissance thinkers encountered in their discoveries actually represented "the fund of Neolithic culture that is the matrix of all the urban cultures of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world."

In 1928, while in Rome to research his degree thesis on "Italian Philosophy, from Marsilio Ficino to Giordano Bruno," Eliade wrote to Professor Surendranath Dasgupta expressing a desire to study under his direction at the University of Calcutta—which he did, thanks to a scholarship offered him by the Maharajah Manindra Chandra Mandy of Kassimbazar. Eliade's stay in India lasted three years. In 1933 he received his doctorate with a dissertation on yoga, later published in French under the title Yoga: Essai sur les origines de las mystique indienne (1936), and began teaching at the University of Bucharest that same year.

Shortly after his return from India, in the midst of a busy schedule that included university teaching and many commitments to write and lecture, Eliade's novel, Maitreyi, was released to great critical and popular acclaim. Born into a tradition which saw no incompatibility between scientific and literary occupations, Eliade, the historian of religions, continued to produce novels, stories, essays, and a travel book. Today, especially in Rumania and Germany, he is known primarily as a writer of fiction; and his popularity continues to grow as more and more of his works appear in translation.

During World War II Eliade served as cultural attaché to the Rumanian legations in London and Lisbon. After the war he elected to remain in exile in Paris where he could complete work on a number of manuscripts which had taken shape during the war years, notably Patterns in Comparative Religion and The Myth of the Eternal Return, both of which came to print in 1949. The years 1951 to 1955 saw the publication of several more volumes for which Eliade is well known: Shamanism, Images and Symbols, Yoga, The Forge and the Crucible, and The Forbidden Forest. Many regard the last title as his most important work of fiction.

Eliade travelled to the United States to deliver the 1956 Haskell Lectures at the University of Chicago, and a year later he was offered the post of professor and chairman of the History of Religions Department and professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the university. Almost 30 years later, he was professor emeritus at this same institution with the title Sewell Avery Distinguished Service Professor.

Eliade's scholarly output continued unabated. Volume I of A History of Religious Ideas appeared in 1974, and three of its four projected volumes had been published by 1985. A History of Religious Ideas marked something of a departure from his previous theoretical work. As in his sourcebook, From Primitives to Zen, Eliade presented the "creative moments" of the world's religious traditions in more or less chronological order, treating them in a way one might call more historical and less thematic. In addition to his scholarly writing, Eliade served as editor-in-chief of a massive encyclopedia of religion until his death in 1986.

While the differences between homo reliosus and non-religious people of the modern West are clear, Eliade argued that non-religion can be likened to the biblical "fall" of man. That is, just as the original "fall" produced forgetfulness of God and a "divided" consciousness, the second "fall" of modern times marked the further descent of religion into the depths of the unconscious—an explanation for, among other things, the importance modern people attach to dreams, the role of the unconscious in artistic creativity, and the persistence of initiatory and other religious patterns in literature. Eliade's theoretical work in the history of religions can thus be said to embrace even his own literary creations, so that the two together form a single oeuvre consistent with his visions of a "new humanism" in modern times.

Further Reading

Perhaps the best introduction to Mircea Eliade's life and thought is Ordeal by Labyrinth: Conversations with Claude-Heuri Rocquet, translated from the French by Derek Coltmann (1982). Readers desirous of knowing more about Eliade's fascinating career may also wish to consult his No Souvenirs: Journals 1957-1969 (1982) and Autobiography: Volume I, Journey East, Journey West 1907-1937 (1981).

Additional Sources

Eliade, Mircea, Exile's odyssey: 1937-1960, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Eliade, Mircea, Autobiography, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981-1988; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Ricketts, Mac Linscott, Mircea Eliade: the Romanian roots, 1907-1945, Boulder: East European Monographs; New York: Distributed by Columbia University Press, 1988. □

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Eliade, Mircea (1907-1986)

Eliade, Mircea (1907-1986)

Noted scholar on the history of religions and for many years a professor at the University of Chicago. Eliade was born March 9, 1907, in Bucharest, Romania, and was educated at the University of Bucharest (M.A., 1928; Ph.D., 1933) and the University of Calcutta. He was a cultural counselor for the Romanian Legation, Lisbon (1941-44) during World War II, and after hostilities ended he became a visiting professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, the Sorbonne, Paris (1946-49), before moving to the University of Chicago, where he served first as the Haskell lecturer (1956) and later as a professor.

From his broad examination of the religious life of various peoples and his study of the nature of religious experience, Eliade wrote several important books dealing with topics related to parapsychology and the occult. He is most remembered for his studies of alchemy and shamanism and the monumental Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), which he edited during the last years of his life. He died April 22, 1986.

Sources:

Eliade, Mircea. 1907 to 1937: Journey East, Journey West. Vol. 1 of Autobiography. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.

. Forgerons et alchemistes. 1956. Translated as The Forge and the Crucible. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962.

. Occultism, Witchcraft and Cultural Fashion: Essays in Comparative Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

. Patanjali et le Yoga. 1962. Translated as Patanjali and Yoga. New York: Funk and Wagnall's, 1969.

. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964.

. Two Tales of the Occult. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

. Le Yoga: Immortalité et liberté. 1954. Translated as Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. New York: Pantheon Books, 1958.

. De Zalmoxis à Genghis Khan. 1970. Translated as Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Eliade, Mircea, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. 16 vols. New York: Macmillian, 1987.

Richetts, M. L., and Mircea Eliade. The Romanian Roots, 1907-1945. 2 vols., Eastern European Monographs, distributed by New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

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Eliade, Mircea

Mircea Eliade (mûr´shə ā´lē-äd´ə), 1907–86, American philosopher and historian of comparative religion, b. Bucharest. He studied Indian philosophy and Sanskrit at the Univ. of Calcutta (1928–31) and taught history of religion and metaphysics in Bucharest (1933–39). A diplomat during World War II, he taught at the Sorbonne (1946–48) and the Univ. of Chicago (1957–85). His work in the systematic study of religions was pioneering; much of his work concentrated on the nature of religious culture and of myths and mystical experiences. Eliade's analysis of rites of passage, rituals marking key transitional moments in the life cycle (e.g., birth, adult initiation, death), influenced many anthropologists. His often controversial books include scholarly works such as The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949), The Sacred and the Profane (1959), and A History of Religious Ideas (3 vol., 1978–85) and novels such as The Forbidden Forest (1955) and The Old Man and the Bureaucrats (1979). Eliade was also editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion (16 vol., 1986).

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Eliade, Mircea

Eliade, Mircea (1907–86). Advocate of what is called ‘history of religions’, which in his case is better seen as an attempt to discern elemental, timeless, patterns of religious life. Religion is taken to be the manifestation of ‘Being’. Symbolic forms, redolent of the sacred, are influenced by historical circumstances but are not themselves the product of history. The task is to use the comparative method to arrive at what is constant; to arrive at what goes beyond the contingencies of time.

Working with a model of the human as homo religiosus, of the human as motivated by an irreducible religious intentionality, Eliade drew most of his material from archaic cultures. Supposedly providing the most powerful evidence of the ‘morphology of the sacred’, these cultures are held to signal the contemporary need for greater ontological rootage. See also SHAMANISM.

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