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". 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. 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.: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, wholly other, a condition absolutely sui generis and incomparable whereby the human being finds himself utterly abashed." 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.":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). 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.:12–13
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.
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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?] For example, "numinous" as understood by Otto was a frequently quoted concept in the writings of Carl Jung, and C. S. Lewis. The notion of the numinous and the wholly Other were also central to the religious studies of the ethnologist Mircea Eliade. Mysterium tremendum, another phrase coined by Otto to describe the numinous,: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.
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).
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."