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History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries

History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries

by Mircea Eliade

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"No one has done so much as Mr. Eliade to inform literature students in the West about 'primitive' and Oriental religions. . . . Everyone who cares about the human adventure will find new information and new angles of vision."—Martin E. Marty, New York Times Book Review


"No one has done so much as Mr. Eliade to inform literature students in the West about 'primitive' and Oriental religions. . . . Everyone who cares about the human adventure will find new information and new angles of vision."—Martin E. Marty, New York Times Book Review

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Library Journal
This third volume by the preeminent historian of religions, who died in April 1986, concludes his masterly survey of the field. The arrangement of the volumes is roughly chronological. This volume examines the later developments of Jewish thought, the spread of Christianity, and the rise and diffusion of Islam. Like the other two volumes, it reflects the author's interest in folk beliefs, heresies, and cults of secret wisdom. It concludes with a long and extremely useful bibliographical analysis, ``Present Position of Studies.'' As the crowning achievement to an unparalleled scholarly career this series of books represents a valuable synthesis for specialists and generalists alike. Paul E. Muller-Ortega, Religious Studies Dept., Michigan State Univ., East Lansing

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A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1

From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries

By Mircea Eliade

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1978 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-14769-7


In the Beginning ...: Magico-Religious Behavior of the Paleanthropians

1. Orientatio. Tools to make tools. The "domestication" of fire

Despite its importance for an understanding of the religious phenomenon, we shall not here discuss the problem of "hominization." It is sufficient to recall that the vertical posture already marks a transcending of the condition typical of the primates. Uprightness cannot be maintained except in a state of wakefulness. It is because of man's vertical posture that space is organized in a structure inaccessible to the prehominians: in four horizontal directions radiating from an "up"-"down" central axis. In other words, space can be organized around the human body as extending forward, backward, to right, to left, upward, and downward. It is from this original and originating experience—feeling oneself "thrown" into the middle of an apparently limitless, unknown, and threatening extension—that the different methods of orientatio are developed; for it is impossible to survive for any length of time in the vertigo brought on by disorientation. This experience of space oriented around a "center" explains the importance of the paradigmatic divisions and distributions of territories, agglomerations, and habitations and their cosmological symbolism (cf. § 12).

An equally decisive difference from the mode of existence of the primates is clearly shown by the use of tools. The Paleanthropians not only use tools, they are also able to manufacture them. It is true that certain monkeys use objects as if they were tools, and are even known to make them in certain cases. But the Paleanthropians also produce tools to make tools. In addition, their use of tools is much more complex; they keep them accessible, ready for use in the future. In short, their use of tools is not confined to a particular situation or a specific moment, as is the case with monkeys. It is also important to note that tools do not serve as extensions of the human body, for the earliest-known worked stones were shaped to perform a function not prefigured in the body's structure, namely, the function of cutting (an action completely different from tearing with the teeth or scratching with the nails). The very slow progress made in technology does not imply a similar development of intelligence. We know that the extraordinary upsurge in technology during the past two centuries has not found expression in a comparable development of Western man's intelligence. Besides, as has been said, "every innovation brought with it the danger of collective death" (André Varagnac). Their technical immobility insured the survival of the Paleanthropians.

The domestication of fire—that is, the possibility of producing, preserving, and transporting it—marks, we might say, the definitive separation of the Paleanthropians from their zoological predecessors. The most ancient "document" for the use of fire dates from Choukoutien (about 600,000 B.C.), but its domestication probably took place much earlier and in several places.

These few well-known facts needed to be repeated so that the reader of the following analyses will bear in mind that prehistoric man already behaved in the manner of a being endowed with intelligence and imagination. As for the activity of the unconscious—dreams, fantasies, visions, fabulization, and so on—it is presumed not to have differed in intensity and scope from what is found among our contemporaries. But the terms "intensity" and "scope" must be understood in their strongest and most dramatic sense. For man is the final product of a decision made "at the beginnings of Time": the decision to kill in order to live. In short, the hominians succeeded in outstripping their ancestors by becoming flesh-eaters. For some two million years, the Paleanthropians lived by hunting; fruits, roots, mollusks, and so on, gathered by the women and children, did not suffice to insure the survival of the species. Hunting determined the division of labor in accordance with sex, thus reinforcing "hominization"; for among the carnivora, and in the entire animal world, no such difference exists.

But the ceaseless pursuit and killing of game ended by creating a unique system of relationships between the hunter and the slain animals. We shall return to this problem. For the moment, we merely state that the "mystical solidarity" between the hunter and his victims is revealed by the mere act of killing: the shed blood is similar in every respect to human blood. In the last analysis, this "mystical solidarity" with the game reveals the kinship between human societies and the animal world. To kill the hunted beast or, later, the domestic animal is equivalent to a "sacrifice" in which the victims are interchangeable. We must add that all these concepts came into existence during the last phases of the process of hominization. They are still active—altered, revalorized, camouflaged—millennia after the disappearance of the Paleolithic civilizations.

