“Amid This Formidable Aura of Sunlight”: An Essay on the Numinous

Av Anders Norge Lauridsen

Deities wreathed in auras are a common motif far back in history. Ancient tablets from Mesopotamia speak of melam, a radiant glamour ‘worn’ by the gods. Throughout ancient religions from Rome to India, divine entities radiated light – either through a full body aura known as aureole or mandorla or a crown of light around the head referred to as halo or nimbus. Divine auras may very well be expressions of the impression that encounters with deities made on humans – the terrific feeling of overwhelming awe. This mysterious and staggering experience of standing before a deity is what German thinker Rudolf Otto conceptualised as the numinous (Otto 1958). In this essay, I take a closer look at what causes the numinous in different cases of theophany, that is, when auraed deities set foot among humans. I ask: Are only deities from other worlds capable of inducing the numinous, or may the numinous emanate from qualities that have more to do with superior, unfathomable power within the cosmos?

Departing from Latin numen (divinity), Otto coined the concept of the numinous that has become hugely influential in religious studies. “Omen has given us ‘ominous’,” Otto wrote “and there is no reason why from numen we should not similarly form a word ‘numinous’.”(Otto 1958, 7). The numinous is an interpersonal phenomenon between deity and human, in which the majestas, the ‘overpoweringness’ of the deity induces a feeling of nothingness in the human. A trembling sense of being infinitely inferior. It springs from the theophanous presence of numen (divinity) – just like the ominous springs from an omen. What makes the numinous stand apart from ordinary experiences is its condition of being at the same time terrifying, fascinating, and utterly unfathomable – it is, to the humbled human, a mysterium tremendum et fascinans – a mystery that both fascinates and makes one tremble. Otto illustrates the numinous with an example from the Old Testament in which Abraham begs God to spare the men of Sodom, concluding his plea with the words: “I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18: 27, emphasis added). Here we have an explicit acknowledgement of Abraham’s feeling of his own nothingness, of being but dust and ash before the divine, his ‘creature-feeling’ (“Kreaturgefühl”) as Otto puts it.

A Tibetan deity in a blazing aureole (Public Domain)

The Numinous in Transcendentalism

The so-called ‘world religions’ teem with instances of the numinous. Another example would be the shepherds and the angel in the Gospel of Luke: “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid’.” Such encounters with awe-inspiring, divine entities emanating light feature widely in Christianity and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. These ‘world religions’, be they Abrahamic or Dharmic, are what Oxford historian of religion Alan Strathern classify as ‘transcendentalist’: religions oriented towards the transcendence of mundane existence. ‘Transcendentalism’ differs from ‘immanentism’, that is, cosmologies whose deities are immanent to the cosmos, in other words, they inhabit the same world as humans. By contrast, transcendentalist systems operate with a distinctly ontological gap between the world of humans and divine otherworlds (Strathern 2019). (1) This means that in the transcendentalism of the great world religions, deities reside in radically different worlds than humans, worlds which are not within the same cosmological geography. Even if deities wreathed in numinous auras occasionally turn up among humans, as a general rule humans cannot journey to the transcendent world of deities (at least not before death). (2)

The question I wish to pursue is whether deities need to be otherworldly to induce the numinous. Is the numinous hinged on the ontological collision that takes place when a transcendent being sets foot among humans? (3) To render the question more empirically pursuable, we might ask if people in ‘immanentist’ societies have experiences that quality as truly numinous.

Returning to Otto, he recurrently states that the numinous is the encounter with the ‘wholly other’ (“ganz Andere”). What are we to make of this notion, when Otto, an early 20th century Lutheran theologian, presumably wrote from within a transcendentalist perspective? How might we translate ‘wholly other’ into contemporary religious studies which have been significantly ameliorated by human and social sciences since the publication of Otto’s book back in 1917? Otto does not acknowledge other ontologies, other ways of thinking about spirits and gods, paradigms devoid of division between “nature” and “supernature”, between “earthly” and “transcendent”. All divinities, notwithstanding their cultural context, he lumps together as otherworldly, be they ghosts, spirits, daemons, or devas – to Otto, they are all ‘wholly other’ (Otto 1958, 27–30). However, Otto claims that not everybody has the necessary religious disposition to experience the numinous. The experiential register of “primitive man” does not reach beyond dread, he claims; when “primitive man” sees a ghost, for instance, he dreads at most, and dread is only a crude, rudimentary precursor to the truly numinous (Otto 1958, 15–16).

Let’s not take too much umbrage at this Eurocentric, evolutionist discourse of Otto’s common for his time. His assertions about ‘the religion of primitive man’ were unlikely to be anything more than that – assertions. After all, empirical fieldwork-based studies of non-Western societies were still very much in embryo in the 1910s when even anthropologists had barely got up from their comfortable armchairs. Bearing with Otto’s imperious language, we might instead try to see what he means with ‘religion of primitive man’ and then set about the inquiry that Otto did not himself undertake. What he seeks to address is assumably more or less what we may now, in contemporary social science terms, classify as ‘immanentism’, that is, cosmological frameworks in which there is only one world, and this one world is inhabited by deities and humans alike.

