Numen – The Most Powerful Nod On Earth

While looking through my specialized news topics I’m beginning to see stories distinguishing between the words luminosity and numinosity. Generally speaking, the one means observable light and the other the inner light and power described by religious and non-religious mystics.

I’ve written a lot about numinosity over the years, here and in academic essays. But I thought it would be interesting to post an addendum about the word numen, from which numinosity springs.

Numen is a Latin noun variously translated as nod, command, will, consent, inspiration, divine will, divine power, divinity, deity, godhead, divine majesty, god, or goddess.

Robert Schilling maintains that numen is based on the Greek neuma, which “signifies the manifestation, will or power of a divinity.” Schilling cites Festus’ (1913) definition: “The numen is, as it were, the nod or power of a god” and argues that some scholars “have tried to give a completely different orientation to the Latin term by identifying numen with a Melanesian word, mana.”

Schilling adds that R. H. Coddington defined mana in 1891 as an “autonomous, impersonal force,” likening numen and mana to “an impersonal active power.”¹

We don’t know for sure how numen became numinosity, as popularized by thinkers like Carl G. Jung. Websters dictionary gives a simplified answer but I suspect the true linkages are a bit more complicated:

How did numen, a Latin term meaning “nod of the head,” come to be associated with spiritual power? The answer lies in the fact that the ancient Romans saw divine force and power operating in the inanimate objects and nonhuman phenomena around them. They believed that the gods had the power to command events and to consent to actions, and the idea of a god nodding suggested his or her awesome abilities-divine power. Eventually, Latin speakers began using numen to describe the special divine force of any object, place, or phenomenon that inspired awe (a mystical-seeming wooded grove, for example, or the movement of the sun), and numen made the semantic leap from “nod” to “divine will or power.” English speakers adopted the word during the 1600s.²

The German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto describes the numinous as conveying a strong sense of power. He says the numinous is an experience containing elements of “Awefulness,” “Overpoweringness” and “Energy” or “Urgency.” Otto also says that numinosity has dark and inferior elements which perhaps are not holy but nonetheless numinous.

More recently, some have suggested that numinosity may mingle with sensuality and other alleged phenomena like extraterrestrial contact. Religious fundamentalists tend to balk at these recent developments. However, if Catholic mysticism is to be any standard of excellence, some of the Catholic saints hint at a link between spirituality and sensuality.

The Catholic Church also endorses the inquiry into ETs. In that sense, the Catholics might be a step ahead of the Biblical fundamentalists who arguably project everything they do not experience on to the figure of Satan.

We’ll probably find out what’s what sooner or later, in this life or the next. In the meantime, I think it’s good to consider the numen with an open mind. Too many people are deemed nuts or crazy if they talk about it. And this could be a tragic mistake.

¹ Robert Schilling, “Numen” in Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 11. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 21-22.


Related » Archetype, Joseph CampbellMircea Eliade, Holy, Carl Gustav Jung, Participation Mystique, Power

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