Jung and the Numinosum

Jung and the Numinosum 

“Phoberon to empesein eis cheiras theou zontos.”

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Hebrews 10:31

“… the experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego.”

[italics in the original]       Jung, Collected Works, 14, ¶778


            The first of the above quotes was cited in the previous blog essay[1] and in a note in that essay I indicated that the following essay would provide further discussion of the “Hebrews” quote. In that essay I noted how fear can be used to keep people under control and how those in power would have us believe that internalizing a locus of security through personal experience of the Divine is something to be feared.

            Jung had much to say on this point. Most explicitly he made it clear in his statement quoted above that confronting the Divine is never a pleasant experience for the ego. This is because of pride: the ego “does not like to think consciousness might lose its ascendancy.”[2] The ego fancies it is in control and is forced to face its smallness and limitations when the Self appears.

            More broadly, Jung addressed this issue in his discussions of the numen, the numinous, the numinosum and numinosity. In this essay we will define these terms, provide some features and qualities of the numinous, then consider the experience of the numinous and how it has been experienced by some noteworthy historical figures. We will then examine Jung’s experience of it, and Jung’s assessment of our current predicament, now that Western civilization has lost many of its numinosities.


Some Definitions


            Numen is a Latin word, deriving from the verb nuere, meaning “to nod.”[3] Its original meaning was “a nod.” You might well wonder how it comes to have anything to do with the Divine, the Self and Jung’s concerns. It came to mean “divine will or divine power of the gods”[4] from the Greek and Roman practice of going to a temple to consult the will of the gods, at times when a person confronted a serious decision. In the temple the supplicant would stand before a statue of the god, state his problem, ask the god for guidance and then watch the statue. If it seemed to nod, the person knew the god approved the tack he planned to take. Over time numen came to be synonymous with “deity,” “Godhead,” divinity or “divine majesty.”[5]

            The other 3 words mentioned above—numinous, numinosum and numinosity—Jung used frequently and all of them derive from numen. “Numinous” was an invented word, coined in 1917 by a German professor of theology, Rudolf Otto, in his book Das Heilige (translated in 1923 as The Idea of the Holy).[6] Why the invention? Otto felt the need for a specialized word to describe the concept of “holy” without the “moral factor” or rationality that we usually attach to “holy.”[7] He sought to describe “… this ‘extra’ in the meaning of ‘holy’ above and beyond the meaning of goodness.”[8] To create his neologism Otto started with numen and then looked for analogies. He found one in “omen,” the adjectival form of which is “ominous.” The adjective form of numen thus would be “numinous.”[9] Otto used “numinous” to describe categories of value within the sense of “holy,” and also to refer to a state of mind.[10]

            Modern English dictionaries[11] define “numinous” several ways. It can mean “spiritual, holy, divine” and also “ethereal, nebulous, intangible.” In Otto’s and Jung’s usage, “spiritual,” “holy,” “divine” and “intangible” capture most accurately the qualities they mean.

            Numinosum is a word Jung used repeatedly.[12] He may have borrowed it from Otto; perhaps the original German text had this Latinized version of “numinous.” I have not found it in the English translation. In his essay “Psychology and Religion” Jung provides a definition of numinosum:

“… a dynamic agency or effect not caused by an arbitrary act of will…. The numinosum—whatever its cause may be—is an experience of the subject independent of his will…. The numinosum is either a quality belonging to a visible object or the influence of an invisible presence that causes a peculiar alteration of consciousness….”[13]

In Jung’s thinking the numinosum is both a quality inherent to an object or an experience that comes over a person, often inadvertently.[14]


Qualities and Features of the Numinous


            Otto and Jung provide a wealth of explicit qualities people are likely to feel when in the presence of the holy. First, it must be noted that the numinosum is a paradox,[15] containing both positive and negative, both of which we may experience simultaneously in any encounter with the Divine.

            Some of the positive qualities of the numinosum include : sublimity, awe, excitement, bliss, rapture, exaltation, entrancement, fascination, attraction, allure[16] and what Otto called an “impelling motive power.”[17] Not so pleasant are other qualities like: overwhelment, fear, trembling, weirdness, eeriness, humility (an acute sense of unworthiness), urgency, stupor (blank wonder), bewilderment, horror, mental agitation, repulsion, and haunting, daunting, monstrous feelings[18] that “overbrim the heart.”[19] Otto speaks at length of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the fascinating mystery that makes us tremble (in awe). Because it “grips or stirs the mind,”[20] such an experience is not one we forget.

