Mircea Eliade

From Magic to Myth

by Moshe Idel (Author)
©2014 Monographs XIV, 284 Pages
Series: After Spirituality, Volume 3


Mircea Eliade: From Magic to Myth addresses a series of topics that have been neglected in scholarship. First and foremost, the book looks at the early Romanian background of some of Eliade’s ideas, especially his magical universe, which took on a more mythical nature with his arrival in the West. Other chapters deal with Eliade’s attitude toward Judaism, which is crucial for his phenomenology of religion, and the influences of Kabbalah on his early work. Later chapters address his association with the Romanian extreme right movement known as the Iron Guard and the reverberation of some of the images in the post-war Eliade as well as with the status of Romanian culture in his eyes after World War II. The volume concludes by assessing the impact of Eliade’s personal experiences on the manner in which he presented religion. The book will be useful in classes in the history of religion and the history of Eastern European intellectuals.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Camouflaged Sacred in Eliade’s Self-Perception, Literature, and Scholarship
  • Chapter 2. Androgyne, Totality, and Reintegration
  • Chapter 3. Thanatologies: Apotheoses and Triumphs of Death
  • Chapter 4. Time, History, and Antithetic Judaism
  • Chapter 5. Eliade and Kabbalah
  • Chapter 6. A “Shadow” among Rhinoceroses: Mihail Sebastian between Ionescu and Eliade
  • Chapter 7. Eliade, the Iron Guard, and Some Vampires
  • Chapter 8. Eliade as a Romanian Thinker
  • Final Remarks
  • Key to Abbreviated References in the Notes
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index
  • Titres de la collection


My first encounter with Mircea Eliade’s books was sometime in 1964 or 1965, when I attempted to improve my English by reading books written in an easy style that also had some interest for me. Strangely enough, it had nothing to do with the obviously Romanian name of the author. However, the interest in Jewish thought took me in another direction, and I returned to read Eliade again only later in the mid-seventies, when preparing my Ph.D. thesis. However, it was only much later that I discovered that Eliade was actually the friend of Mihail Sebastian, my favorite Romanian playwright, about whose life I did not know anything while in Romania. Toward the end of the seventies, I heard some rumors about the possible affiliations of Eliade with the extreme right, and spoke briefly with Gershom Scholem about them in 1979. However, it was only a month after the death of Eliade, in a conversation with Prof. Wendy Doniger in Jerusalem, that I repeated these rumors, which she vehemently denied. I decided then to read much more systematically and investigate the problem. For this reason I met with Sebastian’s younger brother Benjamin Andrei (Beno, Benu/Bimbirică) in the summer of 1986 in Boulogne, and he confirmed Eliade’s affiliation with the Iron Guard, though he had a rather reconciling attitude toward what he nevertheless described as an affiliation. Some months later I became acquainted with Leon Volovici’s plan to write a book on interwar nationalism in Romania, and it was obvious that he was much better prepared to engage the problem. Nevertheless, I continued reading about Eliade, and received copies of ← ix | x → material relevant to my interest from a variety of sources, but especially from Volovici. My meeting with Ioan P. Culianu and additional discussions with Prof. Doniger sustained my interest in the topic in the late eighties and early nineties.

Meanwhile, the story took me to much more research of many of the Jewish authors in interwar Romania, especially Benjamin Fondane, Sebastian, Ion Călugăru, Ury Benador, and I. Peltz, as part of my interest in the Jewish past in Romania. This interest was considerably facilitated by the fall of the Communist regime in Romania in 1989 and the much easier access to material that was earlier accessible only with difficulty. The explosion of the Eliade scandal, prompted by the publication of Volovici’s book on Romanian nationalism in the interwar period, by Norman Manea’s article on Eliade, and especially by the publication of Mihail Sebastian’s Journal in 1996, and then my participation in different conferences related to Eliade, Culianu, and Sebastian held in Bucharest, Jerusalem, Paris, and Chicago, generated some publications of mine, mostly in Romanian journals and newspapers.1