2. The "opaqueness" of prehistoric documents

If the Paleanthropians are regarded as complete men, it follows that they also possessed a certain number of beliefs and practiced certain rites. For, as we stated before, the experience of the sacred constitutes an element in the structure of consciousness. In other words, if the question of the religiosity or nonreligiosity of prehistoric men is raised, it falls to the defenders of nonreligiosity to adduce proofs in support of their hypothesis. Probably the theory of the nonreligiosity of the Paleanthropians was conceived and generally accepted during the heyday of evolutionism, when similarities to the primates had just been discovered. But a misconception is involved here, for what matters is not the anatomico-osteological structure of the Paleanthropians (which is similar, to be sure, to that of the primates) but their works; and these demonstrate the activity of an intelligence that cannot be defined otherwise than as "human."

But if today there is agreement on the fact that the Paleanthropians had a religion, in practice it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what its content was. The investigators, however, have not cried defeat; for there remain a certain number of testimonial "documents" for the life of the Paleanthropians, and it is hoped that their religious meaning will one day be deciphered. In other words, it is hoped that these "documents" can constitute a "language," just as, thanks to the genius of Freud, the creations of the unconscious, which until his time were regarded as absurd or meaningless—dreams, waking dreams, phantasms, and so on—have revealed the existence of a language that is extremely precious for a knowledge of man.

These documents are, in fact, comparatively numerous, but they are "opaque" and not very various: human bones, especially skulls, stone tools, pigments (most abundantly red ocher, hematite), various objects found in burials. It is only from the late Paleolithic that we have rock paintings and engravings, painted pebbles, and bone and stone statuettes. In certain cases (burials, works of art) and within the limits that we shall examine, there is at least the certainty of a religious intention, but the majority of the documents from before the Aurignacian (30,000 B.C.)—that is, tools—reveal nothing beyond their utilitarian value.

Yet it is inconceivable that tools were not charged with a certain sacrality and did not inspire numerous mythological episodes. The first technological discoveries—the transformation of stone into instruments for attack and defense, the mastery over fire—not only insured the survival and development of the human species; they also produced a universe of mythico-religious values and inspired and fed the creative imagination. It is enough to examine the role of tools in the religious life and mythology of the primitives who still remain at the hunting and fishing stage. The magico-religious value of a weapon—be it made of wood or stone or metal—still survives among the rural populations of Europe, and not only in their folklore. We shall not here consider the kratophanies and hierophanies of stone, of rocks, of pebbles; the reader will find examples of these in a chapter of our Patterns in Comparative Religion.

It is, above all, mastery over distance, gained by the projectile weapon, which gave rise to countless beliefs, myths, and legends. We need only think of the mythologies built up around lances that pierce the vault of the sky and thus make an ascent to heaven possible, of arrows that fly through clouds, transfix demons, or form a chain reaching to heaven, and so on. It is necessary to cite at least some of the beliefs and mythologies that surround tools and implements— and especially weapons—in order better to estimate all that the worked stones of the Paleanthropians can no longer communicate to us. The semantic opaqueness of these prehistoric documents is not peculiar to them. Every document, even of our own time, is spiritually opaque as long as it has not been successfully deciphered by being integrated into a system of meanings. A tool, be it prehistoric or contemporary, can reveal only its technological intention; all that its producer or its owners thought, felt, dreamed, hoped in relation to it escapes us. But we must at least try to imagine the nonmaterial values of prehistoric tools. Otherwise, this semantic opaqueness may well force us to entertain a completely erroneous conception of the history of culture. We are in danger, for example, of confusing the appearance of a belief with the date at which it is clearly documented for the first time. When, in the age of metals, certain traditions refer to craft secrets in respect to mining, metallurgy, and the making of weapons, it would be rash to believe that we are in the presence of an unprecedented invention, for these traditions continue, at least in part, an inheritance from the Stone Age.

For some two million years, the Paleanthropians lived chiefly by hunting, fishing, and gathering. But the first archeological indications in respect to the religious universe of the Paleolithic hunter go back only to Franco-Cantabrian rock art (30,000 B.C.). What is more, if we examine the religious beliefs and behavior of contemporary hunting peoples, we realize the almost complete impossibility of proving the existence or the absence of similar beliefs among the Paleanthropians. Primitive hunters5 regard animals as similar to men but endowed with supernatural powers; they believe that a man can change into an animal and vice versa; that the souls of the dead can enter animals; finally, that mysterious relations exist between a certain person and a certain animal (this used to be termed "nagualism"). As for the supernatural beings documented in the religions of hunting peoples, we find that they are of various kinds: theriomorphic companions or guardian spirits—divinities of the type Supreme Being-Lord of Wild Beasts—which protect both the game and the hunters; spirits of the bush; and spirits of the different species of animals.