            But, while it is memorable, the numinous is not easily put into words. “Ineffable” is another of its features.[21] The numinous “eludes apprehension in terms of concepts.”[22] Being bigger and beyond oneself, it induces speechlessness.[23] Being a mystery, it bewilders the rational mind.[24] Being divine, it links us to the “ground of the soul.”[25] Being “unevolvable,” it is not to be derived from any other feeling.[26]

            More frequently found in Jung’s works is “numinosity.”[27] He used this term to refer to a quality inherent in archetypes, in complexes,[28] in “curiosities which the logical mind cannot explain.”[29] Found in Western alchemy,[30] and in cultural symbols,[31] numinosity is that quality that gives religious ideas their “thrilling power.”[32] Much as with archetypes, we can’t grasp the meaning of the word without personal experience.[33] True understanding here comes from a lived encounter.

This is very consistent with Jung’s empiricism: what is real is what one experiences. Rudolf Otto’s study of the concept of holiness appealed to Jung because Otto took it out of the realm of theory and brought it into the realm of feelings, sensory experience and personal events in individual lives. Otto gave Jung both the vocabulary to discuss this aspect of psychology and confirmation of Jung’s own personal experience when he had encountered the Divine. What was this experience? What might we expect to experience when we contact the numinous?


The Experience of the Numinous


            A wide variety of historical figures have tried to put into words their experience of the numinous. In the 1st century A.D. St. Paul spoke of it as “… the peace which passes all understanding.”[34] The author of Hebrews found it fear-inducing, as noted in the quote opening this essay. In the 14th century Meister Eckhart described it as the “primal bottom” grounding the soul.[35] Two centuries later Martin Luther referred to the numinous as the deus absconditus et incomprehensibilis,[36] the hidden and incomprehensible god. In the 18th century Friedrich Schleiermacher suggested the numinous was the “intuition and feeling of the infinite.”[37] The 19th century cultural historian John Ruskin described the “instinctive awe, mixed with delight; an indefinable thrill…” that he got in the presence of the numinous.[38] A later contemporary of Ruskin, the American psychologist William James, studied the varieties of religious experience and referred to the numinous as “a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of … something there.[39]             Jung was another person who experienced the numinous in life. What did it mean for him?


Jung’s Experiences


            In his analytic work, Jung witnessed every day the power and impact the numinous had in the lives of patients wrestling with their complexes, encountering archetypes and confronting the unconscious. Coming from the collective unconscious, the numinous is uncontrollable and “outside conscious volition.”[40] Often linked to synchronicity, the feeling of numinosity would grow in patients as the number of synchronous events became more numerous.[41]

            Jung saw in his own life, and in the lives of his patients and colleagues, just how powerful an impact the numinous can have. It can feed the “hunger of the soul”[42] and provide feelings of liberation and relief.[43] As much as it is ineffable, the numinous is also ineluctable: it cannot be ignored.[44] When people tried to ignore its dictates, Jung saw how things started to go badly, eventually leading to physical symptoms as the Self tried to get the individual’s attention.

            Jung felt that the numinous controlled our fate[45] and could work a major transformation in us, e.g. in conversion experiences, in situations that produce emotional shocks, or, more pleasantly, in moments of illumination.[46] Common to all these experiences is “affectivity:” powerful feelings are always involved in any encounter with the numinous.[47]


A Richer Translation of Hebrews 10:31


            Jung understood that “to have fallen into the hands of the living God”—that is, to be confronted with the Divine—would produce an affect, a feeling response. Most translations of the Greek of Hebrews 10:31 use the word “fearful,” as the response brought up when a person confronts the Self. But the original Greek captures more of the rich quality of the numinosum. Let’s examine the verse word-by-word.

            Phoberon comes from the verb phobein, “to put to flight; to strike with fear; to terrify, frighten, alarm; to be seized with fear; to stand in awe of.” So phoberon is what causes a person to flee or feel fear.[48]

            Empesein is an infinitive in one of Greek’s past tenses, with the meaning of “to have fallen upon/chanced upon/fallen into…”, suggesting inadvertence, or an unintentional event or act.[49]

            Theou zontos is the periphrastic genitive, literally translated as “of the living god,” or what Jung means when he speaks of the self.[50]

            So Hebrews 10:31, as a verse, is a description of the personal experience of contact with the Self. A fuller translation, more nuanced and attuned to Jung’s understanding of the role of the numinous in the process of individuation would be: “When one has fallen into the hands of the Self (the living god within), it causes one to stand in ‘holy dread,’[51] with awe, fear and trembling.”

            Jung felt that organized religions, with their rituals and dogmas, provide a “defense” against this experience.[52] But those on the path of individuation cannot avoid it.


