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Deity and the numinous in Witchcraft

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

In the world of Paganism, deities are not just abstract concepts, but powerful beings that are experienced as divine forces. While many religions believe in a god, for Witches, their relationship with deity is much more personal. Deity is seen as a transformative force and so rather than merely holding belief in the supernatural, Witches are able to experience the numinous directly.

The term numinous is based on the Latin word numen meaning a god, the divine power or simply divinity.

The following notes are from a presentation by Tim Ozpagan for the Strange Brew in the Witch Circle Meetup, held on Sunday, 26 March 2023.

What is the numinous?

The numinous experience is a concept I borrowed from Carl Jung, who in turn was influenced by Rudolf Otto's book "The Idea of the Holy". He introduced the term numinous based on the Latin word numen meaning a god, a divine power or simply divinity. Numinous experiences refer to what are sometimes spontaneous encounters with the sacred or the holy or a god.

Jung deviates from orthodox and religious ideas about the holy—where experiences only happen to a select few such as a Jesus, a Mohammad, or a Moses)—he felt encounters of the numinous could occur in perfectly ordinary people as well. While Otto's original concept focused on experiences of the orthodox religious understanding of God, Jung expanded this to include the transpersonal in the psyche, that is non-personal levels of consciousness. In an effort to demonstrate this Jung introduced the concept of "a religious function of the psyche". For Jung the psyche is a multi-dimensional doorway through which we access the transpersonal. Jung concluded that the psyche has the tendency to produce numinous experiences.

Rudolf Otto's work also discusses encounters with the numinous. This is contact with divine beings that are frequently accompanied by feelings of the uncanny, a thrill of awe and a deep sense of reverence while in the presence of the numinous.

Other experiences common during encounters with the numinous include the sense of dependence, feelings of impotence, or even nothingness (the self removed). While equally for others such encounters are accompanied by feelings of religious rapture and deep exhilaration.

Normandi Ellis, a Spiritualist minister, astrologer, a clairvoyant-medium and translator of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in her book "Awakening Osiris, The Egyptian Book of the Dead", she shares this encounter of the numinous as the ancient self and the divine:

"Like a fish in water, like a lapwing among the stars I breathe among the gods. I have lived among the gods countless years. I am an old soul, a great man, one of the ancients. Many nights I have looked into the fire, felt the heat of their tongues, seen their faces, heard them speaking. Many days I have stopped behind my plow to gaze up, blind with the sun and the gods' power. In my times, and there ave been many times, I have come to know the gods. By their silence I understand their presence. I have quivered beneath the power of their hands on my head and trembled in the powerlessness of their absence when they turned and left me to my destiny."

Understanding the Numinous

In his book "The Religious Function of the Psyche," Lionel Corbett explores the concept of the numinous from a depth psychological perspective, specifically drawing on the work of C.G. Jung. Corbett argues that spiritual experiences are not limited to only religious contexts but are an inherent aspect of human psychology. He emphasises the importance of recognising and understanding the religious function of the psyche in order to facilitate personal growth and healing.

Corbett explores four important aspects of the religious function of the psyche. These include:

  1. Numinous experiences: Where he discusses the importance of numinous experiences, which can be spontaneous encounters with the sacred or holy. These experiences can be deeply transformative and provide individuals with a sense of connection to something greater than themselves.

  2. Archetypal images: Building on Jung's concept of archetypes, Corbett examines how these innate psychic structures can manifest through religious symbols and experiences. Archetypal images can emerge in dreams, visions, and other forms of creative expression, often providing insight into the deeper aspects of an individual's psyche.

  3. Individuation: Corbett emphasises the importance of the individuation process, a key aspect of Jungian psychology that involves the integration of conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche. By engaging with the religious function of the psyche, individuals can foster a more holistic sense of self and promote psychological growth.

  4. The role of suffering: Finally, Corbett also explores the relationship between suffering and spiritual growth, arguing that suffering can serve as a catalyst for deepening one's spiritual awareness and understanding.