The immense amount of literature by Eliade himself that was printed in Romania after 1989, especially by Mircea Handoca, and the long series of studies that elucidated many important topics related to interwar Bucharest and Romania in general, helped immensely in getting a picture of the background of both Eliade and Sebastian, which also includes other major personalities: Eugène Ionesco,2 Constantin Noica, Emile Cioran, Mircea Vulcănescu, and especially Eliade’s “Professor,” Nae Ionescu, and Eliade’s older contemporary, Lucian Blaga. Also reading more modest figures from the point of view of literary heritage, such as Marcel/Mihail Avramescu, Arşavir Acterian, and Petre Pandrea, provided some insights. Due to the major contributions of scholars such as Liviu Bordaş, Ioan P. Culianu, Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine, Andrei Oişteanu, Zigu Ornea, Marta Petreu, Mac Linscott Ricketts, Marcel Tolcea, Florin Ţurcanu, and last but not least, the late Leon Volovici, it became easier for an amateur in the field to engage really complex topics, when informed by these studies. When attempting to situate Eliade’s theory of religion mainly in the context of the Eranos encounters in Ascona, Steven Wasserstrom’s monograph Religion after Religion was very helpful.

During the nineties of the last century and first decade of the present one, I had the opportunity to discuss problems related to Eliade with a variety of scholars in Romania and elsewhere, including Sorin Alexandrescu, Sorin Antohi, Matei Călinescu, Eugen Ciurtin, Michael Finkenthal, Maurice Olender, Zigu Ornea, Dan Petrescu, Marta Petreu, Liviu Rotman, Tilo Schabert, and last but not least, the late Dr. R. Alexander Safran, as well as some others whose names were mentioned above, but none of these discussions were as productive from my point of view as those with Leon Volovici, to whose memory this book is dedicated. The final draft ← x | xi → of the book has been read by Sorin Antohi, whose remarks corrected and improved it. From many sources I received material which otherwise would not have been available to me, and I would like to mention here the kind assistance of Madeea Axinciuc, Eugen Ciurtin, Dan Dana, Dan Petrescu, Marta Petreu, Mac Linscott Ricketts, Mihaela Timuş, Marcel Tolcea, and especially Liviu Bordaş and Volovici. In the final stage of writing the book I used the library of the Center for the Study of the History of Romanian Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and I would like to thank Dr. Miriam Caloianu for her help and for adding the Romanian diacritics. I would like to acknowledge the help of the Jules and Gwen Knapp Charitable Foundation in the publication of the book.

Most of the scholarship on Eliade as a historian of religion that was written in the West, both before and after the fall of Communism in Romania in 1989, is based on his later writings, without taking into consideration, in the vast majority of the cases, the earlier Romanian studies. Such an approach is prone to draw conclusions based on historically loose assumptions that create a linkage between his allegiance to the Iron Guard and the content of his scholarly claims. I attempted to take into consideration also the Romanian writings, not just to allow a more historical picture, but also to achieve another balance between the various aspects of his academica, biographica. and literaria. Though the gist of the book deals with some themes that I consider to be crucial for his theory of religion, toward the end I had to address aspects of his political involvement, which, though known earlier, nevertheless require, in my opinion, a more elaborated inspection.

My analyses below are based much more on the earlier stages in Eliade’s writings, as found in his Romanian writings, literature, and correspondence, which have been known to scholars in the West in quite a fragmentary manner until recent decades. Even the most heroic and comprehensive effort to deal with Eliade’s Romanian roots, by a Western scholar during the end of the Communist era, Mac Linscott Ricketts, which was done under great restrictions of access to material, could take into consideration only part of the pertinent literature. So, for example, Eliade’s correspondence was unpublished at that time and in fact unavailable, as was his Portugal Journal, which he much later translated into English, not to mention Sebastian’s Journal.

