Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell

By Tito Ferguson, Georgia State University 

When considering the theorists Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, it is not difficult to recognize similarities in their theories of religious thought.  Comparisons can be made between them in regards to their methods of analyzing separate traditions as well as their attempts to draw universal conclusions from them.  Not only do these two theorists demonstrate the ability to take unrelated traditions and create a new way of viewing them as part of a larger picture, but they also resemble each other in how later theorists consider their work.  Both men inspired a change in the way religion was thought about by the public, and both have earned the criticism of modern and feminist scholars. 

Mircea Eliade has long been considered an influential figure in the field of Religious Studies, and while some modern theorists tend to minimize the relevance of his ideas in light of recent developments in the subject, Eliade undoubtedly revolutionized the way religion was studied and taught for many years.  He wrote works of both fiction and non-fiction, and is known for developing original terms and concepts unique to his personal theory.  Expressions such as hierophany, axis mundi, and hierogamy are used to illustrate his ideas on what he refers to as “sacred time,” “sacred space,” and “archaic man.” 

Eliade’s concept of sacred time refers to the mythical time when chaos converted into the beginning of creation.  This notion of time is a cyclical one in which humans live according to a model of endless regeneration reflected by the seasons symbolizing birth, mid-age, old-age, death, and birth again. 

The idea of sacred space describes Eliade’s concept of hierophany, or the manifestation of the sacred into the profane world.  Instances of hierophany can be seen in various traditions and include the burning bush of the Old Testament, Ayer’s Rock in Australia, and the linga stones of India.  Eliade’s primary example of sacred space is the axis mundi, a world center which connects the higher and lower realms.  To Eliade, each axis mundi serves as the center of the world: “Every temple or palace-and, by extension, every sacred city or royal residence-is a Sacred Mountain, thus becoming a Center…the meeting point of heaven, earth, and hell.” (Eliade 12) 

According to Eliade, there is an immense difference between how archaic and modern man view the world in connection to sacred time and sacred space.  Archaic man exists in a primitive world, in which he conceives of time in a cyclical fashion and derives meaning through repetition of the acts of the gods.  By reenacting the original events, archaic man is able to stay connected through ritual to the sacred time of creation as well as to the gods.  In Eliade’s words, ”every creation repeats the preeminent cosmogonic act, the creation of the world.” (18) One example of this type of reenactment is something that Eliade calls the hierogamy, or sacred marriage.  In his words, “by consummating ritual union with the goddess…the divine union assures terrestrial fecundity…(and) the world is regenerated each time the hierogamy is imitated”. (26)  

In contrast to the archaic model, modern man exists within a historical timeline in which time moves in only one direction, from beginning to end, and the central object of meaning is the individual.  In this reality, God is a distant figure who intervenes in the lives of a select few in order to create significant events which cannot be repeated.  Eliade speculates that this way of thinking started with the onset of the Abrahamic traditions, and as a result, modern man has lost the relationship to the cosmos that kept his archaic counterpart centered and connected to the sacred time of creation.  It is this disconnect which creates what modern man experiences as the “terror of history”(139), in which man no longer achieves meaning by being part of the cosmic process, but is forced to tolerate his own powerlessness and the dreadful events and suffering which befall humanity. 

Although Eliade’s theories earned him respect and attention during his early career, his work has drawn critical response in more recent years.  In his paper The Wobbling Pivot, J.Z. Smith takes issue with several of Eliade’s positions.  Referring to Eliade’s concept of the “eternal repetition of the cosmogonic act” (Eliade 62), Smith debates whether all creation acts are something that archaic man would have wanted to reenact.  He explains: 

Many of the first times described in myth-particularly those dealing with the origin of death, sickness, illness, sin, and evil may well be existentially repeated in the human condition itself; but they are neither celebrated nor ritually repeated. (Smith 145)

Furthermore, he points out that Eliade sometimes takes a less than objective position when it comes to his own terms and theories.  For example: 

This focus on the explicit presence of the term ‘Center’ leads Eliade at times to employ questionable interpretations of his material…[and] at other times leads him to ignore texts which do contain important elements of the ‘Center’ pattern but never explicitly use the term. (144-145)

Next, he examines Eliade’s categories of “archaic” and “modern” and the “related distinction between cyclical-mythic time and linear-historical time.” (148)  He draws the conclusion that “[t]his dichotomy does not seem to do justice to the rich patterns of temporal significance which have been discovered in various cultures”. (148) It appears that despite retaining an appreciation for the immense contributions Eliade has made to the historical study of religion, Smith remains unconvinced that his theories are fully applicable to the present state of the field of Religious Studies today.  

