Eliade, Mircea(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).
Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) was a highly influential twentieth-century historian of religions (an academic discipline also known as comparative religion). His stature in religious studies is comparable to that of Carl Jung in psychology. He had a broad influence through his abundant writings and the many students he trained at the University of Chicago. Although many scholars have criticized Eliade, his work remains a standard point of reference in any theoretical discussion of religious phenomena.
According to Eliade, it is the natural tendency of the human mind to make a distinction between the sacred and the profane (the non-sacred or secular). This distinction is drawn both spatially and temporally, so that human societies set aside special sacred places (e.g., temples and churches) as well as sacred times (e.g., religious holidays). The sacred represents a power that is both attractive and repelling—humanity attempts to draw near and “tap” such power, but normally does not wish to be absorbed into the sacred. The sacred is the source of such powers as the power of transformation, rebirth, creativity, and healing. Religious activities such as religious rituals and ceremonies are ways of tapping sacred power.
Eliade mentions dreams in his studies of initiatory dreams and shamanism. A more creative treatment of dreams is contained in an essay in his Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries. In this work, Eliade discusses the religious meaning of ascension, which often symbolizes a breakthrough into another, sacred realm. Transferring this archaic symbolism into contemporary psychology, Eliade observes that dreams during sleep and “waking dreams” (by which he probably means what we today call creative visualization) in which one finds oneself ascending a stairway frequently indicate personal transformation: “In effect, the ascent of a stairway or a mountain in a dream or a waking dream signifies, at the deepest psychic level, an experience of regeneration (the solution of a crisis, psychic re-integration)” (p. 119—see Sources). Here as well as in other places in his extensive corpus of writings, Eliade goes beyond the task of describing religious symbols and speculates on their psychological significance. Few contemporary historians of religion have followed Eliade’s lead in this regard, largely abandoning the exploration of the territory where dreams and myths intersect to depth psychologists.