Now, one line of inquiry would be delving into deeply ancient material. Transcendentalism emerged around 500 BC, a period designated as the Axial Age by  philosopher Karl Jaspers (Strathern 2019, 19–26). By rewinding to a time well before transcendentalism even emerged, the numinous could perhaps be traced all the way back to civilisations of the Fertile Crescent. Clay tablets from this region speak of an intriguing conceptual pair: aforementioned melam, the terrific glory of the gods, and ni, the visceral awe felt be humans in the presence of gods like a physical tingling of the flesh (Black and Green 1992). Another line of inquiry would be turning to anthropology and its study of less ancient societies. This is my scholarly home ground, so now we will leave Eurasian Antiquity and instead pay a visit to an immanentist society: precolonial Madagascar. Before departure, let’s reiterate the question: Are there instances of the numinous in societies without transcendence, and if so, which qualities about the deities render the theophany a numinous experience?

The Numinous in Immanentism

Madagascar, early 19th century. The king and the seven envoys kneel in tense anticipation. All eyes are on the reliquary suspended topmost on the wall in the north-east corner of the house. It is barely visible in the dark as the doors and shutters have been befittingly closed. Despite the king’s withheld breathing, his mouth releases a piquant scent of anise and ginger into the quivering air. Following the instructions of the envoys, the king has made his ritual preparations for this crucial moment by taking an ablutionary bath and eating aniseeds and ginger roots. The time has come to conjure the divinity Rabehaza.

Divinities in traditional Malagasy cosmology are immanent; (4) they are not of a transcendent world. Instead they inhabit remote or inaccessible realms of the cosmos: ancestors on sacred mountain tops, dead kings in forbidden tombs, water nymphs in lakes and rivers, little people in the depths of the forest. When they reveal themselves to humans, they tend to do so in manners that may overall be described as indirect: by intermediary through the possession of a human medium (Nielssen 2012), by appearing in dream visions (Norge Lauridsen 2020; 2021), or by revealing themselves only obscurely in the twilight or underneath the water’s surface. As I have learned from fieldwork in Madagascar, the manifestation of divinities may evoke various sorts of feelings from joy to fear. However, the numinous in its singular conjunction of terror, fascination, and mystique is not the usual reaction in Malagasy theophanies.

Even so, oral tradition of the Malagasy highlands transcribed in the late 19th century by Norwegian missionary-ethnographer Lars Vig (Domenichini 1985) tells of a human-divine encounter in which the numinous is difficult to deny. It is the story of Rabehaza, which took place more than two hundred years ago in the Malagasy inland. After years of strife, the highland people Merina had gained the upper hand over its neighbours. Some of the lake people to the north-east, the Sihanaka, were yielding to the unstoppable Merina king, and one day, in a hilltop village somewhere in the Merina-Sihanaka borderland, seven Sihanaka envoys surrendered their most adored possession: Rabehaza.

A rare image of a «sampy» (Ellis 1838, 477; Public Domain)

Rabehaza was a sampy, a type of divinity with a material form, an “idol” as the missionaries put it, composed of assorted materials – wood, horn, bone, teeth, shell, etcetera. Sampy were material-spiritual beings with their own distinct personality, agency, and will that they expressed to their keepers through dream visions. Unlike various and sundry smaller amulets held by individuals, the great sampy benefitted the entire community with powers such as protection from locusts, hail, or war. Of all the renowned sampy in precolonial Madagascar, Rabehaza was among the most powerful. What the idol actually looked like, however, remains unknown – only its keepers, some of whom where fabled Sihanaka thaumaturges of the 18th century, could gaze upon it. The sampy were concealed in reliquaries, either chests or baskets. As they were being too sacred for ordinary people to lay eyes upon, they were literally kept under wraps. It was said that Rabehaza was enveloped in red silk, and all one could see was the cloth moving when the sampy within moved in delight whenever red oxen were sacrificed in its honour (Leib 1946, 131). Even if Rabehaza usually exercised its agency by proxy through its keepers from its reliquary concealment, it was fully able to theophanise in person as we will now see when the envoys summon Rabehaza on the king’s request.

The numinous theophany of Rabehaza (Illustration: Søren Norge Lauridsen)

“Ooh-ooh-ooh” sounds the high-pitched hoots from one of the Sihanaka envoys. Suddenly, the silence is shattered as lightning breaks loose up under the rafters in the north-east corner. A dazzling flare descends from above. Amid this formidable aura of sunlight, Rabehaza appears in the shape of an avian triad. Three golden birds shining like the sun. The thunderstruck men cover their eyes and tremble in fear, but the birds speak to the Merina king in a single voice: Rabehaza surrenders itself to his royal authority. The three birds land on the king’s shoulders and knees. He takes them into his hands. Rabehaza now belongs to the king.

