AskDefine | Define numen

Dictionary Definition

numen n : a spirit believed to inhabit an object or preside over a place (especially in ancient Roman religion) [also: numina (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



Latin numen.


  • /'nju:mən/


  1. a divinity, especially a local or presiding god
    • 1965: Where were Secretaries James and Foster and Senator Joseph, those dear daft numina who’d mothered over Oedipa’s so temperate youth? — Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
    • 1985: It was the solid and immovable tabernacle of the living numen whose son he had known, though but briefly and not intimately, in the flesh, and whose message he accepted with all his heart. — Anthony Burgess, Kingdom of the Wicked



nūmen, nūminis, f.
  1. divine power, divine right

Old English



Verb form

  1. Past participle of niman.

Extensive Definition

Numen ("presence", plural numina) is a Latin term for the power of either a deity or a spirit that is present in places and objects, in the Roman religion. The many names for Italic gods may obscure this sense of a numinous presence in all the seemingly mundane actions of the natural world.
The word was also used for the imperial cult of ancient Rome, to refer to the guardian-spirit, 'godhead' or divine power of a living emperor—in other words, a means of worshiping a living emperor without literally calling him a god (which was a problem under the Roman system).
The word numen is also used by sociologists to refer to the idea of magical power residing in an object, particularly when writing about ideas in the western tradition. When used in this sense, numen is nearly synonymous with mana. However, some authors reserve use of mana for ideas about magic from Polynesia and southeast Asia.
Note that etymologically the Latin word numen originally and literally meant "nodding". It has the sense of inherent vitality and presiding, and was also associated with the terms for "command" or "divine majesty".

Similar cultural concepts

The concept of a life-energy inherent in all living beings seems to be a fairly universal archetype, and appears in numerous ancient religions and systems of metaphysics.
Also related are the philosophical concepts of

Popular culture

  • In the novel Contact by Carl Sagan, the term 'numinous' comes up in a discussion between Ellie Arroway and Ken der Heer regarding the differences between science and religion.
  • In the original World of Darkness game system, 'numina' were minor psychic or magical abilities held by otherwise ordinary humans, as well as various supernatural powers used by other beings that didn't fall into a specific category. In the new World of Darkness, 'numina' and 'numen' refer exclusively to the powers of ghosts and other spirits.
  • Roland Barthes, the French literary critic and philosopher, uses "numen" to describe qualities of historical painting and photography. “Numen is history petrified, eternalized, trapped, for one finally holds it immobile, chained beneath a prolonged gaze”.


External links

numen in German: Numen
numen in Spanish: Numen
numen in Basque: Numen
numen in French: Numen
numen in Italian: Numen
numen in Dutch: Numina
numen in Polish: Numen
numen in Portuguese: Numina
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