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The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology by Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa (eds.)


Mircea Eliade was born in Bucharest in 1907 and began teaching in the field the history of religions in 1946 at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was a member of the University of Chicago faculty from 1957 until his death in 1986. His many books include: Cosmos and History (1959), The Sacred and the Profane (1959), Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1960), Images and Symbols (1969), and Myths and Reality (1963). Published by University of Chicago Press, 1959. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Supreme Being: Phenomenological Structure and Historical Development by Raffaele Pettazzoni


When one speaks in a historical-religious way of the Supreme Being of the so-called primitive peoples, one usually means by this the Celestial Supreme Being.

The sky, in its unbounded immensity, in its perennial presence, in its wondrous luminosity, is particularly well suited to suggest to the mind of man the idea of sublimity, of incomparable majesty, of a sovereign and mysterious power. The sky elicits in man the feeling of a theophany. This is the feeling of a manifestation of the divine, which finds adequate expression in the notion of a Supreme Being.

On the other hand, the notion of a Supreme Being is not exhausted in the image of the Celestial Being. In the following pages I propose to show that there exist various distinct forms of the Supreme Being and that the Celestial Being is just one of them.

Forty years ago, when I began to study the notion of a Supreme Being, I insisted especially on its uranic aspects. (I refer especially to my book entitled L’Essere celeste nelle credenze dei popoli primitivi (Rome, 1922). The Supreme Being was for me essentially a mythical personification of the sky. The evolution of my thought in this matter has come about without any modification of the original theoretical basis of my position. For example, while I am now in partial agreement with Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt as to the non-reducibility of the Supreme Being to the Celestial Being, it must be noticed that the convergence of positions is extrinsic to them and limited to the specific point. (Father Wilhelm Schmidt, Handbuch der vergleichenden Religionswissenschaft [Münster i.W., 1930], pp. 202 ff.) Aside from the question of Urmonotheismus, which I have considered again recently, (Raffaele Pettazzoni, "Das Ende des Urmonotheismus?" Numen III (1956), 156.) with respect to the notion of the Supreme Being I am still of the opinion that it is not mainly the product of logico-causal thought, as Schmidt held, but rather that this notion is the product of mythical thought. I am still opposed to the theory that the notion of the Supreme Being arises out of man’s supposed intellectualistic need of becoming aware of the origin and wherefore of things. In what follows it will be clarified that the notion of a Supreme Being springs from man’s existential needs.

The above argument is also valid with respect to other investigators, who starting from different theoretical premises have also recognized the non-reducibility of the Supreme Being to the Celestial Being. Gerardus van der Leeuw held a similar position from the point of view of religious phenomenology. Van der Leeuw delineated the phenomenological structure of the Supreme Being and distinguished it from the structure of Yahweh. (Gerardus van der Leeuw, "Die Struktur der Vorstellung des sogenannten höchsten Wesens," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, XXIX (1931), 79-107.) The specific structure of the Supreme Being is especially represented, for Van der Leeuw, by the various Supreme Beings that one can find among peoples of inferior civilization. This structure, however, is not limited to them but rather extends beyond the primitive world and also comprehends, for example, the Supreme Being as defined by Robespierre at the time of the French Revolution in opposition to the cult of Divine Reason. The structure of Yahweh is, for Van der Leeuw, totally different. The Supreme Being is a distant god, removed in space and time, a static immanence rather than an active presence. Yahweh, on the other hand, is not only a power but also a will, not only a person but also a personality, a live personality, a live god operating on and ever present to man, a hostile and jealous god, not without something of the demonic.