Here we have all the core characteristics of the numinous: Rabehaza is like all sampy kept in mystery by virtue of its concealment in a reliquary; it gives rise to fear and trembling when it theophanises in its auraed, avian form; it fascinates the king who is keen to see Rabehaza with his own eyes and seize its power. However much the sampy is secluded in its sacred concealment of the reliquary, it is not of another world. There is no transcendence, no intervention from a world beyond. Yet, this immanent divinity clearly gives rise to the numinous. How? While entirely immanentist cosmologies are by definition without transcendence, they typically have something else: an impersonal, cosmic power as the source of all potency, efficacy, and success, a power known as mana in Polynesia (Strathern 2019, 36–37), in Madagascar as hasina. Divinities ranging from ancestors to sampy draw their power from hasina which they in turn apply to help or harm humans. The immanent power of hasina imbues the Malagasy cosmos, as William Ellis observed in 1838: The word zanahary [divinity] is “applied to whatever is new, useful, or extraordinary. The idols are called gods, and the king is god”, “[t]heir ancestors, a deceased sovereign, and a book from its power of speaking by looking at it, all receive the same comprehensive name” – zanahary – even “silk, money, thunder and lightning are gods” (Ellis 1838, 135). The divinity of thunder and lightning is precisely what we just saw in the radiant theophany of Rabehaza. This luminous theophany also echoes an old notion of the Sihanaka people, the original custodians of Rabehaza: When a sunbeam penetrates a crack in the wall and illuminates the interior of the house, it is a manifestation of zanahary (divinity) (Longuefosse 1922, 242).

Out of Unfathomable Overpoweringness

While it was Lars Vig who collected and transcribed the story of Rabehaza, it was another Norwegian missionary-ethnographer, Jørgen Ruud, who first recognised the numinous in Malagasy cosmology and connected it to hasina (cosmic power) and zanahary (divinity): ”Hàsina and Zanahàry produce the ‘numinous’, the strange, the extraordinary. This power generates in men on those definite occasions a feeling of nothingness, a ‘Kreaturgefühl’. When a man discovers that the whole town is accursed and possessed by evil spirits, this produces a mysterium tremendum, just as when, for instance it is discovered that Zanahàry has entered the hut [as divine sunlight, for example]. Then every one is in fear and trembling.” (Ruud 2002, 207). Ruud’s application of the numinous to the first example of a haunted town is perhaps a bit too indiscriminate. In this case, my own research on hauntings in Madagascar actually (and ironically) resonate more with Otto’s contention that ghostly encounters give rise to dread rather than numinous experiences. Here, there is no element of fascination; the “evil spirits” are unambiguously malign and offer no potential to humans. By contrast, when divinity manifests as a beam of light, or even as a radiant deity in the case of Rabehaza, there is much more than mere dread at stake. Although the immense power of a deity like Rabehaza entails trepidation, it paves the way at the same time for a staggering potential – gaining the favour of mighty deities like Rabehaza may lead to prosperity in every way imaginable.

When an immanent deity like Rabehaza theophanises before humans, it may very well induce the numinous as I hope to have shown. Not as a consequence of it feeling supernatural as a violation of reality (that would require transcendentalism), but as a consequence of standing face to face with a power that is unfathomably superior to oneself. Thus, a deity being ‘wholly other’ does not necessarily hinge on otherworldliness; it can just as well be a matter a being so much more powerful, of having hasina or mana to such an extent, that humankind is blown away in an experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans. “A God comprehended is no God” runs the famous quote by Tersteegen, whom Otto also refers to (Otto 1958, 25). Human incomprehension, however, may result from other things than transcendent divinity. As I hope to have shown, the immanent overpoweringness of a being like Rabehaza is eo ipso fully able to bring about the numinous.

 1. Strathern’s transcendentalism and immanentism are not to be understood as a mutually exclusive binary. Most religious or spiritual traditions have strains of both. Importantly, transcendentalism cannot exist on its own without immanentism, whereas immanentism often stands alone as seen in various so-called ‘traditional religions’ from “the Andes to Madagascar, from Nigeria to Fiji” (Strathern 2019, 38).

2.  See more about ’the cosmic polity’ of immanentist worlds shared between humans and deities in Sahlins and Graeber 2017.

3.  This ontological collision is comparable to ‘fantastic hesitation’ in literary theory (Todorov 1975)

4.  As Malagasy culture has been influenced in certain aspects by Islam and Hinduism, some degree of transcendentalisation is not impossible to imagine, at least not in particular regions of the country.

Anders Norge Lauridsen is an anthropologist and a PhD fellow at the University of Gothenburg conducting research on spirits, tradition, collaborative historiography, and experimental methods in Anororo, Madagascar.