Numinous is an English adjective describing the power or presence of a divinity. The word was popularized in the early twentieth century by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book Das Heilige. 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.
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 incompatibility 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 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, 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 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.