However, due to the efforts of Mircea Handoca and more recently of Liviu Bordaş, unknown material of Eliade’s has been published, allowing a much wider perspective on the adolescent and young Eliade. For the time being, all those interesting materials are available only in Romanian. Their importance consists in making it possible to build a picture of his earlier Bildung, as a precocious reader with extraordinarily wide interests on the one hand, and to understand the emergence of the more mature phases of his thought on the other hand, in a much better manner.← xi | xii →

Moreover, my leading assumption is that without a significant acquaintance with the historical circumstances of Eliade’s activities in Romania in the twenties and the thirties, beyond the perusal of literary sources, it is hard to understand the main triggers for his activities. This is not a matter of understanding only the tortuous Romanian politics of the interwar period, but also the literary corpora of his teachers and friends, both in the high school period and in the university years, and afterwards during the thirties, especially Nae Ionescu’s writings and those of the members of the Criterion group, which, again, are available almost in their entirety, only in Romanian. I attempted to peruse as much as possible of those documents in their original and translate what I found necessary, but I rely as little as possible on building theories on secondhand analyses, which have been duly referenced.

An amazing part of this initiation into the culture and politics of the thirties was the perusal of the literature related to the Iron Guard, or the Legion of the Archangel Michael, the anti-Semitic and ultranationalistic movement that attracted first Eliade’s main mentor, Nae Ionescu, and a short time later on, also Eliade and some of his closest friends. This reading was necessary in order to prevent repetitions of unchecked clichés and anachronisms. Ionescu and Eliade, and some of the young intellectuals from their entourage, became substantially involved in the propaganda of the movement, and perhaps indirectly, also in the formulation of some aspects of its ideology. The pertinent material is itself a vast literature, which includes many books and booklets printed in the thirties, some of them certainly read by Eliade, which are now relatively more easily available, even on the Internet; all this is in addition to the scholarly debates about the nature of this movement, and the diverging accounts of the histories of the movement by various factions of the legionnaires themselves. As I shall try to show, especially in chs. 3 and 7, it is hard to understand the Eliade of the thirties as operating outside the major political and cultural turbulences of this temporal and conceptual framework, and also some later aspects of his thought are opaque since Eliade himself decided to obscure his attitudes of the earlier period, and their possible relevance for his development.

Nevertheless, my assumption is that we should be cautious not to reduce his thought to an adoption of extreme right clichés, or describe him as “fascist” or “anti-Semite,” but to understand him and his sources as belonging to a much greater variety of cultural and religious trends, some of them predating his rapprochement to the Iron Guard in late 1935. This is a hard intellectual exercise, especially for a scholar whose main academic interests are far from Eliade’s main backgrounds. No less noteworthy is the emotional pressure for a Romanian Jew, and an Israeli, as well as for just a human being, to learn in detail about the ideologies and delirium that instigated the persecutions, discriminations, and on many occasions, the extermina ← xii | xiii → tion of hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews that took place in those times and places. Reading several histories of the Iron Guard, written by independent scholars and by its adherents, and learning details of the association of intellectuals to it in the mid-thirties, provided a special perspective for understanding some aspects of Eliade’s thought, which needs further clarification.


1. See, e.g., M. Idel, “ Camuflarea sacrului în memorialistica, beletristica şi literatura ştiinţifică a lui Mircea Eliade,” tr. Bogdan Aldea, Apostrof, XIX, 1–2 (2008), p. 212; my 2002 lecture in Bucharest printed in Oişteanu, Religion, Politics, and Myth, pp. 191–196, 210–211; my 2006 lecture at the New European College in 2006, summarized in Alexandru Matei, Observator Cultural, 310 (March 2006); “Mircea Eliade and the Zohar: Moving Sands,” Kabbalah, 23 (2010), pp. 9–28, translated into Romanian by Matei Pleşu in Dilemateca, VI, 63 (2011), pp. 13–28; and my Ascensions on High, pp. 216–231, and “O ‘umbră’ printre rinoceri: Mihail Sebastian şi scandalul unei duble identităţi,” tr. Bogdan Aldea, in The Dilemmas of Identity, ed. Volovici, pp. 35–75; as well as Antohi-Idel, What Unites Us, pp. 123–167. Most of the material in these studies has been integrated into various chapters in this book.

