Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Concept of "Numinous"

Those who have not met this term may be introduced to it by the following device. 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.

A modern example may be found (if we are not too proud to seek it there) in The Wind in the Willows where Rat and Mole approach Pan on the island:

'"Rat," he found breath to whisper, shaking, "Are you afraid?" "Afraid?" murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. "Afraid? of Him? O, never, never. And yet--and yet--O Mole, I am afraid."'
~C.S. Lewis, Introductory to The Problem of Pain (1940)

*Macbeth - Act 3, Scene 1

painting by Troy Howell

7 Comment(s):

At Tue Oct 05, 05:02:00 AM EST, Blogger Arevanye said...

I thought I'd post a more complete excerpt from Chapter 7: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame:

“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. “Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere surely we shall find Him!"

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror-indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived, and still, as he lived, he wondered.

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?"

“Afraid!” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!"

One other comment while I have your attention..."for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him". Apparently Lewis had never seen Poltergeist!! ;-)

At Tue Oct 05, 12:04:00 PM EST, Blogger Joelle said...

Hehehe...one of these days I need to watch all of Poltergeist. I've seen bits and pieces. and the Poltergeist house is a couple blocks over from where I live (like seriously walking distance, and even after 20 years, it still looks the same!).

At Tue Oct 05, 04:17:00 PM EST, Blogger Sandicomm said...

Oh, Poltergeist, of course...

Actually, maybe I should rent that for my Halloween Scary Movie Bash. :-O Now THAT'S a party I'll go to. ;)

But, back on topic...

I feel that this feeling, Numinous, can only come to you depending on what you say. In Lewis's example, he's talking about the Holy Spirit being in the next room. But if you just say "A Ghost is in there" and leave it at that, then you'll just think it's another ghost. I guess Numinous (dunno if it's a noun or an adjective) is the feeling of awe when you go into a beautiful church or temple; you know that, however indirectly, God helped to create it. Fear of his power and might, but awe.

At Tue Oct 05, 06:08:00 PM EST, Blogger Arevanye said...

Well as to the part of speech, numinous would be the adjective. From the American Heritage Dictionary:

ADJECTIVE: 1. Of or relating to a numen; supernatural. 2. Filled with or characterized by a sense of a supernatural presence: a numinous place. 3. Spiritually elevated; sublime.

and then the definition given for "numen":

NOUN: Inflected forms: pl. nu·mi·na (-m-n)
1. A presiding divinity or spirit of a place. 2. A spirit believed by animists to inhabit certain natural phenomena or objects. 3. Creative energy; genius.

I think the key to understanding the experience of the numinous is that one would feel the awe without being told anything. Like the Rat and Mole, who suddenly felt a great awe fall over them. They didn't have to be told they were in the presence of Pan, they just felt it and were overwhelmed.

I have to say that I never really liked The Wind in the Willows as a child. Perhaps I need to re-read it as an adult to see if I get a different impression.

At Tue Oct 05, 09:08:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi - I just thought I'd let you know that I am reading your daily posts (as of a week ago, having followed your link from TORn) ... they provide a fresh deep breath before I start my work day. What a lovely thing your blog site is!

It's a while since I read the Chronicles of Narnia but I now feel greatly inspired to read them again. And oh - I loved "Wind of the Willows" as a child, but can barely remember it, except that Rat was my favourite character (after seeing a stage production where he was particularly good) An adult perspective would be most interesting. I don't remember this part about Pan, but am intrigued.

Thanks for the inspiration - Kerewyn.

At Tue Oct 05, 09:58:00 PM EST, Blogger Arevanye said...

Welcome, Kerewyn!! I'm so glad you've been enjoying the The Window. It has really taken on a life of its own and I find that hunting down topics and illustrations and thinking about Lewis's meanings has been energizing and uplifting for me as well.

Please, stick around and comment often! We'd love to hear more from you, even if you can only just post a quick "hi" on the Tagboard now and then.

At Sun Apr 03, 04:18:00 PM EDT, Blogger Shamancan said...

If we take 'numen' to mean "nodding" as in "divine approval" the experience of numinous is Grace. The awe in Grace is the experience of "detachment" Meister Eckhart and all mystics have written on. Being afraid is a consequence of the anonymity of the self having detached from all identity belonging an existent. Anonimity can be viewed as temporary amnesia of one's mental references, an ego gone naked, hence purified. The purity of 'presence' without a carrier personality leaves "Him" (an unfortunate term, but all the same), face to face with the nodded -the experiencer- the Graced. Nodder and nodded are one, the theosis moment, and the awe is but inevitable in oneness(Nirvana).


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