Numinous /ˈnjuːmɪnəs/ is an English adjective, derived from the Latin numen, meaning "arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring".[1]


Numinous is an English adjective, derived in the 17th century from the Latin numen, that is (especially in ancient Roman religion) a "deity or spirit presiding over a thing or space".[1] Meaning "denoting or relating to a numen", it describes the power or presence or realisation of a divinity. It is etymologically unrelated to Immanuel Kant's noumenon, a Greek term referring to an unknowable reality underlying all things.


The word was popularized by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential 1917 book Das Heilige, which appeared in English as The Idea of the Holy in 1923.[2] Otto writes that while the concept of "the holy" is often used to convey moral perfection – and does entail this – it contains another distinct element, beyond the ethical sphere, for which he uses the term numinous.[3]:5–7 He explains the numinous as a "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self". This mental state "presents itself as ganz Andere,[4] wholly other, a condition absolutely sui generis and incomparable whereby the human being finds himself utterly abashed."[5] Otto argues that because the numinous is irreducible and sui generis it cannot be defined in terms of other concepts or experiences, and that the reader must therefore be "guided and led on by consideration and discussion of the matter through the ways of his own mind, until he reach the point at which 'the numinous' in him perforce begins to stir... In other words, our X cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind."[3]:7 Chapters 4 to 6 are devoted to attempting to evoke the numinous and its various aspects. Using Latin, he describes it as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans).[6] He writes:

The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. [...] It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.[7][3]:12–13

C.S. Lewis described the numinous experience as follows in The Problem of Pain:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told "There is a ghost in the next room," and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is "uncanny" rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply "There is a mighty spirit in the room," and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare's words "Under it my genius is rebuked." This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.[8]

References to the concept

Otto's use of the term as referring to a characteristic of religious experience was influential among certain religious intellectuals of the subsequent generation.[according to whom?][citation needed] For example, "numinous" as understood by Otto was a frequently quoted concept in the writings of Carl Jung,[9] and C. S. Lewis.[citation needed] The notion of the numinous and the wholly Other were also central to the religious studies of the ethnologist Mircea Eliade.[10][11] Mysterium tremendum, another phrase coined by Otto to describe the numinous,[12][3]:12–13 is presented by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception in this way:

The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum. In theological language, this fear is due to the in-compatibility between man's egotism and the divine purity, between man's self-aggravated separateness and the infinity of God.[13]

In a book length scholarly treatment of the subject in fantasy literature, Chris Brawley devotes chapters to the concept in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Phantastes by George Macdonald, in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and in work by Algernon Blackwood and Ursula Le Guin (e.g., The Centaur and Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight, respectively).[14]

In his 2007 book God Is Not Great (and in many subsequent TV interviews promoting and discussing the book), Christopher Hitchens has revived this somewhat archaic word. While speaking of the numinous and the transcendent, Hitchens said: "Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there's more to life than just matter."[15]

Further reading

  • Otto, Rudolph (1917). Das Heilige - Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen. Breslau.
  • Otto, Rudolf (1923). The Idea of the Holy, An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Transl. of Das Heilige. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-500210-5. Retrieved 31 December 2016. 
  • Gooch, Todd A. (2000). The Numinous and Modernity: An Interpretation of Rudolf Otto's Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 293, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, Berlin, DEU: Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3110167999, ISSN 0934-2575, see [3]. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
  • Duriez, Colin (2003). Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, pp. 1, 179-180, Mahwah, NJ, USA: Paulist Press, ISBN 1587680262, see [4]. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  • Allen, Douglas (2009). "Phenomenology of religion" (§ "Rudolf Otto") in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, 2nd Ed. (Hinnells, J. Ed.), pp. 192f, 182-207, and passim, Abingdon, Oxon, ENG, ISBN 0415333105. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  • Brawley, Chris (2014). Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature, e.g., pp. 71–92 (Ch. 3, "'Further Up and Further In': Apocalypse and the New Narnia in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle") and passim, Vol. 46, Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Palumbo, D.E. & Sullivan III, C.W.), Jefferson, NC, USA: McFarland, ISBN 1476615829, see [5]. Retrieved 17 October 2015. [Critical treatment with extensive reference to and use of the title concept.]
  • Oubre, Oubre (2013). Instinct and Revelation: Reflections on the Origins of Numinous Perception, Abingdon, Oxon, ENG: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, ISBN 1134384815, see [6]. Retrieved 17 October 2015.

See also

References and notes

  1. ^ a b Collins English Dictionary -7th ed. - 2005
  2. ^ Otto, Rudolf (1996). Alles, Gregory D., ed. Autobiographical and Social Essays. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-110-14519-9. ISBN 3-11014519-7. numinous. 
  3. ^ a b c d Otto, Rudolf (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-500210-5. Retrieved 31 December 2016. 
  4. ^ Otto, Rudolf (1996). p. 30.
  5. ^ Eckardt, Alice L.; Eckardt, A. Roy (July 1980). "The Holocaust and the Enigma of Uniqueness: A Philosophical Effort at Practical Clarification". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Sage Publications. 450 (1): 165–178. doi:10.1177/000271628045000114. JSTOR 1042566.  P. 169. Cited in: Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, ed. (1991). A Traditional Quest. Essays in Honour of Louis Jacobs. London: Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-567-52728-8. ISBN 0-56752728-X. 
  6. ^ Otto, Rudolf (1996). Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
  7. ^ Meland, Bernard E. "Rudolf Otto German philosopher and theologian". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 24 October 2016. 
  8. ^ Lewis, C.S. (2001) [1940]. The Problem of Pain, pp. 5-6, Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan, ISBN 0060652969, see [1], accessed 19 October 2015.
  9. ^ Jung, "Collected Works" vol. 11 (1969), "A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity" (1948), ¶222-225 (p.149).
  10. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1959) [1954]. "Introduction (p. 8)". The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion. Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-156-79201-1. ISBN 0-15679201-X. 
  11. ^ Sarbacker, Stuart (August 2016). "Rudolf Otto and the Concept of the Numinous". Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 18 February 2018. 
  12. ^ Alles, Gregory D. (2005). "Otto, Rudolf". Encyclopedia of Religion. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Thomson Gale. Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  13. ^ Huxley, Aldous (2004). The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Harper Collins. p. 55. 
  14. ^ Brawley, Chris (2014). Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature, e.g., p. ix and passim, Vol. 46, Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Palumbo, D.E. & Sullivan III, C.W.), Jefferson, NC, USA: McFarland, ISBN 1476615829, see [2], accessed 17 October 2015.
  15. ^ Sewell, Marilyn (February 21, 2015). "Was Christopher Hitchens Religious?". Huffington Post.