2. Hereafter I shall use Ionesco to refer to Eugène Ionesco, and Ionescu to refer to Nae Ionescu.

← xiii | xiv → ← xiv | 1 →


Eliade’s Life

Mircea Eliade’s life1 can be divided into two major parts from the temporal point of view: the Romanian part, 1907–1944, and the extra-Romanian one, the “exile” years 1944–1986. Most of the former period was spent in Romania—with the exception of three years in India—and then in London and Lisbon between late 1940 and late 1944. During this period most of what he wrote, quite precociously—literature, journalistic and scholarly—was done in Romanian and intended for a Romanian audience, though he aspired to a much more international audience. It is a vast literature, which started in the prodigious high school years, and it includes several novels, hundreds of feuilletons printed in daily newspapers, monographs, and collections of studies. A few of his writings in this period were done in other languages; especially noteworthy was his book on Yoga, based on his Ph.D. thesis submitted in 1933 at the University of Bucharest, which was translated and published in French in 1936, and some feuilletons in Italian and Portuguese. Eliade was then a famous and prolific Romanian author of several novels and innumerable journalistic feuilletons, and an emerging and promising scholar of religion, but he was also thought of quite widely as the leader of the 1927 generation, namely, of the young Romanians who were destined, according to their self-perception, to create a vibrant ← 1 | 2 → and vital new Romanian culture, related to the new geographical-political situation generated by the emergence of Greater Romania after WWI. This prominent status, the result of being a successful writer of novels, a scholar of religion who was slowly starting to be recognized internationally, and a frequent contributor of many hundreds of feuilletons to a long series of Romanian periodicals, was unparalleled by anyone in the history of Romania in his generation.

This very promising situation as an academician, a writer, and a leading intellectual, which was evident until 1938, deteriorated in the Romanian political elite because of his adherence, spiritually and to a certain extent also politically, to the views of the legionnaire movement, known also as the Iron Guard, an extreme right, ultranationalist, and anti-Semitic organization. His adherence caused his arrest and detention for four months, together with some of the Iron Guard leaders, in the camp of Miercurea Ciuc in 1938. Following his liberation from the camp, his situation turned precarious, both financially and socially.2 This is the reason why he preferred to leave Romania in late 1940 as a representative of his country in London and then Lisbon.

With the beginning of the “exile” in Paris in 1945, most of his academic writings were written in French and then in English, and the intended audience was international. This was part of his activity first in France, at the Eranos meetings in Ascona, and then at the University of Chicago beginning in 1956. He continued to write prose in Romanian, and his greatest novel, Forbidden Forest, was expressly intended to garner a Nobel Prize in literature. Given the fame he achieved especially in his period in the USA, he was understood and discussed largely for what he did after 1945; he was translated and printed in European languages, but to a much lesser extent, taking into consideration the voluminous Romanian material, which was barely available because of the language barrier, but also because of the restrictions of the Communist regime in Romania, which did not allow easy access to interwar material.

When he embarked on his American adventure in 1956 after a decade of sojourn in Paris, he left behind him not only the Old Continent, to which he preferred to return rather regularly and for long holidays, but also a personal history, the Romanian one, some of which he preferred to forget. However, the geographical shift could not and did not change the chapters of his biography he preferred to relegate to oblivion. Rumors about a rather shameful past started to surface, even in his lifetime, and reached the ears of even his closest admirers among the academicians. This is the case for persons like one of his translators in French and a close friend, Henri Pernet, and Arnaldo Momigliano, Gershom Scholem, and Ioan P. Culianu. It was a difficult experience to become acquainted with these details, and Pernet, for example, preferred not to ask Eliade about them,3 while Scholem4 and Culianu5 tried to inquire, but the answers they received were quite evasive and in any case incomplete. It is not the place ← 2 | 3 → to engage his reactions to these questions here, and I hope to do it elsewhere, though some aspects of their historical background will be addressed in ch. 7.