This characterization of Yahweh abstracts completely from his uranic aspect, and also from every other naturalistic aspect of the personality of the Supreme Being. The distance between the two structures leaves us perplexed, however, and we ask ourselves if the separation between the two structures is so neat. Creativity is postulated as a specific character of the Supreme Being. But Yahweh also is a creator; Yahweh’s very creation ex nihilo is found comparable to the creation of some Supreme Beings of primitive peoples who create by means of pure thought and will. (Cf. Raffaele Pettazzoni, "L’Idée de création et la notion d’un Être créateur chez les Californiens," Proceedings of the Thirty-second International Congress of Americanists, 1956 (Copenhagen, 1958). On the other hand, a salient trait of the personality of Yahweh is the severe surveillance he maintains on all human actions, on all human words, on all human thoughts, scrutinizing "hearts and kidneys" inexorably. Moreover, this all-seeing and omniscience as applied to human conduct issues into divine sanctions. But in its turn, this last character of Yahweh is likewise one of the more constant attributes of the Supreme Beings of primitive peoples. (Raffaele Pettazzoni, The All-knowing God (London, 1956), passim.) Robespierre’s address to the Commune of Paris at the convention of 1793 evidences that his Supreme Being also had this same character: "L’homme pervers se croit sans cesse environné d’un témoin puissant et terrible anquel il ne peut échapper, qui le voit et le veille, tandis que les hommes sont livrés au sommeil...." (F. A. Aulard, Le Culte de la raison et le culte de l’Être Supreme (Paris, 1892), pp. 285 f.) How can one isolate this "structure" and separate it from its biblical antecedents, when -- to cite only one of the many passages -- one can read in the book of Isaiah (29:15): "Woe to those who hide deep from the Lord their counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?"’

It is in this character of irascibility and of vindictiveness, which not even the prophets can completely transfigure into their ideal of a God of justice, that Yahweh has been compared to the Vedic Varuna. (A. Titius, "Die Anfänge der Religion bei Ariern und Israeliten," Studien zur systematischen Theologie, XVI [Heidelberg, 1934], 34.) On the other hand, for Van der Leeuw, Varuna is the maximum approximation of Indian religious thought to the structure of the Supreme Being. (Van der Leeuw, op. Cit., p. 97) It appears, then, that the alleged difference in structure between Yahweh and the Supreme Being is rather a fluid one and that in this matter it is very easy to be misled by purely hypothetical and genial but non-objective suggestions.

Because of his demonic character, Yahweh can also be compared to other gods and Supreme Beings of inferior civilizations. For example, the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, a despotic numen, vengeful, implacable, violent in his chastisement, pleased by suffering, has seemed to the ethnologist H. Dietschy "ein alttestamentlicher Cott.’’ (H. Die, "Mensh und Gott bei mexikanischen Indianern," Anthropos, XXXV/XXXVI [1940/41] 336.) Chungichnish (or Chinigchinish), a god of the Luiseño (Southern California) already known to the Franciscan missionaries, has been considered by A. L. Kroeber as "a living god that watches and punishes, a kind of Jahve." (A. L. Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California (Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Bull. 78 [Washington, 1925]), p. 656. G. Boscana, "Chinigchinich," in A. Robinson, Life in California [New York, 1846]). The same character has been noted in the Supreme Being of the Cuna Indians of Darien (Panama). This god, named Diolele, is a severe punisher of sins; omniscient, there is no sin that escapes his sanction or sinner who can find compassion in him. Erland Nordenskiöld has written that this conception of a god so inexorably severe seems to be more akin to the austere spirit of the Calvinistic creed than that of the more tolerant Catholicism. (Erland Nordenskiöld Picture-Writings and Other Documents of the Cuna Indians ("Comparative Ethnological Studies," Vol. VII, No. 2 [Göteborg, 1930]), pp. 8, 13. 62) It is true that these comparisons of similarity are anthropologically rather than phenomenologically derived. But, this even points to the danger that phenomenological structures may become as superficially empty and purely formal as are anthropological comparisons. It is not without reason that Van der Leeuw, the great master of religious phenomenology, prescribed that religious phenomenology should constantly appeal to history. Phenomenology, he wrote, is interpretation; but phenomenological hermeneutics "becomes pure art and fantasy, as soon as it is separated from the control of philological-archeological hermeneutics.’’ (Gerardus van der Leeuw, Phänornenologie der Religion (Tübingen, 1933), p. 642: "Soll die Phänomenologie ihre Aufgabe vollbringen, so hat sie die immerwährende Korrektur der gewissenschaftesten philologischen, archäologischen Forschung sehr nötig. Sie muss stets bereit sein, sich der Konfrontation mit dem Tatsachenmaterial zu stellen.... [Die] rein philologische Hermeneutik hat weniger weite Ziele als die rein phänomenologische....Das phänlomenologische Verständnis wird aber zur reinen Kunst oder zur leeren Phantastik, sobald [es] sich der Kontrolle durch die philologisch-archäologisehe Deutung entzieht" (quoting Joachim Wach, Religionswissenschaft [Leipzig, 1924], p. 117). In the spirit of the constant process of auto-revision recommended by Van der Leeuw the phenomenology of the Supreme Being likewise needs to be revised and modified in accordance with the progress of the historical disciplines, in this case especially of ethnology conceived as non-philological history, as the history of non-literate peoples.

