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In the period domoninated by the triumphs of scientific rationalism, how do we account for the extraordinary success of such occult movements as astrology or the revival of witchcraft? From his perspective as a historian of religions, the eminent scholar Mircea Eliade shows that such popular trends develop from archaic roots and periodically resurface in certain myths, symbols, and rituals. In six lucid essays collected for this volume, Eliade reveals the profound religious significance that lies at the heart of many contemporary cultural vogues.
Since all of the essays except the last were originally delivered as lectures, their introductory character and lively oral style make them particularly accessible to the intelligent nonspecialist. Rather than a popularization, Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions is the fulfillment of Eliade's conviction that the history of religions should be read by the widest possible audience.
Cultural Fashions and History of Religions
The Artist's Unsuspected Mythologies
The question that I should like to discuss in this paper is the following: what does a historian of religions have to say about his contemporary milieu? In what sense can he contribute to the understanding of its literary or philosophical movements, its recent and significant artistic orientations? Or even more, what has he to say, as a historian of religions, in regard to such manifestations of the Zeitgeist as its philosophical and literary vogues, its so-called cultural fashions? It seems to me that, at least in some instances, his special training should enable him to decipher meanings and intentions less manifest to others. I am not referring to those cases in which the religious context or implications of a work are more or less evident, as, for example, Chagall's paintings with their enormous "eye of God," their angels, severed heads, and bodies flying upside down—and his omnipresent ass, that messianic animal par excellence. Or Ionesco's recent play, Le Roi se meurt, which cannot be fully understood if one does not know the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Upanishads. (And I can testify to the fact that Ionesco did read these texts; but the important thing for us to determine is what he accepted and what he ignored or rejected. Thus it is not a question of searching for sources, but a more exciting endeavor: to examine the renewal of Ionesco's imaginary creative universe through his encounter with exotic and traditional religious universes.)
But there are instances when only a historian of religions can discover some secret significance of a cultural creation, whether ancient or contemporary. For example, only a historian of religions is likely to perceive that there is a surprising structural analogy between James Joyce's Ulysses and certain Australian myths of the totemic-hero type. And just as the endless wanderings and fortuitous meetings of the Australian cultural heroes seem monotonous to those who are familiar with Polynesian, Indo-European, or North American mythologies, so the wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses appear monotonous to an admirer of Balzac or Tolstoi. But the historian of religions knows that the tedious wanderings and performances of the mythical ancestors reveal to the Australian a magnificent history in which he is existentially involved, and the same thing can be said of the apparently tedious and banal journey of Leopold Bloom in his native city. Again, only the historian of religions is likely to catch the very striking similarities between the Australian and Platonic theories of reincarnation and anamnesis. For Plato, learning is recollecting. Physical objects help the soul withdraw into itself and, through a sort of "going back," to rediscover and repossess the original knowledge that it possessed in its extraterrestrial condition. Now, the Australian novice discovers, through his initiation, that he has already been here, in the mythical time; he was here in the form of the mythical ancestor. Through initiation he again learns to do those things which he did at the beginning, when he appeared for the first time in the form of a mythical being.
It would be useless to accumulate more examples. I will only add that the historian of religions is able to contribute to the understanding of writers as different as Jules Verne and Gérard de Nerval, Novalis and García Lorca. It is surprising that so few historians of religions have ever tried to interpret a literary work from their own perspective. (For the moment I can recall only Maryla Falk's book on Novalis and Stig Wikander's studies of French writers from Jules Michelet to Mallarmé. Duchesne-Guillemin's important monographs on Mallarmé and Valéry could have been written by any excellent literary critic, without any contact with the history of religions.) On the contrary, as is well known, many literary critics, especially in the United States, have not hesitated to use the findings of the history of religions in their hermeneutical work. One need only call to mind the frequent application of the "myth and ritual" theory or the "initiation pattern" in the interpretation of modern fiction and poetry.
My purpose here is more modest. I will try to see whether a historian of religions can decipher some hidden meanings in our so-called cultural fashions, taking as examples three recent vogues, all of which originated in Paris but are already spreading throughout western Europe and even the United States. Now, as we all know well, for a particular theory or philosophy to become popular, to be à la mode, en vogue, implies neither that it is a remarkable creation nor that it is devoid of all value. One of the fascinating aspects of the "cultural fashion" is that it does not matter whether the facts in question and their interpretation are true or not. No amount of criticism can destroy a vogue. There is something "religious" about this imperviousness to criticism, even if only in a narrow-minded, sectarian way. But even beyond this general aspect, some cultural fashions are extremely significant for the historian of religions. Their popularity, especially among the intelligentsia, reveals something of Western man's dissatisfactions, drives, and nostalgias.
"Totemic Banquets" and Fabulous Camels
To give only one example: Fifty years ago, Freud thought that he had found the origin of social organization, moral restrictions, and religion in a primordial murder, namely, the first patricide. He told the story in his book Totem and Taboo. In the beginning, the father kept all the women for himself and would drive his sons off as they became old enough to evoke his jealousy. One day, the expelled sons killed their father, ate him, and appropriated his females. "The totemic banquet," writes Freud, "perhaps the first feast mankind ever celebrated, was the repetition, the festival of remembrance, of this noteworthy criminal deed." Since Freud holds that God is nothing other than the sublimated physical father, it is God himself who is killed and sacrificed in the totemic sacrifice. "This slaying of the father-god is mankind's original sin. This blood-guilt is atoned for by the bloody death of Christ."