As an example of this last point of the power of suffering, in an interview Corbett describes his own numinous experience as prelude to a illness and suffering:

"It occurred just before I had a very severe illness, from which I nearly died, but obviously survived. But just before the illness, I was lying in bed at night. I was wide awake. This was not a dream. Suddenly, I realised that next to me—standing beside the bed—there was a tall, grey figure. It looked like grey stone—like something a building would be made of. That kind of grey colour, except it was obviously alive. It looked down at me. It was quite big. The really terrifying thing was that the figure had three faces. It had a face looking straight forward down at me, and then a face coming from either side of its head..."

Corbett continues, "So, it was a rather brief visionary experience. It lasted several seconds, but it was very distinct and very frightening. It has these criteria that Otto and Jung write about—obviously very mysterious, tremendous, fascinating, awe-inspiring, and deeply mysterious and completely out of the ordinary..."

Corbett concluded this was entity was "...a trisophallic god. If you look in world mythologies, you will see there were lots of gods and goddesses that have either three heads or three faces...the significance of it is that one looking at the present, one is facing the future, and one is looking back into the past."

Corbett interpreted this experience as visitation from the god Hermes-Mercury, Greco-Roman god who is a herald. The god would usually appear with a message when something was about to happen. He had a sense that this was a premonition, but couldn’t see what was about to happen. He continues, "Then, a couple of months later, I became ill..." He had acute leukaemia. He had to have a bone marrow transplant after almost dying from the illness.

Reflecting on the visitation of the god, Corbett's numinous experience only began to make sense in retrospect. "I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I had a sense that this was a premonition, but of course I didn’t know what was happening. Then, a couple of months later, I became ill, and then in retrospect it made sense. But it was still helpful."

The beckoning

The question we might consider is "what is the importance of engaging with the spiritual aspects of the psyche?"

My response to this question can be summed in three words "To facilitate initiation." By which I mean, undergoing a personal transformation through a spiritual journey holds the potential of personal growth, healing, and a step into a deeper understanding of the experience of the numinous.

While research the word numinous I discovered a secondary meaning. It is comes from the Latin verb, nuere, which means to nod, or to beckon. This spoke to my own expereinecs of the numinous, and something I've heard from many our Witches—they have felt beckoned to the path of the Witch.

Something that I feel differentiates Witchcraft and the Ancient Mystery religions is the idea that you are called or beckoned to undertake a particular spiritual path, especially after engagement with the numinous.

Given the stigma of even associating oneself with the word Witch, becoming one is hardly thought to be a choice. Witchcraft, like the ancient Mystery cults are participated in by those who are frequently called or beckoned to it.

White Darkness

I've frequently encountered Witches saying something like, "Oh I'm going to work with Goddess X." Such statements irke me. These are shallow sentiments and show a lack of understanding about the nature of the numinous. It's a complete overstretch of one's abilities to suggest the gods are there for your convenience. Especially given humans puny role in the universe, the idea that we have much sway is a bit like saying "I'll invite the Dalai Lama around for tea."

I believe the numinous chooses the time and place and not the other way around. The gods chooses the Witch. Maya Deren shares a similar view in her book "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti". Deren delves into the Haitian Vodou religion and its practices, providing an ethnographic account of the rituals, beliefs, and culture surrounding the Vodou pantheon of spirits, known as the Loa or Lwa.

Deren uses the term "white darkness" as a metaphor for the mysteries and complexities of the Vodou religion, as well as the spiritual realm that is both invisible and omnipresent in the lives of its practitioners. "White darkness" is the otherworldly and the numinous, in which the sacred transcends the conventional binary of good and evil, light and darkness.

Deren illustrates examples of white darkness as the encounters between the Loa and the Vodou practitioners; particularly that occur during possession ceremonies, where the spirits temporarily inhabit the bodies of the believers. This phenomenon, also known as "being mounted" or "being ridden" by the Loa where the individual becomes a vessel or "horse" for the spirit to interact with the living. This possession is seen as a sacred communication between the spirit world and the human world.

Everywhere we look, humans have responded to pursue experiences of the sacred and the numinous. From prehistory, where we read the records of Palaeolithic humans who crawled into impossibly dark caves, leaving the records their chthonic ordeals with the numinous. Or look to the initiatory journeys undertaken by pilgrims of Ancient Greece in the Rites of Eleusis. Or in the white darkness rites of Vodou. Or the trance ceremonies of modern Witches. Each offer a path for those called or beckoned to undertake initiation and encounters of the numinous.