The structural dualism introduced by Van der Leeuw in the phenomenology of the Supreme Being is particularly evident in the contrast between the otiositas which is attributed to many Supreme Beings of the ethnological world, and the intense activity of Yahweh. He is always vigilant, always ready to intervene in human affairs. But this interventionism, this perennial surveillance, the speedy sanctions with the presupposition of omniscience is likewise a common character of many ethnological Supreme Beings. (Pettazzoni, The All-Knowing God, passim) On the other hand, the laziness of several Supreme Beings is a secondary condition that follows an initial phase of extraordinary activity such as the creation of the world.

The phenomenology of the Supreme Being is not exhausted by the alternatives of a Supreme Being who is creator of the world (and eventually a candidate to successive inactivity) and a Supreme Being who is omnipresent and omniscient with the explicit vocation to interventionism. If Yahweh, creator of the world and punisher of human transgressions, unites both structures it is because we are really dealing not with different structures, but with two aspects of a unique two-sided structure, one cosmic and the other human: on the one side the creation of the world and its conservation in statu quo, as a condition that guarantees the existence and endurance of the universe; on the other side the establishment of the social order and its restoration when man has subverted it. (Cf. Raffaele Pettazzoni, "Myths of Beginnings and Creation Myths," Essays on the History of Religions (Leiden, 1954), pp. 24-36.) This subversion, with its transgressions of tribal law, with its violations of traditional norms, is a return to primitive barbarism, just as lightning, hurricanes, and other cataclysms sent as divine punishment are a suspension of cosmic order and a relapse into primordial chaos.

All of the above phenomenology is oriented toward the heavens. Yahweh, creator of the world, punisher with the flood, pacifier with the rainbow, is a Supreme Being equal to Zeus, who is a god of lightning but not the creator of the world. Many Supreme Beings are Celestial Beings, some even have names that signify the sky, as, for example, the Chinese Tien, the Mongolian Tangri, the Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, and others. For these cases, my thesis that we are dealing with mythical personifications of the sky is valid, in my opinion. But, as I have already indicated, this thesis is not valid for all Supreme Beings. Not all Supreme Beings are Celestial Beings. The notion of the Supreme Being is not exhausted in the notion of a Celestial Being. For many peoples the Supreme Being is not the heavenly Father, but the Mother Earth. The Earth as universal mother and creatrix par excellence is not omniscient, that is to say that she does not have that omniscience which is rooted in all-seeing (the Greek oida, "I know," properly means "I have seen"). The visual omniscience which is naturally proper to the Celestial Being is proper to him because of the luminosity of the heavens. On the contrary, the earth is opaque, dark, and tenebrous. The creativity of the earth also is different from the creativity of the Celestial Being.

There is a phenomenology of the Supreme Being oriented toward the sky and there is a phenomenology of the Supreme Being oriented toward the earth. This polarity is phenomenologically legitimate because both sky and earth are theophanies, i.e., manifestations of the divine. Furthermore, this polarity is methodologically well founded because it realizes the historical premises of phenomenology (in this case the history of preliterate peoples) according to the principle that without history phenomenology tends to vanish in a more or less arbitrary subjectivism.