In vain the ethnologists of his time, from W. H. Rivers and F. Boas to A. L. Kroeber, B. Malinowski, and W. Schmidt, demonstrated the absurdity of such a primordial "totemic banquet." In vain they pointed out that totemism is not found at the beginnings of religion and is not universal: not all peoples have passed through a "totemic stage"; that Frazer had already proved that, of the many hundred totemic tribes, only four knew a rite approximating the ceremonial killing and eating of the "totem-god" (a rite assumed by Freud to be an invariable feature of totemism); and, finally, that this rite has nothing to do with the origin of sacrifice, since totemism does not occur at all in the oldest cultures. In vain did Wilhelm Schmidt point out that the pretotemic peoples knew nothing of cannibalism, that patricide among them would be a
sheer impossibility, psychologically, sociologically, and ethically [and that] ... the form of the pre-totemic family, and therefore of the earliest human family we can hope to know anything about through ethnology, is neither general promiscuity nor group-marriage, neither of which, according to the verdict of the leading anthropologists, ever existed at all.
Freud was not in the least troubled by such objections, and this wild "gothic novel," Totem and Taboo, has since become one of the minor gospels of three generations of the Western intelligentsia.
Of course, the genius of Freud and the merits of psychoanalysis ought not to be judged by the horror stories presented as objective historical fact in Totem and Taboo. But it is highly significant that such frantic hypotheses could be acclaimed as sound scientific theory in spite of all the criticism marshaled by the major anthropologists of the century. What lay behind this victory was first the victory of psychoanalysis itself over the older psychologies and then its emergence (for many other reasons) as a cultural fashion. After 1920, then, the Freudian ideology was taken for granted in its entirety. A fascinating book could be written about the significance of the incredible success of this "roman noir frénétique," Totem and Taboo. Using the very tools and method of modern psychoanalysis, we can lay open some tragic secrets of the modern Western intellectual: for example, his profound dissatisfaction with the worn-out forms of historical Christianity and his desire to violently rid himself of his forefathers' faith, accompanied by a strange sense of guilt, as if he himself had killed a God in whom he could not believe but whose absence he could not bear. For this reason I have said that a cultural fashion is immensely significant, no matter what its objective value may be; the success of certain ideas or ideologies reveals to us the spiritual and existential situation of all those for whom these ideas or ideologies constitute a kind of soteriology.
Of course, there are fashions in other sciences, even in the discipline of history of religions, though evidently they are less glamorous than the vogue enjoyed by Totem and Taboo. That our fathers and grandfathers were fascinated by The Golden Bough is a comprehensible, and rather honorable, fact. What is less comprehensible, and can be explained only as a fashion, is the fact that between 1900 and 1920 almost all the historians of religions were searching for mother-goddesses, corn-mothers, and vegetation demons—and of course they found them everywhere, in all the religions and folklores of the world. This search for the Mother—mother earth, tree-mother, corn-mother, and so on—and also for other demonic beings related to vegetation and agriculture is also significant for our understanding of the unconscious nostalgias of the Western intellectual at the beginning of the century.
But let me remind you of another example of the power and prestige of fashions in history of religions. This time there is neither god nor goddess involved, neither corn-mother nor vegetation spirit, but an animal—specifically, a camel. I am referring to the famous sacrifice of a camel described by a certain Nilus who lived in the second part of the fourth century. While he was living as a monk in the monastery of Mount Sinai, the Bedouin Arabs raided the monastery. Nilus was thus able to observe at first hand the life and beliefs of the Bedouins, and he recorded many such observations in his treatise The Slaying of the Monks on Mount Sinai. Particularly dramatic is his description of the sacrifice of a camel, "offered," he says, "to the Morning Star." Bound upon a rude altar of piled-up stones, the camel is cut to pieces and devoured raw by the worshipers—devoured with such haste, Nilus adds, "that in the short interval between the rise of the Day Star, which marked the hour for the service to begin, and the disappearance of its rays before the rising sun, the entire camel, body and bones, skin, blood and entrails, is wholly devoured." J. Wellhausen was the first to relate this sacrifice in his Reste arabischen Heidenthumes (1887). But it was William Robertson Smith who established, so to speak, the unique scientific prestige of Nilus' camel. He refers to this sacrifice innumerable times in his Lectures on the Religions of the Semites (1889), considering it "the oldest known form of Arabian sacrifice," and he speaks of the "direct evidence of Nilus as to the habits of the Arabs of the Sinaitic desert." From then on, all the followers of Robertson Smith's theory of sacrifice—S. Reinach, A. Wendel, A. S. Cook, S. H. Hooke—abundantly and untiringly referred to Nilus' account. It is still more curious that even those scholars who did not accept Robertson Smith's theory could not—or dared not—discuss the general problem of sacrifice without duly relating Nilus' story. In fact, no one seemed to doubt the authenticity of Nilus' testimony, even though a great number of scholars rejected Robertson Smith's interpretation of it. Thus, by the beginning of this century Nilus' camel had become so exasperatingly omnipresent in the writings of historians of religions, Old Testament scholars, sociologists, and ethnologists that G. Foucard declared, in his book Histoire des religions et méthode comparative,
It seems that no author has any longer the right to treat of history of religions if he does not speak respectfully of this anecdote. For it is indeed an anecdote ..., a detail related as an "aside"; and on a unique fact, so slender, one cannot really build up a religious theory valid for all humanity.
