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A History Of Religious Ideas (3 volumes) – Mircea Eliade (1976-1983)

This massive work appears to be the last work that Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) wrote. It is a three times 500+ page history of religion. Very fitting for a historian of religions. I read in in three Kindle books, so here we have a review of 1500+ pages. This is not entirely accurate though, since each volume is for a fairly large part filled with notes and bibliographies.

I find the work rather odd. It ends as suddenly as is stops. No introduction, no conclusion or summary. Eliade wanted to present religious ideas in chronological order. Volume 1 is “From the Stone Age to the Eleusian Mysteries”. Volume 2 “From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity. Volume 3 “From Muhammed to the Age of Reforms”. That looks structed enough. It is not as structured as it looks though.

Eliade for some reason chose not to pick a subject and work it out entirely. Or perhaps stated otherwise, his logic of combining subjects is not the same as mine. For example, chapter 9 of volume one is about religion in India before Gautama the Buddha. Then come the Greek, Iran, Israel and the Greek again. Then in volume 2 it starts in the far East and then the Romans, Celts, again Greeks, Hinduism, Judaism.

Of some subjects Eliade presents a history, sometimes he summarises myths or religious texts and another time he presents persons and currents that were important.

The result is a bewildering amount of information on a bewildering number of subjects. Also in translation (the books were written in French) Eliade has an easy-to-read writing style and he manages to say something about large and often difficult subjects in relatively little space. Even in 1500 pages never can he really plunge into the deep. When you know Eliade, you will know that he would not have been satisfied had he really only scratched the surfaces of the subjects though. So by reading the three books from cover to cover, I basically got some expert information about a massive amount of religious subjects.

The books are not really presented as an encyclopedia, but I suppose the work is meant as a reference work. With the ‘cut-up subjects’ I am not sure it will (easily) work that way. On the other hand, Eliade has been a professor for most of his lengthy life, so I suppose he knew how a reference work should be structured better than I do.

I enjoy reading about religious and religious ideas, yet the reading often went fairly slowly. Not all subject have my interest to the same extend and of course, 1500 pages to read is quite a mountain to look up to. Yet I am glad that I ploughed through. Now I only have to think what I am going to do with all the marking and the notes that I made during the reading.

Volume 1 1981 University of Chicago Press, isbn 9780226204017; volume 2 1985 UoCP isbn 0226204030; volume 3 1988 UoCP isbn 0226204057

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