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Myth and Belief

Frater Vameri

Image by Gordon Johnson at Pixabay

Eliade points out that it is difficult to define precisely what the myth would be (ELIADE, “A estrutura dos Mitos”, page 12). This, therefore, the myth is, of course, very rich and complex. However, Eliade risks a definition: " the myth tells a sacred story, it relates an event that took place in the primordial time, the fabulous time of the beginnings ". Now, it seems clear that for Eliade , the myth is a jumble of events that occurs in a time that no one has known (except through the myth itself).

Still, he points out that the myth is always concerned with describing a beginning. The myth then is a “founding story”, which rescues the origins and helps to plumb an entire culture. He also points out that the characters in the myth are "supernatural". This does not mean that they could not have been women or men, but even if they were, because they were in that time "displaced from time" or "beyond time", quoting Pierre Clastres , they are endowed with qualities beyond the ordinary.

The author, in a text on Images and Symbols, also highlights that the myth pertaining to “the substance of spiritual life” and that it cannot be erased (ELIADE, “Imagens e Símbolos” , page 7). Now, if the myth occurs in this “time beyond time”, it is like an inaccessible founding story. It cannot be modified. However, the society (of which the myth is a part) is in a way a manifestation of the myth and, thus, even unattainable, the myth is present and is made present by rituals and acts that are made sacred. It is circular time.

It is even possible to think that societies are the result of their myths and this is not only in a religious dimension, but even for absolutely routine activities. Thus, the act of hunting, for example, would never be different from the reconstruction of hunting that the ancestors conducted in the myth, for example. This agrees with what the author says about the myth having a function and not being a mere imaginary construction, but something that meets a need (ELIADE, “Imagens e Símbolos”, page 8). Not a material need, but a structuring need for being and society. This also suggests that there is an ongoing effort to make the profane sacred through myth. Incidentally, the dialectical “sacred versus profane” also fits in here, since the myth, as sacred, can also only be understood through the fact that it is no longer in that “fabulous time”.

In fact, Eliade reveals that myths are always true. Societies based on them never understand them as anecdotes or just stories. The myth is the organizer of the universe of these societies and if the universe is there it is the definitive proof that the myth can only be real (ELIADE, “A estrutura dos mitos”, pages 15-16).

The myths have occasion and purpose to be transmitted. Eliade says that this occurs during initiations, that is, they are passed on to young people so that they understand how their ancestors acted and how the universe is organized and thus can be part of that same organization. Eliade draws attention to the fact that this gives the myth an esoteric quality, passed through a ritualistic occasion and that requires some degree of secrecy (ELIADE, “A estrutura dos mitos”, page 20). The myths when reenacted and recited seem to guarantee that the universe remains organized in the way it was in “time beyond time” and for the ancestors.

It is as Maya Deren says , in her elegant study of Haitian Voodoo : “The myth is the twilight speech of an elderly man to a boy ” (DEREN, M., 2004 page 21). By this, it means that the myth is the elder's way of transmitting his knowledge to the younger ones, or of placing him properly as an active and functional member of society.

When passing the myth through an initiation, the neophyte is empowered, because now he knows the origin of things and knows the mechanisms by which things work. Eliade understands that this is enough for someone to manipulate the universe (ELIADE, “A estrutura dos mitos”, page 23). Here we have that clearly the myth is not just a story, but the myth is the whole story, in a way.

For Eliade , experimenting with the myth, whether for an initiation or even for customary seasonal celebrations (I imagine) is a way of feeling something that is not commonly felt. This, for the author, is enough to guarantee myth a religious and sacred quality, since it is distinguished absolutely from everything that is ordinary. In the experience of the myth, the “previous inaccessible time” is accessed and communed with the “supernatural beings” (ELIADE, “A estrutura dos mitos”, page 23). One feels part of the foundation of things then and the values ​​that the myth carries are reinforced.

To put it bluntly: what would be the celebration, for example, of a mass? In which the Priest re-enact passages in the life of Christ and make the faithful participate in it (through the Eucharist, for example)? One way to live the myth, might be an answer. The church then becomes a space sanctified by that staging and it is clear that what happens there is not possible similar to anything that could happen outside.

