Knowing the numinous


The Latin word “Numen” presents the idea that there is an ineffable essence to the way of the World that we as humans cannot possibly understand. As if reality has a will of it’s own; that particular will, is what the Ancients referred to as “Numen“.

In 1917 Rudolf Otto wrote his best selling Theology book “The Idea of the Holy“, in which he wrote that the feeling of the numinous (the English word derived from “numen“) is a human perception that is “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self“. I’d argue, that the very nature of the concept of the numinous, is what drives human beings to invent ideas like God, to attempt in as simple way as possible, a sort of Ockham’s razor, the reason for the feeling of the numinous. The World was far easier to understand, when human perceptions and qualities were given to it. And so nature, became personified.

I’d point to the God’s of Sumeria and Ancient Mesopotamia firstly, as reasonable evidence to prove this point. The very first Sumerians in many ways, were far more intelligent and understanding of the World in their religious ideals, than we are today. They did not worship Gods as we do today, at first. They did not believe that a God with human-like attributes, could transcend time, answer prayer, give law, and punish people for relatively meaningless “sins“. They simply gave important aspects of life, a name and a degree of respect above that accorded to each other. They were not searching for a literal understanding of universal truth, they were fully aware that their myths and legends were man made. The myths of Sumeria were a reflection of the culture and sense of wonderment of the time. Much in the same way as music and art can be viewed as a reflection of a person today. God’s were used and changed to suit the culture throughout Mesopotamia, the culture was not changed to suit the God’s. It was not until the rise of the civilisation of Akkad, with whom the Sumerians mixed culturally for years, along with other tribes around Mesopotamia, that their myths started to develop far more elaborately as they intertwined.

For example, Enlil is the Sumerian god of air. The Sumerian’s didn’t believe that an actual entity controlled the air, or was in some way responsible for the air. Enlil was just a myth. The worship of Enlil was simply the worship of the mystery of air. The Sumerian’s understood myth as a human created story with the intention of highlighting the importance of it’s subject, in this case, air. The myth surrounded the idea that Enlil was the God that gave the power to Kings to govern. If the King wasn’t right for the area, then he’d die, he couldn’t breath the air any longer. The numinous feeling was that the Sumerians knew that they were not in control of who lived, who died, and who was born to govern, and so the power of “control” in the human sense, was given to nature itself, and considering they ascribed the human notion of “power” and “control” to nature, they went the next logical step, and personified nature by giving air a human body and name, in a myth. Enlil was not viewed by Sumerian’s as a literal explanation for the purpose of air, merely a creative myth to help highlight the importance of air.

There are Ancient Mesopotamian myths surrounding the flood of around 2900bc. The earliest sources seem to come from around 1700bc, in which the Gods decide to destroy mankind, and ask Ziusudra to build a boat. The rest of the passage which is written on an ancient tablet, has been lost to history. Needless to say, Ziusudra is the hero of the flood story. The story itself, differs in places from that of the Bible story of Noah and the flood. For example, the Sumerian legend end with the boat floating up the Euphrates river, as opposed to on top of a mountain. The similarities, are striking. The legend of Gilgamesh, in one passage, reads “The gods smelled the sweet savor“, in the Bible, a passage pertaining to the flood story, reads “And the Lord smelled the sweet savor…“. The story itself, was never supposed to be taken literally. Christianity, over the centuries has dumbed down, and decided certain passages should be taken literally. Though, i’m pretty certain that the Ancient Jews never actually believed that Noah died at the age of 950.

Somewhere along the line, the worship and mythical understanding of polytheism of Mesopotamia, evolved into the monotheism of the Abrahamic traditions. The Bible uses Noah as it’s hero, sent by God to save two of every plant and animal. Similar stories came out of Sumeria long before the Torah had been collated. The stories coming out of Mesopotamia did not exist to literally suggest that a man happened to build a ship big enough to hold two of every species on the planet. The stories existed to show how nature worked, and explain it in the only way they knew how; by personifying nature into a myth. We do not understand that process, because we are no longer surrounded by mystery.

The Ancient myths, were not explanations, they were just simply myths, and that’s how they were viewed. This would lead us to suggest that the personification of nature was the primary method used to invent Gods. The Gods that came from that, did not concern themselves with the reason and method of creation. Or a transient nature of God – the ability of punish sinners, make laws, listen to prayers and perform miracles were far removed from the ancestors to our present God of the Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). It would mean then, that perhaps those who first worshiped a deity did so not for any paranoid need of salvation or acceptance, but merely as a simple explanation in a primitively unscientific age. It would mean that salvation, the link between God and Laws, prayer, and miracles are merely human add ons to an idea that preceded it all.

In an age in which we no longer need a large number of Gods to explain that which science has already explained, I wonder how long it is before we do not need the God of the Abrahamic traditions. I will simply continue my agnostic tendencies. For me, there could be ten gods, one hundred gods, one god, or absolutely no god. We as humans, limited to our senses, and our naive understanding of the Universe, can never truly know for certain. I would like to see the end of the intolerance and pure stupidity lodged deep into the genes of Organised Religion, but it would be a shame to think that science could answer every question put to it. Do we not want a sense of wonder any more? I cannot imagine how my ancestors must have felt to have looked out at a rainbow, and not understood what it was, to have no concept of the science behind a rainbow, is somehow beautiful.

Perhaps the fact that a large section of humanity still believe in a God, suggests that to an extent, we are actually still surrounded by mystery and wonder and numen.

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5 Responses to Knowing the numinous

  1. Ushiku says:

    My personal perspective on the meaning of life is it doesn’t have to have any specific meaning.

    I am an agnostic, but I am open to the idea of intelligent design.

    But as long as one is honest, genuine and does not subjugate themselves or others, then really that’s all the faith we need. The faith in humanity, and the beauty we can create.

    The faith that you don’t need to be right or superior. As I can honestly admit that as much as I enjoy the odd dabble in self-righteousness, I would give it all away for the physical embodiment of my own personal utopia.

    But I guess with us all being different, our ideas of perfection are different. Therefore perfection as an absolute construct, is itself imperfect as it doesn’t include consideration of variations between peoples and their ideals.

    All we can really do is respect our differences, as long as those differences are not ones that encourage subjugation of the self or of others. If they do, then they should be nullified for the greater good of humanity.

  2. co says:

    very agnostic aproach indeed

  3. sekanblogger says:

    The statue looks exactly the way I felt after eating ‘magic’ mushrooms!

  4. deanjbaker says:

    very well written – thanks for this

  5. Headley Milliner says:

    This is a fantastic peice of history, realistic and takes us to the actual truth. Everthing comes from something, and somewhere, one has to search and one will find. If you look even today African people are mystical people, and the imagination is still an integral part of our nature.

    Thanks so much for the knowledge base, its wonderful.

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