Numen

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A numen (plural: numina) is a sacred force, and impersonal but divine power. The gods have their numina as their divine power, but the gods themselves have been considered numina.


"If ever you have come upon a grove that is thick with ancient trees which rise far above their usual height and block the view of the sky with their cover of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest and the seclusion of the place and the wonder of the unbroken shade in the midst of open space will create in you a feeling of a divine presence."[1]


The "divine presence" to which Plinius Caecilius refers is called a "numen." Scanning over the lists of Roman Gods and Goddesses you will find some of Them described by terms like numen (pl. numina) and indigitamentum (pl. indigitamenta) . In 1926 the linguist H. J. Rose misused the term numen, comparing it to the concept of mana among natives of the South Pacific, in an attempt to make out the "original" religio Romana as a primitive, nature worship of avatars. Although this erroneous theory was soundly refuted in the 1960's by G. Dumezil and E. Salmon, you will unfortunately continue to find references to "numenism" on the Internet.

In Roman literature we find that a numen is something 'of the Gods' dependent on the Gods, and not something that is either separate or prior to the Gods. During the Republic, Julius Caesar wrote, "non posse deorum immortalium numen placari arbitrantur" (De Bello Gallico VI: 16.3). This numen deorum immortalium is the "power" or the "presence" of the immortal Gods. The easiest way I have found to explain a numen is this. When you sit down in a chair and you feel the warmth of a person who has there before you, you sense his energy, his power, his presence having been there. In the same way, when a God or a Goddess have visited a place, Their presence radiates out into that grove, or that pool, energizing it such that it is more lush than the surrounding area, teeming with life, and filled with a certain presence that you can intuit and feel. This is what Plinius Caecilius addressed. Such places as the Gods have touched and left Their numina are like footsteps on the earth. Just as Silius Italicus said, "Hercules, Founder of our city, You who are called Alcidus, in whose footsteps we now reside on this hallowed earth (Punica 1.505-7)."

A numen is not simply an energy that a deity passively leaves behind. It can be the power through which a God or Goddess acts. Jupiter presides over hospitality and, according to Cicero, He punishes those who abuse hospitality through His "power" or numen. (Pro Rege Deiotaro 18: Iovis illius hospitalis numen numquam celare potuisset, nomines fortasse celasset.) Speaking against M. Antonius, Cicero also said that "law is nothing but a correct principle drawn from the numen of the Gods commanding what is honest and forbidding what is contrary" (Cicero, Philippicae 11.28, est enim lex nihil aliud nisi recta et a numine deorum tracta ratio, impereus honesta, prohibens contraria). Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Crete, says, "Thus departing, forgetful of the numina of the Gods, do you carry to your home the curse of perjury" (Catullus 64: 134-135, sicine discedens neglecto numine divum immernor ah devota domum perivira portas). With Horace "the brightly numen of Jupiter is glazing the driven snow" (Carmina III, 10.8, ventis et positas ut glaciet nives puro numine Iuppiter). Thereby is wind driven by the power of Jupiter. In one sense, then, a numen is the authority and providence of the Gods, resulting from the will of the Gods. In another sense it is the power that extends from the Gods through which They enforce Their will. A numen is not a God in itself, nor is it another entity who acts as an agent on behalf of a God. Rather, a numen is something that extends from a God Himself.

Working alongside and in harmony with a numen benefits a person by making his tasks easier and in accord with the Gods. Horace says that "By Jupiter's benign numina are the shrewd guided in his care and defended."[2]

And Servius warns that those who act contrary to the numen of a God actagainst the will of the Gods and can only expect failure. He wrote, "it was not to their credit that they did not follow the numina, but instead acted on Iono's impulse."[3]

Or as Livy put it, "You discover that all events turn out well when we follow the Gods in obedience, and ill when we spurn Them."[4]


We may translate the term numen as a power of a God, as His will or authority, but the exercise of that divine power is not to be taken as merely a divine whim. It is not a supernatural power in the sense of divine will overcoming the principles of the cosmos, but a power imbued in nature by the Gods to maintain the natural order of the cosmos. The providence of Ceres is to bear fruit (geres) from the earth and to create a regeneration of life (creare). It is through Her numina that She effects plants to germinate and grow. In a period of mourning for the loss of Her daughter Proserpina, Ceres may temporarily withhold Her numina and cause a barren winter to set in. But She cannot alter the natural order of the earth, nor of a seed to germinate, nor can She alter Her own numina into something different than what it is. She does not make the winter to come by exercising a numen of barrenness that is alien to Her own nature. In that same myth, none of the other Gods and Goddesses can bring about a return of spring. Their powers cannot effect that which the numina of Ceres alone may do. The numina of each God and Goddess are therefore a special power, unique to each of Them alone and not a general divine power that is diffused among the various deities. And there are limits to the numen that each God or Goddess may possess. Collectively however the Gods and Goddesses combine into a celestial numen of providential guidance over human affairs (Livy, I.21.1: cum interesse rebus humanis caeleste numen videretur).

In practical terms, whenever one invokes the aid of a God or Goddess, what is asked is that the deity will project His or Her special numen so that whatever task is to be attempted shall succeed in accordance with the Gods. The two most basic prayers in the religio Romana are Do ut das, "I give so that You may give," and the formula: bonas preces precor, ut sis volens propitius, "I pray good prayers in order that You may willingly be propitious." And the way that a God is propitious is to lend His numen. Every time a Roman went from his home, every time Julius Caesar climbed into his carriage, for every chore a matron might begin, or a farmer, or a carpenter, or a shoemaker, each would call upon a God or Goddess first so that their actions would be imbued with a favorable numen appropriate to the task they undertook. One never relied on only a single God for everything, lest he would be abandoned by the other Gods and not benefit from their numina as well. So with our prayers and our right we call down numina from the Gods.

[But that is only half the story, and the other part I shall discuss next.]

References

  1. C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus minor, Epistula 41.3
  2. Carmina IV, 4.76, et benigno numine Iuppiter defendit et curae sagaces
  3. Commentary of Virgil's Aeneid, Book 1.4; quod non suo merito eos insequebantur numina, sed Iononis inpulsu
  4. Livy 5.51.5-6: Invenietis omnia prospera evenisse sequentibus Deos, adversa spernentibus

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