In addition, certain patterns of religious behavior are peculiar to hunting civilizations. For example, killing the animal constitutes a ritual, which implies the belief that the Lord of Wild Beasts takes care that the hunter kills only what he needs as food and that food is not wasted. Then, too, the bones, especially the skull, have a marked ritual value (probably because of the belief that they contain the "soul" or the "life" of the animal and that it is from the skeleton that the Lord of Wild Beasts will cause a new flesh to grow); this is why the skull and the long bones are exposed on branches or on high places. Finally, among certain peoples the soul of the slain animal is sent to its spiritual home (cf. the "bear festival" among the Ainus and the Giliaks); the custom of offering the Supreme Beings a piece of each slain animal (Pygmies, Philippine Negritos, and others) or the skull and the long bones (Samoyeds and others) also exists; and among certain Sudanese peoples the young man, after bringing down his first game animal, smears the walls of a cave with its blood.

How many of these beliefs and ceremonies can be identified in the archeological documents in our possession? At most, the offerings of skulls and long bones. The richness and complexity of the religious ideology of hunting peoples must never be underestimated—and likewise the almost complete impossibility of proving or denying its existence among the Paleanthropians. As has often been said: beliefs and ideas cannot be fossilized. Hence certain scholars have preferred to say nothing about the ideas and beliefs of the Paleanthropians, instead of reconstructing them by the help of comparisons with the hunting civilizations. This radical methodological position is not without its dangers. To leave an immense part of the history of the human mind a blank runs the risk of encouraging the idea that during all those millennia the activity of the mind was confined to the preservation and transmission of technology. Such an opinion is not only erroneous, it is fatal to a knowledge of man. Homo faber was at the same time Homo ludens, sapiens, and religiosus. Since we cannot reconstruct his religious beliefs and practices, we must at least point out certain analogies that can illuminate them, if only indirectly.

3. Symbolic meanings of burials

The earliest and most numerous "documents" are, obviously, bones. From the Mousterian (70,000–50,000B.C.), we can speak with certainty of burials. But skulls and lower mandibles have been found at much earlier sites, for example at Choukoutien (at a level datable at 400,000–300,000 B.C.), and their presence has raised problems. Since there is no question of burials here, the preservation of these skulls could be explained as due to religious reasons. The Abbé Breuil and Wilhelm Schmidt have referred to the custom, documented among the Australians and other primitive peoples, of preserving the skulls of dead relatives and carrying them along when the tribe travels. Though credible, the hypothesis has not been accepted by most scholars. The same facts have also been interpreted as proof of cannibalism, whether ritual or profane. It is in this way that A. C. Blane has explained the mutilation of a Neanderthal skull found in a cave at Monte Circeo: the man would have been killed by a blow that broke his right eye-socket and the hole would later have been enlarged so that the brain could be extracted through it and eaten ritually. But this explanation has not been unanimously accepted either.

Belief in a survival after death seems to be demonstrated, from the earliest times, by the use of red ocher as a ritual substitute for blood, hence as a symbol of life. The custom of dusting corpses with ocher is universally disseminated in both time and space, from Choukoutien to the western shores of Europe, in Africa as far as the Cape of Good Hope, in Australia, in Tasmania, in America as far as Tierra del Fuego. As to the religious meaning of burials, it has been the subject of vigorous controversy. There can be no doubt that the burial of the dead should have a justification—but which one? To begin with, it must not be forgotten that "pure and simple abandonment of the corpse in some thicket, dismemberment, leaving it to be devoured by birds, instant flight from the habitation, leaving the corpse inside it, did not signify the absence of ideas of survival." A fortiori, belief in survival is confirmed by burials; otherwise there would be no understanding the effort expended in interring the body. This survival could be purely spiritual, that is, conceived as a postexistence of the soul, a belief corroborated by the appearance of the dead in dreams. But certain burials can equally well be interpreted as a precaution against the possible return of the deceased; in these cases the corpses were bent and perhaps tied. On the other hand, nothing makes it impossible that the bent position of the dead body, far from expressing fear of "living corpses" (a fear documented among certain peoples), on the contrary signifies the hope of a rebirth; for we know of a number of cases of intentional burial in the fetal position.

Among the best examples of burials with a magico-religious signification we will mention the one at Teshik Tash, in Uzbekistan (a child surrounded by an arrangement of ibex horns); the one at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in Corrèze (several flint tools and some pieces of red ocher were found in the excavation in which the body lay); and the one at Farrassie, in Dordogne (several grave mounds, with deposits of flint tools). The cemetery in a cave on Mount Carmel, with ten burials, should be added. The authenticity and the meaning of food offerings or objects placed in graves are still the subject of discussion; the most familiar example is that of the woman's skull at Mas-d'Azil, fitted with artificial eyes and placed on the lower jaw and antler of a reindeer.


Excerpted from A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1 by Mircea Eliade. Copyright © 1978 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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