Theology: Scientist of Symbols

To the tourist in India, the magician's rope trick is merely another clever demonstration that the hand is quicker than the eye. To Professor Mircea Eliade of the University of Chicago divinity school, the fakir's fakery is the vestige of an ancient religious rite with highly symbolic overtones: the rope is an image of the "astral cord," symbolizing the link between earth and sky, man and heaven. Originally, the trick was intended to prove to spectators the existence of an unknown and mysterious world; by climbing the rope and then temporarily disappearing,...