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Title: Numinous  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Religious experience, Theories about religions, Glossary of philosophy, Teotl, Holiness
Collection: Holiness, Religious Behaviour and Experience, Religious Terminology, Vitalism
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Numinous is an English adjective, taken from the Latin numen, to describe the power or presence or realisation of a divinity.


  • Origins 1
  • Popularization 2
  • References to the concept 3
  • Further reading 4
  • References and notes 5


Numinous is an English adjective, taken from the Latin numen. It is used to describe the power or presence or realisation of a divinity. According to German theologian Rudolf Otto, the numinous experience has in addition to the tremendous, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling, a quality of fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel.

The numinous experience also has a personal quality, 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/or the transcendent.


The word was popularized in the early 20th century 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. C.S. Lewis, citing Rudolf Otto, brought the concept into the mainstream of readership; Lewis described the numinous experience as follows:

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 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.[1]

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. For example, "numinous" as understood by Otto was a frequently quoted concept in the writings of Carl Jung,[2] 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 tremendous, a term described in The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley which is comparable to the title term, is presented 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.[3]

In a book length scholarly treatment of the subject in fantasy literature, Chris Brawley devotes chapters to the concept in "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).[4]

While speaking of the numinous and the transcendent, Christopher Hitchens said: "Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there's more to life than just matter."[5] In a

Further reading

  • Otto, Rudolph (1917). Das Heilige.
  • Otto, Rudolph (1923). The Idea of the Holy (transl. of Das Heilige).
  • 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 09342575, see [1], accessed 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 [2], accessed 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, accessed 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 [3], accessed 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 [4], accessed 17 October 2015.

References and notes

  1. ^ Lewis, C.S. (2001) [1940]. The Problem of Pain, pp. 5-6, Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan, ISBN 0060652969, see [5], accessed 19 October 2015.
  2. ^ Jung, "Collected Works" vol. 11 (1969), "A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity" (1948), ¶222-225 (p.149).
  3. ^ Huxley, Aldous (2004). The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Harper Collins. p. 55. 
  4. ^ 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 [6], accessed 17 October 2015.
  5. ^ Sewell, Marilyn (February 21, 2015). "Was Christopher Hitchens Religious?". Huffington Post. 
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