Background: Otto's Vocabulary

In The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, Rudolph Otto identifies and explores the non-rational mystery behind religion and the religious experience ("non-rational" should not be confused with "irrational"); he called this mystery, which is the basic element in all religions, the numinous. He uses the related word "numen" to refer to deity or God.

Forced, necessarily, to use familiar words, like "dread" and "majesty," Otto insists that he is using them in a special sense; to emphasize this fact, he sometimes uses Latin or Greek words for key concepts. This fact is crucial to understanding Otto. Our feeling of the numinous and responses to the numinous are not ordinary ones intensified; they are unique (I use this word in its original meaning of "one of a kind, the only one") or sui generis (meaning "in a class by itself"). For example, fear does not become dread in response to the numinous; rather, we cease to feel ordinary fear and move into an entirely different feeling, a dread that is aroused by intimations of the numinous or the actual experience of the numinous.

The word "absolute" is used in its metaphysical sense of "existing without relation to any other being; self-existent; self-sufficing" (OED); its adjectival form, "absolutely," is used with the same meaning. Finally, by "creature," Otto means a "being which has been created."

The Numinous

The numinous grips or stirs the mind powerfully and produces the following responses:
  • Numinous dread.Otto calls the feeling of numinous dread, aka awe or awe-fullness, the mysterium tremendum. C.S. Lewis's illustration makes clear the nature of numinous dread and its difference from ordinary fear:
    Suppose you were told that 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 might 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–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.
    The mysterium tremendum implies three qualities of the numinous:
    a. its absolute unapproachability,
    b. its power,
    c. its urgency or energy, a force which is most easily perceived in the "wrath of God."
    It has been suggested that Gothic fiction originated primarily as a quest for the mysterium tremendum.

  • Stupor. Because the mysterium tremendum is wholly Other, i.e., is unlike anything that we have encountered or ever will encounter, it arouses in us a mental state of stupor, a "blank wonder, an astonishment that strikes us dumb, amazement absolute."

  • The shudder. In this state, the soul, "held speechless, trembles inwardly to the farthest fibre of its being[;] ... it implies that the mysterious is beginning to loom before the mind, to touch the feelings."

  • Creature-consciousness and the simultaneous experiencing of the self as nothing. Creature-consciousness is the awareness of ourselves as having being or of existing. The nothingness is not a sense of guilt for a transgression, but the sense of being profane, which is the opposite state to the holy or holiness, which is an absolute quality belonging just to God. Only the person who is "in the spirit" can experience profaneness, which Otto describes as a "piercing acuteness... accompanied by the most uncompromising judgment of self-depreciation, a judgment passed, not upon his character because of individual ‘profane' actions but upon his very existence as creature before that which is supreme above all creatures." I think of profane nothingness as feeling, "I am nothing in the presence of that which is all." In this state, we are moved to praise the might of the numen, because its might demands praise and even more because it is absolutely deserving of praise. This sense of nothingness, which Otto calls "disvalue,"becomes a sin or sacrilege if the numinous is perceived in or confined to a moral framework; it has no necessary connection to moral judgments.

  • Sense of unworthiness and need for "covering." Accompanying the disvaluation of self is the feeling of being unworthy to be in the presence of "the holy one" (we fear that our presence might even defile him). Being profane, we need a "covering," in Otto's term, or a consecration or grace, "that renders the approacher ‘numinous,' frees him from his ‘profane' being," so that he is no longer unfit to relate to the numen.

