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Reply To: The Way of Art and Two-Way Roads” with Mythologist Craig Deininger”


Thanks Craig!

What a wonderful origin story regarding your encounter with Campbell’s work. That seven day water-only fast and Taoist breathing methods certainly enhanced the viewing experience!

I also appreciate your very helpful explanation of “numinous” (we may have to designate you COHO’s official “Shadow Stapler” for that!). Numinous is a term I associate in particular with archetypes, another slippery, difficult to nail down concept. Both are examples of what Campbell called “the best things”:

My wonderful friend, Heinrich Zimmer, my final guru, often said, ‘The best things cannot be told.’ That is to say, you can’t talk about that which lies beyond the reach of words.

The second best are misunderstood, because they are your statements about that which cannot be told. They are misunderstood because the vocabulary of symbols that you have to use are thought to be references to historical events.

The third best is conversation, political life, economics, and all that.”

(from A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living)

Rafael’s comment in this thread, associating numinosity with the radiance of a work of art (borrowing Joyce’s term), also rings true. What stands out for me in these overlapping explanations is that “numinous” isn’t just a fancy adjective, but an experience.

I find myself returning to Jung. In Man and His Symbols, a work unfinished at the time of his death, Jung describes how

… archetypes appear in practical experience: They are, at the same time, both images and emotions. One can speak of an archetype only when these two aspects are simultaneous. When there is merely the image, then there is simply a word-picture of little consequence. But by being charged with emotion, the image gains numinosity (or psychic energy); it becomes dynamic, and consequences of some sort must flow from it.” (p. 87)

Jung expands on that:

I am aware that it is difficult to grasp this concept, because I am trying to use words to describe something whose very nature is incapable of precise definition. But since so many people have chosen to treat archetypes as part of a mechanical system that can be learned by rote, it is essential to insist that they are not mere names, or even philosophical concepts. They are pieces of life itself – images that are integrally connected to the individual by the bridge of the emotions. That is why it is impossible to give an arbitrary (or universal) interpretation of any archetype…

The mere use of words is futile when you do not know what they stand for. This is particularly true in psychology, where we speak of archetypes like the anima and animus, the wise man, the great mother, and so on. You can know all about the saints, sages, prophets, and other godly men, and all the great mothers of the world. But if they are mere images whose numinosity you have never experienced, it will be as if you were talking in a dream, for you will not know what you are talking about. The mere words you use will be empty and valueless. They gain life and meaning only when you try to take into account their numinosity – i.e., their relationship to the living individual … (p.87-88)

Jung doesn’t mince words. On the same page he describes archetypes as “pieces of life itself,” charged with numinosity – a sacred experience, fully engaging one’s emotions. We can speak of Artemis, see a picture of Shiva, or hear a sermon about Jesus, yet these are not archetypes. If, however, you pray to Artemis, if you feel her breath on your neck in the woods beneath the full moon, or if you dance with Shiva, let your ego, your soul, your being, dissolve into nothingness, dissolve into the Dance, or you experience the transformative power of sacrifice and resurrection as you eat the flesh and drink the blood in communion with Christ, you are living/experiencing/engaging an archetype.

Of course, Jung’s description of “numinous” (and “archetype”) above, like yours or mine or Rafael’s, barely scratches the surface – these are such big subjects! But what seems key to each is a subjective experience. If one has not had the experience, then doesn’t matter what words are used – trying to explain it is about as effective as trying to convey an experience of the color red to someone blind from birth.