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Numinous (pronounced /nuːmɨnəs, njuːmɨnəs/) (from the Classical Latin numen) is an English adjective describing the power or presence of a divinity. The word was popularised in the early twentieth century by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book Das Heilige (1917; translated into English as The Idea of the Holy, 1923). According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy, and the transcendent.


Etymologically, numinous comes from the Latin word numen, which originally, literally meant "nodding", but was associated with meanings of "command" or "divine majesty". Its earliest known use as meaning 'divine majesty' dates to the middle of the seventeenth century[1].

Rudolf Otto

Otto's use of the term as referring to a characteristic of religious experience was influential among intellectuals of the subsequent generation. 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 Mircea Eliade.

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“fearful and fascinating mystery”) is a Latin phrase which Rudolf Otto uses in The Idea of the Holy to name the awe-some (fascinating and full of awe) mystery that was the object common to all forms of religious experience.

Mysterium tremendum is described in The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley in the following terms:

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.

"Nostalgia for paradise' was a term also used by Mircea Eliade to help bring understanding to the numinous. This idea was based on the theory that a person has a sort of longing for perfection or paradise, which creates a platform for experience of the numinous.

Carlos Castaneda deals with a related concept in his books dealing with a particular Native American tradition of sorcery. According to the teacher Don Juan Matus (whose true existence has been called into question).[2] there is just such an inconceivable dimension of human existence whose presence may be sensed but neither grasped by the senses or any rational framework. He refers to this as the Nagual. This Nagual (which seems to differ from a conventional anthropological understanding of the word) is a power that may be harnessed by a 'man of knowledge', the shaman or sorcerer who has undergone an arduous spiritual training.

It may be viewed as "the intense feeling of unknowingly knowing that there is something which cannot be seen." This "knowing" can "befall" or overcome a person at any time and in any place — in a cathedral; next to a silent stream; on a lonely road; early in the morning or in the face of a beautiful sunset. Similarly, unpleasant or frightening scenes or experiences can lead to a sense of an unseen presence of ghosts, evil spirits or a general sense of the presence of evil. Visions or hallucinations of god, gods, the devil or devils can also happen.[original research?]

Non-religious Usage

The idea is not necessarily a religious one: noted atheists Carl Sagan, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have discussed the importance of separating the numinous from the supernatural.[3]


  1. See Oxford English Dictionary
  2. see Richard De Mille, ed., The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies (1980; Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2001). ISBN 0595144993.
  3. "The Four Horsemen", Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, September 2007

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