Another concept rooted Jungian psychology is the "Imago Dei," or the God Image. The Imago Dei is an archetype representing our innate capacity to experience and relate to the divine through image. The representation of the divine within the human psyche manifests in a great variety forms, such as sacred images and symbols, in mantra or sacred song, in sacred rites and in dreams and other spiritual experiences. These God Images serve as a bridge between the individual and the transcendent, enabling a connection with something greater than oneself.

Jung believed that the Imago Dei also plays a significant role in the individuation process, or the journey toward the integration and wholeness of one's personality. By engaging with the God Image, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world, leading to personal growth and transformation.

It's important to note that the Imago Dei is not limited to any specific religious tradition. Instead, it represents a universal capacity for experiencing the sacred that transcends cultural or religious boundaries. Consequently, the God Image will manifest in different ways depending on your individuals background, beliefs, and personal experiences, but ultimately serves as a means for connecting with the divine in the psyche.

Both Rudolf Otto and Carl Jung present the encounters and reaction to he Imago Dei i as non-rational feelings. These may be felt as a sense of the tremendous, the awful, the mysterious, or, in a word of their choosing, the numinous.

Do you have a personal relationship with deity?

In contemporary Witchcraft, as with ancient Pagans, deities are often viewed as personifications or embodiments of various aspects of nature. This includes not only natural forces such as the elements—earth, air, fire, and water—but also more abstract concepts like wisdom and love.

For practitioners of Witchcraft, deities are not simply entities to be worshipped. Rather, they are autonomous energies or presences that can be communicated with and even interacted with during magical rituals. It is important to note, however, that encounters with the numinous should not be forced but should occur at a time and place of the deities' choosing. By making oneself receptive and open, it is possible to create opportunities for meaningful connections with the gods.

Such as my experience in an encounter with the White Goddess. The coven would regularly performed the Drawing Down of the Moon rites in our temple-room for each Full Moon. Then one summer's night, at the height mid-season heatwave the old Victorian bluestone building was thoroughly baked so that even by evening the stone hot to touch. Our indoor temple while useful for privacy of the skyclad rituals, the atmosphere inside was now unbearably stifling hot. Not surprisingly first chance we burst out into the fresh, night air and lay in the front garden to recover from the oven-like conditions inside.

Our naked bodies slowly began to cool in the long grasses. I recall starring up into a night sky and the Full Moon's light shone over our glistening, perspiration soaked bodies. We had been laying there for some minutes when I began to notice fine long strands of gossamer floating in the air. Like silvery threads with tiny shining globules beaded along each thread, I was mesmerised. It was like being transfixed by something you see that is both strange and yet so wonderful.

The dewy strands were slow trailing downward over us, as though issued from the light of the Moon. We were caught a Moon kissed net. When the droplets gently touched my forehead, I felt a deep release from something. I couldn't quite identify what, but next I could hear the others in the coven emitting quiet, shallow sighs, and I too let out my breath in an exhale of release.

We just lay there, for I don't know how long, our bodies awash in Moon dew. My mind was clear and calm, and I couldn't help but feel like we had been prepared for something that was yet to come.

Many contemporary forms of Wicca place the emphasis upon the Priestess in the coven. This is especially true in the celebration of the full moon or Witches’ esbat. At these rites the Priestess is the one who is said to actually draw down the spirit of the moon Goddess into herself, while the Priest plays little more than a support role. The one thing I noticed was this drawing down did not always happen, and more than that, I might experience a presence of the Goddess regardless! So I began looking into what was really happening during the full moon esbats and other sacred rites.

Not surprisingly, I realised that I had been too rigid and literal in my understanding of the rite, or indeed its intended purpose. I suddenly thought, what if drawing down the moon really meant manifesting Lunar consciousness, and not just in the Priestess but in anyone present at the rite? Almost immediately, I began to be subjected to an immense flood of Lunar influences. These began with an insomnia at the time of the full moon. During these periods I would sometimes hear the ethereal sound of a woman’s voice calling the names of the Goddess—Ma, Binah, Moon, Ea, Ge. Spontaneously, I began to sing these names in a chanted melody. Like a bottled-up dam, the floodgates burst open and offered a passionate out-pouring. The soulful sounds of this Lunar mantra are a powerful spell, and one that the present coven uses still many decades later. It has had an enduring quality, which has proven effective in connecting to the Lunar current of the White Goddess.