Scholarship on Eliade

Eliade’s prodigious, prolific, and innovative writings attracted a lot of attention. The lead was taken by American scholars in the late seventies, mainly dealing with his post–WWII scholarly writings, which were available in European languages, mainly French and English. However, the studies of his pre–WWII period done by Ioan P. Culianu, Mac Linscot Ricketts’s heroic monograph on the Romanian roots of Eliade, and Leon Volovici’s on the early period of Eliade’s political background, were done in much harder conditions, since much of the pertinent material on the interwar period in Romanian was hardly available. Concerning the image of Romania in a difficult and rather shameful period of its extreme right-wing history, the salient material was “protected” even by the Communist party. This is the reason why the analyses of Eliade’s thought against the richer and much more variegated documentation was a hard task.

After the fall of Communism in Romania most of the material became accessible, but its sheer amount turned out to be another great problem. A slow but obvious change started after 1989, when both the quantity and sometimes also the very high quality of the studies of Eliade shifted from the non-Romanian scholars in the direction of Romanian scholars. The amount of material that has been printed and reprinted, both his earlier writings, some of which were published for the first time, and reprintings of the old editions, making available material that was hardly accessible, is staggering, and there is good reason to assume that more will be done in this direction in the near future. Here, the many contributions of Mircea Handoca, the devoted collector and editor of Eliade’s works since his publications in the eighties during the Communist regime, are quite obvious and extremely helpful, though they are to a great extent technical. It is sometimes also intellectually biased, creating a feeling that criticism of Eliade might necessarily stem from unfair approaches.6 A very decisive contribution has been made by the recent full publication and the detailed exegesis of Eliade’s Portugal Journal and other works written in Portugal, undertaken by his nephew Sorin Alexandrescu with the cooperation of some other scholars. The publication of Eliade’s extensive correspondence with many scholars that burgeoned in the last two decades, especially by Handoca, added new dimensions to our knowledge of details of his life and thought. So, in addition to the much discussed two letters to Scholem, the correspondence with Constantin Noica, Henri Pernet, Stig Wikander, Raffaele Pettazzoni, Károly Kerényi, and Ioan P. Culianu, to give only some examples, has been edited and sometimes even translated, and briefly analyzed.7← 3 | 4 →

However, in addition to this recent avalanche de richesses of extremely important material, no less decisive is a dramatic change in the tone and the quality of what can be discerned from the perusal of the analyses published by the young generation of Romanian scholars since 2000. If the first generation of publications starting with the fall of Ceauşescu’s regime in 1989 was in many cases apologetic, or attempting to rescue the image of Eliade from accusations leveled at his involvement in the Iron Guard propaganda, the more recent scholars display a much more objective and critical attitude. First and foremost, Florin Ţurcanu’s massive and outstanding monograph on Eliade in French, describing him, sarcastically, as a “prisoner of history,” is balanced, extremely well informed, and replete with incisive analyses about Eliade’s life and some of his conceptual developments.8 A contribution on Eliade’s political views can be found also in Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine’s critical L’oubli du fascisme. More specific topics have been investigated more recently in great detail and in a careful manner in the insightful and indispensable studies of Marta Petreu, Liviu Bordaş, Andrei Oişteanu, Mihaela Gligor, and Dan Dana, to mention only some of the main scholars. Especially, Petreu’s erudite and courageous analyses have been a source of information and inspiration, at the same time, for understanding the interwar figures. Most of these contributions are found in only Romanian, though a part of Dana’s study on Zalmoxis is available now in French.9 In my opinion, the Romanian scholars took the leadership both quantitatively and qualitatively, and without being intimately acquainted with it, it is hard to speak about serious treatments of Eliade.

Below I shall deal with some specific topics in Eliade’s thought, each of them important though relatively neglected as subject matter. My intention is not to offer a comprehensive or systematic picture of his thought, an issue that is hardly achievable given what I call the incoherence and incompatibilities, which I address immediately below. However, there are also other important topics that are important for understanding his thought, and I would like to deal with them in the next paragraphs, though I am not going to offer in this Introduction an exhaustive treatment. They constitute the framework of Eliade’s thought no less than the other topics that will enjoy a more comprehensive treatment in this book.