Behind the Heavenly Father there is a long tradition of pastoral patriarchal civilization. Behind the Mother Earth there is a long tradition of agricultural matriarchal civilization. The Heavenly Father is the Supreme Being typical of the nomads who live on the products of their herds; the herds live on the pastures, and these in their turn depend on rain from the sky. The Mother Earth is the Supreme Being typical of farmers who live on the products of the soil. In more remote times prior to agriculture and to the breeding of livestock, the Supreme Being was the Lord of animals. On this Lord depended the success of the hunt. There are always in play in the notion of the Supreme Being reasons that are vital to human existence. The notion of the Supreme Being does not proceed so much from intellectualistic requirements as from existential anxieties.

These considerations are central to religious phenomenology. Phenomenology can ignore the historical-cultural sequences of ethnology, and the general theories of the development of religious history. This development can be thought of in the evolutionary (i.e., E. B. Tylor) or involutionary (i.e., W. Schmidt) sense; in either case phenomenology can ignore these theories. Van der Leeuw has written that: "Von einer historischen ‘Entwicklung’ der Religion, weisst die Phänomenologie nichts." (Van der Leeuw, Phänomenologie der Religion, p. 652 [quoting Wach, op. cit., p. 82]).

On the other hand, phenomenology cannot disregard the elementary forms of civilization because the historical-cultural reality, even in the mere economic aspect, fully invades the religious life. Mireca Eliade has written that "L’agriculture est avant tout un rituel.... Le laboureur pénètre et s’intègre dans une zone riche et sacré. Ses gestes, son travail sont responsables de graves conséquences.’’ (Mircea Eliade, Traité d’histoire des religions (Paris, 1949), p. 285.) The hunt is likewise a sacred operation in which "... l’homme doit se trouver dans un état de grace; [elle est] l’aboutissement de longs préparatifs, oit les préoccupations religieuses et magiques tiennent une place préponderante." (Eveline Lot-Falk, Les Rites de chasse chez les peuples sibériens (Paris 1953), p. 8; Fr. G. Speck, "Jagd ist eine heilige Beschäftigung," in Naskapi, The Savage Hunters of Labrador (Norman, Okla., 1935), edited by W. Müller, Die Religionen der waldindianer Nordamerikas (Berlin, 1956), p. 79.) The life of the shepherd is no less rich in religious experiences, being occasioned by the manifold risks and adventures of a wandering life. This historicism is of value for religious phenomenology. Existential anxiety is the common root in the structure of the Supreme Being, but this structure is historically expressed in different forms: the Lord of animals, the Mother Earth, the Heavenly Father. All these structures have profound relations with different cultural realities which have conditioned them and of which the various Supreme Beings are expressions.

The sky is extended equally over all the peoples of the world, but the sacral experience of sky is profoundly different where the sky is conceived as a cosmic complement of earth or eventually generated by the Earth (Ouranos in Hesiod), from where the heavens are felt as a diffuse, immanent presence that intrudes on man in every place and in every instant, without escape or refuge from the all-seeing eye. The earth is always and everywhere the theater of human life; but the sacral experience of earth is different where the earth tilled by man is the Mother, the nurturer, the giver of fruits and flowers for man’s sustenance and joy; from the experience of the earth where it is sterile, the boundless extension of steppe whose fascination has inspired in modern times the narratives of Chekhov (The Steppe), the music of Borodin, and indirectly the poetry of Leopardi (Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia).

Phenomenology and history complement each other. Phenomenology cannot do without ethnology, philology, and other historical disciplines. Phenomenology, on the other hand, gives the historical disciplines that sense of the religious which they are not able to capture. So conceived, religious phenomenology is the religious understanding (Verständniss) of history; it is history in its religious dimension. Religious phenomenology and history are not two sciences but are two complementary aspects of the integral science of religion, and the science of religion as such has a well-defined character given to it by its unique and proper subject matter. (Cf. Pettazzoni, Numen, I [1954], 5.)

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