Eliade properly points out about modern man that even though he despises the myth he is surrounded by “decadent” myths and that his imagination constantly feeds on these myths (ELIADE, “Imagens e Símbolos”, page 15). In other words, the myth would indeed be immortal. Still, the myth with its quality of sacred, would give to the man, however much he rejects, always something close to an experience of rupture with the ordinary, even if only under the aegis of the imagination (and with that I do not want to underestimate the imagination) .

Regarding the symbol, Eliade , in his vast books about the history of religion says that "the symbol prolongs the dialectic of hierophany ". In other words, that the symbol is an instrument capable of radiating sacredness, when linked to some sacred manifestation (ELIADE, M. 1997. Page 549). Not only that, Eliade understands that hierophanies , in general, can become symbols that will continue with their sacred power, which will then be the very manifestation of the sacred (ELIADE, M. 1997. Page 550). Therefore, the symbol when passed to a person is similar or the same as having a sacred experience. We clearly perceive that for Eliade , the symbol and the myth have a similar role: both are able to take man out of his daily life and insert him in a differentiated environment, which is understood as sacred.

Thus, it is evident that Eliade understands that the symbol, like the myth, has an evident spiritual quality (ELIADE, “Imagens e Símbolos”, page 7). Like the symbol, for this author it is something inherent to the human being and that reaches layers of existence that are inaccessible by other means (ELIADE, “Imagens e Símbolos”, page 8), it seems clear that the symbol is possibly a “carrier” that either rescues or it inserts "sensations" and "senses" in hidden or little available parts of man and could be what allows the religious experience to enjoy its incredible consequences and impressions. The same, of course, also applies to the myth, as it is difficult to say of the myth that it is not a specific type of symbol or that it contains several symbols in itself, forming a symbol that encompasses so many others. In any case, it seems clear that myth and symbol have related or twinned natures.

Here, it is worth rescuing the discourse on the “semi-forgotten myths ” that surround man, as there are also, in this medium, the “abandoned symbols”. Eliade says that secularized contemporary life has changed spiritual life (ELIADE, “Imagens e Símbolos”, page 14). Of course, that statement makes perfect sense. However, he understands that the imagination is embedded in these symbols, making it, in a way, impossible for man to escape his influences.

Now, this is very interesting, as it suggests, that myths and symbols, even dormant in the subconscious or disguised as anecdotes or whatever they present or persist are still capable of communicating something of a religious or sacred experience, even if, perhaps, diluted. Eliade says that this may be the necessary impetus for man to renew his spiritual life (ELIADE, “Imagens e Símbolos”, page 15). However, this also means that secularization has failed as a project. Symbols and myths then, after all, guaranteed the sporulation of spiritual and religious life.

Still, it seems to me that the myth and symbol have the function of blurring the boundaries between the religious and the profane. Not only for its specific sacralization capacity. Eliade reminds us that for “archaic thinking, such a separation between spiritual and material is meaningless: the two planes are complementary” (ELIADE, “Imagens e Símbolos” page 177). This he brings up in a discussion about the origin of symbols, combating the idea that a symbol arises from the mere observation of natural phenomena, since the symbol would always communicate something beyond and inaccessible by simple observation (ELIADE, “Imagens e Símbolos”, page 177). Thus, it would not be absurd to think that even in the secularized man, the symbols permeate profane facets of life and that they may rather confuse this separation so cherished today. It is more evidence that symbols are incessant propagators of a dormant spirituality or religiosity. Whether this spore will germinate is irrelevant. The spore itself already causes changes in man's life.


DEREN, M. 2004. Divine horsemen. The living Gods of Haiti.

ELIADE, M. Imagens e Símbolos. Ensaios sobre o simbolismo mágico-religioso. 1996.

ELIADE, M. Tratado de História da Religião. 1997.

ELIADE, M. A estrutura dos mitos. In: ELIADE, M. Aspectos do Mito. 

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