Like Smith, Carol P. Christ also takes a critical approach to what she considers Eliade’s outdated ideas in her article Mircea Eliade and the Feminist Paradigm Shift, this time paying special attention to the male-centered bias, which informs his writings.  She posits:

Careful analysis of Mircea Eliade’s a history of religious ideas will show that androcentric assumptions are deeply structured into Eliade’s conceptions of the nature and origin of religion.  These biases make it virtually impossible for him to recognize the importance of women and Goddesses in the history of religion. (Christ 79)

Throughout the article Christ expresses her resentment at Eliade’s preference for the male-oriented aspects of history, as well as to his assumption that the roles of males have more successfully promoted the survival of the species.  She states, “By focusing on meat-eating as decisive to human survival, Eliade values the contributions of ‘man the hunter’ while devaluing the contributions of ‘woman the gatherer.’” (83) Throughout her writing, Christ meticulously dissects Eliade’s words, analyzing dismissive phrases and pointing out his inability to acknowledge the feminist perspective.  More so than Smith, she seems fed up with his theories and urges the reader to move beyond the paradigm he presents.  She concludes: “The history of religion which Eliade tells is distorted by dualism, idealism, and false universalization of male experience…Once this bias is unmasked, we can never again read his work…as a “true” or “objective” telling of the history of religion.” (94)

Like Eliade, Joseph Campbell provided a new interpretation of the study of religion that tended to draw universal conclusions across multiple traditions and garnered him vast public attention.  In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell explores his theory regarding the monomyth, an idea that has influenced a multitude of popular works such as George Lucas’ Star Wars, The Matrix, and Harry Potter and can be recognized in the stories of the lives of both the Buddha and Jesus Christ. 

According to Campbell, the monomyth, or hero’s journey, provides a motif which recurs throughout countless mythologies.  The structure of this universal myth contains three primary stages referred to as Separation, Initiation, and Return through which we are able to trace the hero regardless of his culture of origin.  Campbell explains, “The archetypes to be discovered and assimilated are precisely those that have inspired, throughout the annals of human culture, the basic images of ritual, mythology, and vision.” (Campbell 18)

In her article The Myth of Joseph Campbell, Mary Lefkowitz expresses her dissatisfaction with the attention Campbell has received as a result of the popular televised interview with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth.”  She seems concerned that, beyond advocating a “selfish materialism when he recommended to his viewers that the each ‘follow their own bliss,’” (429) he is sometimes inaccurate in his analysis of specific myths; and, like Eliade, he is guilty of minimizing the role of women in his hero theme.  She makes it clear from the beginning that she “doesn’t [think] Campbell should be considered as an objective authority on the subject he professes,” (429) first and foremost, because he is not a professor, never having finished his doctorate, a fact often cited by critics of Campbellian theory.  In her opinion, Campbell’s particular view was easily accepted because, she declares “Campbell could tell a good story…[and] he was knowledgeable about what we didn’t have time (or inclination) to discover for ourselves.” (429)

In addition to her concern over Campbell’s credentials, Lefkowitz places emphasis on the fact that Campbell’s universal hero premise may not be all it’s cracked up to be.  Like Jonathan Z. Smith’s critique of Eliade, Lefkowitz is concerned that “Campbell tends to make the details of ancient narratives conform to his own interpretations”. (431)  She cites several specific examples of Greek myths that expose Campbell’s tendency to “overlook details or occasionally get…a mythological fact wrong” (431) in order to portray these myths in a more universal light.  Indeed, Lefkowitz states, “[I]t suits Campbell’s purpose best to show that all heroes, whatever their background, are more or less alike at least in the pattern of their lives and the nature of their aspirations”. (431) 

In regard to the feminist perspective, Lefkowitz hones in on what she considers his lack of attention to the female in his breakdown of the predominantly male hero in mythology.  She seems especially troubled by his portrayal of women as passive.  She explains: “they are not so much actors in the story as ideals or goals, entities from whom knowledge or life may be taken, or who will produce and nourish the hero’s progeny”. (Campbell, The Power of Myth 125), Lefkowitz counters with the idea that it is “the female body that Campbell wishes to celebrate, and not the force of the female will or determination of mind” (Lefkowitz 433).  Even as heroes, women lack the self-sufficiency of the male: “Often women seem to learn only sometime after their first confrontation with men, whether physical or political” (433).  Furthermore, Lefkowitz adds, even the choice for a woman to become a hero does not seem to be her own, unlike the active choice for boys who “need to intend to be men…the decisive moments in a woman’s life are…, in a sense, inflicted on her” (433).

Finally, as she closes her argument, Lefkowitz reminds the reader that, due to particular trends in the study of religion, namely a move towards universalism, Campbell’s message is especially easy to swallow.  She warns that while Joseph Campbell has succeeded in expanding the types of religious subject matter the common person is exposed to, “no one should hope to find in [his theory] an authoritative guide to any religion other than Campbell’s own” (434).

Both Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell have made significant contributions to the field of religious studies; Eliade, as a visionary who taught us to look at religion in a new way, and Campbell, who made world religions and mythology attainable for the public.  However, while both of these men deserve our respect for breaking new ground and forming new paradigms, they also have their limitations in regards to how they should be applied today.


About Tito Ferguson

Although I am originally from Texas, I have called Georgia my home for twelve years.  In 2007, I returned to school (Georgia State University) and earned a BA in Religious Studies with a minor in Psychology in December of  2010.  I graduated with honors and received the Robert Arrington award in Religious studies for the 2010-2011 school year.  My interests include New Religious Movements, Psychology and Religion, and Mythology.  I live in West Georgia with my son and am thinking about returning to school for a graduate degree in the near future. 

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