Our temple was an old Victorian terrace that we'd painted throughout; the ritual room standing in stark contrast to the rest of the rooms with its deep indigo-blue walls and stained red cedar floorboards on which was painted the Witches’ circle and octagonal ornament. This became the physical heart of the coven’s ritual practice. Then one night during a ritual the Goddess appeared:

"Hypnotic, strangely soothing, the Witches’ mantra named and called to the twilight spirit to draw down. The lithe spirit entered into the midnight-room. Weaving the magick of the sonorous spell, as ancient as humankind, the Witches called to the moon. The supreme and archaic Witch Goddess, ruler of the deep indigo night, the ethereal shape-shifter who bestows mana upon Her chosen. The voice of the Goddess’s Priestess sang the charm to the night and the moon, calling the Lunar Goddess to draw near. Other voices joined, summoning the bright Goddess into the Witches’ circle. A spirit of the night responded and I felt afloat as though on the flowing tide. The deeper the echoes chanted, the more I sank into an emotional sea mixed with currents of excited joy and engulfing sadness. Luna was with us, She who rules the oceans, lovers and lunatics. I was immersed in an atmosphere both brightly charged and darkly intoxicating. She began to appear. Gliding into the sensuous bodies of the Witches and gazing out through their eyes, She was all around me, in the faces of these wild Witches and in the rhythm of the dance, She whirled around and around me. The lunar current swarmed tangibly and surreally in the sea of incense in which we swam. In the centre was a dark iron cauldron and out of it danced a flame. The scarlet fire rose and flared with such force it wound and spiralled up into the air. It transformed into a massive leviathan, and from out of the black cauldron it bellowed a flood of flame like a firestorm. Awe, terror, thrill, intensity poured out in a powerful cone of bright fire, engulfing my body and brain."

Such encounters taught me a great deal. If the Goddess had been an ideal, something not quite real to me, then experiences like these changed all this. I instinctively knew She stalked me, occasionally leaving me hints and clues where I should look to find Her. If the Goddess had seemed more like a yearning for something far away, like lovers kept apart by the cruel circumstance of Fate, then through such initiatory experiences Her presence was felt most acutely in my life.

Experiencing the presence of a deity

In the pagan world, a deity is a being or spirit that is experienced as a divine or supernatural power. While most religions hold a believe in a deity for the Witch, deity holds a much personal and intimate relationship. More often deity is a powerful and transformative force in the life of the Witch, where the numinous is experienced directly rather than merely a hopeful believe in the supernatural.

In modern Witchcraft, much like the Ancient Pagans of old, deity is often seen also as a representation or embodiment of a specific aspect of the Nature. This can include natural forces, such as the elements of earth, air, fire, and water, or more abstract concepts, such as wisdom or love. Many Witches view deity as an energy or presence that they can commune with and work with during spells and rituals. Some Witches have a personal relationship with a specific deity or even pantheon of deities, while others may view deity as a more abstract concept.

What are the ways in which you experience deity? How does deity inform your personal practice as a Witch? Is deity a belief or a psychic reality? Come join us for this in-depth exploration of the numinous.

For some Witches deity is seen as an initiating or transform representation of a specific aspect of nature or the universe, and is often invoked or worked with during spells and rituals. Fundamentally this is similar to how we understand the ancient pagan world to have approached rituals of initiation.

While there may be many different deities, propitiated with all manner of rituals and venerated by in virtually all ancient cultures and civilisations, deities are seen to fundamentally represent aspects of the natural world; such as the sun, the moon, the earth, and other elements. It seems there is a primal need by humans to commune with the numinous.


The above discourse was presented for discussion at the Strange Brew in the Witch Circle Meetup on 26 March, 2023. Our community hosts in-person discussions, workshops and rituals. To join free click below.


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