The Magical Universe

I would like to delineate here what seems to me a major development in Eliade’s thought concerning the nature of religion, which escaped the scholarly analyses of his approaches. This can be articulated as the shift from an earlier, more magical universe to a more mythical one later on. In the first writings, especially the Romanian ones, Eliade operated in the framework of what he called a magical universe. This is an important topic in his ← 4 | 5 → scholarship but also of his own experiences and aspirations. In his autobiography, Eliade confesses that, unlike what his colleagues think, “I did not have a mystical vocation. In a way, I was closer to ‘magic’ than to mysticism.10 Even in adolescence, I have tried to suppress normal behavior, had dreamed of a radical transmutation of my mode of being. My enthusiasm for Yoga and Tantra was due to some Faustian nostalgias.”11

This is a very precious confession since it reflects the predilection of events taking place in the cosmos, and the harmonization between the human acts and the cosmic processes, over changes within the human psyche. Eliade mentions a piece entitled “The Magical Deed” that he wrote in 1928, but that was lost. However, from the context we may guess that it had to do with “presenting the structure of magical philosophies and of showing to what extent magic constitutes one of the temptations of the spirit.”12 Indeed, discussions concerning the magical understanding of the universe permeate Eliade’s early writings, and they constitute one of the most productive assumptions that inform many of his other conceptualizations in matters of religion. The centrality of this early concept of the universe has escaped the scholarship of Eliade’s thought,13 and I shall try to delineate some of its occurrences in his writings. The earlier significant discussion is found in his high school piece entitled “Science and Occultism,” written as a polemic with a Jewish colleague, Solomon Israilovici. The latter criticized the interest in spiritism, which certainly Eliade pursued in the later years of his high school, as we know from other sources, and he reacted to Israelovici’s “enlightened” critique. Eliade claims that ancient esotericism developed parallel to the more rational faculties, as did

faculties that remain “occult” since they were not put in use, as it was with for example the permanent intuition, la clairvoyance, telepathic communication, and others that we cannot dwell upon here. If by the rationalist means we cannot grasp but the external formal aspect of things—since those means stems from the senses— by the occult features the “I” takes the direct contact with reality, without the mediation of the senses and without being duped by the forms of nature.…In one word, they14 were liberated of the heavy yoke of the rationalist presumptions, developing his pure rationality and also the other occult means.15

Later on in this essay, after quoting the “Hebrew magical book of the Zohar” as a very ancient text, anteceding the heliocentric vision of the world,16 he writes that “I hope that I proved now how the ancient esoteric science knew things of importance more than our science, since it proceeded on a more secure path.”17 In fact, the entire essay is a sustained effort to validate the contribution of occultism to a wider understanding of reality, beyond the positivist type of science. In 1927, he wrote a feuilleton entitled “Magic and Metapsychism” where he proposes a combination of the study of history of religion with some form of parapsychological and telekinetic phenomena he would refer to as metapsychism.18 In the same year he wrote an extremely interesting ← 5 | 6 → short story that helps in illustrating my point as to the emphasis on the more ergetic aspects of the early Eliade, “The Man Who Wanted to be Silent,” where the assumption is that by dint of silence, one can become God and create a variety of androidic beings out of one’s thought.19 The extraordinary powers of the taciturn man are denied by the civilized people, a doctor and persons resorting to technology; in fact it is a critique of modernity and its skepticism as to the possibilities found in forms of ascetic techniques, a point that will be amplified later on, as we shall see below.


XIV, 284
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
Judaism Romanian culture religion
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 284 pp.

Biographical notes

Moshe Idel (Author)

Moshe Idel, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Senior Researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Member of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, and currently President of the World Union of Jewish Studies. Author of Kabbalah: New Perspectives (1988), Messianic Mystics (1998), Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism (2008).


Title: Mircea Eliade
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