Our Current Predicament


            Nor should we try to. Jung was clear about this and in his writings he repeatedly lamented the loss of numinosity in the modern world.[53] Facing the decay and dissolution of society, Western culture has lost its raison d’être, which depends on numinosity.[54]

Jung recognized that most people in the Western world today are closed to the irrational, reluctant to engage mystery or to allow themselves to be overpowered by numinous feelings.[55] “Caught in the toils of egohood,”[56] most people are mistrustful of anything they can’t see, touch, count or quantify. They are disoriented and dissociated because they have lost their moral and spiritual traditions.[57]

Most people in our world live now without true spiritual leadership because religious leaders are more interested in protecting their institutions than in understanding the shift that has occurred in the psyche of Western people.[58] Unable to understand the character of mystical experiences, people these days deny mysticism’s numinous nature.[59] Those still “contained” in religion are leery of the numinous because numinous experiences often give rise to doubt.[60] Too busy, too hurried, too harried to take the time to understand the meaning of numina, people refuse to take the time to come to terms with them.[61]

            Those on the path of individuation take the time. They have to: numinous dreams, synchronicities, and life experiences confront them frequently, calling up that “holy dread,”[62] reminding the ego of its modest place compared to the Self.

            A “new dispensation” is aborning in the closing years of the age of Pisces.[63] Jung recognized this and he felt that those who had worked on themselves, those who had taken up the task of crucifying the ego and giving over control of their lives to the Self—such people would become carriers of Spirit,[64] open to the experience of the numinous. An examination of Jung’s sense of this new dispensation, and the central role individuated persons will play in it, is the subject of the next essay.




Edinger, Edward (1996), The Aion Lecture: Exploring the Self in C.G. Jung’s Aion. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Elder, George & Dianne Cordic (2009), An American Jungian In Honor of Edward F. Edinger. Toronto: Inner City Books.

James, William (1961), The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Collier Books.

Jung, Carl (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lewis, Charlton & Charles Short (1969), A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Liddell, H.G. & Scott (1978), An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. New York: Oxford University Press.

Otto, Rudolf (1958), The Idea of the Holy. New York: Oxford University Press.


[1] On the Jungian Center’s blog for February 2010.

[2] Jung, Collected Works, 11, ¶275. As has been the convention throughout these blog essays, CW will hereafter be the abbreviation for Jung’s Collected Works.

[3] Lewis & Short (1969), 1224.

[4] Ibid., 1225.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Otto (1958), 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Ibid.

[11] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1329.

[12] Cf. CW 8, ¶216; CW 10, ¶864; CW 11, ¶6,7,9.

[13] CW 11, ¶6.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Otto (1958), 29.

[16] Ibid, 17,23,31,37,140.

[17] Ibid., 67.

[18] Ibid., 10,13,14,20,23,26,31,37,39,42,54,80,135.

[19] Ibid., 80.

[20] Ibid., 12.

[21] Ibid., “Foreword”

[22] Ibid., 5.

[23] Ibid., 11,17.

[24] Ibid., 31.

[25] Ibid., 36.

[26] Ibid., 44.

[27] Cf. CW 5, ¶128,223,250,612; CW 8, ¶383,388,870; CW 10, ¶728,731,743; CW 11, ¶275,337n,433,454,

558,584,663,735; CW 13, ¶396; CW 14, ¶514,776; CW 18, ¶581,582,590.

[28] CW 10, ¶743.

[29] Ibid.

[30] CW 13, ¶432.

[31] CW 18, ¶579.

[32] CW 10, ¶396.

[33] CW 18, ¶590.

[34] Philippians 4:7.

[35] Quoted in Otto (1958), 106.

[36] Ibid., 135.

[37] Ibid., 215.

[38] Ibid.

[39] James (1961), 62. Italics in the original.

[40] CW 8, ¶383.

[41] CW 8, ¶827 and note.

[42] CW 10, ¶651.

[43] CW 13, ¶342.

[44] CW 12, ¶247.

[45] CW 16, ¶582.

[46] CW 11, ¶274.

[47] CW 11, ¶735.

[48] Liddell & Scott (1978), 867.

[49] Ibid., 254.

[50] CW 7, ¶399. cf. CW 5, ¶612.

[51] CW 11, ¶222.

[52] CW 11, ¶81.

[53] CW 13, ¶396; CW 18, ¶581, 582; CW 11, ¶274.

[54] CW 18, ¶582.

[55] CW 10, ¶864.

[56] CW 13, ¶396.

[57] CW 18, ¶581.

[58] CW 18, ¶582.

[59] CW 11, ¶274.

[60] CW 11, ¶735.

[61] CW 11, ¶735, 746.

[62] CW 11, ¶222.

[63] Edinger (1996), 192.

[64] Ibid., 193, and Elder & Cordic (2009), 66, quoting an interview of Edinger by Lawrence Jaffe.