With great intellectual courage, Foucard summed up his methodological position:
Concerning Nilus' camel, I persist in the belief that it does not deserve to carry on its back the weight of the origins of a part of the history of religions.
Foucard was right. Meticulous textual and historical analysis has proved that Nilus was not the author of the treatise The Slaying of the Monks on Mount Sinai, that this is a pseudonymous work, probably written in the fourth or fifth century, and, what is more important, that the text is full of literary clichés borrowed from Hellenistic novels; for example, the description of the killing and devouring of the camel—"hacking off pieces of the quivering flesh and devouring the entire animal, body and bones"—has no ethnological value but reveals only a knowledge of the rhetoricalpathetic genre of these novels. Nonetheless, although these facts were already known soon after the First World War, thanks especially to Karl Heussi's painstaking analysis, Nilus' camel still haunts many recent scientific works. And no wonder. This short and colorful description of what is presumed to be the original form of sacrifice and the beginnings of religious communion was tailor-made to gratify all tastes and inclinations. Nothing could be more flattering to Western intellectuals, convinced, as so many of them were, that prehistoric and primitive man was very nearly a beast of prey and consequently that the origin of religion should reflect a troglodytic psychology and behavior. Furthermore, the communal devouring of a camel could not but substantiate the claim of many sociologists that religion is merely a social fact, if not just the hypostatic projection of the society itself. Even those scholars who called themselves Christians were somehow happy with Nilus' account. They would readily point out the immense distance that separates the total consumption of a camel—bones and skin included—from the highly spiritualized, if not merely symbolic, Christian sacraments. The splendid superiority of monotheism and especially of Christianity as over against all preceding pagan creeds and faiths could not be more convincingly evident. And, of course, all these scholars, Christians as well as agnostics or atheists, were supremely proud and happy to be what they were: civilized Westerners and champions of infinite progress.
I do not doubt that the anlysis of the three recent cultural fashions which I referred to at the beginning of this paper will prove no less revealing for us, although they are not directly related to history of religions. Of course, they are not to be considered equally significant. One of them, at least, may very soon become obsolete. For our purposes, it does not matter. What matters is the fact that during the past four or five years—the early 1960s—Paris has been dominated—one might almost say conquered—by a magazine called Planète and by two authors, Teilhard de Chardin and Claude Lévi-Strauss. I hasten to add that I do not intend to discuss here the theories of Teilhard and Lévi-Strauss. What interests me is their amazing popularity, and I will refer to their ideas only insofar as they may explain the reasons for that popularity.
A Magazine Called Planète
For obvious reasons, I shall begin with the magazine Planète. As a matter of fact, I am not the first to have pondered the cultural meaning of its unheard-of popularity. Some time ago the well-known and extremely serious Parisian paper Le Monde devoted two long articles to this very problem, the unexpected and incredible success of Planète. Indeed, some 80,000 subscribers and 100,000 buyers of a rather expensive magazine constitute a unique phenomenon in France—and a problem for the sociology of culture. Its editors are Louis Pauwels, a writer and a former disciple of Gurdjiev, and Jacques Bergier, a very popular scientific journalist. In 1961 they published a voluminous book, Le Matin des sorciers, which rapidly became a bestseller. In fact Planète was launched with the royalties earned by Le Matin des sorciers. The book has also been translated into English, but it has not made a comparable impact on the Anglo-American public. It is a curious mélange of popular science, occultism, astrology, science fiction, and spiritual techniques. But it is more than that. It tacitly pretends to reveal innumerable vital secrets—of our universe, of the Second World War, of lost civilizations, of Hitler's obsession with astrology, and so on. Both authors are well read, and, as I have already said, Jacques Bergier has a scientific background. Consequently, the reader is convinced that he is being given facts, or at least responsible hypotheses—that, in any case, he is not being misled. Planète is constructed on the same premises and follows the same pattern: there are articles on the probability of inhabited planets, new forms of psychological warfare, the perspectives of l'amour moderne, H. P. Lovecraft and American science fiction, the "real" keys to the understanding of Teilhard de Chardin, the mysteries of the animal world, and so on.
Excerpted from Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions by Mircea Eliade. Copyright © 1976 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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1. Cultural Fashions and History of Religions
2. The World, the City, the House
3. Mythologies of Death: An Introduction
4. The Occult and the Modern World
5. Some Observations on European Witchcraft
6. Spirit, Light, and Seed