The numinous has another aspect which co-exists with the mysterium tremendum, the power to fascination. The numinous fascinates or draws us to it with a force that is nearly irresistible. Otto calls the alluring quality of the numinous the mysterium fascinosum. At its most intense, this fascination becomes "exuberant" and transforms into the mystical "moment" or direct, complete contact with the numen, a state which few people experience. The numinous dread and the fascinating "combine in a strange harmony of contrasts," which Otto calls the mysterium tremendum and fascinosum

Human beings as a species have the a priori capacity of mind to perceive or experience the numinous. This is not to say that the ability to perceive the holy, let alone the perception itself is innate; it merely means that every individual has the potential to perceive or experience the numinous. The numinous state of mind or the feeling of the numinous must be evoked in us or brought into consciousness; it cannot be taught. But not everyone has the same degree of receptivity to the holy. The revelations of those who are specially receptive, like the prophets, stimulate the numinous capacity of the less receptive. Otto, who believes in the superiority of Christianity, awards the highest stage of revelation to the Son or Christ, who embodies holiness.

The human soul has parallels with the divine or numinous; it too is "mystery and marvel," undefinable, and "wholly alien" to our understanding. Insight into the soul comes, when it does, as an eruption, a flash or burst of illumination. The numinous-ness of the human soul is what enables the mystic to apprehend the numinous.

The Connection of the Numinous and the Gothic

Connection 1: "daemonic dread." "Daemonic dread" is the first stage in religious development. Primitive people misunderstood their experience of the mysterium tremendum or the dread inspired by the numinous, to which they were drawn by the fascinating power of the numinous. Otto explains, "The daemonic-divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature, who trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay even to make it somehow his own." Still, "daemonic dread" is a genuine religious experience and from it arose the gods and demons of later religions

Otto regards the "dread of ghosts" as a "perversion, a sort of abortive offshoot" of "daemonic dread." Even after purer, more highly developed religions have evolved, the primitive "daemonic dread" may assert itself. Otto points for proof of this to the attraction of horror and "shudder" in ghost stories. The ghost attracts us because it is wholly Other, and as such "falls outside the limits of the ‘uncanny' and fills the mind with blank wonder and astonishment," which are responses to the numinous. Ghosts have another connection with the numinous; in the primitive experience, the feeling of the presence of ghosts produces the stupor which the wholly Other arouses.

Connection 2: other interpretations of the numinous. Other Gothic elements originate in the misapprehension of the numinous. The feeling of the numen as mysterious stimulates "the naive imagination, inciting it to expect miracles, to invent them, to ‘experience them,' recount them." Terrifying, baffling, and even astonishing natural events have inspired "daemonic dread," a response which transformed them into portents, prodigies, and portents. Demons and specters, in Otto's view, are not part of the true development of religious consciousness but "spurious fabrications of the fancy accompanying the numinous feeling." Nevertheless, these fabrications do serve a positive function, one which may operate in Gothic fiction; though feelings of horror and shudder at spectral hauntings are caricatures of authentic numinous emotions, they enable us to break through rationality to contact "feelings buried deep in religious consciousness."

Connection 3: the sublime. A counterpart to the numinous, the sublime provides another connection to Gothic fiction. Though Otto distinguishes the numinous and the sublime as separate categories, they have a close connection. Like the numinous, the sublime cannot be explicated, is mysterious, and is both daunting and intensely attracting. Because of these similarities, the sublime may stimulate the capacity to perceive the numinous, and there is a tendency for the sublime to pass over into the numinous and for the numinous to pass over into the sublime.

Otto explicitly connects the two categories; the sublime is the most effective, if indirect way of depicting the sublime in the arts. The eighteenth century Gothic novelists were aware of theories of the sublime; Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful presented the most widely accepted theory. They incorpoated the sublime into their novelists. Radcliffe was famous for her landscapes, which were imbued with the sublime. Otto identifies portrayals of darkness and silence as a means of presenting the numinous; he stresses that the darkness must contrast with a flickering or dying light, the semidarkness creating a "mystical" effect. "The semi-darkness that glimmers in vaulted halls or beneath the branches of a lofty forest glade, strangely quickened and stirred by the mysterious play of half-lights has always spoken eloquently to the soul." And the Gothic novel abounds in these particular effects and similar ones over and over. For Otto, these effects expression the numinous in contrast to Burke, for whom they express the sublime.


The Gothic Experience Page

Revised: Feb. 7, 2003